Forget the Raj. Who’ll say sorry for millennia of abuse of dalits?
Aug 05, 2015 - Surendra Kumar
A large number of dalits still work as manual scavengers in India despite anti-discrimination laws. — AFP
With his rousing speech at Oxford Union, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has silenced his detractors. Ironically, his own party seeks his silence. Obviously, they don’t take his gift of gab and exceptional oratorical skills seriously. What a pity.
What a huge difference a single speech can make! Shashi Tharoor’s 15-minute stirring intervention at Oxford Union on July 14 was by far the most passionate, incisive and scathing critique in recent times of 200 years of British colonial rule in India. It has touched the right chord, both in India and abroad, cutting across generations. So, Tharoor, who has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons for the last two years, has suddenly become the darling of Indians, especially the Twitterati. Nearly a million Netizens “liked” his speech in less than 48 hours.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly applauded his oratory, as did many MPs from different political parties. With a huge sixer, Shashi has silenced his detractors. Ironically, his own party seeks his silence. Obviously they don’t take his exceptional oratorical skills seriously. What a pity.
He contended that the British should own up the wrong done in India during the colonial period and seek atonement by saying sorry, if not by paying reparation. Well, if the British government were to take his advice to its logical conclusion, it would take them quite a while to say sorry to three fourths of the world where the sun never set at the height of Empire.
If the British should own up to all the wrongs they committed during their 200-year-long rule, say sorry and seek atonement, what about the inhuman indignities, injustices and cruelties inflicted on the so-called low castes by the so-called higher castes of Hindu society for 2,000 years? Shouldn’t they own up to the social, economic, political, physical and psychological deprivation they deliberately and systematically caused to them? In fact, the wrongs committed by them were far graver and sinister. Their wrongs were similar, or a shade lighter than the wrongs of other colonisers, like the Portuguese and the Spanish. The white Americans treated the blacks unjustly and cruelly.
The high castes of Hindu society, on the other hand, treated their own brethren, their own countrymen, so inhumanely and for so long for no fault of theirs. Over the years they created numerous political, social and religious dictums to perpetuate the slavery and subjugation of the low castes forever. To tell a whole section of society that they had no right to property, no right to education, that their sole purpose in life was to serve the higher castes without protest, was to shut the door on any possible redemption.
Even at the peak of their hold in India, did the British colonial rulers of India tell the low castes (shudras) that molten lead would be poured in their ears if they ever tried to listen to anything akin to knowledge, aka Manu Smriti? Did they ever order that when the low caste Indians walked through streets they must use bamboo sticks with tiny bells tied to them so that the higher castes would be forewarned and lest they be polluted by the shadow of the lower caste, as was the strict law during the otherwise enlightened Gupta period?
The low castes were condemned to live on the outskirts of villages and cities; they were not allowed to draw water from common wells nor pray in the temples built by the higher castes. Some Hindu priests even ordained that when a low-caste man got married, the first right to have sex with the bride was that of the priest. Worse still, this exploitative system was made hereditary; generation after generation lives in these humiliating conditions on account of their birth in low-caste families. What kind of debilitating and degrading psychological inferiority complex might have been caused in the low castes by this? How can one forget the ruler of Travancore who imposed a barbaric and sadistic law by which low-caste women had to pay tax to cover their breasts and even to breast-feed their own children?
One shudders with shame at the treatment meted out to Dr B.R. Ambedkar on his return from Columbia University after obtaining a doctorate in law. Contrary to expectation, these injustices and cruelties, regrettably, didn’t cease after India became independent. Low-caste people have been killed at the slightest pretext, like a demand for higher wages by landless labourers in Bihar. Burning of their hutments, rape of their womenfolk and molestation of young girls has been known to occur with frightening frequency in the oppression of the low castes in independent India.
After the much publicised Nirbhaya rape case, the CJI had remarked that hundreds of dalit women were routinely raped daily across India but no demonstration were organised for them. Several dalit girls were raped and hanged from mango trees in UP last year.Affirmative action and various developmental schemes in rural India by successive governments have resulted in some improvement in economic and social conditions of the low castes, but a lot remains to be done. In flagrant violation of the law, untouchability is still alive and kicking in hundreds of villages; there are more than five million (unofficial figure) bonded labourers and child labour is used extensively.
Former home minister P. Chidambaram had once told Parliament that there were more than 13,500 registered cases of physical assault on dalits in India in a single year. As out of four cases hardly one gets registered, the actual number of assaults might be as high as 50,000. There has been a trail of brutal murders of low castes as in Dehuli, Sadupur, Belchi and others places with high-caste perpetrators seldom being punished.
Just a week ago some TV channels had shown some young low caste girls who were made to clean toilets in their schools in Delhi. It wasn’t an isolated case, it happens in many schools. So, who should say sorry for what has been done in India to the low castes in the last 2,000 years? Shouldn’t someone own the wrongs? Shouldn’t it be a 10 times louder “SORRY” than what Mr Tharoor was demanding of the British at Oxford University? Realistically, none will own up nor say sorry for what happened in India for centuries. Shouldn’t Parliament, which represents the whole country, pass a resolution offering an unconditional apology for all the injustices perpetrated on the low castes? That will at least be symbolic atonement.
Surendra Kumar is a former ambassador