Saturday, April 19, 2014

Weekly Column (April 18 2014)

To Stand Together
Teesta Setalvad

When Savitribai Phule, backed by her comrade in arms Jyotiba Phule opened the first ever all girls school at Bhidewada, Pune in 1848 with not more than seven-nine students, she and her husband were ostracized, condemned by caste peers and thrown out of home and hearth. This is arguably the first ever all girls school in the world, a vital slice of history that we do not celebrate within textbooks, classroom or the curriculum. Today a bank runs there.
Why was a common school system that cut across caste and community, educating girls, hitherto uneducated such a threat to entrenched hierarchies and vested interests? Educating girls and women has been at the core of revolutionary, radical movements world over. Within India’s unequal structures of caste, class and community this was a pivotal movement.
Ostracised and reviled, the Phule couple was given shelter by the Usman Shaikh from Pune and Usman’s wife Fatima became, along with Savitribai the first of the teachers to teach at this unique school. Girls from the Mali and Mahar castes, a Brahmin girl as also a Muslim beti sat side by side to absorb the joys of learning.

It has always deeply troubled me why such a narrative is hidden from our history and social studies texts. Within Maharashtra where I was born and live, the Savitribai Phule-Fatima Shaikh is a popular alternative history narrative emotive in its appeal. We also celebrate 3rd January every year as an additional Teacher’s Day (the birth anniversary of Savitribai). Another absent narrative is of Dr Babasaheb as a young student in stds VI or VII at the Elphinstone School, Bombay. A complicated mathematics problem was posed on the blackboard. Several students failed to crack it. Called upon to answer, little Bhimrao walked up to the blackboard and confidently with a white chalk wrote the answer. As he did so, the attention of the teacher and his fellow students was not on the problem or answer but the fate of their luncheons (all in tiffin boxes behind the blackboard). Now that an ‘untouchable’ had cast a shadow on the food, they were prevented by filthy tradition to eat it!

History texts and politics around them are authored by the dominant classes and castes. Within India this caste has consolidated economic and political control and power through exclusion of basic fundamental rights of the depressed castes and even minorities fall among them. Understanding the modern (175-200 year old) phenomenon of communalism (manipulation of religious symbols and religious identity for political gain) necessitates a more fundamental understanding the 2,500 discriminations of wider Hindu/Indian society on the basis of caste. Caste othered, excluded and denied basic fundamental rights like heightened communalism does today. One of the shrewdest ways that privileged caste manipulations continued caste manipulations was using the depressed castes, (after mobilizing them into the all Hindu fold, a la the Valmikis by the Bajrang Dal) to foster violence against the minorities. The slogans of the sword wielders of Aseemanand when he was in the Dangs in the 1990s (16 Churches were attacked during the Christmas of 1998-1999 while the NDA was in power) was that “we need a new avatar of the Untouchable to wield our power on.  So the battered Muslim or Christian comes in handy.
Caste consciousness within India’s religious minorities is high. Ironically 90 per cent of converts to both Christianity and Islam, in the belief that these faiths offered them liberation from the indignities of caste, continue caste practices that are abusive of the rights of depressed castes. Minority institutions refuse reservations (even for Dalit Christians and Muslims) and in turn a majoritarian consciousness among Indian Dalits has communalized their consciousness.
Political formations that espouse a coalition of the depressed sections – taking account its history of relying on the majoritarian BJP in the past – offer interesting possibilities for not just a different political alliance but  a different kind of leadership to emerge. A leadership that is closely connected to work and profession, a leadership that has a social and economic alliance in lived everyday life with different communities of the same caste, united in the conviction that the hegemonised economic and political clout of a small percentage of the elite needs to be challenged.

In recent trips to Uttar Pradesh, battered over past months with bitter intra-community hatred, working class Muslims recall the past regime where no community consciousness but the rule of law governed. To convert this latent goodwill into a lasting cohesion, beyond ticket collection and poll results a live politics on the ground that build social and economic alliances on the shared lived experiences of the depressed castes and communities is a must. It is also important to resist the divisive politics of majoritarianism that pits one against the other.

Remember Mandal? Introduction of the recommendations of the Mandal commission report by the VP Singh created a turmoil in Indian politics creating a resurgence through the politics of the “kamandal” (Ramjanmabhoomi agitation).  Any movement for assertion and rights of the not so backward castes has inevitably led to the resurgence of harsh communal politics forged by an “all Hindu identity”. Which is why the projection of the PM-in waiting as a man of the backwards, when for all his political career he has promoted the politics of caste and class privilege, apart from communalism, is ironic. When Mandal happened, Dalit intellectual and leaders predicted it taking an anti-Dalit shape and form. It did.

Ironically, at the time the arguments dished out by anti-Mandal (read extended reservation) agitators was of “merit.” Posing ‘reservation’ vs ‘merit’ is missing the wood for the trees. Check out those who apply to medical school or law. Thirty per cent of applicants are from families of lawyers or doctors.

During  the decade preceding the Mandal, Gujarat’s famed  navnirman  movement transformed itself into brute anti-minority violence. Each time entrenched privileged castes have been threatened by a strong vibrant movement of assertion, for rights from depressed castes: the solution has been to forge an all-Hindu identity to target an ‘outsider.’

Which is why the pathetic assertion of the majoritarian BJP recently that UPA II pampered Muslims (sic) at the cost of Dalits. That is the low level at which the BJP operates, that is how they responded to the Sachar Committee report, a document that critically acknowledged the declining socio-economic status of India’s largest minority. A sensitive and responsible political opposition would acknowledge this and then negotiate the limited share available and speak of healthy distribution among different depressed sections. That is not just the need of the hour but the way forward. Such an attitude can only come from a party committed to liberation of the oppressed castes from exclusion not from a majoritarian communal formation that thrives on the politics of division and hatred. Politics to be wholesome and healthy needs to abjure violence and promote negotiation. BJP and its backbone threaten and promote violence, polarize sections to a false notion of identity and consciousness, “othering” the minority. The toiling castes, the artisans, the agriculturists, belong to sections that are at the whim and mercy of these politics need to emerge strong and committed to a collective shared and living experience that then transforms into a modern day politics. Only when the politics of day-to-day living and negotiation, emergent leaderships itself becomes the bedrock of not just political organization and leaderships but also alliances, can these alliances be lasting and permanent.
Will election 2016 in north India see the re-emergence of just such a fledgling alliance, to be built upon and strengthened in time?
The answer beckons….


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