On abolishing Caste

Every once in a while, when there is too much talk of Caste based oppression, many well meaning Anti-Caste crusaders rise from the ashes, and come up with a novel idea-Caste must be abolished. Social Reformers mushroom and start urging those belonging to oppressed groups to stop using the Caste Card. Someone once said that the path to hell is paved with the grandest intentions and that seems to be the case here as well. I think these revolutionaries believe that abolishing caste involves:

1) Putting an end to the greatest injustice humanity has ever suffered- reservations.

2) A law which will have only one provision which will unambiguously and severely penalise any act of protest or complaining about any caste related discrimination.

This, is the heaven they want to live in and it is towards this goal that they believe abolishing Caste is necessary. With great respect, I don’t think that these great minds have thought this one through. They do not seem to have consulted the necessary stakeholders either.

I think what they really want to say and are probably falling shy of saying is-

There is no such thing as caste.

Or,

Please, stop whining about Caste.

It is a strategy that has succeeded well so far- caste oppression is barely taught in schools, the myth that caste discrimination remains restricted to a few villages is almost universal in appeal. I therefore see no reason for their inhibitions (other than the fact that they mean well) and urge them to consider some of the consequences that abolishing Caste bring upon our well-meaning society:

1) It would end the hegemony over manual scavenging jobs that those at the bottom of Caste hierarchy enjoy. A meritorious social order would have to be established where those belonging to upper Castes would leave jobs exclusively imposed on them for far too long. A report in the EPW said Over 90% of directors in the top 1000 companies in India are either Vaishyas or Brahmins. I shudder to think of their work life balance. No less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described Manual Scavenging as a spiritual experience ordained by the gods. Is it fair for other castes to be deprived of this divine spiritual experience?

2) Just like the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act which outlaws gender determination of the fetus, a law such as the Pre-Marriage Caste Diagnostic Techniques act will have to be passed. Without that flood of classified matrimonial ads looking for a caste based match, our newspapers will feel barren. There will be no way to filter inter-caste marriage and dining. Anyone will be free to marry anyone regardless of caste. I can not imagine a greater horror. What is next, will we be next asked to abolish gender and sexuality? Men marrying men? Imagine the horror.

3) Like I said, it is unlikely that the necessary stakeholders have been consulted. Are upper castes prepared for the freedom available to them when they will be unshackled from the mundane tasks of managing temples and religious trusts? They have been doing this for so long, will it not be wiser to consult them, perhaps arrange for psychological re-orientation campaigns or a freedom movement which can be titled- From temples to toilets?

4) Abolishing caste would obviously mean less safety and a social shock for our middle class. Will they no longer be able to keep separate utensils for their domestic workers? Will these domestic workers now sit on the sofa instead of the floor?

5) Will dalit children now sit in the same classroom as other casteless children? Will they now be allowed to touch the food and utensils of casteless children? Will people have to stop poisoning  wells to prevent them from being used by Dalits?

6) Will we have to change the way we speak and stop using words like Bhangi, Chooda and Chamaar?  Where will this assault end?

7) Another grave matter will require an awareness campaign to inform about the perks, living conditions and remuneration for the major job avenue that will open for Upper Castes. This report says that in some cases money paid for manual scavenging was a meritorious Rs. Ten/month which was not paid for months. It also states that sometimes employers were generous and threw rotis from a distance as compensation. It talks about the living conditions of manual scavengers- perpetual sickness. Do all upper-class people have sufficient health insurance?

8) The same report also talks about how children of those who believe they have a caste are made to clean toilets and more in schools. Are children of upper caste people trained for these tasks? Will coaching centers and tutors have to rejig their curriculum?

The one great thing that these modern thinkers have already done is help us identify the most Casteist man in India’s history- B.R. Ambedkar. He went on and on about Caste didn’t he?

I must concede that it is entirely possible that I am underestimating the sheer willpower and brilliance of these new-age egalitarian thinkers, anchors, one-flop film directors. Maybe they can overcome all hurdles. In which case they must seize the challenge by it’s horns and show us all how a casteless society is designed. Nothing would prove their mettle more than one month spent by these people living the life of manual scavengers. I am sure the anchors who decide to do this will get the highest TRP for their channels-maybe a reality show can be designed around their brave mission. Are they upto the task?

The nation wants to know.

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Supreme Court’s judgment on Privacy.

A nine judge bench of the Supreme Court of India yesterday unanimously held that privacy is a Fundamental Right. Simply put, this means that it has become extremely difficult for the State to make laws which infringe on a person’s privacy. 

If a layperson was compelled to read this 547 page judgment, the first thing she would notice and in all likelihood feel awestruck by, is how vast the ambit of ‘privacy’ really is. 

The judgment talks about surveillance; freedom to choose and express one’s gender and sexuality; it talks about reproductive rights, the right of an unwed mother to notify the father about the existence of the child; about the freedom to eat and wear what one wants to; it talks about the balancing of community interests with individual freedom; asserts that the individual is at the forefront of the constitution. If this judgment was written in or was translated in Hindi the one word which would feature a lot would be – aazaadi. The court reiterated that certain rights inhere in individuals and are not a concession granted by the state or even the constitution of India. It reminded the government and all of us that one of the most critical freedoms is the freedom to be let alone (unless there is compelling interest such as commission of a crime of course). The court has almost consigned to garbage its cruel judgment holding that S. 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising ‘unnatural sex’ is constitutional. Sooner (hopefully) or later the Indian State will not be able to oppress anyone for expressing their sexuality.

My favorite and rather timely bit given the times we are living in and the propaganda we are suffering is the following excerpt from the judgment: 

We are unable to agree with the contention that in order to build a welfare State, it is necessary to destroy some of the human freedoms. That, at any rate is not the perspective of our Constitution. Our Constitution envisages that the State should without delay make available to all the citizens of this country the real benefits of those freedoms in a democratic way. The purpose of elevating certain rights to the stature of guaranteed fundamental rights is to insulate their exercise from the disdain of majorities, whether legislative or popular. The guarantee of constitutional rights does not depend upon their exercise being favourably regarded by majoritarian opinion.” 

The court warns us that ‘freedom of the home’ or of an individual must not however be construed as women being oppressed inside homes, even if they are ‘willing’ to suffer this oppression. Hopefully one day the court will criminalise marital rape as well.

The government of India argued that privacy is too vague a concept to be given any constitutional protection. That privacy is the concern of the elite. The Supreme Court demolished both these rather ridiculous and shameless arguments. I have earlier written in this paper about what a failure of the court to hold that privacy is a fundamental right could have entailed; what the argument that individual privacy must be sacrificed at the altar of community interest means- to use a few more examples, it means that a citizen can be compelled to carry a recorder in her pocket at all times to ensure that she does not commit any crime; for every room including bathrooms of your house to have cctvs to ensure you don’t beat up your family or consume drugs. That a cop should accompany each citizen at all times. I am making these examples to illustrate the fallacy in the argument: “Why do you want privacy if you have nothing to hide.” It is only the elite who can argue that the poor don’t need privacy.

There are many other things this judgment is a reminder of- how grateful we must be for the constitution of India; how we must remain suspicious of those who disrespect it; what happens when institutions like the judiciary do their job (even if belatedly). It has reminded us about a fact that the journalist Ravish Kumar recently made in a blog post- citizens must not dissolve into the state, must not blindly trust any government. That unless stopped in their tracks almost all governments go to any lengths to control citizens and deprive them of their freedoms. It illustrates the limits governments are willing to go to unless checked by institutions and citizens. 

While our dear leader had promptly tweeted about how the judgment outlawing triple talaq empowers muslim women, at the time of writing this piece there isn’t a whisper from him for the privacy judgment which protects women across religions in a far broader manner.

There was however more than a whisper from Ravishankar Prasad a Union Cabinet Minister about the judgment. He spoke a white lie and argued that in fact the government had never opposed privacy becoming a fundamental right. If this is true i) I am not sure what the government was resisting in court ii) The Supreme Court of India is lying iii) The Attorney General has acted against the government’s instructions and must be most embarrassed and in an awkward position now. I am grateful to Prasad however- he has done the most to demonstrate that the government is capable of speaking white lies. 

Today they are saying this, tomorrow they could say they have won the election even if they lose it (oh wait). A small bit of unsolicited advice for him- not everyone is good at speaking white lies. If the government was going to speak one they should have at least sent their best liar to bat for them. So far we haven’t heard from him on this.

An edited version of this post was first published in Mumbai Mirror

Courts and religion. A very short story.

In a mythical land called supremistan, the following series of events happened. We begin, for obvious reasons, from the middle of the story.

C: No we don’t want to do this Article 13 business. All we want to talk about, is ERP. All five chant: *ERP! ERP!*.

L: But mygods, the constitution..

C: Boooooringggggg. Do you want to talk about ERP or not? We are ready to write judgment. My minion has taken out 377 quotes!

L: Sure mygod. ERP it is. So mygod this focus on ERP raises some preliminary jurisdictional issues.

C: Huh?

L: Yes. You see the book only recognises a,b,c and d sources of law. There is no mention of mygods. It appears that it is essential to the practice of this book that no one cares about anything a bunch of people sitting in something called Supremistan say. In fact, I think it is essential that supremistan and ummm the offices held by mygods cease to exist.

C: What nonsense. We are not at the mercy of this book. We only understand and interpret.. *awkward moment*.. oh.

L: Sorry mygods I think I have misunderstood. I think mygods said essential constitutional practice…?

C: Yes of course. Please proceed.