Rohith Vemula committed suicide on the January 17. Since then, protests have erupted across the country. International commentators, academics, and university students have raised their voices, demanding action against the caste system.
Even though it has been abolished officially, intellectuals, Ambedkarites, and other activists assert that caste discrimination lives on in India. It persists, they argue, despite the fact that successive governments have introduced several laws and amendments that are specifically aimed at bettering the lot of the so-called lower castes, and bringing an end to caste discrimination.
The state effort to abolish caste and caste discrimination meanwhile continues, and gains additional momentum every so often. The most recent example of this was the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill. The original Bill was passed in 1989; the amendment was tabled last year. It was passed in the Lok Sabha in August 2015, while most opposition MPs were boycotting Parliament, and in the Rajya Sabha in December; while the House had been taken hostage by protests, this time against the death of a Dalit man in Punjab. Protests notwithstanding, the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill unanimously, within minutes, and without debate.
Let us consider some of the changes this amendment brings to the 1989 PoA (SC/ST) Act. Section 3 of the 1989 Act lists "Offences as Atrocities", ie, it lists those acts which will be considered caste-atrocities and will be punishable by law. The fourth part the amendment to section three is as follows:
Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, -
(t) Destroys, damages or defiles any object generally known to be held sacred or in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes.Explanation: For the purposes of this clause, the expression "object" means and includes statue, photograph and portrait;
(u) By words either written or spoken or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes;
(v) By words either written or spoken or by any other means disrespects any late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes.
The 1989 SC/ST Act was aimed at curbing "caste atrocities", the alleged reason for Vemula's suicide. The 2015 amendment took this initiative several steps further, but in which direction?
Let us consider the ramifications of only one of the three inclusions listed above.
In keeping with (v), since the passing of this Bill, Indian citizens are legally required to not disrespect certain persons based on their caste and vital status. How will this play out in Indian society?
Certain Kannada scholars have expressed serious objections to the writing of Valmiki, well known author of the Valmiki Ramayana. There are also several academics and intellectuals who have made careers out of criticising the "hegemony" of the Valmiki Ramayana while praising the "subversiveness" of other retellings.
In Karnataka, there also exist many ST jatis who consider Valmiki to be their "Jati's Guru". As per the 2015 amendment, if one criticises Valmiki's writings for being a carrier of oppression, s/he may well end up being booked under a case of caste atrocity. Similarly, a criticism of Krishna can cause offence to the Golla community, and speaking ill of Vedvyasya can cause offence to the Besta community.
Additionally, considering that rationalists have energetically insulted every guru from Shankara to Madhava to Ramanuja, this amendment might also make it more difficult to come out on the street calling gurus (those revered by SC/ST communities) "godmen", "swindlers" and "conmen" without subsequently finding oneself in jail for committing caste atrocities.
No longer can those who decry the "hegemony', inhumanity, and oppressiveness of "mainstream" Hinduism, continue to denounce and criticise "mainstream" Hindu gods and sages without a possibility of legal consequences. This is absurd considering that according to the story of the caste system, it is precisely this "mainstream" Hinduism that has imposed its dictates onto those at the margins.
The absurdity does not end there. We may well be on our way to formulating a list of individuals who cannot be spoken of, except in praises. Since the amendment does not specify what constitutes "disrespect" to a late person held in high regard by members of SC or ST communities, this may be the only route to safety.
The choice, then, would be between speaking highly of departed SC/ST leaders, or not speaking of them at all. Unfortunately, even this option is not foolproof, since the law does not define criteria to determine which deceased person, whether SC/ST or not, qualifies for the category "late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes".
We have to conclude that the only foolproof way out is to either speak highly of all late persons who could have been held in high esteem by SC/ST communities, or not to speak of them at all. If this amendment was only absurd and not dangerous, we could brush it aside as another pathetic attempt at pandering by our politicians. Unfortunately, the absurdity of the law and its danger go hand in hand.
We are forced to wonder, how could our law-makers pass such an amendment and make it into a law? We are forced to wonder how they could not see the fundamental contradiction this amendment poses to civil freedoms guaranteed by the constitution itself.
How can a law that disallows one to insult late individuals held in high esteem by SC/ST communities be considered a contradiction to basic civil freedoms? Isn't humiliation and insult the most widespread and invisible form of caste-discrimination? As the story goes, indeed it is. But consider the case of a beloved Indian - MK Gandhi.
Gandhi was a leader of many people and many communities. However, even as Indian school children learn to refer to him as "Mahatma" and "father of the nation", even as his statues are erected in public spaces and government buildings around the globe, Gandhi is also called a pervert and a child molester, a lackey of the British, the cause of Partition, and an old man with a walking stick, too feeble to take revolutionary measures in India's struggle for independence.
Whatever be the merits of Gandhi and his critics, the man on our currency has been amongst the many, many, prominent Indians who are revered by some and reviled by others. There are no laws that cordon him off as a deceased person held in high esteem by certain communities and hence above criticism. Indeed, until December 21, there were no laws that cordoned off anyone in India as above criticism, whether dead or alive. The creation of a SC/ST dead leaders' club, which is given immunity from criticism, is a highly disturbing development.
Several individuals in India have been held in high esteem by some community or the other, or indeed, by all or almost all communities. Amongst the many dead leaders of India, Indira Gandhi is one of the better known women.
Like all our leaders, she too has many titles and epithets, of which "Iron Lady" and "Mother India" are only two. Loved as she may have been by some sections in India, it was this Iron Lady who imposed systematic press censorship in India. During the Emergency enacted by Mrs Gandhi between 1975 and 1976, newspapers were barred from reporting speeches by certain opposition leaders, freedoms guaranteed by the Indian constitution were suspended, and the press was heavily censored. As school children, it was during history classes that we were taught about this period of crisis in India.
Of the many images in our textbooks, one remains fresh in our minds - that of the front page of the Indian Express, entirely black, every single word of reportage made invisible by censors. Mrs Gandhi had taken the first steps towards dictatorship - imposing censorship, disallowing criticism of herself, her government, and her policies, in other words, silencing voices of opposition. Thankfully, she did not succeed in becoming a dictator, though Indira Gandhi came as close as anyone in India has come to succeeding.
Now, 40 years later, some of our leaders are again being held above the net of public dissent and criticism. This time, however, censorship is being imposed by our entire political apparatus.
When people are raised to a hallowed ground far above criticism, the ideas they put forward and fought for also leave the arena of debate and discussion. It is even more dangerous that the criteria for this immunity from criticism is based on caste and vital status. Our Parliament has now put into place a law that dictates which ideas are "sacred" and above dissent based almost solely on the caste of the person expressing them.
Such a criterion, enforced by law, is, paradoxically, precisely what the caste system is supposed to be about - a system that enforces caste as the foremost factor in determining the value of a person's words and deeds. It is a perverse state of affairs indeed that this description applies equally to the caste system and to the laws aimed at destroying it. Through the reservation system we have already had "positive discrimination" based on caste for decades.
However, this system applies only to people. With the passing of the SC/ST bill, our politicians have now created a reservation system for ideas. In an urgency to woo the fictitious "vote bank" our politicians have created a piece of legislation which imposes a ban on our freedom to express ideas and to express dissent.
As Professor Balagangadhara has said, it is completely unclear why one cannot insult some or other individual. Indeed, it is a cliché to say that even the devis and devas of India are not exempt from acid tongues and angry bhakts.
Surprisingly, the brigade of academicians who have campaigned for freedom of expression after controversies surrounding statements, books, and movies, are tight lipped today. Either it has not occurred to them that sooner or later they will also become victims of the terror that this law can generate, or, they have become parasites on the story of the caste system, without which their academic careers and conference invitations will dry up. In either case, their silence is another indication of their inability to think through events without taking routes prescribed by whatever fashionable ideology is doing the rounds at elite campuses in India and abroad.
This is the state of our intellectuals, whether or not they deserve that name. What about our politicians? In the wake of Rohith Vemula's death, our politicians have begun a wild scramble, each trying to claim the title of "foremost friend and representative of Dalits". As they race to microphones at protest sites in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Mumbai, the many Indians who watch from the sidelines are increasingly disillusioned by identity politics, which has progressively torn apart our society and our communities.
As Indians we are more or less aware that our politicians and "intellectuals" are almost entirely bereft of integrity. However, this instance of their desperate dash for votes should alarm even the most cynical and jaded amongst us - particularly because the manner in which this bill was passed suggests that for our politicians the debate over caste has become a set of common sense maneuvers.
In fact, by passing this bill they have made one of these maneuvers, namely, that no debate is possible in the debate over caste, into a law. Our leaders, beloved, dead, SC/ST or general quota, are probably turning in their graves, and we too should be squirming uncomfortably in our chairs.
Quite to the contrary, when the Rajya Sabha passed the SC/ST Bill without debate, Derek O'Brien found it important to remark that this Bill was passed "unanimously and not in a din." The deputy chairman, P J Kurien, replied with a smile: "How can there be a din? There is perfect calm and tranquility. Everybody is cool. A cool breeze is blowing. I don't know where this breeze is coming from."
Is the unanimous, uncontested passing of this Bill a "cool breeze" or the calm before a very violent storm?
Our politicians, evidently, are quite content in not knowing. We can only hope that the Supreme Court will interfere and test the constitutional validity of such legislations. Until then, however, it is only safe to speak in praises or, to not speak at all.
(Garima Raghuvanshy is Research Master Student, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen and MS Chaitra is Director and Fellow, Aarohi - a Bangalore-based research centre and is actively involved in the activities India Platform, Ghent University, Belgium.)