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HomeOpinionDalit History MonthCelebrate 100 yrs of Vaikom. But now focus on entry in boardrooms,...

Celebrate 100 yrs of Vaikom. But now focus on entry in boardrooms, judiciary, media, teaching

Fight for egalitarianism has to shift the goal posts from temple entry movement. The lowered castes must focus now on entering the temples of power and prosperity.

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The Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924-25 marked a significant milestone in the history of India’s struggle against caste discrimination. The movement, led by TK Madhavan, EVR Periyar, MK Gandhi, and Narayana Guru, was launched to protest against the ban on the entry of Scheduled Castes and backward castes to the public roads surrounding the Vaikom Shiva Temple in Kottayam. The movement continued for almost two years, and ultimately, it led to the temple entry proclamation in Travancore in 1936, allowing all Hindus to enter temples irrespective of their caste.

However, the question arises, has the temple entry movement served its purpose? The answer is both yes and no. While the movement has paved the way for the abolishment of caste-based restrictions in temples, with hardly any temple banning entry on the basis of caste today, the fight against caste discrimination is far from over. My argument is that the lowered castes need to move beyond the temples and focus on entering the domains of power and prosperity.

One major lacuna of the temple entry movement was that it did not address the representation question in the priesthood and temple management. This might have been too radical a demand in the 1920s. But today, the lowered castes must demand equal representation in these bodies to ensure their voices are heard and interests are represented.

The issue is not recent — the Sabarimala temple controversy incident shows that discrimination based on caste still exists in temple management, even when qualified lower caste individuals are available.

Tamil Nadu has taken a significant step towards dismantling caste barriers in temple priesthood by appointing all-caste, all-gender priests. The state government has taken a proactive role in diversifying the priesthood by allowing anyone who has completed the necessary training to become a temple priest. This move has broken the traditional practice of only allowing Brahmins to be priests in Hindu temples. This decision has received widespread support from all quarters of society, including from members of the lowered castes who have long been excluded from the temple priesthood. It is a positive development towards creating a more inclusive society.

But now the fight for egalitarianism has to shift the goal posts. Temples are still a centre of power and wealth creation with immense ritual and religious authority, but there are other arenas which are more important.

Also read: Three men, a great orator, Gandhi—all that led to the birth of Vaikom Satyagraha 99 years ago

Fixing underrepresentation

One area where the lowered castes are underrepresented is education. Although the Indian constitution guarantees equal opportunities to all, the lowered castes have not been able to avail these opportunities. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students at the undergraduate level was found to be 23 per cent and 17.2 per cent respectively, compared to the national average of 26.3 per cent. This has resulted in a lack of representation in high-paying jobs, and therefore, it is imperative for the lowered castes to focus on education to break the vicious cycle of poverty and caste discrimination.

The underrepresentation of SC/ST/OBC communities in faculty positions in central universities, IITs, IIMs, and other higher education institutions is a long-standing issue in India. Data collected through RTI and other official sources show that reservations for faculty positions – 7.5 per cent for Scheduled Tribes and 15 per cent for Dalits – are not being filled in these prestigious institutions. 98% of the faculties in the top 5 IITs are upper caste. Despite the introduction of reservations in these institutions, the representation of these communities in teaching positions remains disproportionately low.

Another bastion that needs to be cracked is the media and news industry. The lowered castes are grossly underrepresented in the media industry. According to a survey, 90% leadership positions in Indian media are occupied by upper caste groups. The media plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and influencing policy decisions. Lack of representation has resulted in the skewed portrayal of the lowered castes in the media. Therefore, it is essential for the lowered castes to enter the media industry to provide a more accurate representation of their community.

The lowered castes are also underrepresented in the higher judiciary. The judiciary is an essential pillar of democracy, and it is crucial to ensure equal representation of all communities in the judicial system. This is also required to mitigate the effects of cognitive biases. The Department of Justice recently informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice that 79 percent of all high court judges appointed in the last five years were from the upper caste (general category). Only 2 percent of them were from Scheduled Castes. This underrepresentation has resulted in the lack of sensitivity towards the issues faced by the lowered castes in the judicial system. Therefore, it is essential for the lowered castes to focus on entering the judicial system to demand justice and equal representation. This demand should be raised at all forums.

Lastly, the lowered castes are underrepresented in the corporate sector. Despite India’s economic growth, the lowered castes have not been able to benefit from the economic opportunities. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) conducted a caste survey of human resources of private companies and the data was revealing. For example, SCs and STs are 19.1 percent of Maharashtra’s population, but their share in private jobs is only 5 percent. In Gujarat and Karnataka, SCs and STs are just about 9 percent of the staff strength. This problem becomes more acute at the managerial level. This underrepresentation has resulted in the lack of economic empowerment of the lowered castes. Therefore, it is crucial for the lowered castes to focus on entering the corporate sector.

While the temple entry movement was essential to end discrimination in public spaces, it is now time for them to move forward and seek representation in fields that have traditionally been dominated by the upper castes.

In conclusion, the temple entry movement marked a significant milestone in the fight for social justice in India. It was a crucial step towards ending discrimination and ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their caste, had access to public spaces. However, it is important to acknowledge that the battle for equality is far from over. The lower castes must now focus on entering the temples of power and prosperity, where they have been historically underrepresented. It is time for them to demand representation in politics, business, academia, and the judiciary to bring about meaningful change.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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