The George Floyd murder case has shaken up the Americans like never before. One important factor in these protests has been the large participation of the United States’ White population.
But this is not a novelty. Back in the 19th century, during the American Civil War, more than a million White young men — at the time, women were not allowed to take part in military operations — perished in the war to end slavery in the southern Confederate States of America.
The impact of White people fighting for the abolition of slavery was so great that Jyotiba Phule, the foremost Indian social reformer, dedicated his famous 1873 treatise Gulamgiri (Slavery) to the ‘good people of United States of America’.
BREAKING. Some protesters have jumped the gated barrier at Lafayette Park. US Park Police push them back. The White House is behind the US Park Police l & the Secret Service. @MSNBC @nbcwashington #GeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/RzJgnvv7Vq
— Shomari Stone (@shomaristone) May 31, 2020
As White Americans once again join the protesting Black people against the custodial murder of George Floyd, a pertinent question arises for India.
Can we imagine the savarna (‘twice-born’ upper caste) Indian men and women at the forefront of the Bahujans’ struggle to abolish caste-related violence and discrimination?
The upper caste woke Indians are perturbed by the events unfolding in the US. From Disha Patani to Priyanka Chopra to Google CEO Sunder Pichai, all have spoken up in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Can we except such outrage from them when a Dalit is murdered in a hate crime, or when a lower caste woman is raped, or when someone is denied a job or admission because of her/his caste affiliation?
Such public figures are rare
One of the major issues with India’s battle against caste supremacy and social hierarchy is that there aren’t enough savarna men and women — many of whom occupy positions of power — ready or even willing to join the fight to end caste-based discrimination. There are only a few exceptions to this general statement in India’s entire modern history, people who harmed the privileges enjoyed by their own social groups to empower the lower castes. My list so far includes only three names: Ram Manohar Lohia, V.P. Singh, and Arjun Singh.
Lohia ushered a political process that culminated in increased participation of backward and peasant castes in political space, the process christened as the ‘Silent Revolution’ by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot.
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, probably the most hated person in India, implemented the Mandal Commission report that gave 27 per cent reservation in central government jobs to the OBCs, who constitute 52 per cent of India’s population, according to the Mandal report.
Former union HRD minister Arjun Singh is also remembered as a villain by the upper caste people, because he implemented the proposal to give 27 per cent reservation to the OBCs in central higher education institutions.
The silence of the upper caste
Now let us look at some of the recent events.
1. Following the brutal 2006 Khairlanji massacre in Maharashtra, when members of a Dalit family were dragged out of their homes, raped, and murdered in broad daylight, the onus to agitate for justice fell upon the Dalit community.
2. It was the same after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula (although students across universities in India had come out to protest) or when Dr Payal Tadvi or Delta Meghwal committed suicide, or the public flogging of four Dalit men in Gujarat’s Una (who were attacked again two years after the incident), the upper caste woke were mostly silent, and their activism was limited to Twitter and Facebook.
3. The victimised families of Bhagana village in Haryana sat on a dharna for more than a year at Jantar Mantar in Delhi but failed to get any support from non-Dalit organisations.
4. When the SC/ST Act was diluted by an order of the Supreme Court in 2018, only Dalits protested. Twelve of them died during the protests but it didn’t stir the upper caste Indians. Finally, the Modi government was forced to bring an amendment, which the Supreme Court then upheld.
5. Whenever there is any attempt to dilute the provisions of reservation in educational institutes or government jobs, the protests are always undertaken by the SC, ST and OBC groups. This has been noted in the recent case of new roster system in university recruitments.
6. When the Modi government brought the bill to amend the Constitution to give 10 per cent reservation to the economically weaker section (EWS) among the upper castes, no savarna leader opposed it, even though it was considered against the premise of the constitutional provisions such as Article 15(4) and 16(4). These provisions have been amended to fit the savarnas in the affirmative-action policies.
7. We will not find a single editorial in any of the so-called national newspapers arguing in favour of caste census, despite this issue being at the top of public and parliamentary discourse. All the masters of Indian sociology — from G.S. Ghurye, M.N. Srinivas, S.C. Dube to Andre Beteille — have written extensively about caste but never asked for the caste data. Practising sociology without data about society is a unique feature of the Indian sociology academia, again dominated by the upper castes. This has been pointed out by Professor Vivek Kumar in an article in EPW.
What explains the silence
There are two possible explanations for why this is the case.
1. The US is still dominated by White people (Black people, including multiracial, hardly account for 14 per cent of the US population), and it may remain so for centuries to come. White people can afford to barter some of their privileges and still retain the dominant racial position. In India, the savarnas are numerically in minority. It will be difficult for them to be as benevolent as the White people in the US, because that will dent their dominant position.
2. This situation was beautifully articulated by B.R. Ambedkar in the introduction of his book The Untouchables. While answering the question as to “why no Brahmin scholar has so far come forward to play the part of a Voltaire who had the intellectual honesty to rise against the doctrines of the Catholic Church,” Ambedkar argued: “The question can be answered only by another question. Why did the Sultan of Turkey not abolish the religion of the Mohammedan World? Why has no Pope denounced Catholicism? Why has the British Parliament not made a law ordering the killing of all blue-eyed babies?”
Ambedkar had summed up his argument by saying that “it must be recognised that the selfish interest of a person or of the class to which he belongs always acts as an internal limitation which regulates the direction of his intellect.”
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.