Eighty-four years ago B.R. Ambedkar published The Annihilation of Caste (May, 1936). His thesis was that caste cannot be reformed or humanised. It has to be annihilated, if a democratic way of life is to be nurtured and human dignity upheld. Democracy, according to him, can rest safe only on the foundation of equality. Caste institutionalises and legitimises inequality. It defiles its victims, degrades their humanity. To be born in a lower caste is to be Dalit, or to be broken.
Ambedkar, though a victim of caste oppression, under-estimated the durability of the caste system, somewhat. Max Weber was more realistic. In The Religion of India (1916), he argued that caste is the backbone of the Hindu society. If caste is eradicated, Hinduism will collapse.
Hathras in UP is yet another reminder, in a long series of such gruesome reminders, that caste is here not only to stay but also to reign supreme. Just as ‘faith is above facts,’ caste is ‘above the Constitution.’ No constitutional principle or provision will work on the ground, if it is out of tune with caste considerations. Neither human rights, nor rudimentary justice, nor the sanctities of birth and death.
A 19-year old Dalit woman was gang raped. (Later the UP police would insist that she was not). She was, besides, physically brutalized. Her spine was broken; her neck, all but crushed. She died in a hospital a fortnight later. The police spirited away the dead body. Rushed post-haste to her village. Tore through the resistance of her parents and relatives. Their desperate plea that they be allowed to take the body home and organize the last rites was treated with brutal disdain. In the dead of night, the police burned the body, barely two hundred yards from the victim’s house. The parents and relatives of the victim were locked up in the house. The media was kept far away. But a brave, determined broadcast journalist –Tanushree Pandey- stayed brave and firm. She filmed the outrage. We got to see it.
Suppose I had written a novel in which this sequence is portrayed as happening to a woman anywhere in the world, no publisher would have entertained it, damning it as outrageously improbable. And rightly too. How can such things happen in a civilized society in the 21st century? But we know they happen; for there is something called the caste system. Sexual violation of Dalit women is a familiar mode of upper caste assertion. Hardly a communal riot takes place without the death-dance of punitive rapes.
Caste is nothing but a way of structuring power. The essence of caste is that power is merit. So, simple common sense should have it that, even as lust for power increases –as is clearly the case now- the caste factor gains greater control over human affairs. Irrespective all labels –religious, national, and cultural- the powerless are, de facto, Dalits. That is why African-Americans cry out, “Black lives matter!” The proof of a society’s moral development is its willingness to ascribe intrinsic worth to human life. Surely, that was Jesus’ view. The worth of a soul cannot be delimited by the accidents of birth and wealth. Life is God’s creation. Its value stems from the stamp of the divine on it.
This confronts us with a flaming question. Why is it that a deafening silence prevails in the Indian churches, even as these unthinkable atrocities rage? Prick your ears. You are sure to NOT hear a word! Recall the parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who was wounded on the road to Jericho represents all victims. Jesus was confronting the religious establishment with this reality. To him, the murderous indifference of the presumably godly to the wounded existence of human beings is a defining issue in religion. Why did the Priest and the Levite, in that parable, choose to ‘look the other way’ and walk off, post-haste? Was it a matter of being too busy to stop and help; or, was there something deeper, and more disturbing than that at play? Did the sight of the bleeding body remind them of a symbolic affinity, too disquieting to contemplate? Isn’t it when you are unbearably discomposed that you ‘look the other way’?
Oh, how we wish the Indian churches had the credibility to take a principled, forthright stand against atrocities; atrocities, especially against Dalit women. About 75% of all women raped/killed in India are Dalit.
It is not as if the Church is passive! No, we in Kerala know when to bring the roof down. How to flex our muscles and roll our eyes, till those in authority cower and concede our demands. That is what makes this silence in regard to human suffering so deafening and disturbingly significant. Borrowing metaphors from the parable of the Good Samaritan, one could say, “Well, why should anyone dismount from the donkey, if he does not have ‘wine and oil’ to bind the wounds of the victim?” As Shakespeare’s Macbeth lamented, after killing King Duncan- “The wine of life is drawn, and the mere dross is left for this vault to brag of.” Seeds, when crushed, yield oil, because they have kernel within. What is the use in pressing husks and shells?
So, the donkey moves on. As it plods on, it makes characteristic noises. Ever and anon, the whip cracks on its hardened skin. As Joseph Conrad would say, it is terribly facetious for the donkey to mistake itself for a war horse. Especially, if the whip of history is poised over its calloused, hardened back.