Well, Payal Tadvi was a young doctor hailing from an Adivasi Muslim tribe in one of the most backward areas of India. She was a post graduate resident doctor in a Bombay hospital. She committed suicide on 22 May 2019. Before Payal became history, she, her mother, her husband complained several times to the authorities of the hospital about the harassment being inflicted on her; but to no avail.
My driver in St Stephen’s College was a Dalit. He used to be insulted regularly for being low caste by the class IV workers of the college. I made a formal complaint to the SC/ST commission, headed at that time by the Congressman, Punia. No action was taken. I complained to the Commission, knowing that it was futile to complain to the local police. The truth is that a Dalit, subjected to humiliation for being Dalit, has no protection or means of redressal. Such a person is expected to grin and bear it.
The harassment a Dalit has to endure increases in subtlety and intensity as he or she goes upwards the social and official ladder. Recall the plight of B. R. Ambedkar, when he was one of the top officers in the service of the Maharaja of Kohlapur. The owner of Suvarna hotel refused to have tea served to him. The peons in his office used to throw files on his table, instead of placing them there, due to aversion to physical proximity to a Dalit, though he was incomparably more qualified and competent than them. It is very likely that Rohit Vemula would have been still alive, if he weren’t such a promising young man. He was a great soul encased in a Dalit body. It is a deadly combination in our country.
Hell broke loose when, in 2007, I evolved an admission policy for St Stephen’s carving out a little space for Dalit Christians. War was declared on me by the Hindu upper caste media barons, the powerful alumni network, the officialdom in Delhi, and the Christian elite, who deem themselves upper caste. It was as if I polluted the college by opening its doors to Dalits. The fact that I was acting entirely within the framework of the Constitution did not matter. The only thing that matters in our country is whether or not the privileges and prerogatives of the upper castes are undermined even to the slightest degree. If you dare to, you will be done in. Doesn’t really matter which party is in power. There may be differences in degrees, but none in kind.
The most perverse thing for me is not that Dalits are ill-treated, degraded and driven to death. It is that Dalits are also their own enemies. There are caste hierarchies among Dalits as well; and caste superiorities among Dalits are, if anything, more brutally enforced. Dalit politicians are, tacitly, satisfied, if not overjoyed, that Dalit degradation and disabilities continue. The perpetuation of Dalit predicament is a basic condition for the survival of Dalit politics, which is Dalit largely to the extent that Dalits are in charge. But, in this one respect Ambedkar got it wrong. He thought Dalits would take care of Dalits. There is very little evidence to prove that this is indeed the case. As Deen Dayal Upadhyaya said, Dalit leaders would be more Brahmin towards their Dalit brethren than Brahmins themselves.
Be that as it may, the need of the hour is to recognize that Dalitness is a far wider category. I may not be, technically, a Dalit. But I am a Dalit de facto, for being a Christian. The fact that I was the principal of a leading institution in higher education made little difference to my woes. There was hardly any protection or relief for me, except from the court. But fighting out issues legally is not an option even for 1% of Dalits. It is prohibitively expensive. My experiences prove that I too am a Payal Tadvi, a Rohit Vemula and the tens and thousands of human beings in this country who are slighted and brutalized for no fault than their not being wiser in choosing the circumstances of their births.
Sentimentality does not help in dealing with burning issues. I wish Payal hadn’t committed suicide. In fact, I strongly disapprove of it. Suicide is the language of weakness. The assumption that suicide is the only way for Dalits out of their endemic misery is a lie. But it is a lie rooted in our system. That lie may well seem to be the truth, if we are habituated to looking to institutions for our relief. That, as of now, is hardly an option, though everything needs to be done to tap the last drop of possibilities of that kind as well. The most basic need is for Dalits both as individuals and communities to develop enormous inner strength to fight, to endure and to prevail. To that end, there is good news.
The tormentors of fellow human beings are caricatures of our species. They are not full-fledged human beings. Never mind what positions they occupy; nothing alters the fact that they are akin to the lower members of the animal kingdom. This is what I discovered through my own ordeal. Of course, they have strength; but it is the strength of numbers and of resources, including the power of systems and structures. They lack inner strength and resources of the soul which, I testify, are incomparably superior. We must believe that the spirit will prevail over matter; the alternative is sheer nihilism.
I argue this not to excuse the gross, and inexcusable, failure on the part of civil society in developing a caring sense of responsibility towards the weaker sections of our society. The result is that an individual in distress feels so utterly isolated from humanity that she feels that only ‘the dead-end’ is real. This is a failure not, primarily, of the individual in distress, but of the society at large. We are far away from becoming a ‘civil’ or sane society.
Three factors are extremely crucial for Dalit predicament: social perceptions and outlook, prevailing value systems, and the under-development of Dalits. Dalits have no alternative to developing themselves to the uttermost. For them, development must be their very religion; the religion of liberation. It is not for nothing that educational opportunities are kept largely out of reach of Dalits, covertly and overtly. If you, as a Dalit child, have a right conferred of admission to schools under the RTE Act, and if that right is operative only within a one kilometre radius. It is only a teasing illusion of a right; for in areas where Dalits live, schools are necessarily at distances. This is illustrative of a great deal of the moonshine meant for Dalit appeasement.
In the end, the solution for Dalit misery is political. So long as a tiny minority of upper castes retain their stranglehold on political power by creating an illusion of electoral majority, and so long as Dalits themselves fail to recognize and effectively utilize their potential political power, the Payal Tadvis and Rohit Vemulas of our country will continue to end their lives prematurely. It is hypocritical to shed crocodile tears over them. The need of the hour is to act, and to act wisely. For a starting point, we need to talk far more openly of the latent atrocities in our midst. Atrocities and injustices thrive through invisibility. They need to be exposed. There must be a forum where future Payal Tadvis can speak of their miseries. And, in this age of social media, there must be a shared will to make their miseries nationally articulated and felt. Mainline media has been in a conspiracy of silence on this count for long. It is possible to make a virtue of necessity and create compensatory alternative provisions to make up for this dereliction of journalistic duty.