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Introduction: One person, one value

By Anosh Malekar

One person, one value

When Dr B R Ambedkar rose to speak in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, it was evident that several issues of social equity and justice that had dominated the drafting of the Indian Constitution had remained unresolved. Ambedkar hinted at this in as many words: "On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value."

This hint at continued exclusion in various spheres of social existence in this country came from a man who arguably made the most important contribution to the intellectual and institutional foundations of modern India. Ambedkar had warned: "If we continue to deny it (equality) for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up."

But six decades later, millions of dalits continue to be denied the most basic of human rights - to be treated as equals. Women, the other victims of the 'shastras', are excluded in their own homes and society. Other excluded sections include the adivasis, the denotified tribes, religious minorities, the differently abled, and sexual minorities, to mention just a few.

Though caste-based discrimination is less intense today, there is empirical evidence that untouchability persists, as the article in this issue by Sukhadeo Thorat illustrates. In rural India, restrictions on temple entry, access to drinking water sources, segregated seating arrangements in classrooms and so on are still the order of the day. In urban India - and even in the Indian diaspora -- where caste distinctions seem to have blurred, the notional sense of untouchability remains pervasive even while adjusting to modern living.

Even when concessions are made to dalits, in education and jobs for example, they are perceived as favours and not rights. Intellectual discussions on caste-based reservations are largely confined to their impact on merit. The two are seen as incompatible by the privileged castes.

The strange thing is that India is so diverse. Over the centuries people of all major religions of the world—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Bahaism -- have lived in India. According to B S Guha's classification, people of six racial stocks live in India, and according to the 1971 census there are 1,652 languages spoken as mothertongue across the country. The Mandal Commission alone lists 3,743 castes in addition to around 1,000 Scheduled Castes.

Despite this diversity we see widespread exclusion. Our lessons on India's 'unity in diversity' seem to be forgotten the moment we leave school, though the slogan popularised by Jawaharlal Nehru is still recalled at moments of national pride.

If we analyse the nature of exclusion in Indian society we will find exclusion on the basis of cultural heterogeneity -- as seen in the recent outburst against North Indians in Mumbai; on the basis of faith -- the most glaring example of which is the exclusion of Muslims and more recently of Christians; and on the basis of gender. Sex-selective abortion is the latest, most frightening form of exclusion. According to Unicef India loses 7,000 girls every day through abortion. The British medical journal Lancet estimates that 10 million female foetuses have been aborted in the past two decades in India.

It is important to understand that social and economic exclusion has more to do with group identity than income, productivity or merit of individuals in the group. Unlike members of privileged groups, who may be excluded from education or work due to individual lack of income, low merit or poor skills, members of excluded groups are denied opportunities due to their identity as members of a certain social group.

Experts have long pointed out that few of the debates on poverty in India have questioned the links between poverty and social discrimination. But the big question is the extent to which social exclusion causes economic deprivation and thus poverty. National Sample Survey (NSS) data reveals that the Scheduled Castes (dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (adivasis) are particularly disadvantaged. Average per capita income of SC/STs at an all-India level is about one-third lower than other groups. Headcount poverty in 1999/2000 was 16% among non-deprived groups, 30% for minorities (Muslims), 36% for SCs and 44% for STs.

NSS data also encapsulates gender differences. Census data shows female literacy increasing from 35% to just over 50% between 1991 and 2001, but the disparity between men and women in 2001 was still about 25 percentage points, and has only marginally declined since 1991. Health indicators, including maternal mortality, also highlight the considerable disadvantages women face.

It is in this context that the struggle of 26-year-old Sumathi T N, a postgraduate in Arts, gains importance. Sumathi dared not reveal her dalit identity while employed as a teacher at a local school in Tumkur, a district town some 70 km from India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore. "I used to see how they treated the dalits; not letting them enter hotels or households and even beating them up if they dared to do so. I thought it was safer to say I was not a dalit," she told our contributor.

Sumathi had to quit her job after her caste identity was accidentally revealed to her colleagues and it took a while to come to terms with the fact: "... I learned about dalit history and culture and realised the importance of accepting my identity and fighting for my rights. I am not ashamed or afraid of my being dalit any more."

This issue 'Against Exclusion' is about the struggles of many such individuals and groups. There is Moghubai from a nondescript village in Jharol block, Rajasthan, where widows are branded witches for any misfortune from a child getting chicken pox to a cow that has stopped giving milk. There are Tamil Nadu's approximately 300,000 transgenders or aravanis who have fought for and won major concessions including the introduction of a 'third gender' on ration cards and social visibility and acceptance as mediapersons and television anchors. There are the IT companies that are increasingly employing persons with disability, not as a token CSR gesture but because it makes good business sense to do so.. And there are the girls of the Meo Muslim community, who are finally getting an education thanks to Vinodkumar Kanathia, who chucked up his job as a bank manager to set up a series of schools in Mewat region of north India.

"I was shocked by the vast disparities between Gurgaon and Mewat, located hardly 40 km of each other. If the yuppie crowd inside the plush malls of Gurgaon symbolise the new India, the toiling daughters of the impoverished Meos in Mewat are rude reminders of the uneven growth policies of a booming Indian economy," says Kanathia.

Their stories emphasis what Ambedkar had warned, that equality cannot be denied for long.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008