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(Photo courtesy of Annie Namala)
(Photo courtesy of Annie Namala)

Q&A: Annie Namala takes your questions about caste Add to ...

Second, what role do diaspora Indian communities play in maintaining the caste system? Are they harder or easier to break from its habits? – Shaun Narine

A: Dr. Ambedkar had propounded the need for ‘annihilation of caste’ and after much effort, he declared that the only way to overcome the disabilities was to change one’s religion to Budhism. The caste system also maintains multiple privileges to the dominant sections of society and hence the resistance to changes. With the global resistance movements, it is now clear that denying one’s identity is not the way to eliminate discrimination, rather acknowledging and recognizing identity and hence there is considerable movement among Dalits to assert one’s identify. It is very interesting to note Lalmaty, one of Sudha’s prodigies, said, “now that she knows so much about caste she is able to handle it.”

The Indian diaspora has also not been able to shake off caste, particularly when it becomes a matter of engaging across the touchability line. There are reports of discrimination against Dalits even among the diaspora. In some ways, the diaspora loses touch with the everyday life and practices of the community in India and likes to retain nostalgic feelings about the country and its culture. Despite their long years of living outside the country, engaging with other cultures, they do not have much influence in changing the system in their families or community.

Q: With reference to the Mushahar girls and their education... if through their continued educational development, they eventually find meaningful employment, would that “Dalit” label from their inception be lifted and forgotten by those around them who haven’t come from the same “beginning”? Also, if they were to leave the rural areas and migrate to a city, do they ever have to tell anyone (i.e. job application) about their caste position in their village? – Cari Main

A: It is interesting to hear the response of Poonam’s mother, who says whatever she studies or whoever she becomes, she will continue to remain a Mushahar, the identity-based discrimination continues to haunt one. With the provisions of reservation, one comes across first and second generation Dalits who have accessed education, moved to the cities and even hold good positions. In some cases, they would rather not identify themselves as Dalits and may even be able to manage many parts of life so. However, when issues like marriage or ritual ceremonies come up, their caste identity may stand as a barrier.

As caste is the basis of affirmative action, most Dalits are identified in their educational institutions and employment spheres. There have been a number of reports of caste-based discrimination in premier educational institutions over the past decade, to the extent of Dalit students being driven to committing suicide. There is a general decrying of students that gain admission under affirmative action as being devoid of “merit” without consideration to the generations of cumulative deprivation they faced.

Q: It was suggested that the Dalits would have benefited by a separate electoral system proposed by Bhimrao Ambedkar. How would this have helped? It sounds like a continuation of separation rather than an integration into regular society. – Mike Baron

A: Babasaheb Ambedkar cautioned that political democracy is under threat without social democracy reflecting the need for social reforms. Recognising the stronghold of caste in all matters, he wanted to protect Dalits’s space in political decision-making through the separate electoral system. This would have put power in the hands of Dalits to elect their own political representative, in addition to the person elected by all including the Dalits. Through such a process, Babasaheb sought to make the Dalit elected representatives accountable to the Dalit voters.

At this point, in keeping with the reservation policy, Dalit representatives are elected by all persons and hence do not feel any compulsion to meet the needs of their Dalit constituency. Gandhi’s fast unto death over this made Ambedkar give up this demand. The separate electoral system may have served the Dalit constituency in ensuring their share in governance as well as development. One need not necessarily look at this as a divisive process as it is important to realistic stocktaking of the power dynamics and evolve institutional mechanisms for greater power sharing. The separate electorate would have served such a process.

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