| Dalits as NGOs' cannon fodder
Dalits as NGOs' cannon fodder By P.N.BENJAMIN
(The Hindu, Aug. 28, 2001)
I AM provoked to write this after reading several articles and statements of well known writers and intellectuals and representatives of NGOs — call them, dalit warriors — in The Hindu for some time now, criticising the Indian Government's alleged attempts to thwart a debate on caste-based discrimination in the coming United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban.
"The great men, who in France prepared men's minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionaries. They recognised not external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions — everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism. Everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up its existence''. (Frederick Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Science.)
Engels wrote the above lines while defining the social context of pre-revolution France. We know that the French Revolution was preceded by stages of renaissance and reformation. We also know that any intellectual who could be even remotely described as "progressive'' then, had targeted Church as the fountainhead of obscurantism. Without dismantling the Church's regulatory authority, the French Revolution, one of the most celebrated events in world history, may have remained meaningless.
In our country, regulatory authority of caste or varna institutions is even more decisive than the Church could ever exercise. But can we recall any phase in our history, comparable with Renaissance or Reformation? Barring the dalits, what is the track record of intellectuals on the question of caste division and dominance? Further, most societies that can claim to be modern today have had at least one rupture or a revolution that decisively negated value systems and institutions of the past. We cannot cite even one such event in India's long history.
For dalits, January 26, 1950 is the only such event that, although not a revolution, was definitely a sort of rupture in our country's history. Adoption of a Constitution that officially abolished untouchability and caste discriminations, and directs the state to reorganise Indian society along democratic lines, is a milestone. Lest ambiguity should become a tool to browbeat constitutional verdict, as spelt out in its Preamble, the Indian state is directed to accord due representation to out-castes and tribals, in every branch of the state and complement it with various socio-educational-economic measures.
Despite the well-defined notion of state in the constitution and categorical directive to the Republic regarding dalits, representation in all walks of life, successive governments have mocked at the constitutional verdict. The Congress Governments confined dalits' representation to legislative bodies and the executive. They ruled out dalit participation in the country's economic activities, public institutions, academics in particular, and areas of mass communications. As a result, the Indian state under the Congress stood as a mute witness to the continued subversion of its own ideals spelt out clearly in the Constitution. The situation is not different today. So, why do the NGOs and `intellectuals' indulge in bashing the NDA Government alone for its "upper-caste bias" and for "throttling any move to raise the (dalit) issue in the U.N. conference?''
By definition, any organisation outside the government, registered or unregistered, that seeks to address issues of society is an NGO. What we understand by the term "NGO'' (Non- Governmental Organisation) today are those organisations, registered under the Societies Registration Act, which seek funds from corporate houses, Government or foreign agencies. Then there are the foundations or trusts, which do not directly undertake issues themselves, but create a fund only to support "deserving'' NGOs, which do "good" work. The money involved in NGO operations is huge. For example, it is said that the New Delhi office of Ford Foundation alone has sanctioned around U.S. $ 300 millions to various organisations since 1952.
The NGO concept revolves around the basic premise that the state, by virtue of being "state", cannot be `sensitive' and `imaginative' enough to understand and address people's problems. And another assumption is that the `civil society', by definition, is more `imaginative' and more forward looking than the state. Both these assumptions do not hold good in the Indian context.
Some pertinent questions could be asked at this stage. What is the social vision of NGOs? Or, to be precise, what is NGOs' perception of the Indian Republic and society? Where do dalits stand today vis-`-vis institutions of the state, and institutions that are outside the state? Is there any institution or NGOs other than the Indian State that make specific provision of representation to dalits? What is the proportion of dalits in the corporate-like offices of the NGOs? What is the position of dalits in their workforce and what percentage of the money funding agencies granted has been utilised for the upliftment of dalits? An individual's or organisation's social doctrine is best reflected by its actions. If an organisation, as against the constitutional verdict of 22.5 per cent representation to the dalits, is not prepared to accord at least one per cent representation, it has no legal sanctity to exist. If NGOs cannot give representation to dalits, what is the guarantee that they are not working against the interests of the dalits? The NGOs thrive on state bashing but can we recall one major NGO, which has produced a worthwhile critique of the varna or caste order?
NGOs have slowly but steadily not only robbed the state, corporate houses, and foreign funding agencies but also robbed space available to social movements. If every institution in India must justify its existence before the judgment seat of the Constitution, can the NGOs which are only legitimising dalits' exclusion and questioning the state's sovereign authority, and that too from a higher `moral' pedestal, be permitted to go scot free?
Be that as it may, the tragedy of the dalits is that Dr. Ambedkar's legacy, which ought to operate outside Hindu religion, has also not succeeded in breaking the status quo. Dr. Ambedkar felt that organisation, education and agitation would enable the dalits to reverse caste prejudices. As it has turned out, dalit political groups are totally disorganised. Education has only led to the emergence of a dalit elite class, which has slowly distanced itself from agitational dalit politics. Dalit movements have either been absorbed within mainstream parties or else have degenerated into negative militancy. The deification of Dr. Ambedkar by building statues in every village appears to have taken precedence over any fight for equal rights.
Self-seeking status quoists.
Dalit activists 20 or 30 years ago may have been expected to launch agitations to create public awareness against atrocities against them in various parts of the country. Today, caught up in factional politics, and bereft of any ideology, these very leaders appear unwilling to disturb the existing caste equations. These self-seeking status quoists have only aided in pushing the outcastes out of our society, out of the mainstream. Dalit politicians holding very high political posts have in practice proved to be "Uncle Toms" because of the compulsions of Indian polity.
What the dalits need today is an effective and sagacious leadership and not raising their problems in the UN World Conference against Racism. What Dr. Ambedkar said long ago about the dalit leaders being `selfish' and quarrelsome on `petty matters' is still true. There is however no reason to be despondent because there are still many far-sighted and levelheaded leaders among them who can guide the dalit community to achieve its aims.
The real protection of the dalits as also of other underprivileged sections in the community lies in their being organised and led in active mass movement committed to awaken and activate them in defence of their interests. This is a task which has always been the primary responsibility of political parties committed to socio-economic transformation of our present set-up. Here lies the failure of the Indian Left. In their blind craze for parliamentary democracy the Left parties have forgotten their primary duty to mobilise and organise the masses against all forms of vested interests. Rather, one witnesses today the strange spectacle of the parties of the Left ganging up with those very forces, which are the political representatives of gun-wielding rural rich.
P. N. BENJAMIN __._,_.___
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