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വായന

22 November, 2009

Factors hindering progress towards Equality and Equal Opportunity

B.R.P.BHASKAR

Paper presented at the 36th annual conference of the Kerala Sociological Society held at Loyola College, Thiruvananthapuram, from November 20-22, 2009. The theme of the conference was “Social Exclusion and Inclusion: Policies, Perspectives, Response”

The terms Social Exclusion and Social Inclusion have been occurring frequently in Western discourse in the last two or three decades.

Many European countries use ‘social exclusion’ as a catch-all phrase to cover the plight of an assorted group comprising the homeless, the unemployed, the old and the infirm, disgruntled youth, immigrants etc.

In the 1990s, the Labour government in Britain set up a Social Exclusion Unit. It subsequently became the charge of a Cabinet minister.

Once governments began formulating programmes to tackle the problem of social exclusion, the concept of social inclusion gained currency.

Essentially the Western exercises are a delayed, post-modern effort to address iniquities resulting from the ruthless operation of the capitalist system. In India, social exclusion occurs not as a by-product of capitalism but as a legacy of feudalism, which is still very much with us. Sometimes it is quite visible; sometimes it is camouflaged.

In India, social exclusion has a religious dimension. All religions subscribe, at least in theory, to the principle of equality of men as the children of the same god. Hinduism is an exception. It has a powerful stream which subscribes to the view that men are born unequal.

Not that the equality principle is unknown to Hinduism. It is accepted at the philosophical level but rejected at the practical level. At the risk of oversimplifying the complex system of beliefs which originated in different times and among various peoples and were integrated under the banner of Hinduism at some point in circumstances which are not quite clear, we may attribute the inequality principle in it to the Vedic school and the equality principle to the Upanishadic school.

Following the decline of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which upheld the equality principle, social divisions solidified into a rigid caste system characterized by social exclusion. From time to time, reformers reiterated the equality principle, but the inheritors of the Vedic tradition, who dominated the social establishment, were able to maintain their sway. Successive rulers, including those of foreign origin, thought it prudent not to interfere in the social system, unless there were compelling reasons to do so, as in the case of practices like the sati.

The Constitution, promulgated in 1950, signified the first attempt in many centuries by an Indian state to enforce the equality principle.

While the effects of centuries of exclusion have been mitigated to some extent during the past six decades, not even the stoutest defender of the Constitution can claim that the goals of equality and equal opportunity have been realized.

Lately, there have emerged, all across the country, unmistakable signs of deep resentment among the victims of social exclusion at the tardy progress in the fulfilment of the constitutional promise. At some places the resentment has developed into violent challenges. The state and the society can ignore these signs only at their peril.

Why are we not able to get rid of this burden of the feudal past? Any inquiry in this regard must begin with a close look at the nature of the Indian system of social exclusion as well as character of the Indian state and the society.

Caste offers no exit option. The system has been a boon to some and a curse to others. While the hierarchical system that arose in other lands divided people into two broad categories, the privileged and the underprivileged, the caste system provided for graded inequality, which divided the underprivileged masses into numerous categories and subjected them to varying degrees of exclusion.

This prevented the victims from coming together and making common cause. Most victims also had the vicarious satisfaction that there were people who were worse off than themselves.

Such a system cannot be dismantled by a stroke of the pen. It is as natural for its beneficiaries to strive to hold on to the boon as it is for its victims to struggle to shake off the curse.

The state, which has to implement the constitutional mandate of equality and equal opportunity, is a colonial institution, which was created in the feudal era and has a record of safeguarding the interests of the privileged sections.

The peaceful transfer of power, which occurred in 1947, brought about a change at the top. It did not involve any changes in the structure itself. There was a change of rulers but the colonial apparatus, dominated by inheritors of the Vedic tradition, remained intact.

The inheritors of the Vedic tradition were able to maintain their supremacy in the limbs of the state even after Independence by virtue of the advantages which the caste system had bestowed on them for centuries.

An academic study published in 1971 showed that 34.18% of those recruited to the Indian Administrative Service between 1947 and 1956 and 36.32% of those recruited between 1957 and 1963 were Brahmins, who formed only four per cent of the population. (V. Subramaniam, “Social Background of India’s Administrators”, Publications Division, New Delhi, 1971. Table 7)

As many as 86.70% of those recruited between 1947 and 1956 and 88.45% of those recruited between 1957 and 1963 were Hindus. While these figures may suggest that Hindus, who constituted 84% of the population, received adequate representation, there is reason to suspect that those at the higher end of the social hierarchy appropriated the jobs at stake.

Of those recruited during 1947-56, only 0.63% belonged to the Scheduled Castes. During 1957-63, the Scheduled Castes’ share rose to 9.04%. This clearly was a result of the implementation of the constitutional provision of reservation. The table is silent on the share of backward classes.

Muslims, who accounted for 10.69% of the population, constituted only 2.53% and 1.28% of the recruits during the relevant periods. These figures suggest a decline in Muslim presence in the higher bureaucracy in the years of Independence.


To begin with, the Constitution provided for reservation only for the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, who were at the very bottom of the social pyramid. The Supreme Court ruled that the benefit of reservation available to members of other castes in some states since before Independence violated the constitutional provisions. To save such reservation, Parliament amended the Constitution to permit special provisions for all socially and economically backward classes.

One reason for the tardy progress is the state’s tendency to continue in its state of rest (or uniform motion) unless compelled by forces acting upon it.

When it is compelled to act, the state limits its response to the very minimum required to buy peace and returns to the state of rest (or uniform motion) at the earliest. The lackadaisical approach to the Mandal Commission’s report is a classic example of this.

The Constitution accords primacy to social justice. This is evident from the way Justice, social, economic and political has been put in, ahead of Equality, Fraternity and Liberty, while enumerating the nation’s objectives in the Preamble.

The Judiciary has a fair record in the dispensation of political justice. In the matter of economic justice, its record is less lustrous, and in the matter of social justice even less so. A rich and powerful litigant can get judges to meet at night to dispense justice. That privilege is not available to a Dalit.

Quite often the Establishment approaches the problem of social exclusion from a wrong angle. Mahatma Gandhi, who put the spotlight on the Dalit situation, caused incalculable harm by placing it in the religious context. His solutions, which sidestepped the issue of equality and equal opportunity, betrayed elements of feudal patronage.

The formula evolved by the Congress and continued by other mainstream parties, while ensuring representation for Dalits in the limbs of the state, has remained at the level of tokenism. It has not led to equality or empowerment.

Kerala, which stands on par with advanced Western countries in social development, is also afflicted by social exclusion of the feudal kind, probably to a greater degree than even some backward states of the country.

The land reform in Kerala, which resulted from initiatives of the Communist movement, did not call for any significant change in the social structure. The tenants who benefited by it belonged to the higher echelons.

Land reform benefited some people at the lower levels too. They were people whom the Establishment was ready to accommodate. They did not include the Dalits, who were landless farm workers. They remain landless to this day. With farms disappearing, they are losing their means of livelihood. That is why they are crying for land to till.

Some among Kerala’s Dalits have found their way into the mainstream through education. When the nation was ready to accept a Dalit as President, this state supplied an eminently qualified candidate. Again, it was this state that provided the first Dalit Chief Justice of India.

The emergence of a couple of illustrious personalities must not blind us to the fact that the vast majority of Kerala’s Dalits are living precariously in shanties, with no land or assets of any other kind.

Dalit columnist Chandrabhan Prasad pointed out a few years ago that landlessness among farm workers in Kerala was higher than in Uttar Pradesh. According to the 1991 Census, which he cited, 53.79% of Dalit and 55.47% of Adivasi farm workers in the state were landless. The national average was 49.6% for Dalits and 32.99% for Adivasis. In Uttar Pradesh, only 38.79% of Dalits were landless. (Adivasis form only a negligible 0.1% of the state’s population).

Developmental activity of every kind brings hardships to some and benefits to some others. Such hardships are a price that has to be paid to obtain the benefits. It is the socially excluded who pay the price and it is the socially included who reap the benefits. The Adivasis of Madhya Pradesh have paid the price for the benefits that will accrue to the farmers of Gujarat from the Narmada Valley project.

Socio-economic advance often results in loss of traditional jobs and creation of new jobs. The jobs that are lost are almost always those of the socially excluded. The jobs that are created almost always go to the socially included.

In Europe, as the post-war economy grew, the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labour rose. The needs of industry and the labour market combined to help promote social inclusion.

With the Indian economy booming, can we look forward to a similar development? Theoretically, yes, we can. But, in practice, this may not happen. Experience shows that the dominant sections, which have a vested interest in keeping the boon the caste system conferred on them centuries ago, will go to any lengths to prevent the emergence of a level playing ground.

Affirmative action is now limited to the state sector. There, too, it does not extend to some important areas like the Judiciary and the Armed Forces. Is it any wonder that the judges of the Supreme Court are overly fond of Manu, the mythical law-giver?

Thanks to painstaking research done by K. P. Jayaswal, a renowned scholar in Sanskrit and Law, in the early part of the last century, we know that Manusmriti is the work of one Sumati Bhargava, a member of the Bhrigu clan. It was written during the Sunga period (185 to 73 BC) to reinforce the Brahmin dynasty’s efforts to wipe out the equality norms of the Buddhist period and make the Brahmin the ‘lord of everything’.

A few centuries later, Yagnavalkya, another Brahmin, wrote a new code, which reduced the fanatical penances of Manu to very reasonable limits and raised the position of the Sudra.

According to Jayaswal, Yagnavalkya’s code bears the stamp of the kindly conscience bequeathed by Buddhism. It made penances and punishments less severe. Laws about women were brought in conformity with their social position, already immensely raised by Buddhism. Their right of inheritance was fully admitted.

All this certainly did not make the Yagnavalkya Code very modern. As Jayaswal puts it, “Yagnavalkya with his progressive tendency still retains orthodox conservatism.” He avers Yagnavalkya’s Code may be taken to have repealed and replaced Manu’s Code throughout the land of Aryan civilization.

Yet it is by Manu, and not by Yagnavalkya, that the votaries of Hindutva swear. The reason is simple. Manu offers the best chance of preserving their privileged position.

Why do Supreme Court judges invoke Manu’s name more often than that of Yagnavalkya, whose code stands closer to the Constitution that they are committed to uphold than to Manu’s?

We have to turn to history for the answer to this question. Faced with a spate of litigation involving local people, Warren Hastings set up committees to help the English East India Company with Hindu Law and Mohammedan Law. The experts on Hindu Law that he found in Bengal were all followers of the Vedic tradition. To them Manu’s word was law.

The way Manu overcame Yagnavalkya and holds sway over the Hindu establishment to this day deserves to be noted. It illustrates how the overwhelming desire to perpetuate their privileges finds expression even in the modern period.

Coming back to the present, we have to realistically take note of the deteriorating situation of the socially excluded.

Under the impact of globalization, the role of the state is dwindling. As the state shrinks in size, the area open to the socially excluded will also shrink. It is, therefore, necessary to open up new avenues for them.

Captains of industry have cold-shouldered proposals to extend affirmative action to the private sector. Their opposition is based on the vaunted principle of merit. However, it is to be noted that many among them, too, are inheritors of the Vedic tradition, which sanctified social exclusion.

Time is running out. So far the movements of the socially excluded to assert their rights of equality and equal opportunity have, by and large, remained within constitutional limits. If the upholders of the status quo fail to change their mind-set and confront the problem of social exclusion truthfully, the challenge may increasingly assume violent proportions.

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