The following is a joint statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, and the Vigil India Movement, Bangalore:
The 'Madi Snana' practised at the Kukke Subramanya temple, near Mangalore, attracts severe criticism and equal amount of support in India. The practice involves devotees allowed to roll over plantain leaves; reportedly after dominant caste Brahmins have eaten from the leaves. It is believed that the ritual will cure skin diseases, in the past leprosy, mostly of the inferior castes, in particular the Dalits. The temple is under the Muzrai Department of the Government of Karnataka. Dr. Vedavyas Srinivas Acharya, a senior minister of the state cabinet, who is also responsible for higher education, planning, statistics and information technology departments in the state government heads the Muzrai department. Dr. Acharya is a medical doctor turned politician. (photo courtesy: Deccan Herald)
That a qualified medical doctor heads a government department, which manages religious institutions and the revenue generated from such institutions is also responsible for other important cabinet portfolios, not only allows such inhuman practices in the country but justifies it in the name of religious belief and centuries-old tradition is not just a shame for the country, but illuminates the deep-rooted nature of orthodox prejudices that benefits the dominant castes in the caste system of India. It underscores the fact that the liberation of the country from the cobweb of caste is impossible should the current situations continue. It paints an appalling picture of what modernisation means in India, that Acharya is a senior minister in the state, which hosts the country's IT capital, Bangalore. It reiterates the argument that neo-Dalit political leaders like Ms Mayawati are nothing more than shrewd politicians who use pro-Dalit sentiments to maintain power and intends no good to the community that she allegedly represents and her newfound affinity for Brahminical practices could justify, manual scavenging, a practice vicious and demeaning that rolling over banana leafs.
The government had prohibited the practice of Made Snana in 1979. But it was soon reintroduced on the justification that it is a centuries-old religious ritual. So is untouchability, a much older practice, which today is prohibited not only in the constitution, but also in at least half a dozen statutes. Yet it continues openly in the country.
The practice of manual scavenging is also prohibited, including the construction of dry latrines. But institutions like the Indian Railway, the municipalities, corporations and panchayats employ manual scavengers. The Indian Railway is the largest employer of manual scavengers, and manages some of the longest rows of open latrines in the world. The open-hole lavatories in every railway compartment that is in service in the country turns the largest rail network of the world into one big lavatory that drops raw human excreta and other waste onto the rails, and over people and vehicles - where the rail line runs above roads. It is a common scene in every railway station in the country, railway employees cleaning with a broom, railway sleepers covered with human excreta. In a country that tolerates this and accepts the practice as 'god given' to a community, a few thousand 'devotees' rolling over leftover food and plantain leaves upon which the food was served and eaten by some of the most exploiting communities in the world - those Brahmins who believe in the caste hierarchy - have eaten must be a negligible incident.
That caste-based discrimination continues in India is nothing new. There is neither news value in it, nor is there any shocking discovery about the incident. That this year's Made Snana was widely reported in the media can be discounted due to the news value the event attracted since a person who protested against this was publically assaulted. The inhuman ritual never attracted such media frenzy before, and probably will never again until some untoward incident that has an alleged media value than the ritual itself happens. Such is the media vigilance in India on some important issues, and the Indian media is not immune to caste prejudice. It is clear from the fact that many other similar inhuman practices based on dominant caste prejudices are of no news value for the Indian media. This includes widespread bonded labour of Dalits, Devadasi practices, the denial of food and medicine to the Dalit and tribal children in rural villages by the dominant caste government servants and land grabbing by dominant castes.
The only entities that openly express discomfort regarding caste prejudices are the government agencies that represent India in international fora. For these institutions and the persons who work for them representing the government, caste is an internal matter of the country. So was apartheid an internal matter of South Africa, holocaust a domestic affair for Nazi Germany, and slavery an in-house labour management for the racists.
Mistakes get corrected starting from the moment defects are admitted. Caste based prejudices in India will continue until the government publically admits that discrimination based on caste, in all its manifest forms, is a crime against humanity. What it requires is honesty in polity, and it is precisely what the governments in India lack.