Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The one-eyed twice-borns
by S. Anand
Two recent incidents, seemingly unrelated, demonstrate how the "secular" common sense can react in shockingly contrasting ways. The first, the much publicised case from MS University, Vadodara, involves Chandramohan Srimantula's paintings, the rightwing opposition to his work, and the subsequent rallying of the secular-liberal intelligentsia around the victim. About the same time, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, a case of blatant victimisation of a postgraduate student, Sukhbir Singh Badhal, was reported. The case came to light through the findings of a three-member committee inquiring into caste discrimination at AIIMS headed by University Grants Commission chairman Sukhdeo Thorat. Badhal's case was highlighted by The Times of India (May 13, 2007) and followed up by cnn-ibn. Badhal had stood first in a selection examination in lab medicine, but he was superseded by the second-ranker in the appointment to the coveted post of senior resident at the department of lab medicine.
Like Chandramohan, a Lalit Kala award winner, Badhal had distinguished himself in his field. Both were wronged. In both cases, the deans of the departments concerned —Shivaji Panikkar at MSUand RC Deka at AIIMS — stood up for their students whereas the respective managements not only justified their maltreatment but actively participated in their persecution. Where the similarity begins, it also ends. While Chandramohan's victimisation outraged a cross-section of voices — artists, academics, writers, actors, public intellectuals, lawyers, concerned citizens — there was no one to take up Badhal's cause. While a Free Chandramohan Committee quickly came into existence, a Help Badhal Committee did not materialise. Crucial here is the fact that Badhal happens to be a Dalit, and a Dalit who could stake a rightful claim to an institutional position without taking recourse to reservation. He had topped in the General category.
In Chandramohan's case, the very obvious villainy of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal provided an ideal foil for the righteous though predictable indignation of the Left-liberal-secularists against the loony Right. Many times in the past they have appeared to feed off each other, and seem to unwittingly participate in a theatrical ritual where words and phrases such as "artistic freedom, cultural freedom, land of Khajuraho and Tantra, freedom of expression, moral policing, cultural intolerance/ hijack", etc, cross swords with "Western ideas, Hindu culture, hurting the sentiments of the majority, desecration of gods", and so on. These tiresome expressions, in turn, occupy placards, editorials, television bytes and SMS polls.
In this secular theatre, Chandramohan and not Badhal would appear "the good victim". This phrase was used in another illuminating context by Gary Younge (The Nation, April 19, 2007) while comparing Rosa Parks' case in Alabama, 1955, with that of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who too had a few months earlier refused to get up and offer her seat to a white man. But unlike Parks, Colvin was too dark, too poor; and worse, an unwed mother. Colvin being the trigger for the boycott that spurred the civil rights movement would have been unacceptable. Parks, however, was seen by Martin Luther King Jr as a woman of family values, someone who had "character, integrity and Christian commitment". Strategists of movements, argues Younge, need a good victim and wait for one if they have to. In India, this plays out a little differently. There are people whose victimhood, however grievous and morally grounded, does not qualify as campaign-worthy for the rest of civil society.
AIIMS is a high-profile institution headed by P. Venugopal, an unabashed opponent of reservation who has done little to hide his prejudices against Dalits and other oppressed sections of society. (A white man in a similar position at Harvard Medical School would not have so zealously paraded his prejudices as Venugopal has.) Badhal, with his indisputable academic "merit", represents an attack on the new sense of victimhood claimed by the entrenched classes and castes, the likes of Venugopal and his no-less-tactful supporters in the media. When news of Badhal's victimisation broke, we did not see any outrage from the usual interlocutors who launched email signature campaigns and organised protest meetings in support of Chandramohan. Badhal's, for that matter, is not an isolated case. Reports of Dalit and Adivasi students being hounded at AIIMS surfaced in April and September 2006. One student, Umakant Nagar, had reported that an "abusive and threatening" message had been inscribed on the door of his room forcing him to shift out. In due course, 29 students — all Dalits and Adivasis — were forced to shift hostels. But such ghettoisation and segregation at AIIMS — justified by Venugopal and his ad-hoc appointees — did not become a campaign issue for the secular-liberals.
More recently, Ajay Kumar Singh, an MBBS student at AIIMS, testified at the Indian People's Tribunal on Untouchability organised by the National Council for Dalit Human Rights. His account of systematic abuse by the AIIMS administration appeared in Tehelka (June 2, 2007) in which he describes how the privileged caste students and management at AIIMS had joined hands to make sure he does not get his medical degree.
This selective indifference is not so inscrutable. It could be argued, perhaps rationally, that Badhal's being a Dalit is not the sole factor, and that the secular-liberals who show up at these protests relate more easily to a case of denial of freedom of an artist's expression than to a case of denial of a job to an otherwise qualified candidate. The latter comes across as a dull, drab case in comparison with one like Chandramohan's. It is likely that most of those who identified with the Baroda student-artist were in fact offended by the encroachment by unenlightened lumpens on the turf of art. Art becomes a good cause to fight for and Chandramohan the perfect victim. However, the reason why most players who took to the streets for Chandramohan did not deem it necessary to react to Badhal goes a little deeper than the attractiveness that "art" provides.
When students in elite institutions across the country (led by the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS) protested the suggested reservation for the Other Backward Classes in Central colleges, and demonstrated their protest in the most vulgar and demeaning manner — by sweeping roads, polishing shoes and selling vegetables — the same secular-liberal intelligentsia that jumps at the opportunity that a Chandramohan or a Husain provides, remained completely indifferent. Perhaps they decided that the protesting students could not be denied their rightful freedom to express their contempt towards the labouring castes.
It is this silence — 'indifferentism' as Ambedkar had prophetically termed the caste Hindu/liberal attitude to anti-caste concerns — that continues to echo for Badhal.
What happened to Badhal was unconstitutional, as much as what happened to Chandramohan. msu Vice-Chancellor Manoj Soni, Narendra Modi's rss-backed appointee, is quite easily the ugly villain compared to Venugopal; unlike Soni, the AIIMS director does not have any direct Hindutva connection. We are left with a scenario where confronting the obvious wrongs of the overzealous Hindutva brigade seems an acceptable national-secular pastime, whereas taking on the casteist non-Hindutva demons who have prowled this society for far longer, becomes nobody's burden. When only Dalits are forced to bear the burden of articulating Dalit issues they are dubbed sectarian; the casual betrayal of Dalits by the rest of society passes for secularism. While everyday secularism in India is animated by concerns for issues that relate to religion, and especially the religious Right, issues concerned with caste discrimination leave them cold. Such secularism fails to acknowledge, forget understand, that for civil society to come to real terms with the Modis, Sonis, Goradias and Togadias, it has to first take a position on invisibilised everyday caste discrimination. In the hierarchy of wickedness, Venugopal must share space with Soni and Modi. We can no longer afford to choose to free Chandramohan from Soni and yet allow Venugopal to hold Badhal a prisoner of caste.
Read Sandip Bandopadhyay's article on caste in West Bengal here.
Image: Prejudice by Reese.