The many faces of Ambedkar


One could say it is black humour but the word black here is so utterly appropriate that it is incendiary.

A man called Rohith Vemula committed suicide at Hyderabad University. He identified himself with the Dalits, for centuries India’s most oppressed caste. He joined a vociferous, even violent, student’s union that promoted this cause. Rusticated from the college for attacking rivals in student groups, this young man, who said in his suicide note that he admired Carl Sagan, realised that he had wasted that very precious thing in a jostling country — an opportunity.

The bewildering thing is that now newspapers are reporting that technically Rohith was perhaps not Dalit after all. He was an OBC or Other Backward Castes. His father is OBC. His mother, perhaps, though it is not clear, is Dalit. There are reports that Rohith ‘acquired’ a Dalit certificate. How? It is not clear. But why? That much is obvious.

In the perplexing alphabet soup of old discrimination against the poor in India, where the caste one is born to often becomes the lifelong hurdle to progress, Dalits are at the very bottom of the ladder. But lower castes also have access to jobs under government reservations. There is much to be said for this kind of affirmation — unless, like in India, it also becomes the cesspool for the ugliest transaction politics. So much so that some of India’s most prosperous communities, too, today demand reservation.

But where does this hunger for reservations, and anger for and against come from? It comes from the one thing most governments do not want to fix in India — jobs for its millions of young people.

The truth is the two things that India has flaunted for a decade — its democratic dividend and its fast rate of urbanization — are both becoming its worst nightmare. In some of its biggest and most populous states, like Uttar Pradesh, PhDs, engineers and MBAs are applying for government jobs as sweepers. Often the ratio of application to jobs is a 1000:1. And ask anyone who lives in any major Indian city and they will tell you that they have never been worse off than today. The capital Delhi has some of the worst crime rates among major cities in the world and the air pollution is the worst in the world. The financial capital Mumbai is so crumbling that even newspapers have stopped writing about how bad its infrastructure is. Now when it gets flooded — as it does every year without fail — it makes for snarky hash tags and memes but not headlines.

In this collapsing cauldron, there is constant strife across India’s many faultlines — lower caste versus upper caste, patriarchy versus empowered young women, religion. At the heart of most of this is a fight for the meagre — and not expanding fast enough — resources of the economy and the state.

Organisations like the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry which promotes entrepreneurship among lower castes and tries to ween people away from that coveted but elusive government job are the silver linings. But India is still trapped, in many ways, in an old socialist debate that sees the state as the primary job provider. This mindset has been bred over 67 years and will go away soon.

Till then, a dead, perhaps Dalit, will get only one thing — a hashtag called #DalitLivesMatter. Sadly, even that hashtag is not authentically India. It is derived from America.

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