“When I talk about Dalits, am I not talking about humanity?” With these words Gopal Guru, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University set the context for a two-day conference on ‘Dalits and African-Americans in the 21st Century: Learning from Cross-Cultural Experiences’, organised by the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy of the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar’s graduation from Columbia University.
Eminent scholars and activists from India and the United States took part in the event in an attempt to restart the discussion between Ambedkar and African-American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois about the similarities in their struggles.
Is affirmative action the correct policy to emancipate historically marginalised communities? Can capitalism still be viewed as a progressive force capable of emancipating marginalised groups?
Affirmative action, which has been very hotly debated in India for some time now, expectedly featured prominently in the discussions. However, contrary to popular belief where marginalised groups are assumed to hold a homogenous set of ideas, divergent stands were expressed. Is affirmative action, symbolised in India by reservation and quotas, still an efficient tool for the uplift of marginalised groups? What other means of emancipation can be adopted?
The problem in discussions of marginalised groups is an understanding that these groups constitute a homogenous whole. Contesting this, Trina Jones, Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, said that in the case of African-American women the problem has been that questions of discrimination are either reduced to a problem of racial discrimination or gender based discrimination, and not as an intersection of the two. “Questions of racial discrimination acknowledge the experience of Black men, and in questions of gender the subject is most often presumed to be a White woman,” she said. In fact, not only do Black women earn wages lesser than White men and women, but also significantly lesser than Black men, Asian men and women.
As regards representation in the private sector in the US, Kevin Brown, Professor of Law at Indiana University, said “companies have preferred to maintain diversity in the workspace as they believe that it helps in selling to the increasing consumer base among minorities.”
In the Indian context, where there has been a debate recently on the efficacy and constitutionality of job reservations in the private sector, empirical studies were presented to prove the existence of caste-based bias in recruitment by S. Madheswaran, Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change.
However, at a time when the organised sector had shrunk from eight to six per cent, Anand Teltumbde, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, questioned the impact any such move would have, as the private sector forms a very small part of this organised sector. “Reservation is only a part of the social justice agenda, and it is not the only means for the state to help people.” Indeed, according to Teltumbde, reservation would be a “mirage” when larger structural issues, like access to basic amenities, remain unaddressed.
Reservations or redistribution?
Redistribution and reservation have been the two dominant approaches in movements of emancipation in India. Those favouring redistribution assert that the demand for land reforms, and equal access to education, among other things, should be the thrust of the movement. Others have argued in favour of affirmative action as a means of helping Dalits and other marginalised groups overcome their disadvantaged position over time.
Sukhdeo Thorat, Chairperson, Indian Council for Social Science Research, argued very persuasively that the two demands were, in fact, complementary. Measures for economic empowerment should, he argued, be the main policy. However, “affirmative action is a supplementary and complementary policy.”
Reservation cannot be a substitute to the redistributive program, but, in the absence of a genuine redistributive program, reservation would have to be supported as a strategic tool and for its symbolic value, even if it helps only a very small percentage of the disadvantaged groups, he said. Historical reparations for the oppressed are essential, but what of discrimination that exists in the present? As Thorat pointed out, caste has been a part of our society no matter what the dominant economic system. It has prevailed even in the feudal economy, through colonial times, to this day of financial capitalism.
Does this mean, then, that there has been no change even after 67 years of Independence, years that have been marked by a conscious move to create a modern industrial economy? Parasuraman, Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said “there were expectations at the time of Independence that an industrial economy would alter pre-existing inequalities. ” But, he argued, this has not been the case.
Teltumbde said these expectations gave way to an upsurge in identity politics, which has made Dalit politics fractious. As regards the phenomenon of Dalit entrepreneurs being celebrated as, Teltumbde said “there is nothing wrong with Dalits benefitting from capitalism, but it is wrong to associate it with emancipation.”
In the US, African-Americans too tried to pursue economic prosperity as a means to social prestige. However, given limited access to capital they continue to lag behind White Americans, a fact also attested to by the limited representation they have on the boards of companies. According to Washington based-lawyer Jalil D. Dozier, there are only five companies in the Fortune 500 list that have an African-American as their CEO, and of them there is only one African-American woman.
However, even in the era of globalisation little seems to have changed, according to senior activist Bharat Patankar. “White-collar employees and Dalit capitalists and entrepreneurs assert their way is a generalised situation for the liberation of Dalits.” This cannot be so as more than 95 per cent of Dalits are either agricultural labourers or contract labourers, rag and trash pickers, sweepers, scavengers, etc. “These are the jobs which remind them that they are supposed to do the jobs which are ‘dirty’, which don’t require intellectual labour, and which are mechanically repeated labour-intensive jobs.”
With the entry of a minuscule percentage of the oppressed groups into the middle classes, the capitalist mode creates an illusion that “it is possible for every individual to take the same route and climb the ladder for becoming part of the upper classes,” according to Sociologist Gail Omvedt.
The capitalist system and parliamentary democracy, when coupled together, create a division between political society and civil society. In an unequal society, parliamentary democracy turns marginalised groups into vote banks. This brings forth a new situation that “creates the interests which want to maintain the caste system as it is, and the marginalization of the communities as it is, by more and more consolidation of the vote bank pattern.” In this way, a system is created “in which oppressed people themselves participate in the continuation of their marginalization and exploitation.”
In the realm of civil society, the struggle against the realm of politics, like the anti-corruption movement in India, has created its own set of deceptions. These movements create a discourse that is oblivious to the hierarchies that exist within civil society. “This creates a further illusion in the minds of marginalized communities that their grievances are represented in this so-called struggle of civil society,” Omvedt argued.
Globalisation, according to Patankar, has not helped marginalised groups come out of this identity, but has strengthened it. Today’s capitalism pits marginalised groups against each other, and the consolidation of identities helps fragment the oppressed.
Guru offered what could be a possible way out of this deadlock. According to him, it is important “not ghettoise these struggles.” He urged Dalits, African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups to reclaim humanity as a category and to organise all the oppressed people under that banner.
Credit for all photos: National Law School of India University, Bengaluru