Writing on the “disappeared” young men in Punjab in the 1980s, civil rights activist Ram Narayan Kumar observed that, in this instance and several others, where horrible crimes had been committed, with the tacit sanction of the State, truth-telling in public was entirely necessary to elicit social recognition of wrong-doing and the suffering it had caused. Such truth-telling, though, was not easy, since it had to prevail over and against civil beliefs, which were predisposed to concur with “official” truth and to affirm it.
In today’s context, official truth comes in many guises and it has become more difficult than ever to “truth-tell”, especially from a classic civil rights perspective. For, rights violations are seldom acknowledged as such and are continuously justified in the name of protecting the State’s sovereign – and securitized – interests. Be that as it may, it would be useful, at this juncture, when the surveillance State is beginning to emerge as the new normal, to revisit the relationship between civil rights and truth-telling.
In 2016 Anand Teltumbde published a book titled Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt. The book more or less reset our history of civil rights movements in India. Rather than locate this history in our long tradition of protests against State violations of rights and Constitutional provisions, the book invoked the Mahad satyagraha of 1927, when under Dr Ambedkar’s leadership Dalits and a smattering of caste Hindus undertook to drink water from a public tank. The satyagraha was not undertaken against the colonial State, for the State had not forbidden this act, and in fact was meant to enforce it on the strength of a legislative decision. Rather, the Mahad campaign set itself to “truth-tell” to the caste Hindu world at large that the right to be human, announce one’s humanity was universal, and cannot be annulled or refused to any segment of society.
Dr Ambedkar desired to both “tell” and demonstrate this “truth” through a meticulously organized satyagraha because he wished to put forward a public claim: that Dalits, henceforth, would live by a new creed, embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and to renounce an old one that lived in the pages of the Manusmriti. The upholding of one text and the burning of another announced, as Teltumbde argues, a moment of revolutionary significance. For it inaugurated a civil rights movement that is comparable to the great civil rights struggles in the United States of America.
The distinctive nature of this struggle was that it was to be waged in the civil realm, to gain recognition for and advance the cause of universal rights. Though Dalits demanded such rights as were available to others, their claims extended their meaning. For, as their struggle made clear, a right was not only what an individual had to wrest from a tyrannical State, but equally, from an unjust civil society. In this understanding, the State was to aid the extension of rights, not work to abrogate these. Teltumbde points out that in his writings on Mahad, Ambedkar went so far as to argue that Section 144 had to be read in this light: that it had to be imposed to prevent the denial of legal and constitutional rights to those that sought them, and not punish those who wished to exercise such rights.
Teltumbde goes on to list and describe the aftermath of this civil rights struggle, especially the debates that Ambedkar initiated in the public sphere through his editorials in Bahishkrit Bharat, the Marathi weekly that he founded in 1927. Truth-telling, with respect to the lives of Dalits, however did not prove easy, given society’s predisposition to not grant hearing to such truths. Ambedkar’s forceful, brilliant arguments were advanced with verve and vigour, yet they were met with vicious disdain.
While nearly a century separates us from Ambedkar’s writing of those articles, we are forced to wonder if anything has changed or not. The Dalit who dares to truth-tell is viewed with suspicion, if not hatred. It is not the State alone that is disinclined to believe Dalits, but civil society as well, and this only helps reinforce State apathy, if not impunity, with respect to crimes against Dalits. In the absence of social recognition of Dalit suffering and hurt, legal redressals offer modest reprieve, if at all that. And the crime committed remains an individual crime, rather than a social one. This is a theme that Teltumbde explores with nuance and anger in his book, The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid.
How might one secure social recognition as well as legal justice? The first is near impossible: for it is very unlikely that caste Hindus would come forward to condemn themselves. Caste society possesses neither the ethical clarity for this, nor would such self-condemnation serve the material and intellectual interests of those who preside over it. For civil rights activists, this is a conundrum: they might insist on the State adhering to Constitutional fiat but how might they insist that citizens, equally, cultivate Constitutional morality? Teltumbde who has been part of classic civil rights campaigns has been sensitive to the fact that “the republic of caste” continues to shape and direct the republic of India. Unsurprisingly, he has called attention to the intertwined impunity of the civil order and the State.
This, on the one hand. On the other hand, he has also drawn our attention to how we as citizens might thwart, inhibit, or work against, the grain of this impunity. How might we work with such social and welfare guarantees that the State seeks to provide us? Without losing sight of their practical usefulness how might we develop a cogent critique of where we stand and act, with respect to this aspect of the State? In fact The Republic of Caste insists that we constantly evaluate and understand the nature of the State in India, in relationship to the caste and class systems. If the State, as mandated by the Constitution, is the sovereign form and expression of the people of India, how is this sovereignty actualized? And what is being actualized? If, for instance, the State wishes to foster a sense of social justice, does it do this in a substantive rather than formal manner? This distinction is important, and Teltumbde does not want us to lose sight of it. For the formal instruments of rule and governance might secure particular and practical results, some of which are not to be scorned, but what do these results translate into? His provocative essay on reservations (in The Republic of Caste) thus opens up a new line of debate that we need to pay attention to.
Nearly a century ago, and while commenting on Pax Britannica, Dr Ambedkar wondered if animal peace under alien rule, as he described it, was at all desirable. Britain might have put an end to war and violence, and brought in modern developmental changes, but how was British rule with regard to substantive social and economic concerns? In today’s context, he might have said more: that the State needs to not allay or prevent the eruption of conflict, or proclaim safety and security alone as desirable, but must recognize that conflicts exist because of economic inequality, social illiberality and contestations in the fields of culture and history. These are not to be addressed by penalizing dissenting opinions or by forbidding discussions of conflicts. Rather, open and democratic debates ought to be encouraged.
Dr Ambedkar would have also charged civil society with being more receptive to claims and counter-claims and not be patently undemocratic as the republic of caste often is. In view of the continued repression of civil rights in our context, and the incarceration of labour and civil rights activists, the radical civility that Ambedkar sought for us, as a society and nation, is a virtue that we need to renew by the day.