While the discriminatory practices that great reformers fought against have since been outlawed, the prejudices remain ingrained in the minds of the people
A fifteen-year-old girl from a Dalit family plucks a flower from the backyard of a family, the act is found unpardonable. The anger simmers amongst the 'wronged' for weeks together, and eventually, it leads to the social boycott of all the forty Dalit families out of 800. The official PDS Dealer; and other provisional storekeepers refused to entertain the needs of these persecuted families. None of them is guilty, no one has been reprimanded! The matter goes to the police and they decide to play 'Panch Parmeshwar'. I do not recall any prominent reference to this incident in any major channel or a significant newspaper. They are all busy with things that enhance TRPs and bring in better advertisement revenues. The incident happened in the village Kantio Kateni in the Dhenkanal district of Odisha. A compromise would be arranged, and one could say with certainty that it would weigh favourably on the heavier side; the Dabangs. We do come across rather regularly that children are still discriminated in schools on caste basis, made to sit separately from the upper-caste children, that if food is prepared by a Dalit person, upper-caste children may refuse it, under instructions from their family and community. What happened for just plucking flowers also happens even in fetching water from wells under the hegemony of the upper castes. Playfields may be no exception. Official defence in all such cases is to treat these as rare exceptions, rare, sporadic and isolated; society has done away with caste prejudices and untouchability. It may appear an innocuous inference, but one must remember that social prejudices do not evaporate under the weight of rules, regulations and laws. Many more efforts and initiatives than mere legal provisions are required to ensure a complete wipeout of such scars from the face of humanity. An attitudinal transformation that involves erosion of privileges meets hefty resistance from the beneficiaries; particularly when legal provisions — no matter however inhuman in nature — existed in the past to perpetuate their hegemony. Caste and colour prejudices now stand totally banned in India, South Africa and the United States of America; and elsewhere also. But have these banished from the psyche of people? The murder of two African-Americans by the white police personnel and the sufferings inflicted on forty families of Dhenkanal district pose a serious query before humankind: have Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr failed? Or have we, the inheritors, failed them? A couple of recalls may help in the genesis of the human tragedy that persists.
It was on the night of June 1893 when a young British-educated barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown out of first-class train compartment though he had a first-class ticket. The incident happened at Pietermaritzburg Railway station, which now is a heritage property maintained by the Government of South Africa. The law allowed his eviction; apartheid was in full flow in South Africa. After being thrashed and thrown out mercilessly, Gandhi was transformed. What happened that night is described in his Autobiography: "I began to think of my duty. Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case. It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial — only a symptom of deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible to root out the disease and suffer the hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary to the extent for the removal of the colour prejudice." In subsequent years, when asked by Dr Mote of the USA what the most significant moment of his life was, Mahatma Gandhi responded that Pietermaritzburg was the most creative moment of his life. That night, he interacted within, with himself and expanded his horizons; he was transformed.
The subsequent history is a witness to the consequences of this historic transformation. He succeeded in South Africa, rules were changed, Nelson Mandela was born, and South Africa is, technically, free of apartheid. So is the United States of America. Like MK Gandhi, Rosa Parks, an African-African lady — sitting with a valid ticket in the compartment meant for blacks — refused to vacate her seat on a Montgomery Bus for a white passenger. Laws permitted her arrest and prosecution for 'disorderly behaviour under the city's segregation laws'! The community responded as one, refused to ride buses, suffered in the process, and succeeded in getting the Supreme Court ruling on December 16 of 1956 that any law which prescribed segregated seating on Montgomery's city buses was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King Jr emerged, it was a long struggle, which finds a reflection in his historic Long March speech of August 28, 1963: "One hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years late, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination…. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishes in the corners of American society and find himself an exile in his own land. And so we have come here today to dramatise a shameful condition". Prejudices are the most change-resistant human traits. These require persistence and a strategy that directly touches the hearts. King had read about the Mahatma and his work in his younger days, was deeply impressed, and after his India visit of 1959, he wrote: "I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the model structure of the universe and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation."
It is left to the young and educated of India destined to lead their country to its rightful place in the comity of nations to precisely discern their role and responsibility in creating a resurgent India that would be free from such shameful prejudices. Gandhi, King, Mandela have taught us how to combat hatred and prejudices by soul's force, by love; no matter how tough and painful the process may be. There is no other way out than that of persuasion, persistence and purity. My heart goes out to the girl in Dhenkanal. What could the Right to Education, free books and equality of opportunity could mean for her!
The writer works in education and social cohesion. Views expressed are personal