Sunday, December 10, 2006

Understanding != Encouragement

By striving to understand violence unleashed by the most oppressed sections of our society, one is not condoning or encouraging it. Considering that Dalit uprising or violence is something that's almost unheard of -- even under repeated and extreme provocations from all over the country -- shouldn't we try to get a grip on what drove the Maharashtra Dalits to resort to violence 'this time'? What, in other words, is different 'this time'?

Here's an Outlook report by Smruti Koppikar:

For weeks since news of the [Khairlanje] incident spread word-of-mouth, political as well as non-political Dalit activists, scattered and disparate Dalit groups in small towns and cities, discussed little else. They waited for two independent democratic institutions—the executive and the press—to join the battle on their behalf. The executive was, in fact, involved in an elaborate cover-up while the press—even the Marathi press—ignored it as yet another Dalit story from some indescribable village. In the end, they themselves joined the battle—not in some pre-meditated manner led by leaders but outbursts by mobs, some with political leaders at the helm but most without any leadership.

... Call it a warped sense of vigilante justice, or an extreme temper tantrum to seek attention, or whatever else, the fact is that if it weren't for that rage on full national display, Khairlanje would have remained that forgotten village on the map even for those men who had taken oath to protect its inhabitants. Is it easy to condemn rage that eventually woke up a slumbering government and large, insensitive sections of the media? ...

... Protests do not come in pre-determined packs that can be picked off shelves in glittering malls across urban India. The Dalit rage is yet another reminder that there's an India that remains on the pavements outside these very malls, an India that stands excluded. As Gaddar, the well-known Naxal poet, once said: "My anger is rough, my words are rough because my life is coarse and so is my language". Condemn the violence by all means but not before you ask what escalated it to such a scale. ...

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Meanwhile, in the Hindu, Ranjit Hoskote focuses his attention on the press coverage, not just of the recent violence, but also of Dalit issues in general:

While this writer would in no way condone the November violence, this climate of misinformation and non-debate once again demonstrates the extent to which Dalits remain the intractable, feared and hated `Other' for articulate, bourgeois, overwhelmingly upper-and middle-caste India. The situation is not improved by the fact that the reportage of Dalit issues is regarded as a specialist interest in large sectors of the mainstream media — somewhat like ornithology or marine biology, as though one were studying another species altogether.

Hoskote's above comment comes after he makes these observations:

If the reactions of many articulate urban Indians in the afternoon papers and on the television channels are any index, the violence that rocked Maharashtra in the last week of November was no more than an intolerable disruption of the public peace by a `minority' community.

No matter that the Dalits who came out on the streets in large numbers represent a significant majority of India's oppressed masses; and that they were protesting, not only the desecration of a statue of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in Kanpur, but also the official apathy towards the public humiliation and murder of a Dalit family in the village of Khairlanji in eastern Maharashtra, followed by the brutal police repression of the protests that met this apathy.

The same voice of public opinion that maintains a tactful silence when the right-wing Shiv Sena burns buses, wrecks cars and snarls the traffic in Maharashtra was shrill with indignation at the manner in which the Dalits had burned compartments of the Deccan Queen. The same TV anchors, who have never dared to ask Bal Thackeray why his goon squads have held Mumbai to ransom for decades until their recent eclipse, rebuked Dalit spokespersons with leading questions on the impropriety and intransigence of their outrage. Some media commentators have invoked the spectre of `Dalit violence' in print and on screen, citing the urban warfare of the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s and the conflicts surrounding the renaming of Marathwada University after Dr. Ambedkar in the 1980s. As though, in each decade, the Dalits had manifested their `natural' propensity for violence in some imaginative way.

Curiously, these wise observers glossed the stridently anti-Dalit mobilisations of the Shiv Sena, which had, in each case, provoked these Dalit responses; few wish to recall the absolute refusal of upper-and middle-caste forces in Maharashtra, between the 1970s and the 1990s, to allow Dalits any share in the region's symbolic capital.