The blind eye

Illustration: Amili Setalvad

Questioning our ways of perception

The continuing debate about the hastily withdrawn NCERT textbook – over a cartoon in which Dr Ambedkar, Dalits claim, has been depicted in a demeaning fashion – reminds me of a lesson I learnt years ago from an outstanding police officer, Vibhuti Narain Rai. An Indian Police Service officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, Rai attracted national and international attention in 1995 with his stunning statement in an interview to Communalism Combat: "No riot can last for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it to continue."

(In late 2002 top cop KPS Gill – who was foisted on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as adviser by the then prime minister, AB Vajpayee, to enforce peace – was to reiterate what Rai had claimed seven years earlier. For his part, Rai was merely stating what he had demonstrated in practice during his stints as superintendent of police in several districts of Uttar Pradesh during the 1980s).

Over more than a few drinks late one evening in Mumbai in 1995, Rai and I were discussing how communalism and casteism were close cousins. I recalled an occasion from the early 1970s in my native village in Allahabad, when I was declared a "traitor" and a "communist" by my childhood buddies, Raja Ram (a Bania) and Anis Ahmed (a Muslim). My crime lay in defending the right of Dalits to absolute social equality with upper-caste Hindus and Muslims.

I had long believed myself to be alive to the indignities of caste but that evening Rai said something that hit me like a bullet. "You and I, Javed, can never fully grasp what it means to be a Dalit. You have to be born a Dalit to know what it means to be one." Here was an "upper-caste" Hindu talking to an "upper-caste" Muslim. By way of elaboration, he recounted the story of a young Dalit from eastern Uttar Pradesh who today is hopefully a respected senior police officer somewhere in India.

A few years after he joined the IPS, the young Dalit officer shared his poignant story with Rai, his Thakur senior: "Sir, the moment news reached my village that I had been selected for the IPS, the enraged upper-caste people in my village decided that this was simply unacceptable. They decided that I must be killed, prevented at all costs from leaving the village. Luckily, our family got wind of the plot. So at 3 a.m. that very night I fled my village without any luggage, headed for the nearest railway station to catch a train to Delhi. Believe me, sir, until I reached Delhi, I was convinced they would get me and that would be the end of me and my career."

We might also recall news reports in recent years that are no less chilling. A Dalit woman stripped naked and paraded around her village; a Dalit man hacked to death for the crime of having been elected sarpanch; Dalit manual scavengers continuing to carry buckets of human excreta on their heads; a young Dalit forced to eat human excreta just to ‘show him his place’; a judge ordering the shuddhikaran (purification) of a courtroom with gangajal before occupying the high seat because his predecessor ‘brother judge’ was an "untouchable".

No doubt humane people, irrespective of caste and community background, are sickened by such recurring accounts of our ugly reality. Speaking for myself, every time I read or hear of such incidents, I recall Rai’s words: You have to be born a Dalit to know what it means to be a Dalit. The recalling prompts a question: is empathy the same as self-experience?

I do know a few rare persons who have the remarkable quality of being able to enter the emotional universe of the "other". But for lesser mortals like me, there remains the question of whether our sanskar, our social milieu and upbringing, so shapes our subconscious that the boundary between "empathising" and "feeling/experiencing" is difficult to bridge. Are there different ways of seeing? Perhaps we should ask ourselves a simple question: Would any Dalit have selected Shankar’s decades-old cartoon for the textbook? If not, why not?

What is true of caste seems as true when it comes to gender, race or religious community. Here is a recent example of what happened during a panel discussion on a national news channel analysing the results of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. A well-known social scientist and psephologist expressed the view that Muslims had not behaved as a vote bank this time and this was a healthy development. His explanation for this: "They have overcome their paranoia." Even as the discussion was in progress, he was bombarded with at least two protest text messages. One of them was from me. Paranoia? Security of life and limb has been a major concern for Indian Muslims, especially since the 2002 Gujarat carnage when even high court judges had to flee their homes under military protection while senior Muslim police officers had to hide their name tags for fear of being killed.

What is it – thoughtlessness, insensitivity or something else – that calls the understandable fear of a community, based on bloody experience, "paranoia"? Particularly disturbing was the fact that the remark came from a person who is not communal; he is someone I respect. To his credit, he responded to my message, admitting that paranoia was a "bad word" to use: "I should have said fear grounded in reality."

What are we to say when in their choice of a sketch or a word even humane people seem at times oblivious to the sensitivities of the vulnerable?

I am saddened by the fact that Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar had to resign from the NCERT in the wake of the cartoon controversy; I strongly condemn the vandalism of the latter’s home. But the context, I believe, calls not for lament over one more threat to freedom of expression or tutorials on the fine art of interpreting or appreciating political cartoons. It is time to ponder over the ‘ways of seeing’ paradigm.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 – Focus



Related Articles