Monday, January 16, 2012

What The Veiled Elephant Stands For

Aerosmith's 'Pink'. That's the song that would fit in perfectly if you ever wanted a song to play in the backdrop of UP's political landscape in 2011. Just think about it for a bit and then take a walk down the Dalit Prerna Sthal's stone elephants and 'Behanji' draped in humongous meters of pink sheets. Ironically, Maya's favourite colour is apparently pink and on bright sunny winter day the overflowing pink of the election commission merges with the blue skies to offer an awesome sight. And that sight defeats the very rationale behind using those kilometers of pink sheets, they reveal more than they hide, they have made the stone sculptures a greater centrifugal force than they were and raised perhaps a socio-political question. Should they be hidden at all?

Palaces, forts, monuments, Indian history is about grandeur and what remains of each dynasty's grandeur before it perished. Rulers leave their mark on history through monumental architecture. Generations marvel at the splendour of an era which bears little relevance to the present, except that it offers expression of everlasting identity. The Brits did it, the Mughlas, Rajputs and every small king marked in our history left behind some element architecture and while much of it may lie in ruins it reminds generations of the identity of the region and the ruler. Temples were a reflection of Hindu pride, mosques of Muslims and the churches of Christian, else why would places of worship which teach the path to relinquish manly desires be pampered in material grandness. Even a memorial for the father of a nation is at the end of the day the manifestation of the identity of an ideology he leaves behind. Every section and sub section has their own set of individual icons they idolise to give a sense of pride, achievement and equality in identity. And hence I argue that Mayawati's elephants and her statues are an assertion of dalit identity, the only such expression as you travel the far corners of India. We may question and criticise it as a waste of economic resources but it cannot be dismissed as meaning nothing.

A class which has never been allowed to rule, a section of the population which has been denied dignity for generations and has been suppressed will have to find justice some day. And finding justice would have to begin with finding pride in their identity. We can argue endlessly about economic and social equality but that equality does not emerge from nowhere and it definitely does not emerge from just the creation of more jobs. Economic progress is important but it has to go parallel with social equality and has to translate into a psychological sense of equality. For social injustice to be undone an identity stigma needs to be banished and the face of Dalit power being manifested and boasted about is just a start. And hence the fear that by veiling them to create fare ground in an election we may be accentuating a perpetual injustice.

There have been several Dalit luminaries who could have been greater icons of that identity than Mayawati. Yes, she could have built statues of Dr Ambedkar or her mentor Kanshi Ram instead of herself. But ironically history is written by the ultimate victor and she is the ultimate victor in a process that's taken generations. A desperate congress, which refused accept Jinnah's reserved electorates for the Muslims, conceded to Ambedkar as a last ditch measure to keep the Hindu electorates bigger. Had they not there would have been separate Dalit, Muslim and Hindu electorates. The reservation that Ambdekar got was the start of an electoral battle that culminated in India's biggest state with Mayawati leading an alliance of castes to electoral victory. Self obsession is a repulsive part of personality driven Indian politics and Mayawati is no different. As a society we respond to personalities rather than systems and Mayawati is the tallest dalit personality in 2011 and so when she immortalises herself as the icon of dalit pride it's not without a justification. While Ambedkar achieved a negotiation victory with the Congress Mayawati has achieved an electoral victory and her assertion of Dalit power is by no means a smaller achievement.

Till she hit the scenes there was always the quest for the most acceptable dalit face within the larger fold. This by itself many Dalit intellectuals argue is a treachery of the castes against the weakest section. They wanted a Dalit because they needed their votes and had to be perceived as inclusive. According to them it was pure lip service while perpetuating the caste hierarchy. Why else, sixty years after independence, would we still not see a strong Dalit presence in the upmarket colonies of our cities? Even those who have economically progressed tend to hide their identities. Why are sanitation workers predominantly Dalit. Can you find an upper caste entering and cleaning gutters and can you fathom the castes going through the trauma of manual scavenging?.
Conveniently we have perpetrated a caste treachery and Mayawati's repulsive self obsession may just be a small sin compared to what's been perpetrated by the society at large. And so while her statues may purely be the product of her repulsive narcissism and self-obsession, they ironically represent a political assertion that goes far beyond the politician herself.

We accepted the caste formations of 1980's (read Mulayam, Lalu) as new realities of OBC politics in India's electoral picture. It was the kind of caste assertion that we first saw in Tamil Nadu through the Dravidian movement. In their times the Dravidian leaders were ostracized as severely casteist and are now hailed as architects of a tremendous social revolution. Caste-based leadership has changed the realities of Indian politics since the 70s and unfortunately these changes did not impact in the life, identity and stigma of the Dalit people. And hence it's a party like the BSP which can eventually claim to be their true leader. It wouldn't have been the case had we really been committed social justice but we were not. Barring Mayawati I cannot think of a single Dalit formation in India which can play the lead role in a political alliance and occupy the top spot.

Erasing the history to rewrite a new reality cannot be done with money and sympathy. It has to be done through a process of reassertion, a process by which their statues can stand as tall as the rest, their icons have the same presence on our history and their children have the same sense of equality as the rest. Politics, nation building, social pride and economic progress is a lot about symbolism. And so is Dalit pride and equality. Mayawati is most definitely not the most able politician in India, her administration perpetuated corruption and poor law and order but at the end of the day her statues and her parks mean much more to the Dalit than she does. So veil them at election time if you must but not accepting them as symbols of Dalit pride reflects the cunning casteism that we have perpetuated.