It has been a norm of Indian media and intelligentsia, which is dominated by individuals from upper castes, to portray the constitutional office-holders, leaders, thinkers, scholars, and professionals from the Dalit community merely as someone limited to their caste, who got the job because of all factors, except for their capability and performance.
One is reminded of the coverage of KR Narayanan, the 10th President of India. Narayanan, who came from lowest rung of our society, progressed in his career as a seasoned diplomat, often sent on high-stake missions of the Indian government. But, all his achievements and capabilities were erased by the media, and he was labelled as a token appointment. Even the often-celebrated former election commissioner TN Seshan, who was a Brahmin and was contesting against Narayanan, could not digest his defeat, and in frustration made a failed attempt to downplay the election of Narayanan, by saying that he was elected “only because he was a Dalit”.
Similarly, while former Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, holds a record in presiding over maximum number of Constitution benches of the Supreme Court and delivered landmark judgments in important constitutional matters, he is only depicted as the first Dalit Chief Justice of India. His significant contributions to the development of constitutional law are often not recognised.
The hypocrisy of the Indian media and intelligentsia was also seen during the 2017 presidential elections. While the National Democratic Alliance had chosen Ramnath Kovind (incumbent President) as their nominee, the Opposition parties agreed on Meira Kumar’s name. As both come from Dalit community, the media depicted the presidential elections as a “Dalit vs Dalit” contest. The same media has never discussed it as a “caste contest”, when the candidates came from the upper castes. Kumar pointed this out in a press conference: “Presidential elections were held many times in the past and whenever two people from the so-called upper castes contested, the discussion would be about their (respective) achievements, their abilities, their qualities… But when I and Kovind-ji are contesting, nothing is being discussed beyond Dalit”.
The list of such instances is endless. An incumbent chief minister from the Dalit community would be questioned on his caste, but upper-caste politicians would not be asked if their caste would benefit in getting their caste vote-bank. A Dalit mass leader would still be portrayed as a “Dalit leader”, even if she has become elected head of government for several times. A professional from upper caste background writing on constitutional law would be considered as an “authority”, but a professional with equivalent credentials would still be labelled as a “Dalit scholar” or “Dalit thinker”. In fact, an Indian Administrative Service topper from the Dalit community, instead of being celebrated for her extraordinary achievement, was attacked for availing reservation at a preliminary stage.
The tendency to reduce a successful person from the Dalit community as a “Dalit scholar”, “first Dalit Chief Justice”, “first Dalit President”, “Dalit leader”, etc. and to insinuate that they came only through reservations or were mere tokens, has been a systematic effort to diminish and erase the contributions made by the Dalit community. This was done even to BR Ambedkar, who remains one of the most influential thinkers in global history, but several intellectuals still label him as a “Dalit icon”.
These portrayals also expose the political economy of narrative setting, knowledge production and gatekeeping. The individuals from upper castes occupying media and academic spaces pretend to be casteless, and present “caste” only as a Dalit issue. In doing so, they have been trying to hide their privileges and avoid their responsibility of eliminating caste, and further ghettoise and villainise Dalits and backwards, and dismiss the demands of power-sharing and due representation of these communities. For instance, while on one hand, Narayanan and Balakrishnan have been reduced to general knowledge questions of “first Dalit President” and “first Dalit Chief Justice”, on the other hand, their appointments are invoked to declare caste as a thing of the past. Furthermore, these reductions are done by the upper castes to retain their power and control in how they want to portray the Dalits and backward classes. This has been the modern “tool-kit” to undermine the agency and assertion of these marginalised communities, and to satisfy the feelings of caste superiority.
Thinkers from anti-caste traditions have been calling out this deliberate practice of denying the personhood of their communities, their contributions, their capabilities and excellence, and their icons. As late Rohith Vemula wrote, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity… In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”
India runs on the hard work of marginalised castes and communities, and no one can deny their contributions and assertion.
Anurag Bhaskar, an alumnus of Harvard Law School, is assistant professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.
The views expressed are personal