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Shambuka to Indra Meghwal: Inequality hurts us all

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The Brahmins brought the corpse of a child from their community to the court of Lord Ram. They lamented that there must be an adharma somewhere in his kingdom. Maybe a Shudra was making tapasya. Otherwise, why would a Brahmin boy suddenly drop dead? They urged Lord Ram to respect the dharma. The king went looking and in a dense forest, found a boy chanting Sanskrit mantras. Ram asked him who he was and what he was doing. The boy replied, his name is Shambuka, he is a tribal and he was doing tapasya. Immediately afterwards, an arrow from Ram’s bow pierced Shambuka’s heart. As the tribe boy touched the ground, the Brahmin boy woke up.

This story in the Valmiki Ramayana comes true every few years when a Shudra, Dalit or tribal student, who dares to seek education, pays with his life. The most recent was a nine-year-old boy from Rajasthan, Indra Meghwal, who allegedly drank water from a container reserved for his upper caste teacher.

Education is not a naturally joyful process for many Dalit students. Several news reports detail their harassment and humiliation in schools across India. They are often forced to sit apart from other children or to queue separately for lunch. Sometimes they are beaten by upper caste teachers and students. In many places, common water taps are not for them. Higher education is also not immune to the oppressive conditions that forced Dalit students like Senthil Kumar (2008) and Rohith Vemula (2016) and Payal Tadvi (2019) to commit suicide.

In many places in the country, even today, caste determines a person’s profession. Work is an obligation, not a choice. As Ambedkar pointed out, caste is the division of workers, not labor. The system states that a person born as a tanner, for example, cannot become a carpenter even if he enjoys working with wood – not leather. It makes the reading of the written word the prerogative of certain groups while obliging others to work with their hands. This segregation impedes the creation of holistic knowledge. For example, the skinning of dead animals and the manufacture of leather were once—and still are, in many parts of the country—the occupation of people belonging to certain castes. Their work would familiarize these people with animal anatomy. But they weren’t supposed to read and so there was no way for medical science to use their expertise. In contrast, Brahmins would never touch a corpse. This hierarchy has hindered the holistic acquisition of medical knowledge.

This system has not completely disappeared today. It retards the creation of knowledge and stifles imagination and innovation.

The hereditary occupations of the first three varnas of the caste system are worship, war or trade. But these people need food to eat, clothes to wear and chairs to sit on. Who does all this? The concept of dharma, or caste obligations, requires lower castes to provide productive labor for higher castes. In Why I’m Not a Hindu, sociologist Kancha Illaiah links karma theory to labor extraction. “If you have to do your karma without waiting for the fruit, what will happen to the fruit? The upper caste that does no work, produces no fruit, will appropriate it,” he wrote.

The monetary value of work is determined by the worker’s position on the caste rung – not by the social need for work. This is why most manual jobs – from domestic work to garbage collectors – bring in abysmal wages. As providers of essential services, sanitation workers should receive salaries similar to those of doctors. But not only are we paying them less, but we are also making their work unsafe and ignoring their deaths in manholes.

Stuck in the era of statutes and assigned codes, our education system can hardly encourage critical thinking. Indian schooling focuses on rote learning and exam results. One-time exams, rather than a series of assessments, are used to judge students’ abilities.

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Caste discrimination makes our democracy difficult. As Ambedkar said at the dawn of the Indian republic in 1948, “political democracy has been achieved by the struggle for freedom and the relief of the British, but social democracy is a long way off”.

The author is Professor, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat