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Commentary/Amberish K Diwanji

The importance of a dalit President

K R Narayanan The Presidential election is due next week. By all counts and despite the overwhelming support received by T N Seshan from Rediff On The NeT voters, K R Narayanan will romp home the winner, supported by all the major political parties save the Shiv Sena. The Sena is not alone in opposing Narayanan; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have also opposed him on the grounds that the present vice-president is not knowledgeable about 'Indian culture'.

One can only be grateful that the likes of the VHP and RSS are just fringe groups, with limited political clout, but, as of today, they continue to exercise some influence. These two parties insist that they are not opposed to Narayanan simply because of his caste, saying caste must have no role in choosing the country's President. How these two parties decided that Narayanan is unaware of Indian culture is questionable, and gives the distinct impression that there is another reason. And in opposing him, they reconfirm a widely-held belief: that Hindutvadi groups are extremely brahminical, playing on the caste prejudices of Indians.

Sadly, most Indians are casteist. One simply has to look into the country's leading newspapers's matrimonial columns: it is only the so-called upper castes (the believed brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas) who want a partner from the same or similar caste. If they ask for another caste, it will be horizontally on the same level, or higher. If lower, it will still be among the so-termed twice-born. Please note, the so-called lower castes do not ask for similar caste arrangements. In urban areas today, one can even come across arranged marriages among people of different linguistic communities as long as the castes match; but very, very rarely between "high" and "low" castes persons of the same community/linguistic group.

Mahatma Gandhi had once said that casteism is a disease of the upper castes, hence it is they who must reform. Today, most of us in the urban areas, middle-class and often educated in the English medium, will insist that we do not believe in caste. Not untrue, perhaps, but at a superficial level. Few among us have actually done much to really help destroy this demon. We ignore it simply because it does not affect us directly.

How many of us will oppose it when it directly comes into our lives? How many of us will actually not mind our sisters marrying dalit boys? Oh no! while opposing such a matrimonial alliance, our excuse will be more against certain specific flaws that we point out, not his caste. But in truth the thought is never far from our minds. Strange that persons who oppose reservations on grounds of seeking merit will seek non-meritorious persons as long as the caste matches in their matrimonial matches.

One may say that a dalit President is only symbolic? Surely a dalit President will not help the millions of impoverished landless dalits struggling to ensure two square meals a day and who suffer at the hands of the various dominant castes in the villages? Perhaps not much, but symbolism has its uses. The very fact that it too over 47 years after the birth of our Republic to give us a dalit President speaks volumes for how far removed they were and are from the brahminical political establishment. The first President, serving two terms, was a kayastha (an upper-caste); the next a brahmin, then a Muslim. A dalit President, who will preside at the golden jubilee ceremonies of our Independence and Republic will affirm that each and every person in India can aspire for the country's top post, that being born a dalit is not an unsurmountable hurdle. Narayanan can be a symbol that gives hope to the millions of poor children who need to believe that there is a future for them in this country.

In fact, we need to go further. Tragically, we have not yet had a President from the scheduled tribes or from India's most-neglected region, the North-East. Perhaps we can rectify the anomaly by having one such vice-president who can then be elevated. Otherwise, the people of the North-East can really ask what is there for them in India? Are they only to be ruled by other people who do not have much in common with them and care little to understand them? Brahmanic India will only turn up its nose on hearing that certain Naga tribes eat dog meat, believing that they need to be "civilised". (Incidentally, "highly-civilised" Japanese and Koreans eats dogs too). Similarly, our image of the tribals in the Bastar and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is that of grass-wearing fearsome people. The popular media ignores them or patronises them.

There is talk of bringing them into the mainstream. Well, you can't get more mainstream than the President's chair. Of course, the President needs to be a respected individual worthy of the post, but surely at least one person will be available from the various ethnic groups over the coming years. It is time that we give representation to them. As Indians, let us also learn to identify ourselves with those who may have Mongoloid features, or eat dogs, or whose recent ancestors lived in the jungles, or whose grandfathers could not draw water from Hindu wells. They are also Indians.

The President's chair cannot be restricted to so-called "mainstream" brahmin/upper castes from South or North India (a horrendous practice of rotation). It is not a gift to be bandied about, but neither is it to be restricted to dropout politicians or Indians from a restricted zone.

One may say that only the meritorious should reach the top. But in electoral politics, merit does not always matter. Rajiv Gandhi "only" merit was being his mother's son, he was not particularly brilliant, nor as we know today and suspected earlier, honest. Voting is still determined by factors of caste, community, religion, and what matters here is numbers, not merit. This puts people of smaller communities at a disadvantage. It will be decades before Indians overcome their prejudices and vote for a prime minister from one of the smaller communities.

Symbolism can help in this process. Becoming President or occupying certain top posts which the nation identifies with can help change biases and attitudes. A South Indian could become prime minister only after 45 years of Independence, (and the criterion was seniority, not merit!), in which time there had been quite a few South Indian Presidents. The first governor of Uttar Pradesh was a woman; today, its chief minister is a woman, and a dalit. Obviously, the ceremonial power of being President or governor did slowly lead to ruling power, even if took a long time.

India belongs to ALL Indians, not just those privileged by birth, and all must be able to identify with the symbols of the nation.

I have nothing against T N Seshan. He has served India well, and can continue to do so without becoming President of the country. Frankly, is it worthy becoming President on the support of the likes of the Shiv Sena and the VHP/RSS? Finally, one hopes that the VHP and RSS, who often pontificate on an akhand Bharat, will start supporting people from the neglected and weaker communities for the country's top posts, not just people of their ilk.

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Amberish K Diwanji

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