2014 marked the 70th anniversary of the victory of democracy over fascism. And it was the year in which Hindutva forces unequivocally gained political power over India that emboldened the obscurantist elements to flog people publicly for skinning dead cows. When I see the less privileged and the downtrodden are terrorised by the might of our ‘democratic’ state, when I see writers are not allowed to express what they want to express, I doubt whether the largest democracy in the world is being vanquished by fascism or not.
Harper Lee’s one and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful delineation of the fascist traits of the American democracy. In the ugly racist mindset of the American whites against the African Americans, we can see the parrallel of the Indian prejudice against the less privileged. I have seen many so called upper caste people criticising reservation for SC/STs. Their argument is that they don’t get government jobs because of the reservation. They conveniently forget the fact that they don’t get government jobs either because they don’t have the calibre or because they don’t try earnestly. Even if there is reservation for the underprivileged, still more percentage of job vacancies belong to general category. I know a Dalit who bagged 20th place in a KPSC rank list of 1000 for the post of clerk. He competed with the so called upper caste candidates who are more privileged than him socially and economically and yet he reached far ahead of them in the rank list and as he was the very first SC in the rank list, he was among the first ones who got appointed from the rank list. It was not reservation, but his merit that helped him to be appointed first and yet those who failed even to get the 1000th place in the rank list kept telling that he got the job because of the reservation and they didn’t get because of it!!
Back to Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and it is an autobiographical narrative. The novel recounts the real-life incidents of Harper Lee’s father who was a lawyer and once defended two black men. The hero of the novel, Atticus Finch, defends a black man who was spuriously accused of raping a white girl. The story unravels through the eyes of nine year old Scout (Jean Louise Finch), the lawyer’s daughter and his thirteen year old son Jem (Jeremy Atticus Finch). It is narrated by Scout with sublime humour and aesthetics.
Scout is a girl who ‘would fight anyone tooth and nail.’ Her father had promised her that he would wear her out if he ever heard of her fighting anymore. But her classmate Cecil Jacob made her forgot. “My fists were clenched…He had announced in the school that Scout Finch’s daddy defended niggers.
That night she asked her father whether he defended niggers.
“Of course I do,” her father replied and added, “Don’t say niggers, Scout. That’s common.”
“That’s what everybody at school says.”
“From now on it’ll be everybody less one—”
It should be remembered that this was happening in the U.S. in the 1930s! 160 years after the Declaration of Independence which holds ‘these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ And 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation which proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the United States.
Even if Atticus Finch brilliantly proved in the court that the Black man Tom Robinson was falsely accused of raping the white girl (who was actually being raped by her father), the racial prejudice was so strong that the all white jury convicted Tom.
After ripping apart the spurious case, Atticus addresses the jury and says: “The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the Sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, which, gentlemen, we know in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
Scout and Jem were witnessing the whole court proceedings sitting in the front row of the coloured balcony ‘which ran along three walls of the court-room like a second-storey veranda’. Jem cried when he heard the judgment and he kept saying, ‘It ain’t right’.
Sitting beside his son’s bed at night, the lawyer tells him: “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They are ugly, but those are the facts of life. As you grow older you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is a trash.”
We can see the scathing attack on the so called U. S. values of democracy and equality in the innocent question the nine year old girl asks her brother in one of the last chapters of the novel:
“Hitler is the government,’ said Miss Gates, and seizing an opportunity to make education dynamic, she went to the blackboard. She printed DEMOCRACY in large letters. ‘Democracy,’ she said. ‘Does anybody have a definition?’
I raised my hand, remembering an old campaign slogan my father had once told me about.
What do you think it means, Jean Louise?
‘Equal rights for all, special privileges for none’ I quoted.
‘Very good, Jean Louise, very good,’ Miss Gates smiled. In front of DEMOCRACY, she printed WE ARE A. ‘Now class, say it all together: “We are a democracy”.
We said it. Then Miss Gates said, ‘That is the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,’ she said. ‘Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice,’ she enunciated carefully.”
At night the little girl tells her brother (and asks): “Coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was—she was going down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her—she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught them a lesson, they were getting way above themselves, and the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad and then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”
Back to India again. Six years ago, in April 2011, in the so called God’s own country, the ‘forward’ class colleagues of a government department head, the day after his retirement, sprinkled cow-dung water inside his cabin and on the furniture to ‘purify’ them as the retired Inspector General of Registration belonged to a Scheduled Caste! No exemplary action was taken against these government servants who virtually practiced untouchability which is a crime against God and humanity. If such abominable mindset remains in the collective conscience of the ‘most educated’ state in India, we can guess what happens in the rest of the country. Some horrid examples are given below:
In 2016 October, a 35-year-old Dalit man (Sohan Ram) in Uttarkhand was killed by a caste Hindu school teacher for entering a flour mill and ‘rendering it impure’!
Odisha, August 2016: Dana Majhi, a tribal man, walks with the dead body of his wife on his shoulder, accompanied by his bereaved daughter with tearful eyes. He was asked to remove the dead body from the district hospital where his wife died of TB. Even if he told the authorities of the District Headquarters Hospital at Bhavanipatna that he had had no money to hire an ambulance, they not only did not help him but also forced him to remove the body within no time! Majhi carried the body on his shoulder and walked 10 kilometers on way to his village.
Jharkhand, September 2016: Sona Mani Devi, a Dalit woman, gives birth on the roadside of the National Highway 33. The 25 year old pregnant woman walked 18 kilometers the previous day from her village to reach the district headquarters with her three children to get Adhaar cards for them! By the time she reached there, ‘it was too late to complete the process and she was told to come’ the next day. ‘Since she had no money to avail any transport to return home, she took shelter in a nearby tea stall.’ (“Dalit woman gives birth near highway”The Hindu, Sept. 12, 2016) Next morning, she was in labour and the local people informed the District Hospital which is just five hundred metres away, but the duty doctor refused to attend her. And she gave birth lying on the roadside.
Even after 70 years of independence, this is how Dalits and Adivasis in India die and give birth! And the nation is not outraged as it is outraged when Indians are killed by racist Americans in the U.S. or Australia. Each time I read such horrid news, I wish this should be the last such news, but my wish never becomes reality. Last month too I have to read such a terrible news.
In April 2017, a Dalit man killed himself as he could not mentally and physically withstand the caste harassment he has been subjected to. (“Committing suicide due to caste torture, says villager in phone video before death”, The Hindu, April 20/2017). The report says: “Vijay Kumar (33), who used to transport goods across Delhi and neighbouring States, had hanged himself from a tree around 70 km from his residence in Bawana’s Harewali village. In the video he had allegedly captured right before taking the extreme step, he said he couldn’t withstand the mental and physical torture of Vijay Kumar, Sachin Singh and Subhash Singh. “They have been asking me to change my name and my father’s because it’s the same as theirs or they’ll throw me out of the village,” he said.”
“On Sunday night, the victim, belonging to the Dhanak community, was allegedly beaten up by Sachin and Subhash near his residence after a month of harassment over his caste. On Monday morning, he was slapped twice by Sachin because of the same, he said in the video. “I am ending my life because I h’ve lost my self-esteem. How will I show my face to my children. Only those who can become sycophants to these people can stay alive. Rest should die,” were some of his last words.”
“Vijay’s wife Nirmala Devi, sitting in their newly-constructed house in a narrow lane of the village, couldn’t hold her tears worrying about how to take care of their four children alone.”
We have seen, through the print and electronic media, the tears of the family of Srinivas Kuchibhotla who was killed by a racist in the U.S. But we haven’t seen the tears of the families of persons like Sohan Ram and Vijay Kumar. Their grief is not qualified even to be news in India and we make a hue and cry over human right violations committed in other countries.
And even in Kerala, a Minister who belongs to the CPIM argues for reservation on the basis of economic status, not on the basis of caste. And even the so called progressive upper caste people vent their ire through social media against reservation that makes them ‘underprivileged’! And these are the people who shed tears when human rights are violated in far away countries, and then, as the little girl Scout says, “turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.”
The author, a former JNU student, is a newspaper columnist based in Kerala. Email:email@example.com