Ambedkar vs Gandhi: the risks of village empowerment
But they need to deal with the philosophy of another person who lived in Gandhi’s shadow in their lifetime, but has posthumously beaten the Mahatma hollow. This is Bhimrao Ambedkar, the icon of all dalits.
Gandhi wanted the central government to have very limited powers. He wanted villages to rule themselves the traditional way, through sarpanches and panchas (village chiefs and councillors). But Ambedkar declared that villages were cesspools of cruelty, caste prejudice and communalism. No human rights would be safe if left to dominant groups that had oppressed minorities for centuries in the most inhuman fashion.
When the Bombay Legislative Council debated enhanced powers for panchas through a Village Panchayats Bill, Ambedkar lashed out. “A population which is hidebound by caste; a population which is infected by ancient prejudices; a population which flouts equality of status and is dominated by notions of gradations in life; a population which thinks that some are high and some are low — can it be expected to have the right notions even to discharge bare justice? Sir, I deny that proposition, and I submit that it is not proper to expect us to submit our life, and our liberty, and our property to the hands of these panchas.”
Ambedkar’s analysis continues to ring true eight decades later, despite innumerable constitutional safeguards, laws and political speeches. Village empowerment seriously endangers minorities. Last year’s mass killing of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar district, UP, started with a Muslim boy stalking a Jat Hindu girl. The killings were formally sanctioned by hate speeches at a Jat Mahasabha meeting.
In Punjab and Haryana, village councils called khap panchayats act as de facto courts settling rural disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder. They break every rule and law on human rights. Their decisions range from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of young couples in so-called “honour killings”. These killings typically happen when the young girl and boy are from different communities, but also when the youngsters belong to the same Hindu gotra.
Let nobody think this occurs only in the barbaric north. A fortnight ago, a 20-year-old woman in West Bengal was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court, as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community.
Tamil Nadu is supposedly much more civilized than Haryana. But in 2012, Vanniyars (members of an intermediate caste) burned the houses of 268 dalits after a dalit boy eloped with a Vanniyar girl. This was just one of many such elopements. Vanniyar leader Ramdoss sneered at “stage-managed” love marriages, saying dalit men were trapping Vanniyar women by claiming to be in love and later duping them. He appealed for an alliance of caste Hindu organizations against dalit assertion, a ban on intercaste marriages, and amendments to the law on preventing atrocities against dalits and tribals. This is not an isolated incident in Tamil Nadu. In several panchayat elections where the post of sarpanch is reserved for dalits, no dalit has dared come forward as a candidate for fear of reprisals from upper castes.
World Bank research confirms that, the world over, central governments tend to be far more egalitarian and secular in outlook than villages. What Ambedkar said of hidebound Indian villages is a global truth.
There still remains a strong case for devolving powers and budgets to panchayats for various rural projects. But this must be accompanied by safeguards against sectarian misuse. Merely reserving some panchayat seats for women and dalits is no guarantee whatsoever of justice or fair treatment.
Arvind Kejriwal thinks that enlightened brahmins will prevent sectarian misuse at the mohalla or panchayat level. This is laughable. It’s okay to wear a Gandhi cap, but please listen to Ambedkar too.