Serving dalits through symbolism

K Raveendran

Symbolism is the essence of Indian culture.  From touching the feet of elders to show respect to the worship of god, we Indians celebrate the symbols, irrespective of what we do to our generation of elderly people or whatever we end up doing in the name of propitiating the gods. The symbolism must go on. That’s what really matters.
Our ancient sages handed down symbols to their less enlightened peer generations to explain complex concepts like god. With symbols it became easy to convey and comprehend ideas. Idol worship itself may have had its origin in this kind of highly effective ‘scientific spiritualism’ integrated with an emotive communication strategy. Just like the icons on the desktop opened complicated programs stored in some drive of the computer or in even in the cloud as is mostly the case these days, the idols made easy access to, or at least the idea of, god, whose presence and energy were supposed to be everywhere, but were not to be seen anywhere; a very complicated situation indeed to explain.
But over centuries, the material constituting the symbol or its physical attributes and form assumed overbearing importance over the underlying concept.  Our symbolism degenerated into mere rituals; so much so that we are liberty to do anything and can still get away as long as the posturing is right. This is as much true in the case of personal behaviour as it is in matters of state policy.  This was also in evidence in the nomination of presidential candidates of both the NDA and the combined opposition, if at all there is one.  It did not matter that the Dalits were being humiliated, killed and brutalized all over the country, it was important to be seen as pro-Dalit.
So, as soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Ram Nath Kovind as the NDA presidential candidate, our political pundits sat in judgment and pronounced the verdict: it was a master stroke. It was indeed a master stroke by Modi that denied any inkling to them of what was coming, or kept the Opposition direction-less and thoroughly confused so that they remained in a limbo until the very last moment.
Except that both the candidates belong to the Dalit communities, can either of them claim to represent the deprivation and suffering that the Dalit communities in the country are going through as a matter of routine? It is indeed doubtful.  Kovind has faced relatively harsher situations in life and could be considered to have come up the hard way, but Meira Kumar was born with a silver spoon in the mouth and has enjoyed the privileges of power and influence all along her professional career as well as political stints. Neither of them is not known to have done anything exceptional or gone out of their way to work for the uplift of the downtrodden, except that Kovind had headed BJP’s Dalit Morcha for about four years.
While political leaders in the wide spectrum --with Congress and BJP in the middle--are vying with one another to show themselves to be on the side of Dalits, atrocities against them are continuing unabated. Hardly a day passes without one heinous crime or the other being reported from one or more parts of the country. The Congress party has alleged that attacks against Dalits are not one-off incidents, but ‘part of a larger anti-poor, anti-Dalit agenda that is being presided over by the Prime Minister’.  A Punjab minister has even produced statistics, claiming that a crime is committed against a Dalit every nine minutes under the BJP rule and that the maximum number of cases of atrocities against Dalits has been reported from Rajasthan.
With one Dalit card neutralising the other, the focus of the presidential election campaign has shifted to more lofty issues.  Meira Kumar is on record saying that post of President is not symbolic and that capability and experience must supersede all other considerations. She says the President of India must uphold the values of “inclusiveness, social justice, and pluralism” as the supreme representative of the nation.  But in a symbolic gesture, she has begun her campaign with a visit to Sabarmati Ashram, where the opportunity for a photo with the charka was a given.  The Prime Minister has just been clicked with one, trying his hand at the symbol of peace and tolerance, where he also lashed out against murder in the name of cow protection, making it a heady concoction of symbolism.
Kovind has also played down the caste factor and highlighted the issues of principles that are important in this election.  Making an ‘inclusive’ speech, he declared that the post of President is above party politics and that he does not belong to any political party ever since he was made the governor of Bihar. Given that inclusiveness is the latest fad in symbolism, Kovind cannot be faulted for even the slightest degree of impropriety.
If symbolism is all that matters in the uplift of the downtrodden, there was only one worthy nomination for the post of the President and that can be none other than Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. His ascendance to the country’s highest position was indeed true symbolism of what a man can achieve irrespective of the nature of his estate.  It was irrelevant whether he was a Muslim or Hindu or belonged to one of the hundreds of castes and sub-castes that still shape people’s outlook and perceptions, and to some extent their life itself. All that mattered was that he rose to the country’s highest position from the humblest of humble situation in life and that is why Kalam continues to inspire. No amount of symbolism can put Ram Nath Kovind or Meira Kumar on the pedestal that the Indian nation placed Abdul Kalam on. (IPA)

Wednesday, 5 July, 2017