In October, soon after the Faridabad incident where two Dalit children were burnt to death, Union Minister General VK Singh made an atrociously insensitive comment. He said that stray incidents of violence in local constituencies cannot be the primary concern of the central government. Belittling the heinous caste crime, he almost compared the incident as being similar to a dog being pelted with stones. The utterances of General Singh have once again enhanced public perception of the ruling dispensation as being intolerant and insensitive.
The Faridabad incident was terrible and tragic. It had all the trappings of an upper caste violence that has stalked the Dalits for several centuries, if not more. A house was set on fire and two small kids were burnt alive, the mother struggling to stay alive, the father beaten and in a state of shock and despair. In the developed world, that the Prime Minister visits every other week, such an incident would have provoked a sense of horror and shame, inviting universal condemnation. But India is, in the description of BR Ambedkar, a society embedded in inequalities invoking a social milieu marked by the worst forms of hostilities and antagonisms. As a nation, such violence is a recurring phenomenon in our post-independence history. Unsurprisingly, we can only lament at the immense gulf that separates and distinguishes our efforts at internalising modernity in comparison with those other ‘superpowers’ who we desire to rub shoulders with.
There was no apparent reason for the retired General to even think about this incident as he is not a political representative from the state of Haryana, where this incident took place. He was travelling in his constituency in Uttar Pradesh and made the comment out of no where. The only possible reason being that he belongs to the same caste as the perpetrators of this gruesome violence. Notwithstanding what triggered his now infamous sound byte, it has no doubt provided occasion for news channels to invite sections of the political elite to attack each other in what has now become a persistent feature of TV news in this country. In the name of debate, such performances effectively function to depoliticise the political, by either rendering it sensational or deflecting public opinion. Dalits will no doubt continue to face the wrath of upper caste violence as will the minorities continue to suffer the brutalities of majoritarian politics. In its defence, the government can only retort with an arrogance and brazenness saying that the situation was no better or even worse under the previous regime. Meanwhile, the atmosphere of intolerance continues and all sorts of so called ‘fringe’ elements have decided to assert and impose their version of Indian culture on the rest of the nation.
Why has VK Singh’s ‘sound byte’ produced such a political stir among Dalits and other sections of civil society? The analogy he made was an ill begotten one, ensuring that it was available to multiple readings. Hindu mythology has many references to dogs. In Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, which was banned following pressure from various Hindutva groups, there are as many as 91 dog references. So, canines hold importance in not only Hindu religious books, but also in the everyday imaginations of Indians including General Singh’s. Notwithstanding his long tenure in the armed forces, his remark only places a question mark on the civic credentials of all of us who inhabit public institutions. If anything, one must be extremely cautious in emphasising the secular credentials of our institutions questioning the extent to which we have truly internalised the civil and secular ethos of a modern society. Ambedkar was correct in stressing that our inability to overcome caste as a modern nation would continue to make us deeply suspicious and distrustful of each other. Our loyalties would never extend beyond our primary socialisation. We would be a nation perpetually fragmented and at war with itself.