Monday, September 27, 2010

How people like Sunita Jatav make India beautiful By Jawed Naqvi

The fuss about Delhi’s Commonwealth Games is just that: fuss. Heavens will not fall if an athlete finds a stray dog sleeping in his or her bed. Or if a visitor lands in hospital in this season of dengue fever. Or if Delhiites are put to inconvenience for a few days by commuting restrictions that the events logistics demand. These are small box item stories.

Much of the criticism of the event’s shabby handling has been aired by the western media for pretty much the same reason that saw them going to town over a hair in a soup bowl during the spectacular Beijing Olympics. This is not to say that Delhi Commonwealth show in any way comes close to the Beijing extravaganza. A few in the western media enjoy making developing countries like India and China look small.

Their Indian collaborators fare no better. They are evidently embarrassed that “their” fair name has been besmirched in the melee. To them the Commonwealth fiasco has sullied the image of India Shining. It has hurt the pride of their class more than anything involving corruption or ineptness generally. Now we hear the Delhi government has deputed dog-catchers to remove stray animals from around sports complexes and athletes’ residences.

There is far greater, widespread and entrenched corruption that an average Indian has to face on a daily basis than the sordid Commonwealth saga represents. And it starts at the top of the politico-corporate heap. It is foolish to expect the squalor that most people live in in this superpower-in-the-making to be in the news for the upper crust Indian media. That ordinary Indians – as opposed to those flaunted on TV – are a beautiful people who imbue even their suffering with a humane narrative hardly gets mentioned.

What the media have not told us is that 500 metres from the main stadium, under the Lodi Road flyover, live families of street hawkers and beggars. And it is a common sight, particularly late in the night, to see these dispossessed citizens of the country sharing their hard-earned bread with street dogs. Animal rights activists, buoyed by the recent surge in their income, may have identified Maneka Gandhi as their icon. The rest of the country will soon know that it is Sunita Jatav, the Dalit woman from Morena, the upper caste dacoit dominated region of Madhya Pradesh, who really makes India invincible and beautiful.

Sunita’s story was first recounted by historian Romila Thapar on Friday, when the ageing scholar chaired a discussion about the corporate nature and essential prejudices of the media. The main speaker was P. Sainath, author of the ground-breaking book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath recalled that there was hardly any Dalit journalist in the so-called mainstream media leaving the field open to incestuous prejudices to flourish. Sunita Jatav was subjected to the same prejudice. What was her story? Here’s the BBC version:

“Police in India are investigating claims that a Dalit woman has been ordered to pay compensation to the high-caste owners of a dog she fed.

“The woman says the village council wants her to pay a fine of 15,000 rupees ($330) for feeding the dog, which the owners have now kicked out. They are reported to have said the dog is “untouchable”, but deny being motivated by caste considerations. Although widespread, discrimination against Dalits is an offence in India. Dalits, who make up nearly 20 per cent of the Indian population, say little has changed despite the government enacting various laws banning caste-based discrimination.

“The incident took place in Malikpur village in Morena district in central Madhya Pradesh state. “I made some roti [Indian bread] and took it to my husband who works in a farm. After I had fed him, we had some leftovers which I gave to the dog,” the Dalit woman, Sunita Jatav, said. She said the owner of the dog, Amrutlal Kirari, saw her feeding him. “He got very angry and said ‘You’ve fed my dog, it has become an untouchable now’.”

“Mrs Jatav said Mr Kirari left the dog, a black mongrel called Sheru, tied to a pole outside her house.

“On Monday, the village council met and decided that Sheru had been defiled and hence Mr Kirari should be paid 15,000 rupees as compensation, Mrs Jatav alleged. On Tuesday, she approached the district collector of Morena who ordered an inquiry into the incident. Senior police officer in the area, Baldev Singh, told the BBC that he was investigating the matter. He said Mr Kirari had alleged that after eating the bread, Sheru fell ill.

“Mr Kirari said he abandoned the dog at Mrs Jatav’s house so she could look after it and nurse it back to health, Mr Singh added. Dalits - formerly untouchables - are considered at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. Any discrimination against them is an offence and punishable by law.”

Sunita Jatav’s story captures the unsung Indian who comprises more than 840 million that earn less than 20 rupees a day. In their poverty they are giving. With a range of prejudices stalking them they remain generous. Where Amrutlal Kirari represents the abrasive Indian, who spurs the ascendant polity, Sunita Jatav symbolises the underclass whose pride is not tied to a national flag or political slogans, and who brings to life India’s fabled but relentlessly abused humaneness.

Sainath, a Tamil Brahmin who speaks and campaigns for India’s Dalits, had forwarded me another vignette about the state of play in this realm.

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) under the Constitution of free India started functioning from January 26, 1950. The UPSC conducted its first examination to recruit personnel for the IAS and Central Services the same year. The First Report of the UPSC does not mention the number of SC/ST (Dalit/Tribal) candidates. But it discloses that Achyutananda Das was the country’s first Dalit (SC) to make it to the IAS in 1950 itself. He was, in fact, the topper of his batch in the written examination.

Achyutananda Das, from West Bengal, secured 613 out of 1050 marks in written examination whereas N. Krishnan from Madras secured 602. But in the interview, Krishnan secured 260 out of 300 as against 110 by Achyutananda Das. Thus Achyutananda was left miles behind by the upper caste Krishnan due to the latter’s performance in the viva-voce test.

But the case of Aniruddha Dasgupta, also from West Bengal, is both interesting and revealing. The margin of difference of marks between Achyutananda Das and N. Krishnan in written papers being eleven only so in the interview if the latter outstripped the former, there is not much surprise perhaps. But the written and viva-voce marks of Aniruddha Dasgupta in comparison with those of Achyutananda Das raise a number of issues.

Dasgupta secured the highest marks in viva-voce among all successful candidates recommended for appointment to the IAS, IPS, IFS, etc. But it was also he who got the lowest aggregate as well as the lowest average of all those qualified for appointment to the IAS and Allied Services. Further, he scored the lowest marks of all the qualified candidates in General Knowledge.

Dasgupta scored 26.66 per cent in General Knowledge, 47.04 per cent in written aggregate but an astounding 88.33 per cent in Personality Test as against 52.66 per cent, 58.38 per cent and 36.66 per cent respectively scored by Achyutananda Das. The margin of difference of marks between Das and Dasgupta in written examination was as vast as 119. Reduced into percentage, Das was an unbridgeable 11.33 per cent ahead of Dasgupta.

Any candidate strong in General Knowledge is usually expected to face the Selection Board very confidently and to perform competently. Aniruddha Dasgupta’s poorest (26.66 per cent) score amongst all successful candidates in General Knowledge notwithstanding; he must have thrown up the biggest surprise by scoring the highest marks in the interview.

His viva-voce score of 265 which was followed by Krishnan with 260, not only helped him make up the vast gap between him and Achyutananda Das but he left the latter far behind.

In the ultimate count, Krishnan topped; Aniruddha Dasgupta occupied the 22nd position in the merit list and Achyutananda Das was assigned the 48th position. As they lose patience with lingering prejudices, India’s Dalits, like Sunita Jatav, still continue to sanctify a fairer if more elusive interpretation of the idea of India. They know their struggle is Olympian in its challenges and they don’t seem to mind that they don’t have a voice in the mainstream media. They will probably find more compelling ways to press home their point.

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