Jun 17 2014 : The Economic Times (Mumbai)
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Caste oppression still maims life across India

The outcry against rape tends to focus on security for women and the failure of the police and the administration on this count. This is simplistic, while obviously right. And the reason is twofold. There are the social norms that deny women full autonomy and objectify them, feeding the sense of entitlement Indian men tend to grow up with. Addressing this form of discrimination against women, entailing deeply-held cultural values of Indian tradition, is far more troublesome than offering women a quota of seats in Parliament. And then there is caste. Hugely unequal distribution of social power is instrumental in many rapes, and rapes are often used to reinforce such inequality and obtain acquiescence.The report of a Dalit youth being set on fire for refusing to work for upper caste would-be employers in Jhansi shows the still virulent force of caste as an organising principle of social life in parts of India. And this cannot be tackled merely by calling for affirmative action in education and employment and for enforcement of the law that prescribes stiff penalties for atrocities against members of the scheduled castes and tribes. It is easy to change laws, even if this had become a challenge in the recent past of fractured electoral man dates. What is tough is to change custom. That calls for conscious political intervention to alter social practice, taking sides with the underdog.It also means appreciating that diversification of the economic structure plays a critical role in creating new occupations into which young men and women from subaltern social groups can move, to disrupt the traditional correlation between caste and occupation, which serves as the bedrock of caste. This would mean schooling and skilling the underprivileged to take advantage of the new opportunities thrown up by a dynamic economy that vies for its share of a global division of labour to meet humanity’s wants and needs at large. That means abandoning shibboleths about neoliberalism and xenophobic objections to foreign investment in sector after sector, as well. Caste has to be fought on many fronts.