The nomination of Ram Nath Kovind by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been a point of discussion across mainstream, digital and social media in the past few days. While it is natural to debate the political significance and implication of the nomination, it was quite shocking to notice that an unprecedented level of casteist and harsh remarks were made in the guise of valid criticism.
Ram Nath Kovind is the former Governor of Bihar and a senior leader in BJP. He has been a two-time Rajya Sabha member and comes from a Dalit community in Uttar Pradesh. The criticism that is made against his nomination can be summarised as; (1) He is a Hindutva stooge (2) He hasn’t significantly contributed to the upliftment of the Dalits in the country (3) He is not a ‘Dalit’ but only a member of the Scheduled Caste community and (4) His nomination is mere tokenism.
World of stooges
The problem in shaming Ram Nath Kovind by calling him a stooge is that it is perfectly possible to build some logic and award that title to almost every other Dalit in this country. Because that is how the caste system works. Whenever a Dalit negotiates with it from any point to work towards the upliftment of his community or even if he just restricts to his own survival and growth, he can be accused of being a stooge for indulging in that negotiation.
When someone accuses Ram Nath Kovind for being a stooge of the Hindutva party, it certainly cannot take them much time to label KR Narayanan, the tenth President of India, as a stooge of the Brahminical Congress and later extend it to D Raja, member of the Rajya Sabha, as a stooge of the Savarna-dominated Communist Party of India. And even Mayawati, who was four times the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, cannot escape it. Someone will point towards the positions Brahmins hold in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and claim how Mayawati too is a Brahminical stooge.
And for a moment, let’s forget all these names. Even Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, independent India’s first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India, couldn’t escape this phenomenon. During his time and even until recent times, upper caste leaders from various quarters called him a British stooge. When the greatest leader in the country cannot escape this labelling just because he was a Dalit, how can anyone else?
The fact is that no Dalit in this country can escape being called a stooge. The person awarding the title might change. But it is the only title this nation is willing to generously award a Dalit, irrespective of how great or insignificant that person is.
The burden of being a Dalit
Every time an individual from the Dalit community qualifies for an important post in the country, the quick but lazy question that is thrown at them is ‘What did they do for the community?’ My quick counter question to such questions is that ‘Why is it only the burden of a Dalit to fight against the caste system and uplift his/her community?’
Every Indian is affected by the hierarchical caste system and based on their relative position on it; they are either suffocated with privileges or subjected to oppression.
Awarding the responsibility of fighting the caste system exclusively to those who are the most oppressed under it is inhuman and cruel. Among the presidential nominees in the past, were those from Brahmin and other Savarna castes questioned on their contribution in uplifting the communities oppressed by the caste system? Isn’t it their responsibility too to have worked towards the creation of an equal society?
Instead, what did we get? In 1951, a year after Rajendra Prasad was chosen as the first President of India, he reverentially washed the feet of 201 Brahmins in Varanasi and drank the water.
Filmindia cartoon (1952) mocking Rajendra Prasad’s actions.
Courtesy: Unnamati Syama Sundar
By doing so, the first Head of the State of India demonstrated that the constitution ranked lower than the status of Brahmins in his opinion. We might want to think that such an act would have shocked the entire nation. But no, no one was shocked, at least those who mattered weren’t. Which is proved by the fact that he was awarded a second term at the office and the Bharat Ratna at the end of it.
The second President of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan strongly advocated the caste system and the practice of endogamous marriages by emphasising their merits in his book ‘The Hindu Way of Life’. According to him, “The four castes represent men of thought, men of action, men of feeling and others in whom none of these is highly developed.” He further argues in favour of endogamous marriages by saying, “It is a point of social honour for every member to marry within his own caste…..While every attempt should be made to energise the weak and the lowly by education and moral suasion, indiscriminate marriage relations do not seem to be always desirable…..If a member of a first-class family marries another of poor antecedents the good inheritance of the one is debased by the bad inheritance of the other, with the result that the child starts life with a heavy handicap.” He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in the year 1954.
If you are tempted to brush off these examples as things of the past, let me bring your attention to the visit of current President Pranab Mukherjee to the Kanchi Mutt. The photographs released show the President in a submissive bent pose in front of the chief pontiff of the Mutt. By doing this, isn’t the President signaling the superiority of the Mutt over the Constitutional post he holds? He could have very well waited for his term to end and then indulged in such servile poses.
Photograph of Pranab Mukherjee visiting Kanchi Mutt
So it naturally makes one wonder how and why Presidents like Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan or Pranab Mukherjee escaped the scrutiny of the public. Why do we continue to glorify these leaders and celebrate one of their birthdays as Teacher’s Day when they clearly subscribe to Brahminical supremacy or hold low opinions about the oppressed sections of the society? And why is our harsh scrutiny and examination only reserved for those emerging from the lower castes? Isn’t our attitude towards these leaders in itself a product of the caste system?
Dalit or SC
The word Dalit, which means oppressed or broken is a self-chosen political name by the members of lower castes in India. The criticism that is made against Ram Nath Kovind is that since he is a member of the Hindutva party, he cannot be a Dalit but only a member of a Scheduled Caste.
While it is very tempting to take ourselves seriously and believe that we have the moral authority to award or withdraw identities, the identity that an oppressed person wants to embrace or denounce can only be decided by him or her. The belief that there is a morally superior group of people who can sanction the identity is in itself a Brahminical notion. Irrespective of the political party a lower caste person belongs to, he still has to battle caste oppression on a daily basis. Who are we to discount the struggles he might have undergone and refuse his claim to the Dalit identity?
It is true that the BJP has practiced anti-Dalit politics and one must be sceptical of what it is attempting through this nomination but, at the same time, to entirely label the nomination as tokenism is quite problematic. Every time a Dalit rises to any top post in the country, it is always trivialised by saying that he/she reached there because of tokenism or by playing the ‘Dalit card’. When a Brahmin is nominated for the post of President, do we call it ‘Brahmin card’? Why is this trivialisation only reserved for the lower castes?
Ram Nath Kovind was the former Governor of Bihar and a senior leader in the party. How difficult can it be to acknowledge that he is one of the most qualified individuals within the party for the post?
We should understand that the oppressed sections of the country are the politically most awakened and active ones. In the disguise of speaking for them, throwing casteist and vile comments at Ram Nath Kovind’s nomination merely reflects on the caste hatred prevalent in the society.