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Dissent if it offends your conscience. Gandhi said so

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By Tridip Suhrud

Dissent in the air. With the arrest of activists, academics and conditional locks on the freedom of speech, India is struggling to define dissent. This was precisely the dilemma that confronted Mahatma Gandhi as well. Is it a right guaranteed to us by India’s Constitution? But what if we disagree with the legal structure altogether?
We see dissent as an act of democracy that allows us to challenge the all-pervasive power of the state and of the law. Dissent now even signals hope in judicial proceedings in court. But, is dissent part of the constitutional structure? If we accept the idea that dissent accrues to us as citizens from some notion of constitutional morality, we are bound by the power of the courts to determine the validity and legality of our actions. And we have a judicial tradition of making a fetish out of dissenting opinions of judges.
But, what if we have a fundamental disagreement with the structure of law and the judicial power of review of such laws? Do Indians have a space for dissent, a disagreement so basic that we would consider even approaching the courts to determine the validity of a legislation to be a violation of our duty? Gandhi faced this question. And not only Gandhi but everyone who lived under the structure of the British Empire and any other regime where the very nature of the state and its court apparatus was illegitimate.
This question confronts all those who live in non-democratic regimes across the world. If the Constitution is not of our making, then it is not a pledge that we have taken as a people. It is not a document ‘we give unto ourselves’, the idea of dissent needs a source other than constitutional morality.
Gandhi’s answer to this was — conscience is the source of dissent. When something is repugnant to our conscience, we refuse to obey it. This disobedience is constituted by duty, and by doing so we become Satyagrahis. Disobedience as duty requires us to know ourselves, it requires us to recognise the supremacy of conscience, cultivate the art of listening to it (no matter how small that voice) and submit to its dictates. This state is described by the Gita as “when it is night for all other beings, the disciplined soul is awake”.
According to Gandhi, one can hear this voice when the “ego is reduced to zero”. Reducing the ego to zero for Gandhi meant an act of total surrender to Satya Narayan. This surrender requires the subjugation of human will, of individual autonomy. It is when a person losses autonomy that conscience emerges.
Conscience is an act of obedience, not wilfulness. Gandhi said: “Wilfulness is not conscience…Conscience is the ripe fruit of strictest discipline…Conscience can reside only in a delicately tuned breast”. Gandhi knew what a person with conscience could be like. “A conscientious man hesitates to assert himself, he is always humble, never boisterous, always compromising, always ready to listen, ever willing, even anxious to admit mistakes.” A person without this tender breast delicately tuned to the working of the conscience cannot hear the inner voice or may end up dangerously listening to their ego.
What one requires is a cultivated capacity to discern the inner voice as distinct from the voice of the ego—“one cannot always recognise whether it is the voice of Rama or Ravana” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 52, p. 130)
In Gandhi’s understanding, disobedience in the ultimate sense is not an act of autonomous will but of the will being surrendered to the conscience. This surrender gives one the capacity to question and disobey the basic structure of ideas, practices and tenets.
Disobedience or dissent thus viewed renders dissent as a category and practice that is deeply personal. Its politics originates from its character as ‘Dharmya’. It demands obligatory obedience to a principle that is higher than self, politics, authority— scriptural and temporal. This kind of dissent is something that is not capable of being taught by others. Dharmya disobedience is a practice. Despite its public nature, it remains within a deeply held and conserved private domain. As something that has origins in the conscience it can be beyond reason and hence dialogue in the ultimate instance. A non-dialogic and yet duty-bound and righteous act has the potential to command authority and tendency to be authoritarian.
We have here a dilemma. If conscience is the sole arbitrator of dissent we have to recognise its non-dialogic and authoritarian potential. It is potentially anarchic. And yet in every situation of slavery, of oppression, conscientious dissent is the only human right available to us. It is the only practice that allows us to fulfil the human vocation to strive towards freedom. Gandhi followed it.

 

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Opinion

Is the BJP really concerned about India’s poor?

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By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

On January 9, the upper house of India’s parliament – the Rajya Sabha – passed a constitutional amendment to lift the cap on reservations in education and public sector jobs from 50 to 60 percent. The next step is for the bill to receive presidential assent, but its fate is still somewhat uncertain, given the possibility that it might not withstand judicial scrutiny and be struck down by the country’s Supreme Court.

What is certain is that this initiative has proven deeply controversial. Opposition parties have criticised its legality, intent, and practicability, while public intellectuals such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has labelled it cynical politics and cynical policy.

 

Reservations are what passes for affirmative action in the Indian context, and entail, simply put, a percentage of state and central government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions being reserved for Dalits and other lower caste groups. This form of affirmative action has colonial antecedents, and was written into the constitutional backbone of India’s political system after the coming of independence as a means of improving the condition of groups who were thought to be suffering from social and educational backwardness.

Reservations were initially limited to Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). However, in the early 1990s, in accordance with the recommendations of the Mandal Committee Report, reservations were expanded to encompass other lower caste groups (Other Backward Classes) as well. In 1992, the Supreme Court imposed the 50 percent cap on reservations, which is currently in the process of being overturned, avowedly to avoid compromising the constitutional principle of equal access.
What is crucial about the constitutional amendment that has now successfully made it through parliament is the fact that it is delinked from caste. The additional 10 percent of reserved jobs and seats in higher educational institutions that is to be introduced by removing the current 50 percent cap is intended to benefit what the Modi government refers to as “economically weaker sections” that do not fall under the categories Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, or Other Backward Classes – that is, so-called general category poor.

Economically weaker sections are defined as households with an annual family income of less than $11,345 (800,000 rupees) a year, who do not own more than two hectares of agricultural land or a house that is larger than 1,000 square feet.

However, as commentator Ajaz Ashraf has pointed out, upper caste groups are expected to benefit disproportionately from this policy measure, as their high levels of education, as well as their accumulated social capital, will most likely enable them to corner most of the benefits.

This is why Modi’s scheme has come to be scorned as “upper caste reservations” that erase the fact that, in India, affirmative action was introduced specifically to remedy the indignity of caste-based discrimination. In this regard, it is also significant, of course, that the economic criteria for eligibility have been defined in such a way that nearly all Indian households qualify – a fact that, according to Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy, renders the constitutional amendment nothing less than ridiculous.

Modi is making this move in no small part due to an electoral imbroglio that is emerging from his project of authoritarian populism. His electoral success in 2014 was based on the fact that he and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to extend their base of support from the urban upper caste and middle class groups that have been the main supporters of Hindu nationalism in electoral politics to incorporate Other Backward Classes, Dalits, and Adivasis.

From 2016 onwards, this bloc began to crumble. Dalit and lower caste voters began to abandon the party, and Modi was the target of large-scale protests both by Dalits and farmers. Modi has attempted to stem this tide – for example by reversing the Supreme Court’s decision to relax the provisions of laws aimed to prevent violence and atrocities against Dalits – but this seems in turn to have resulted in the alienation of upper caste voters. As the 2019 general elections are looming on the horizon, Modi is now attempting to shore up the support of the BJP’s main vote base.

In doing so, he is appealing to upper caste and middle class groups who resent caste-based reservations due to the profoundly mistaken belief that affirmative action prevents social mobility based on merit. He is also attempting to appease Hindu nationalist hardliners who have recently called for caste-based reservations to be abandoned in favour of reservations based on economic criteria.

“Poverty does not see caste,” argues Desh Ratan Nigam – a leading activist with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, the BJP’s ideological parent-body – and therefore reservations should be based on economic criteria.

How should progressive forces in India respond to this initiative? A good starting place is to point out that Nigam is as wildly incorrect in his assertion that poverty does not see caste as he was in his ludicrous claim that the Taj Mahal – which was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan – was in fact a Hindu temple.

According to the Oxford Poverty and Development Initiative, 65.8 percent of India’s Dalits, who predominantly earn a living as wage labourers, and 58.3 percent of the country’s lower castes are poor. By contrast, 33 percent of the rest of the Indian population are poor. The fact that poverty in India is structured in this way testifies to the truth of the claim made by Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde that “beneath the veneer of a modern developing superpower, India remains a republic of caste.”

Closely linked to this must be the argument that reservations were never intended to be an anti-poverty measure, and that it is therefore disingenuous when the BJP speaks of it as such. However, this point in turn needs to be connected to a progressive critique of the limitations of reservations for the politics of social justice. Again, Anand Teltumbde’s reflections are instructive.

Reservations, he argues in a recent interview, were never about rooting out caste – if that had been the intention, the caste system as such would have been abolished, which it was not. Moreover, the persistence of dramatically low social development indicators among Dalits suggests that reservations have done little to achieve progressive change even on their own terms. Advancing social justice for Dalits, he suggests, has to be linked to a struggle for universal social citizenship, which can grant access to healthcare, education, and secure livelihoods.

This perspective provides a way in which to link struggles against the injustice of caste with the political economy of inequality in India – a political economy that is writ large in the fact that in a country which has grown at an average rate of 7.3 percent since 2007, 57 billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of the country’s population, while at the same time India’s social development indicators are much weaker than those found in far poorer neighbouring countries.

Importantly, that link is already being forged by Dalit activists who couple claims for dignity and recognition with demands for social justice and redistribution, and it is quite possible that it is struggles such as this that can consign the republic of caste to the dust heap of history where it belongs.

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Opinion

A Chinese ‘re-education’

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By Muhammad Amir Rana

IN an interview with a Turkish television channel, Prime Minister Imran Khan completely sidestepped a question about the condition of Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province. He admitted that he knew little about the issue, and, instead, preferred to focus on and highlight Chinese financial assistance and investment in Pakistan.

China is under stiff criticism for its alleged persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, especially Uighur Muslims. Freedom House’s 2018 country report on China classified it as ‘religiously-not-free’ on its freedom index. China is seriously concerned about this growing perception that hurts its efforts to promote a ‘soft image’ of China for a successful execution of its Belt and Road Initiative and other global commercial and strategic projects. Last week, China said that it welcomed UN officials to visit Xinjiang provided that they stay out of its internal affairs.

 

Pakistan usually avoids commenting on China’s internal affairs. But many Pakistani men, married to Chinese Uighur women, claim their spouses are being held in so-called re-education camps and are demanding their release. The issue has put Pakistan in a difficult position, mainly due to China’s huge investment in the country, as well as the extreme sensitivity of Chinese authorities to discussions on the subject.

Mystery continues to shroud the nature of the camps in Xinjiang.

Mystery continues to shroud China’s re-education camps, with authorities least interested in opening them up to independent observers. However, Chinese scholars claim that they are a part of the country’s countering violent extremism strategy, which was not built in isolation from rest of the world. They assert that China has designed its re-education strategy after carefully examining CVE approaches in practice in the West and Muslim world, which also employ similar community engagement programmes. Though they tend to justify their muscular approach by quoting examples from the Gulf, and South and Southeast Asian Muslim nations, the Chinese CVE strategy still appears highly politicised and opaque to Western practitioners and policymakers.

Much of the information about China’s re-education centres comes from West. Though the criticism has forced Chinese authorities to ‘release’ some information, it is insufficient to make a proper assessment. Last year, a state-run news agency published an interview of Shohrat Zakir, the Xinjiang governor, describing the camps as “professional vocational training institutions” for people influenced by terrorism and extremism who have not committed an offence warranting criminal punishment.

Similarly, in a seminar in China last November, local scholars explained China’s CVE approaches. Alluding to diverse and disparate CVE practices in different countries, they tended to conclude that no uniform or global CVE programme exists. One Chinese scholar presented a four-layered model based on the four principles of breaking, establishing, preventing and developing. ‘Breaking’ referred to isolating individuals from an extremist environment; ‘establishing’ meant introducing them to the true spiritual values of religion; ‘preventing’ was seen as educating; and ‘developing’ was interpreted as a skill development programme.

However, one of the best works available on the subject of China’s CVE strategy is by Zunyou Zhou, a Germany-based Chinese scholar. In a paper published in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence in 2017, he noted that the Chinese CVE strategy is based on multiple approaches and, interestingly, that they consulted Western CVE and deradicalisation approaches extensively and then built their own, more muscular model. The approaches include ‘five keys’, ‘four prongs’, ‘three contingents’, ‘two hands’ and ‘one rule’. Viewed together, these approaches point to legal, religious, cultural, ideological, and scientific aspects of the deradicalisation effort, implemented by governmental agencies, public institutions and non-governmental organisations in the region.

The Xinjiang government has developed several programmes to target different groups of people, including those who are ‘radicalised’ as well as those who are not but considered vulnerable to recruitment. The ‘five keys’ — ideological, cultural, customary, religious and legal — give a long-sustaining solution to terrorism. The ‘four prongs’ refer to a combination of four methods: ‘squeezing by correct faith’; ‘counteracting by culture’; ‘controlling by law’; and ‘popularising science’. ‘Squeezing by correct faith’ refers to clarifying people’s understanding of Islam while ‘counteracting by culture’ means seeking effective and practical solutions to thwart extremism and guiding people towards secularisation and modernisation. The ‘three contingents’ refer to the policy of reinforcing three main groups of people the government can count on to maintain stability and security. The ‘two hands’ refer to the one ‘firm hand’ that cracks down on terrorists, and the other ‘firm hand’ that educates and guides Uighur people, and the ‘one rule’ means the policy of ruling Xinjiang according to the law.

The author also provides historical background on the evolution of the Chinese CVE strategy and mentions that it materialised in a policy document entitled Several Guiding Opinions on Further Suppressing Illegal Religious Activities and Combating the Infiltration of Religious Extremism in Accordance with Law, issued by Xinjiang’s CCP Committee in May 2013. The policy document was also referred to as ‘No. 11 Document’, and described the borders between ethnic customs, normal religious practices and extremist manifestations.

For the CVE strategy’s smooth implementation, the Xinjiang authorities have introduced new legal regimes, and the latest amendment (titled ‘Regulation on Anti-Extremism’) was introduced in April 2017 to ban a wide range of extremist behaviours. Under the new legal framework, authorities have launched many programmes including deradicalisation for prisoners, and social programmes for those who have engaged in terrorism or extremism but do not deserve criminal punishment.

The re-education camps — or ‘rehabilitation centres’ — have been created as a part of China’s social programming. These centres run through civil society groups in Xinjiang or through ‘Fang Hui Ju’ working groups, dispatched by the regional government, comprising practitioners tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the people.

For CVE practitioners, the Chinese model may have a lot of substance to learn from. But the Uighur problem is more complex than religious extremism, as it has added dimensions of ethnic, cultural and political rights. For Pakistan, the Chinese CVE model offers nothing to learn from except to find a way of resolving the issue of Pakistani citizens’ spouses held in these camps.

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Opinion

Quota and bad faith

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By Christophe Jaffrelot, Kalaiyarasan A

The constitutional amendment by the Modi government in order to introduce a 10 per cent quota for the poor within the “general” category looks like an attempt, five months before general elections, at wooing upper caste voters longing for the jobs that were to be part of “acche din”. This is at odds with the initial rationale of India’s positive discrimination programmes, which were intended to make up for past oppression — and not as an employment scheme.

This is not the only recent move by the BJP to cash in on reservation. While the constitutional amendment does not mention caste, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has taken up the previous Congress government’s idea in favour of reservation for Marathas, the largest dominant caste asking for quotas. These initiatives contradict the traditional Hindu nationalist stand, expressed in the name of merit, against positive discrimination. The latter even clashes with the Sangh’s formula that gained momentum during the Mandal affair: If reservation had to take place, it had to be according to economic criteria. None of these initiatives could bear fruit because of the systematic rejection by the judiciary of quotas beyond 50 per cent — Tamil Nadu being the only exception.

 

In contrast, the Yogi Adityanath government is revisiting the existing quotas in Uttar Pradesh in a much more effective manner. After assuming office in 2017, the state BJP government had appointed an OBC Social Justice Committee headed by Justice Raghvendra Kumar. The committee submitted its report in 2018, recommending that the 27 per cent quota for the OBCs should be dispatched between three sub-categories: The Backward Classes (BCs) would get 7 per cent of the reservations, the Very Backward Classes (VBCs) 9 per cent and the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) 11 per cent. Among the BCs figured nine jatis out of 79 — including Yadavs, Kurmis, Kalwars, Kalals and Kallars. Among the VBCs were found 33 jatis, including Gujjars, Lodhs, Kacchhis and Gadariyas. And among the MBCs, were 37 jatis, including Mallahs, Nishads and Rajbhars. This subcategorisation, which has already been implemented by other states including Bihar, was justified on the grounds that the BCs, also called the “aristocratic class” in the report, had cornered most of the reservation benefits at the expense of the others. However, this assumption is not substantiated by any data in the report. Similarly, the status of the OBC castes under review is qualified arbitrarily. For instance, the BCs are presented as members or former members of the “Vaishya caste, the caste in the third position of the Varna system”. They are also described as “similar to Brahmins and Kshatriyas”. In contrast, the MBCs are shown in an unfavourable light, as people who “believe in magic” and “regularly consume local liquor in the evening”.

Whether the BCs do benefit more from positive discrimination than other OBCs is very difficult to determine. In fact, this is exactly what the UP government should have tried to ascertain. But we can use the Indian Human Development Survey to come to an approximate response. It shows that between 2004-5 and 2011-12 most of the large OBC jatis have improved their economic situation in the same proportion. Their annual per capita income (APCI) has multiplied by roughly three times: The Kurmis’ APCI has jumped from Rs 9,286 to Rs 25,989 and is second only to the Brahmins (ahead of the APCI of the “other upper castes”); the Yadavs’ has increased from Rs 5,623 to Rs 17,894, that of the Kacchhis from Rs 5,238 to Rs 15,064, that of the Telis from Rs 4,708 to Rs 12,789 and that of the Nishads from Rs 3,396 to Rs 12,596. Those who are lagging behind are the Jats, whose APCI multiplied by only two, from Rs 8,307 to Rs 17,867, like the Lodhs (from Rs 5,616 to Rs 10,300), whereas the Gadariyas were below doubling their income (from Rs 9,512 to 16,016) and the Rajbhars did slightly better (from Rs 5,351 to Rs 12, 476).

The three categories in the report are not applicable from the point of view of the percentage of caste members occupying salaried jobs as well. For instance, in 2011-12 this proportion reached 13 per cent in the case of Gadariyas (VBCs), whereas it was below 6 per cent among Kurmis (BCs). Incidentally, the Kurmis could hardly be accused of cornering reservation if less than 6 per cent of them had a salaried job — whereas Yadavs may be a more plausible usual suspect with 14.5 per cent. For Kurmis, the correlation between reservation and caste achievements works more in the case of education, since 8.3 per cent of them graduated in 2011-12. But it does not work in the case of the Yadavs, who have apparently not benefited more than others from reservation in the university, as only 4.7 per cent of them were graduates in 2011-12 — not more than Telis.

In fact, most of the BCs are either farmers or agricultural labourers, like the rest of the OBCs. In 2011-12, that was the case of, respectively, 68 per cent and 15 per cent of Kurmis, 56 per cent and 17 per cent of the Yadavs. In fact, the edge the Kurmis and Yadavs have over the others is actually due to their over-representation among the farmers and their under-representation among the agricultural labourers. In contrast, among the Kacchhis 45 per cent were farmers and 34 per cent labourers, the Nishads, were respectively 16 and 54 per cent, the Rajbhars, 16 and 64 per cent and even the Jats 31 and 64 per cent. To make the OBCs more egalitarian, the issue to address is less-related to reservations than to the agrarian structure. But, to announce new sub-quotas to caste groups which have been marginalised is easier than land reform.

The methodology of the OBC Social Justice Committee was flawed for two other reasons. First, while it intended to do justice to the poor, it continued to rely on caste — not class — as the unit of analysis. This contradiction is obvious in the case of the BCs, whose quotas will be reduced at the expense of the poor Yadavs and Kurmis who will have to compete with affluent Yadavs and Kurmis for fewer jobs and fewer seats in the university system if the report under review is implemented. Second, the “creamy layer” concept is not mentioned even once in this report, whereas it would make sense to adjust this notion in order to solve, at least partly, the contradiction we have just mentioned.

UP’s case shows that the way the state government is revisiting India’s model of positive discrimination is as debatable as the initiatives of the Modi government at the Centre and the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra. All this does not mean that the system does not need to be reformed in order to promote equality — besides other policies, including land reform. Reservation is far from a panacea, and definitely not an employment scheme. Incidentally, Hardik Patel, the leader of the Patidars who are asking for reservation in Gujarat, is now saying that better agricultural prices may be more important than quotas.

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