Print edition : February 06, 2015

The need to rationalise and bring order to the Daedalian social and cultural structure of India marked by oppressive hierarchies and divisions on the basis of caste, religion, region and language was highlighted right through the freedom movement. Early leaders of independent India, including the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B.R. Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the Indian Constitution, had stressed that addressing this issue was central to building a cohesive nation capable of fulfilling the needs and aspirations of a modern society. Social and political organisations of different ideological orientations, as well individual leaders hailing from diverse regions of the country, took up the “problem of the social and cultural structure” in their own ways.

Referring to this structure, Ambedkar pointed out that the lesson from history is that “where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics”. He went on to add that vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves of powers and privileges unless there was sufficient force to compel them to do so. Talking about a different dimension of the same structure, Nehru said, months before his death, that he would like to evaluate his own governance in terms of not merely economic parameters such as the development of industry but also in terms of the scale of gender equality and propagation of women’s rights.

However, even after the passage of 67 years as an independent nation it is widely admitted that the processes of rationalising and bringing order to this intricate and confusing structure is still work in progress. This is evident from the fact that in 2014, after the formation of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave speeches about gender equality and women’s rights as well as about empowering marginalizsd sections of society.

Frontline’s focus on the broad social and cultural structure and on specific issues and problems related to it have underscored these dimensions repeatedly. Unlike core political developments, the emergence of these issues and problems were not period-specific. They kept on emerging in perpetual continuum. The multifaceted resistance to the empowerment of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Most Backward Castes (MBCs), the brutal oppression of Dalits across all regions of the country, and the persistence of inhuman forms of employment such as manual scavenging were some of the caste-related issues that came up time and again. The travails of tribal communities across the country, especially in relation to their displacement in order to facilitate the growth of corporate interests, came into sharp focus at regular intervals. Another abiding concern was gender equality and women’s rights against the backdrop of acts of physical violence such as rape, “honour killings”, discrimination and oppression in public and private domains.

Though the emergence of these issues was not period-specific, there were some dominant themes at different junctures. Thus in the 1980s and early 1990s it was question of the empowering OBCs and MBCs, especially through to the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations advanced by Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s National Front government of 1989-90. Similarly, crimes against women came up as a dominant theme in the first decade of the 21st century through a number of incidents. These included the activities of khap panchayats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, “honour killings” and incidents of brutal rape in different parts of the country, including the national capital. However, cases of the inhuman oppression and mass killing of Dalits were reported and analysed repeatedly over the past three decades from almost all corners of the country.

At the level of analysis, Frontline focussed on these issues, emphasising that the so-called rationalisation and setting right social inequities have become more arduous on account of the very nature of the social system and the sanction it has from the establishment, including the religious establishment. The play of various vested interests even within the organisations and institutions self-professedly involved in the process also adds to the challenges.

These vested interests are entrenched in prominent national political organisations including the Congress and the BJP as well as blatantly caste-oriented organisations such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Indian National Lok Dal. Community-based organisations that have come up, rallying upper caste Kshatriya and Brahmin communities and some middle castes such as the Jats in north India. More significantly, these communities hold sway over the administrative machinery in large parts of the country.

Given this context, it is evident from a selection of stories from Frontline in the following pages that the challenges posed by this work in progress are daunting. And indeed harking back to a glorious past, and that too with irrational pretexts, is in no way going to help in fulfilling the task of socio-cultural course correction.

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