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Media Modernity and Minorities

Media Modernity and Minorities

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Published by: Sukumar Muralidharan on Oct 13, 2012
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 1
 Media, Modernity and Minorities
T
he Subtleties of Exclusion in the “PublicDiscourse”
 
From 
Social Scientist
, Volume 40, Numbers 5&6, May-June2012, pp19-58.
Some of India‟s most significant early reflections on the
minority predicament within a democracy came from B.R.
Ambedkar, leader of what were called the “untouchable”
castes within Hinduism. Ambedkar faced a situation in whichthe ritually ostracised communities outside the caste-Hindufold, enjoyed the right to vote and were assured of formalequality under the law. Yet for all that, they remainedoppressed in the real world.
The “untouchables” as he unflinchingly called them, or the
Harijans, as Gandhi in his paternalism named them, havetoday assumed an identity of their own choice: plainlystated, that of the
dalit
, or the oppressed.
Bahujan samaj,
 
which translates as something equivalent to the “communityof the many”,
 
has since come into being as a politicalconstruct, which speaks of the state of oppression being anaffliction of the majority rather than the numericallydisadvantaged.
Dalits
face oppression despite their strength in numbersand the assurances of equality they have been given,underpinned both by the unrestricted right to vote andaffirmative action. These were the promises they were givenas part of the social compact that brought India itsindependence from colonialism. Yet as Ambedkar sought tochart the future course of democratic India, all this justdid not seem enough to ensure that the basic norms of ademocracy would be met.
“One man, one vote” was not a sufficient assurance ofdemocracy. True democracy for Ambedkar meant “one man, onevalue”.
1
And in the six decades since this prophecy was
1
 
The phrase recurs through much of Ambedkar‟s
written works and waspowerfully reiterated in a speech to the Constituent Assembly on
November 25, 1949: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter
into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and insocial and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we willbe recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one
 
 2
offered, it has been underlined with brutal clarity thatthe formal assurance under the law does not yet meansubstantive equality. The universal franchise andaffirmative action remain imperfect instruments of anegalitarian social order.
“One man, one value” would have an intuitive appeal to all,
as a definition of democracy in terms of its fundamentalpremises. Yet individuals are known by their antecedentsand broader social origins. There is no way that theindividual can be separated from her social group. And this
is where Ambedkar‟s proposition has always posed enormous
complexities in the transition from a conception ofindividual rights to a construct of group rights.The year before his death, with public agitation and debateraging over redrawing the Indian political map inaccordance with linguistic identities, Ambedkar intervenedwith a forceful plea that culture be recognised as thebasis of political organisation. States based on culturaluniformity, he argued, were the only assurance of
stability. As he wrote then, a “State is built on fellow
-feeling, (which is) a feeling of a corporate sentiment oroneness which makes those who are charged with it feel that
they are kith and kin”. “This feeling”, he continued, is“double
-edg
ed” since it is “at once a feeling of fellowshipfor one‟s own … and anti
-fellowship for those who are not
one‟s own kith and kin”. There was, in Ambedkar‟s
assessment, no intrinsic propensity for enmity between twolinguistic or cultural groups, except when they werecompelled by circumstances to live in close proximity andalso share among themselves the cycle of governmentalactivities.
2
 Separation on the basis of language was one way out, butwithin clearly defined limits. None of the autonomouslinguistic units within the Indian polity could be allowedto have its choice of official language, since that would
value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of oursocial and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of oneman one v
alue”. Available in any authorised edition of the Constituent
Assembly debates and online as of October 2011 at:http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol11p11.htm.
2
 
Thoughts on Linguistic States
, 1955, from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar,Writings and Speeches, Volume I, Education Department, Government ofMaharashtra, Mumbai, 1989, pp 143-4.
 
 3
be the surest path to the vivisection of the nation.
3
Withall his concern for minority welfare, Ambedkar effectivelyconceded that the unity of the whole is often a requirementfor the welfare of the part. To preserve the unity of thewhole, every constituent unit
conceived here in terms ofterritoriality
had to be compelled to work with theofficial language stipulated by the political centre.Even within this arrangement, there was the danger that onecultural region of India (the geographical north) woulddominate over others (most notably, the geographicalsouth). And this was a situation rich with potential fordamage, since the north in
Ambedkar‟s reading was still a
vast expanse of obscurantism and blind faith, where themost perverse elements of Hindu tradition held sway. Forall the enlightenment that had dawned in the south, the
circumstances of India‟s political organisation, he fear
ed,would enshrine the dominance of the north.
4
 Ambedkar was aware that other identities could emerge withfresh energy, once the bonds of language were recognisedwithin the nation-state and consolidated within theprovince-state. Every linguistic zone, he pointed out, wasunder the effective control of a particular caste.
5
APunjabi linguistic province could well fall under thedominance of the Jat caste, as Telugu and Marathilinguistic zones could slip into being fiefs of the Reddyand Maratha castes. This did not mean that the case forlinguistic states stood dismissed --
only that “definitechecks and balances” should be instituted, to ensure that
3
Ibid, p 145.
4
Ibid, pp 148-50.
5
Ibid, pp 167-8. Ambedkar also offers an observation on administrativepractices with respect to caste, that have a contemporary relevance.
After reasoning that “in any given area there is one caste which is
major and there are others which are small and are subservient to themajor caste owing to their comparative smallness and their economicdependence upon the major caste which owns most of the land in the
village”, Ambedkar apologises for not being able to “illustrate” thispoint by reference to “facts and figures”. His alibi was simply that
the census, which was the primary information source in all such
matters, was conspicuously unhelpful. “The last census”, he said,“omits altogether the caste tables which have been the feature of the
Indian census ever since its birth. The Home Minister of the Governmentof India who is responsible for this omission was of the opinion thatif a word does not exist in a dictionary it can be proved that the fact
for which the word stands does not exist.”
 

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