Gramsci uses the analogy of civil society as a system of trenches and redoubts surrounding the state1. All political attempts by the underprivileged classes–castes in Indian context–to overcome the barriers are drowned by the development sector that claims for itself the status of the civil society. Does the civil society, popularly understood as NGO sector, act as the entry point of marginalized sections into better social positions? We need to think about this aspect seriously because those who were fed up by government and corporate sector are increasingly turning towards the development sector because it looks fancy, politically correct, without realising that in fact it can be equally hegemonic. The hegemony of the civil society is nowhere more visible than in its reinforcing the existing social norms of hierarchy in their day-to-day activities. It is starkly visible in their staffing practices, which prefer people of privileged backgrounds especially in important positions. This paper critically views the aid agencies’ mainstream perception of caste discourse, and their lack of will to be inclusive by incorporating the members of the marginalised communities into policymaking bodies. Moreover, I argue that any developmental intervention without the active participation of marginalised communities will be a charade in the name of charity.
Social diversity in public and private sectors in India
Caste is the greatest social reality in India that produces inequality and poverty with its hierarchical social structures, by keeping people from marginalised communities away from accessing resources and power centres. Therefore, any attempt at bringing equality must deal with caste. The participation of people from the marginalised communities should be a precondition. Defining the caste divide in Indian social life, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the chairperson of the drafting committee of Constitution of India put it this way:
“There is no nation of Indians in the real sense of the world; it is yet to be created. In believing we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation, in a social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us”.2
However, the Brahmanical governing class in India cherishes the delusion that India is a nation, refusing to acknowledge the fact that the Indian society is divided on caste lines. Every caste has its own distinct social practices governed by the Brahmanical framework of social, economic and political hierarchies. This reality makes it impossible for any caste to represent another caste as social interests are hierarchized. This makes equality an impossible ideal in political practice even in civil society.
When Indian National Congress and its leader M.K.Gandhi claimed that they represent all castes including the ex-untouchables before the British, during Round Table Conferences3, Dr Ambedkar pointed out that: “The Congress has been, loudly and insistently claiming that it is the only political organisation in India, which is representative of the people of India. At one time, it used to claim that it represents the Musalmans also. This it does not now do, at any rate not so loudly and insistently. But so far as the Untouchables are concerned, the Congress maintains most vehemently that it does represent them. On the other hand, the non-Congress political parties have always denied this claim. This is particularly true of the Untouchables who have never hesitated to repudiate the Congress claim to represent them”4.
Hence, Ambedkar demanded fair representation in the entire system of governance and administration, but Gandhi, the leader of caste Hindus blackmailed Dr. Ambedkar and made him sign the Poona Pact5 on 24th September 1932. Thus, the term “reservations6“, widely adopted by the government functionaries, media and academicians, instead of the more dignified “representation.” But, the reservation policy remained on paper, the Brahmanical governing class of India consciously resisted in many ways the implementation of reservations for the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC). It never honoured in practice the reservations as the Constitutional principle of social justice. Instead, it has adopted different strategies to recruit their own kith and kin in the positions of power reserved for SC, ST and OBC categories. The SC, ST and OBCs have reservations, but Brahmins and their allied castes have “preservations“, as one Dalit activist put it.
Many studies pointed out that 94.01% of the judges in Supreme Court, the apex court of India and High Courts, the federal courts are Brahmins and their Brahmanic7 allied dominant castes. According to a survey by Outlook magazine in 2007, Brahmins are a micro minority community that constitutes 5.6% of the total population of India, but they occupied 47% of chief justice posts and 40% of associate justice positions between 1950 to 20008. Around 75-90% of the Class-I-Class-II officers in the Indian administration, professors, lecturers and readers in all government-funded central and state universities are from Brahmin and Brahmanic allied dominant castes. 88% of most significant positions in the media are also occupied by the same castes9.
More than 80% of the land holdings, including other resources and means of production rest with Brahmanic dominant castes. “In 1991, 70% of the total SC households were landless or near landless (owning less than one acre). This increased to 75% in 2000. In 1991, 13% of the rural SC households were landless. However, in 2000 this saw a decline and was 10%. As per the Agricultural Census of 1995-96, the bottom 61.6% of operational holdings accounted for only 17.2% of the total operated land area. As against this, the top 7.3% of operational holdings accounted for 40.1% of the total operated area. This gives an indication of land concentration in the hands of a few10.
Despite the fact that the practice of reservations system has been on for more than half a century, the total strength of SC, ST and OBCs in central and state government jobs are around 20%, but they constitute 85% of the people. “The backlog in Dalit and Tribal appointments reported to be 25,000 in the State (the state here is Tamil Nadu and the similar situation prevails in other states too) and 1,000,000 in Union Government services. Some vacancies have not been filled since 1978. Reported by National Daily- The Hindu, Feb 2, 1999″11. This is the story of the public sector. When it comes to the private sector, which is answerable to none, the story is worse.
Development Sector: Neither social diversity nor transparency
The scenario portrayed above is not limited to the public sector. The development sector, which varyingly calls itself as civil society, the NGO and the voluntary sector, does the same thing. The sector, which claims to be working for the welfare of the marginalised, is disproportionately occupied and operated by privileged sections with Brahmanic cultural capital. They act as bleeding hearts out to work for the welfare of Dalits and Adivasis before the international donor agencies; they write policies and strategies, and they make interventions for the sake of the marginalised communities. However, none of these processes involve those affected sections that they claim to represent. When a privileged caste individual wants to work for the unprivileged castes he or she should accept the fact that they are from the privileged caste; that their privilege is the reason for the production of marginalisation of others. They should not hide their social position, their caste and their activities against marginalisation before the respective communities. In the absence of such disclosure, their work for the marginalised will only normalise their privileges.
The Brahmanic dominant caste individuals who occupy the positions of directors, managers, officers and coordinators in the development sector have recently been criticised by the development workers belonging to the marginalised communities. Their criticism was that, those Brahmanic dominant caste people employed in the development sector actually work against the development of marginalised communities. Mahendra, a development worker, pointed out this fact in his email to firstname.lastname@example.org, on 26th March 2015, in reply to an article titled, “Does ActionAid International Support Caste Discrimination?”
“it is known fact that large majority of dominant caste who couldn’t find jobs in Government Sector, moved strategically to the development sector, saying they are working for the poor and marginalized. Actually, they wanted to control the funds and delay the process of development. It is only few individuals from the dominant caste have really given up their caste prejudices and worked for poor. As long as they continue to practice the Brahmanical rituals, they will continue to discriminate the SC/STs, the trend now among the dalit groups and Christian-background support agencies is appointing Brahmanical candidates as their CEOs/ top positions, so they also don’t want backward and Dalit Christians to head NGOs. Sorry state of affairs in the name of development of SC/STs”12.
An attempt to understand the social diversity in 34 organisations
The managements and the people associated with developmental organisations are always ready to lecture about transparency and accountability particularly in government, often referring to its poor functioning and corruption. Nevertheless, when we look at the development organisations themselves, we hardly see them maintain those values of transparency and accountability in their own institutional spaces.
A small study of 34 development agencies, through the Right to Information Act 2005, was conducted, but no valuable data on the social diversity within their organisational structures was made available. They were practically evasive. As a lawyer, I was well aware of the fact that technically they do not come under the definition of “Public Authority” according to the RTI Act. However, my intention was to check their moral and ethical commitment towards the ideals of transparency and accountability. Moreover, every legal right was initially an ethical and moral value. By including those values in the legislations, we add legal status to them. In addition, the value of transparency in public life need not necessarily be a technical requirement imposed by the RTI Act. That these NGOs, technically, did not fall under the purview of the RTI Act doesn’t mean that they need not follow norms of transparency. They are ethically and morally more accountable to the people than the Government. It is interesting to note that some of these NGOs were involved in the campaign to strengthen the RTI Act itself. That they preach an ethical value that they themselves do not practice in their backyard cancels their commitment to the cause itself.
The above table reveals two things; one, the development organisations are not ready to share the information on the social diversity of their staff. Two, they fear, it seems, that it will reveal their poor record in implementing social diversity policies.
Of the 34 organisations, only 10 have replied and of the ten only two- PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) and National Foundation of India – have provided the information. Nevertheless, that information was insufficient. PRIA provided only the list of their employees, their gender and state of domicile, but not caste status of their employees. The National Foundation of India has provided only a two-line reply, which said that “in professional staff one female and in support staff, two males underrepresented.” Still, there was no mention of caste status of their staff.
Save the Children – BAL Raksha Bharath, which claims “To inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children, and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives”23. replied saying that “[W]e have a policy of inclusion and equal opportunity policy for our employees, as a policy, we do not ask our employees about their caste, religion or ethnicity at the time of recruitment”24. This is a self-contradictory statement. Without recognizing the social identity of staff, how can you pretend to follow an ‘inclusive policy’? How do you think some people need the benefit of equal opportunity if you cannot identify the forms of discrimination? They have an inclusion and equal opportunity policy in place, but they never ask the caste, religion or ethnicity at the time of recruitment. Then, on what basis does their inclusion policy work, when the caste, ethnicity and religion themselves form the basis of social exclusion and marginalisation? Equal opportunity and inclusion – all tall and high-sounding principles, but they will forever remain in the realm of the abstract without ever transforming into concrete actions.
Aid at Action says that caste is an item of personal information, which cannot be shared with other people. How can caste be a personal thing? It is also contrary to their own understanding that the personal is political. If it is ‘personal’, why do people from the Brahmanic dominant castes flaunt the caste-titles in their surnames in public? Verma, Sharma, Shastri, Pundit, Reddi, Naidu, Patel, Thakur – there are so many such caste tails in India. They are okay with disclosing their own caste in the public because it is a privilege, but they will not disclose the caste-wise data of their staff, even if it was asked for the purpose of a study on social diversity. Some organisations like ActionAid India preach to others that “personal is political, because personal affects political and political affects personal” in the context of their feminist approach to the problems of women. If that is so, there should not have been anything to hide.
58% of the ActionAid India staff are from Brahmanical dominant castes25, who constitute only 18% of the entire Indian population, as furnished to the VODI – Voice of Dalits International. Still, some people on social media argue that, “It just shows that more people from Brahmanic dominant castes are interested in working for the development of marginalised communities.” Is that so? If they are interested in the development of marginalised communities, why can’t they work voluntarily by giving up their privileges and huge salaries?
Despite the fact that the international aid agencies have been working for the upliftment of the marginalised communities in India since decades, there is no visible or substantial change in their lives. Those communities, particularly the SCs and STs, continue to be in the lower strata of society. One reason that led to this failure was these agencies’ inability to understand the social, political and cultural dynamics of the Indian caste system. Without proper understanding of the caste system, one cannot comprehend the resultant systematic exclusion which, in fact, led to the perennial poverty of those communities. The aid agency’s institutional setup itself is “caste-blind” because they peopled it with Brahmins and Brahmanic dominant caste individuals. Any developmental intervention for the marginalised communities without their active participation will be a charade in the name of charity.
As Ambedkar observed, the idea of charity in India itself is caste-ridden: “Go into the field of charity. With one or two exceptions, all charity in India is communal. If a Parsi dies, he leaves his money for Parsis. If a Jain dies, he leaves his money for Jains. If a Marwadi dies, he leaves his money for Marwadis. If a Brahmin dies, he leaves his money for Brahmins. Thus, there is no room for the downtrodden and the outcastes in politics, in industry, in commerce, and in education”26. Now the international charity organisations that set up their offices in India continue the same old idea of charity through which their own kith and kin benefit; not the downtrodden people of India
The lack of access to resources and opportunities for the underprivileged castes and classes in the NGO sector is the result of deep-rooted prejudices, which the powerful privileged castes carry along with themselves. The more they claim to adhere to the values of equal opportunity and inclusion in the language of modernity, the less is the possibility of them identifying and overcoming their own biases. Civil society was always seen as the theatre of all forms of power politics, as per Gramscian understanding. But the term is now colonised by NGOs who claim to represent all the progressive values but, in fact, they have been reinforcing all the hegemonic values that suppress the marginalized. Historically, the movements of the underprivileged have generated many democratic values, but in practice the NGOs appropriate them; where do they deploy them and to what end should have been important concerns of public life.
. Gramsci, 1971 p.234, available at-http://marxisttheory.org/antonio-gramsci-theories-of-hegemony-civil-society-and-revolution/#note-635-11
. Ambedkar, ‘Thus Spoke Ambedkar’, Quotations of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, available at – http://www.ambedkar.org/Babasaheb/quotations.htm, viewed on 16th April 2015
. The three Round Table Conferences of 1930–32 were a series of conferences organized by the British Government to discuss constitutional reforms in India.
. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables, Chapter IV, A False Claim, available at –
http://www.ambedkar.org/ambcd/41G.What%20Congress%20and%20Gandhi%20CHAPTER%20VI.htm viewed on 17th April 2015
. The Poona Pact refers to an agreement between Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi signed on 24 September 1932 at Yerwada Central Jail in Pune (now in Maharashtra), India. It was signed by Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, some Hindu leaders, Dr BR Ambedkar, and some Dalit leaders to break the fast unto death undertaken by Gandhi in Yerwada jail to annul Macdonald Award giving separate electorate to Dalits for electing members of state legislative assemblies in British India.
. Reservation in India is the process of setting aside a certain percentage of seats (vacancies) in government institutions for members of backward and under-represented communities (defined primarily by caste and tribe). Reservation is a form of quota-based affirmative action. Reservation is governed by constitutional laws, statutory laws, and local rules and regulations.
. The term Brahmanic is used here for the jatis that believe in Brahmanic caste system as an ideology and practice prejudices against unprivileged communities; they are the non-Brahmin landed communities who lead the Brahmanic way of life. They are Kammas, Reddis, Velamas, Rajus and Kapus in the Telugu states, Marathas and Kunbis in Maharashtra. The Vellalar jatis, Thevars and Nadars in Tamil Nadu. Vokkaligas, Lingayats and Reddis in Karnataka. Patels in Gujarat, Jats, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Khatris, Kayasths, Yadavs and Kurmis etc in the various northern states. Baidyas, Kayasths in West Bengal; Karanas in Odisha etc.
. “Brahmins in India”, Outlook India, June 4, 2007, http://www.outlookindia.com/article/brahmins-in-india/234783
. ‘Upper castes dominate national media, says survey in Delhi’, The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/upper-castes-dominate-national-media-says-survey-in-delhi/article3115113.ece
. Problems of Dalits in India, published at- http://indiacurrentaffairs.org/problems-of-dalits-in-india/, available at- https://karthiknavayan.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/problems-of-dalits-in-india.pdf. p.2
. ‘Dalit Reality’, People’s Democracy, Chennai edition published on April 6-12, 2015
. Mahendra’s reply to the article, Does ActionAid International Support Caste Discrimination, email dated 26th March 2015, available at – https://karthiknavayan.wordpress.com/?attachment_id=1816
. The Right to Information Act (RTI) is an Act of the Parliament of India “to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens” passed by Parliament on 15 June 2005 and came fully into force on 12 October 2005.
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. Save The Children‘s Mission Statement, available at – https://www.savethechildren.in/about-us/mission-and-vision-child-ngo.html
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. Ambedkar B R, “Prospects of Democracy in India”, Voice of America, 20th May 1956, available at – http://old.bamcef.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154:prospects-of-democracy-in-india-babasaheb-dr-b-r-ambedkar&catid=10:news&Itemid=13
Karthik Navayan is a human rights activist.
Cartoons by Unnamati Syama Sundar.