Bengaluru, 22nd July 2017: 53 sessions with 282 speakers earmarked the first day of the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar International Conference. Covering critical topics of debate and discussion, speakers put forth their views on issues surrounding equality, equity, social justice, caste, class, public policy, affirmative action, secularism, social movements and transformation, political power, nationalism and the idea of India, women’s movements, reservations and empowerment and religion.
The Plenary was chaired by Mr. K. Raju, with the panel comprising Lord Bhikhu Parekh, political theorist and Labour member of the House of Lords, Mr. S.K. Thorat, economist and former Chairman of the UGC and Prof. Samuel Myers, American economist, education advisor and civil rights advocate. The plenary discussed the importance of revisiting Babasaheb Ambedkar and his vision for India. The discussion covered the economic aspects of Babasaheb’s thought including nationalization of land and equitable distribution of resources. The discussion concluded on the note that the need to revisit Babasaheb was as momentous as his revisiting Gautam Buddha for inspiration.
Martin Luther King III, social reformer and activist addressed the media, responding to questions on social movements, the need for people to come together and voice opposition to injustice and the need to agitate with a strategy in place. He drew many comparisons between the situation in the US and the black rights movement and the fight for social and economic equality for the minorities and oppressed in India. He elaborated on the need for communities to find common ground and build on them to impact real change in society, saying that once the willingness was apparent at the people’s level, governments could then step in to implement policies that would help sustain such change.
In a session chaired by B.T. Lalithanayak, writer, politician and activist with the topic being Women’s Reservations, the panel included women activists and transgender activists. They emphasized the importance of having reservations for women in Parliament, the inclusion of sexual minorities for jobs and called for recognizing Dr. Ambedkar’s contributions to the women’s empowerment movement. The chair concluded that it would have been a dream come true for Babasaheb to see a woman from a minority community occupying the position of head of state.
Prof. Balachandra Mungekar, economist and Rajya Sabha member, in his session spoke of Dr. Ambedkar being the only national, political intellectual apart from Pandit Nehru. Despite the abolition of untouchability in the Constitution, atrocities against dalits and minorities continues unabated. He pointed out that Hindu communalism is India’s version of fascism. Mr. Mani Shankar Iyer, former cabinet minister and politician elaborated on the contrasts between Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Where Gandhi focused on the values contained in the villages of India, Babasaheb saw the same villages as the breeding grounds for regressive values. For Babasaheb, demeaning practices like slavery, untouchability and casteism could never be eradicated as long as the village models were held up as the ideal. Mr. Iyer pointed out that the closest India came to bringing the two thoughts together was during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, where the 73rd Amendment gave constitutional status to Panchayati Raj institutions. What it did was empower villages with self-governance while providing for reservations, thereby ensuring that those that were previously marginalized, could have a chance to be brought into the mainstream.
Prof. Ashish Nandy, political psychologist, social theorist and critic, talked about the fact that the horrific system of caste and untouchability is unique to India apart from a few other societies like Japan. He also spoke of the need for patience for a system as deep rooted as caste to change in India. He offered Japan as an example, where it took over 150 years for caste to be weeded out. At the same session, Ms. Trina Jones, Law Professor at Duke Law University and author of Shades of Brown; the Law of Skin Colour spoke about the intersection between waste management and caste discrimination, the politics of skin colour and the double oppression that Dalit women have to undergo because of caste and gender disparity, drawing parallels with African American women in the United States.
Mr. K. Veermani, social worker and Chancellor of Periyar Maniammai University chaired a session on social justice and equality. Prof. Sudhanshu Bhushan spoke about the lack of representation, less than 30%, of Dalit minds at the highest levels of education. He posed the question whether educational institutions can in fact be made more democratic to allow for inclusion of dalits in the intellectual space.
The session on Religion and Social Justice, chaired by Prof. O. Anantharamaiah saw a recounting of Babasaheb’s protest against the caste system and propelled him to look towards Buddhism, which he believed propounded the ideals of peace, equality and brotherhood. The session talked about how while Babasaheb’s idea of religion was to incorporate within it the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, he was first and foremost a patriot who sought to bring all Indians under the banner of affiliation to the nation, above their own religious and cultural identities.
The panel that discussed Nationalism and the Idea of India was chaired by Prof. P.J. Sudhakar and delved into Babasaheb’s preference for non-violent democracy over any other form of thought or ideology. Prof. Chinnaiah Jangam spoke of the idea of ‘Nation’ as a modern concept and cautioned that it would be dangerous to blend nationalism with ancient and regressive ideas like scriptures, which is the current political and social narrative. The Dalit movement and Babasaheb altered the meaning of nationalism to extend beyond citizenship and include equality, human dignity and the end of poverty.
The session chaired by Prof. M.V. Rajeev Gowda on Caste, Class and Identity saw speakers talk about the nature of cause and effect from an economic perspective. They shed light on the fact that every time there is an economic downturn or collapse, be in de-monetization, the unfortunate ill-effects of the agrarian cycle, drought etc it is always the economically and socially marginalized that bear the most of the brunt. They pointed out that informal or unorganized sectors, which dominate the country’s economy is most vulnerable to discriminatory practices in employment opportunities and pay scales.
Mr. Salman Khurshid, former Cabinet Minister chaired the session on Nation State, Citizenship and Sovereignty where the discussion was about the inherent difference between a nation and the state in the political context. An Indian nation refers to the Idea of India and the Indian state is viewed from the administrative angle. The 1947 Partition was testament to the creation of not just two countries but two ideologies – one that stood for religion as its primary identity and one that chose secularism as its path.
The session on Secularism and Cultural Pluralism chaired by Mr. Rajeev Bhargava, Political Theorist debated the need to check majoritarianism and protect minority rights. Babasaheb’s thoughts on plurality and identity were remembered and his belief that different interests do not lead to different nations. The panel also talked about the RSS agenda of creating monoliths out of a pluralistic society, the expressions of which have translated into cow vigilantism and a Uniform Civil Code.
One of the keynote sessions chaired by Prof. M.V. Rajeev Gowda focused on a conversation about the restrictions posed by caste and religion, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah spoke about how the Constitution provides for legal protection to the Dalit and OBCs including the opportunity to assume the highest seats of state while religion continues to be the obstacle that prevents minorities from achieving their fullest potential. He spoke about the irony of the fact that while the Constitution allows for a dalit or member of a minority community to become President, religion continues to dictate who can become a priest, thus maintaining status quo where caste and class are concerned.
A session chaired by Member of Parliament, Kumari Selja on Caste, Class and Identity dwelled on the fact that the caste that one is born into dictates the work that one does and the quality of life therof, ignoring merit, qualification or ability. Caste inequality directly translates to economic inequality. An example of this is the inevitable fact that because of social discrimination in villages, dalits and other minorities are forced to migrate to urban areas and work in unorganized sectors as labourers, continuing the cycle of social and economic oppression that adds to the disenfranchisement of these communities.
The end of Day one of the International Conference culminated in formal and informal discussions on topics tabled, views expressed and a sense of hope for a better India, the way its leaders and Babasaheb envisioned.
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