ALF Response to Article on Caste Diversity in the Development Sector

The piece by Karthik Navayan on Caste Diversity in the Development Sector raises many important issues. Clearly the blindness to the question of the way caste operates is structural and institutional and pervades all spaces including so called ‘progressive spaces’.
This reality was pointed out to by Dr. Ambedkar in his key essay, Annihilation of Caste wherein he noted,

Suppose for the sake of argument that by some freak of fortune a revolution does take place and the Socialists come into power; will they not have to deal with the problems created by the particular social order prevalent in India? I can’t see how a Socialist State in India can function for a second without having to grapple with the problems created by the prejudices which make Indian people observe the distinctions of high and low, clean and unclean. If Socialists are not to be content with the mouthing of fine phrases, if the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite reality, then they must recognize that the problem of social reform is fundamental, and that for them there is no escape from it.
That the social order prevalent in India is a matter which a Socialist must deal with; that unless he does so he cannot achieve his revolution; and that if he does achieve it as a result of good fortune, he will have to grapple with the social order if he wishes to realize his ideal—is a proposition which in my opinion is incontrovertible. He will be compelled to take account of Caste after the revolution, if he does not take account of it before the revolution. This is only another way of saying that, turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.

Dr. Ambedkar’s point which is still relevant today is that, while progressives might understand the issue of class, what they don’t understand is the fact that the reality of caste structures interactions in society and is responsible for institutionalized discrimination.

If we take voluntary organisations as representative of specific progressive interests be it for children, women, legally disempowered etc, the question is to what extent do these groups take on board the reality of caste and combat it within their own structures.

As the article clearly demonstrates, many groups may not have a clear understanding of the role of caste and hence this article is a much needed clarion call to civil society organisations to look seriously at the intersections of caste in the work that they do as well as to ensure that there is diversity within the work place on grounds of caste.

If the response to the RTI query as well as this article is one of silence then Karthik Navayan is justified in seeing this as willful refusal by civil society organisations to fight the ‘monster of caste’. The response of silenceto a critique of a caste-bound practice, in fact harks back to Dr. Ambedkar’s complaint with respect to the reception that he got for his many learned exegesis of the Brahmanic texts. As he puts it,
But what annoys one is the intolerance of the Brahmin scholar towards any attempt to expose the Brahmanic literature. He himself would not play the part of an iconoclast even where it is necessary. And he would not allow such non-Brahmins as have the capacity to do so to play it. If any non-Brahmin were to make such an attempt the Brahmin scholars would engage in a conspiracy of silence, take no notice of him, condemn him outright on some flimsy grounds or dub his work useless. As a writer engaged in the exposition of the Brahmanic literature I have been a victim of such mean tricks.“[2]

ALF was one of the organisations to whom the initial RTI went out and to which we did not respond. We want to apologise for being complicit in the ‘conspiracy of silence’. We would like to make amends for our silence now. We see the challenge of caste as it affects, impacts and implicates our work through two lenses:

1) To what extent does the internal process/ structure of ALF reflect the fact that we take seriously the challenge of confronting caste.
2) To what extent does the challenge of confronting caste figure in our work.

Internal process/ structure of ALF reflect the fact that we take seriously the challenge of confronting caste.

This is an issue which we have always been conscious of and tried in our own way to constantly address. ALF being a collective has a culture of debate and discussion on how we can tackle caste not only in the external world but also within the ALF structure itself. We have been conscious on the need to ensure diversity within on grounds of caste and to ensure that marginalized groups do find a space within ALF.
At present there are 11 full time people at ALF. The break up on grounds of caste is as follows


While caste is a dominant reality which structures Indian society hierarchically, so do other social structures such as gender, religion, disability, sexuality and undoubtedly there are other important axes of discrimination as well.
At present apart from the caste break up which is indicated above we also tried to ensure diversity on grounds of gender, religion and sexuality. In the staff of eleven, our diversity on these other indicators shows that we have six women, three members from religious minorities (two Christians and one Muslim) and three members of the LGBT community.

Challenge of confronting caste figures in our work

The blindness with respect to caste is not only with respect to the question of internal diversity but equally with respect to the issues an organisation takes up. If the mandate is legal aid, to what extent do the concerns of Dalits figure within the legal aid work? Similarly if an organisation works on the issue of children to what extent does the organisation work on issues impacting Dalit children?

Coming to ALF itself, the challenge is really to weave in the discrimination suffered on grounds of caste as an integral part of one’s work. Our huge learning as an institution was through our work with the PUCL in documenting and responding to the issue of deaths of manhole workers. Working in collaboration with the PUCL as well as Dalit activists we documented the deaths of manhole workers. Often these deaths were reported as no more than a line in newspaper reports. Each time a death occurred, PUCL members along with others would rush to the spot, do a fact finding report, ensure police action as well as prompt compensation. Based on a documentation of a series of these tragic incidents we represented the PUCL in the Karntaka High Court in a public interest litigation which sought to prohibit this practise of entering manholes. As of now there have been some good orders of the High Court, (yet to be implemented in full) and a greater public awareness of the rights of manhole workers. This is very much a struggle which is underway.

We narrate this only to indicate the enormity of the challenge in taking forward this issue in the face of silent complicity by the state and media and lack of a commitment to end this practise among many civil society organisations as well.

To the question of is there a lot more to be done in combatting caste, the answer undoubtedly is yes right from the working and living conditions of the powrakarmikas, ensuring that manual scavenging ends, combating slum evictions in urban areas, working on ending untouchability to ensuring convictions under the Atrocities Act. In this context one must also mention that the collective failure of civil society as well as social movements in Karnataka with respect to the Kamballapalli acquittals indicates the enormity of the task ahead.

We thank Karthik Navayan for initiating this debate. In our opinion, we need to take forward two legs of the strategy, i.e., to ensure that there is effective work on caste discrimination and ensure internal diversity. We see this as a work in progress and would very much welcome constructive feedback and dialogue.

[1]B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
[2]B.R. Ambedkar, “The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?”, available online at[1].doc (last visited 11/5/2015)

Published on: 13 May 2015