It is not uncommon for us to consistently remind ourselves of the fact that we are one of the most participative democracies in the world. While there might not be serious reservations as to the accuracy of this statement, incidents and exclusionary structures such as the Uthapuram Wall serve as a clarion call to those who believe that our society is the vanguard of equality.
Most of us would be aware of the recent controversy surrounding the demolition of the wall built by the upper castes of Uthapuram village (in Madurai,TN); the allegedly 12 feet high structure, constructed in 1989 in the aftermath of a violent communal conflict, was aimed at preventing the entry of ‘militant and rowdy Dalits’ into upper caste localities ( Ironically, 1989 is more known to us as the year when the Berlin Wall, a symbol of cultural and economic differences, was tore down). It wasn’t until media reports and activist involvement that the structure was brought to the notice of the public; campaigns to demolish the wall strengthened after news broke out that the wall had electrified fencing.
The demolition of the wall is indeed a welcome move, but it does not in any way mitigate the longstanding instances of discrimination meted out to the Dalit communities in various parts of India. Even today, as The Hindu Editorial reports, Dalits are subject to various forms of social exclusion, be it restrictions on access to public areas/utilities to being served tea in a different set of tumblers across shops. Our constitutional commitments to social justice envisage a community devoid of untouchability and other inherently discriminatory practices. Despite governmental action, segregatory walls continue to exist in the minds of the castes and communities across India. The one at Uthapuram is only a physical manifestation of such a tendency.
One must then, ponder over the exercises to impose equality and social justice in India through affirmative action and social welfare legislations. They would be rendered futile if upper castes and dominant, majoritarian communities were to shy away from being active participants in inclusive social growth. It is not surprising therefore, that the upper caste families at Uthapuram have stayed away from the village, refusing to come back. Our perceptions about social security and growth are unfortunately prejudiced to no lesser extent. Until there is awareness on this count, we would continue to witness variant forms of social exclusion, shocking our democratic, liberal values and conscience. And that is a threat to any society which, as the saying goes, is as strong as its weakest link.