Reporter: Tejas Harad
Video Producer: Vishnu Gopinath
"There's a striking similarity between what happened in the US after the abolition of slavery and what happened in India after the abolition of untouchability," says author Manoj Mitta.
Mitta, a veteran journalist, published his third book Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India in April 2023. This book explores the intersection of caste and law, chronicling various cases related to caste discrimination and caste reforms during the colonial period as well as post Independence.
Mitta's previous two books were on religious mass violence – When a Tree Shook Delhi on 1984 Sikh riots and The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra on 2002 Gujarat riots. In his third and latest book, he turns his attention towards caste discrimination. The Quint caught up with Mitta on a videocall to discuss the issues covered in the book.
"What was noticed in the US was, the sudden abolition of a legalised form of oppression led to a pushback from white supremacists and that led to southern states in the United States adopting segregation laws, or what are called Jim Crowe laws, to replace the previous system of slavery," Mitta tells The Quint.
"Now, in India, what was noticed was, you had this system of untouchability abolished in 1950, at the time of the promulgation of the Constitution, and there was a great deal of rhetoric about equality in the form of various provisions of the Constitution. And then, in 1954, we even had the Untouchability Offences Act, as a sequel to the abolition of untouchability. So, in this environment, there was a great deal of assertion of equality on the part of Dalit rights. And, there was also the presence of Ambedkar at the time. So, there was a slow resentment that was building up against this assertion of equality on the part of those who were previously considered untouchables," Mitta continues.
"All this came to the surface in a very dramatic and very violent form in 1968, in a place called Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu. That really set the template for violence, and later it was seen, it also set the template for impunity. When I say violence, I mean mass violence targeting a set of vulnerable Dalits, in their hamlet or whatever. Then, when the systems of rule of law kick in, it was noticed that on some grounds or the other, or some flimsy reason or the other, this system of justice would let off the culprits," he adds.
When asked why he chose to look at the intersection of caste and law, Mitta says that this particular theme has remained understudied and therefore he wanted to fill the lacuna.
"A great deal has been written on caste, and a great deal has been written on law and its manifestations. But on the intersection of law and caste, there's been little or nothing. And this is in contrast to the situation in the US where on this corresponding aspect of intersection of law and race, so much work, so much research has been done, that the corpus of knowledge they have on the legal aspects of race is even in their school textbooks. Whereas, in India, even university dons know little about the aspects I have dealt with in this book. So, by default there's a wealth of new material on the legal aspects of caste."
He tells The Quint that American scholar Marc Galanter had done pioneering work on the legal history of caste, however, his scholarship was not taken forward.
"I owe a great deal of my inspiration to him. I had the good fortune of interacting with him, and he was very happy that I will be going deeper into aspects of law and caste because he felt that, what he did in the course of his Fulbright scholarship when he visited India in the 50s and 60s while he was doing his fieldwork, was essentially scratching the surface and there was so much more to be done. He was disappointed there was no follow-up to the pioneering work he had done. It was in that spirit that I undertook this work."
Mitta adds that social movements for the abolition of caste also had a legal dimension to them but that angle hasn't been written about much except for some works like Anand Teltumbade's book Mahad satyagraha called Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt.
"So, I focus very consciously on this under-explored aspect of caste," he ends.