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Punishing the multitude

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One case that lingers in the memory from those days of growing up in Akure had to do with a death in a crowd. Who killed the man that died during one of those demonstrations (iwode) against the British colonial government? Looking back now one wondered why a backwater like Akure could be the cite of such a momentous case. A man was hauled to court by the Nigeria Police of those days with the help of the ‘E’ Division and the local provincial police of the time (awon akoda). A local lawyer who had, up to that point, survived on what he earned from ‘charge and bail’, offered to defend the murder accused pro bono. Suddenly a new phrase entered the language of the Oba’s Market – we di se ko mi li poro bono? – why don’t you do it for me pro bono?

On the day that he would present his, the case of his client, Barrister C.A. Bail brought a broom, like the symbol of the All Progressive Congress (A.P.C.), to the court. When it was his turn to present his client’s case, he began to walk around the court room.

He had the broom in his right hand and he wore a blue rubber glove in his left hand. Around the court room he walked dressed in his lawyer’s regalia. Finally he found it – a fly. Then whack! He killed the fly. With his left hand, holding it with his thumb and forefinger he took the dead fly to the jury. We had a jury system then. He ask the a simple question: which of these stems making this broom killed this fly?

Arundhati Roy, Indian prize winning novelist, says in her recently published essay “The Doctor and the Saint Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste The Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi” that Ambedkar quotes Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797 as saying that “there is no method found for punishing the multitude.”

Well, since Burke’s time Technology has attempted to identify those to punish in a crowd since lawmaking has not progressed from punishing individuals to punishing multitudes. For instance, it is now usual for a crowd demonstrating to be drenched with coloured water. Later on the police would seek out anyone soaked blue and try them for disturbing the peace by demonstrating!

Very recently cameras have begun to scan people walking on the streets if faces picked up have been at demonstrations. Whatever technology might wish to do, lawmaking has not advanced to punishing crowds for any collective offense.

The issue, which has occasioned this column as well as Ms. Roy’s essay in remembrance of Dr. Ambedkar’s never delivered lecture Annihilation of Caste is CASTE. What is caste? One definition calls it “an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”. It is a case of from purity to pollution. Mahatma Gandhi insists in his response to Ambedkar that “hereditary occupation is the soul of the caste system. He further insists that “hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder.”

Now for the more complex complicated aspect of the argument. Racism, sexism, apartheid and many other types of discrimination have been fought and virtually defeated. Yet, caste that blights the lives of millions in India, men, women and children, has never even been raised at any international forum for discussion. In spite of Human Rights!

Human Rights are legislations, which deal with individual rights. If a community refuses to recognise such rights for some individuals no legislation can protect them on its own. This is why the millions of Indians condemned to untouchable status and others can never be released from the caste system.

When a group of Dalits (Untouchables) raised the issue of caste at the Durban UN Conference against Racism, the Indian government delegation insisted that caste is not the same thing as racism. In fact the Saint in Ms. Roy’s title is no other than the most famous Indian in the world Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi believes that caste is an expression of the genius of the Hindi, no less.

There is a mob killing in a village of a family consisting of a mother and her two sons and daughter, all grown up. Their offense? They were aspiring beyond the rand they were born into. Like if their role is to carry human faeces, they must not aspire to anything else but that. The four people were brought out and the two boys were asked to rape their mother and their sister. The boys were killed. Then the mother and the daughter were killed. The bodies were set alight. All this in the largest democracy in the world.

What has happened to caste in the radical, even communist states of Southern India such as Kerala and Uttar Pradesh? “By force-fitting caste into reductive Marxist class analysis, the progressive and left-leaning Indian intelligentsia has made seeing caste even harder”. All that the Dalits got in Durban was a declaration of empathy. “Descendants of prominent African American families, who led the civil rights movement presented a Declaration of Empathy to the US Congress. The declaration appeals to all Americans to stand in solidarity with the Dalits of South Asia to fight caste discrimination and caste-based slavery.”

“With this Declaration of Empathy, we stand in solidarity with the oppressed Dalit people of India. Until they are free, none of us is, indeed, free.”

In 2007 the US Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 139 “expressing the sense of the Congress that the United States should address the ongoing problem of untouchability in India.” When Obama visited India in 2010 he told Indians: “No matter who you are or where you come from… every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity.” Donald Trump just visited India. He said nothing about untouchability.

Perhaps sometime in the future the broom will not go unpunished. Multitudes will be called to answer for their crime. While we wait for that day, we must go along with the Yoruba that only the insane puts himself or herself forward in defence of the multitude.


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