17 MARCH 2016
Caste atrocities and political abdication
The murder of a 22-year-old Dalit man at Udumalpet in western Tamil Nadu has brought to the fore the worst aspects of today’s Tamil society: the resurgence of caste pride, a shameless disregard for individual rights when they are in conflict with the hegemonic order, and an anachronistic belief in the notion of caste purity and pollution. That a group of mercenaries could casually surround V. Shankar and his 19-year-old wife Kausalya, and brutally slay one of them and leave the other seriously wounded on the edge of a busy road does not merely indicate a lack of fear of the law. It demonstrates a disquieting confidence that no one would dare challenge or pursue them. Often characterised as ‘honour killings’ because their motivation arises from the idea that a woman marrying outside her community brings dishonour to the family, such murders in India normally involve family members rendering brutal ‘justice’ to the ‘transgressor’ within. In recent years, it appears to work in a different way in Tamil Nadu. In such murders, the victims are often Dalits, for daring to transgress social mores to marry someone deemed to be above their station in life. Thus, E. Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth whose marriage to a Vanniyar woman led to caste riots in November 2012 and whose body was found on a railway track in July 2013, and Gokulraj, another Dalit youth murdered for talking to a Gounder girl last year, were clearly victims of caste atrocities.
In the case of Shankar, too, the emphasis seemed to be mainly on wreaking vengeance against a Dalit man; though the element of punishing the family member too was present, as Ms. Kausalya was also attacked with long knives and remains in hospital. Whether in alleged defence of imaginary family honour or as a strike against Dalit assertion, such murders have become disturbingly frequent. The regrettable part of the entire episode is that major political parties tend to condemn such murders only in general terms, and avoid any mention of the role of dominant castes. Seldom do they confront the arrogance of some castes that enjoy political patronage and operate as enforcers of norms in some regions, especially targeting Dalits. Caste groups have become powerful political lobbies. Caste associations attract young and educated members of the community. Shockingly, Shankar’s murderers drew fulsome praise on social media from committed caste adherents. There is a shallow debate over whether present-day caste consciousness indicates the failure of the Dravidian social reform movement in Tamil Nadu. It is futile to blame social reformers who fought for caste-based reservations when it is the political leadership of recent years that has given credence and credibility to caste icons. Tamil society, which prides itself on its cultural moorings, needs to look inwards. Freedom to choose who to love has been seen to be a distinguishing sign of progressive societies. That it can be denied in this day and age is a disgraceful commentary on our times.
A new chapter in Myanmar
The election of U Htin Kyaw as Myanmar’s President is a watershed moment in its history. Mr. Htin Kyaw’s government would be its most democratic administration since 1962 when the military seized power. During this period, the generals ran a repressive regime that denied the people even basic democratic rights and isolated the country internationally. For Myanmar’s pro-democracy camp, the election is a moment of joy, and sorrow. Finally a legitimate, democratic government is in place, but there is deep disappointment at the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, their “rightful” leader, could not become the President. A provision in the military-era Constitution bars Ms. Suu Kyi from assuming the highest office as her children are foreign citizens. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) lacks the parliamentary power to rewrite the Constitution. Efforts by Ms. Suu Kyi to reach a settlement with the generals did not bear fruit either. It was against this background that she nominated Mr. Htin Kyaw, an economist and writer she has known from her early school days, as the party’s presidential candidate. Ms. Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be in control of the government, irrespective of her constitutional status.
While the formation of a democratic government is clearly a firm step forward, the new government faces an uphill task. Primarily, it has to address the deep economic problems. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. In the years of isolation under the junta, economic growth stagnated, trapping millions in acute poverty. Getting the economy back on track is no easy task, and Myanmar will need regional and global assistance. Besides, though the generals have agreed to civilian takeover of political power, they still wield enormous influence over Myanmar’s institutions. One-quarter of seats in both Houses of Parliament are reserved for the military. This prevents any constitutional amendments without the military’s approval. The military also has direct control of three key Ministries: defence, home affairs and border affairs. Two recent actions of the military indicate it is still not ready to cede influence over institutions completely. The first is its refusal to let Ms. Suu Kyi become the President. It knew that if Ms. Suu Kyi, hugely popular at home and widely respected abroad, becomes President, that could expedite the country’s transition into a full democracy. Second, by successfully getting Myint Swe, a controversial retired general who served the previous junta, elected as one of the two vice-presidents, the military has sent a clear message to the government that it is not going to completely stay away from power. But the good news is that the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of the pro-democracy camp after the November elections. Ms. Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw will have to tread cautiously but purposefully to build on the democratic gains, and expedite Myanmar’s transition into a full democracy.