Tuesday, November 15, 2011

[ZESTCaste] On The Flailing Wings Of Dalit Concrete


On The Flailing Wings Of Dalit Concrete
November 13, 2011 8:00 am 0 Comments and 0 Reactions

India's Chief Minister Mayawati receives criticism for costly
monuments honouring India's lower caste

By: Shruti Desai, Staff Writer
The Dalit

Image by Adam Roberts

Bathe grass in shadows of twenty-four pink sandstone elephants and
fifteen bronze sculptures of iconic Dalits. Polish the deed with
approximately 7 billion rupees of ($150 million) taxpayer funds from
the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The result?

Rashtriya Dalit Smarak ("National Dalit Memorial") is a 33-acre mini
museum in Noida, sandwiched between Okhla Bird Sanctuary – a wildlife
preserve that had amassed early concern from conservationists hoping
to buckle development – and the Yamuna River. Although UP Chief
Minister Mayawati insists the memorial innocently honours fellow
Dalits (formerly the 'untouchables'), or members of India's
historically underprivileged social class, critics deem it a
disgraceful neglect of pressing economic, health, and quality of life
issues in one of the country's largest and poorest states.
Within the broader context of a responsible moral and economic agenda,
the fundamental promise of social harmony across India is at stake.

Indeed, the Indian Supreme Court timed its approval of the project
superbly to ring in the midst of a viral outbreak of Japanese
encephalitis. Despite rising numbers of deaths, the government has yet
to enact visible containment measures. And why should it? Since 'the
Dalit Queen' assumed office in 2007, the priority has been projects
that, with refreshing consistency, claim to celebrate Dalit pride,
while erecting multiple statues of the minister. Reuters India simply
wrote off the court's decision as the minister's habit of "getting her

The Economist, meanwhile, questions the "walls of self-aggrandising
stonework" that just about deify Mayawati, her parents, and founding
members of her political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Even
the two-dozen 18-foot elephants are questionable. Although dispersed
throughout Indian mythological and religious imagery, elephants are
also the electoral face of the BSP. And of course, the timely
convenience of this 'latest pet project' supporting Mayawati's
upcoming election bid is difficult to deny.

If Mayawati endeavours to honour Dalit achievements, she is right to
commemorate figures like Dr. Amebdkhar, a renowned Dalit activist and
posthumous recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India's most prestigious
civilian award. But does she believe that fastening Dalit
commemoration to a political party or worse, to one's own image, will
encourage inter-class solidarity?

Undeterred, supporters consider the monument a fitting response to
centuries of social injustice. Ajoy Bose, author of Behenji: A
Political Biography of Mayawati, declares it a smart means "to
simultaneously flaunt and preserve her [Mayawati's] power". Mayawati,
herself, brushed off outcries of 'extravagant spending' and 'partisan
politics' by arguing, vehemently, for equality of representation in
memorials for caste leaders.

And she almost has a point. For a population that's been, for the
most part, written out of law, such a tangible and visually
magnificent fixture helps Dalit pride gain visible clout. Crucially,
however, against the backdrop of changing class divisions inherent in
this fast globalising economy, Mayawati might do better to adapt her
leadership style accordingly.

Within the broader context of a responsible moral and economic agenda,
the fundamental promise of social harmony across India is at stake.
Mayawati's offences aside – which is not to pardon her atrocious
misuse of government funds (including planes to fetch shoes, birthday
bashes, pantheons of self-glorifying stone), the focus on a
progressive social ethic must shift from class structure defined by
domestic politics to one necessarily implicated in a global system.

The chronic use of material culture to signify, or 'fix', symbolic
identity becomes, in this respect, unsustainable and frankly,
imprudent; it mediates against the now fickle relationships amongst
social class, economic opportunity, and residential mobility. As
lower caste members begin, however slowly, to secure skilled posts in
society and serve in greater regions of the country, a new brand of
Indian society emerges in which economic, as opposed to social,
motives rally political support. And these cannot be bought by
sculptures alone, if at all.

At a moment when the coming together of UP residents, Dalit and
non-Dalit, would have been a momentous gesture to experiment with this
understanding, Mayawati instead assembled 40,000 BSJ party supporters
to celebrate the October 14th inauguration.

The National Dalit Park stands to reflect, even negotiate, a competent
symbolic response to class stigmatisation. Yet much work remains. In
the interest of dismantling caste prejudice, social inclusion efforts
must aim to share, rather than to ration, the celebration of identity.
Citizens must be valued foremost and utmost for their contributions,
not their identification with a group.


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