It is often said that caste is to India what race is to America. Yet, the attitudes of the dominant social class in the two countries couldn’t be more different (it is instructive to compare them without subscribing to a singular conception of modernity). Since at least the 60s, debate on racial prejudice has been mainstream in America. Civic institutions began combating it as a social evil; whites confronted other whites in the public square; Hollywood, the media, and the elites made it uncool; law enforcement cracked the whip on race crimes; diversity and multiculturalism became priorities. Whites widely read black authors who write about their social milieus. Blacks are highly visible in popular culture, including sports, music, and films, and are fully integrated in the military. White majorities routinely elect black mayors, senators, and governors; a politician can be destroyed by the merest racial slur (recall the ‘macaca’ incident?).
Not so in India. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, continues to thrive after calling the Dalits ‘mentally retarded children’ who gain ‘spiritual experience’ from manual scavenging. The media has little interest or insight into Dalit lives, nor hires low-caste journalists. Major atrocities against Dalits still go unreported. Law enforcement is often indifferent or worse. There is no effective prosecution for discrimination in employment and housing. A Dalit politician can’t get a majority of upper-caste votes even in South Mumbai. Even among those few elites who read books, how many have read a single novel or memoir by a Dalit? In what is perhaps the most diverse country in the world, there is no commitment to diversity in the elite institutions that decide what is worthy art, music, and literature, or what is the content of history textbooks. In book after book of stories for children, both the protagonist and the implicit audience are elite and upper-caste. Much the same is true of sitcoms, soap operas, and commercials on TV. Dalits are invisible from all popular culture that gets any airtime. The Indian army still has many upper-caste-only regiments. There is nothing like an Indian ACLU. Or a Dalit history month on public TV, or exhibits in museums, that seek to educate the upper-castes about a long and dark chapter of their past (and present). Unless a sizable proportion of elites, benumbed by privilege, open their eyes and learn to see both within and without, can there be much hope?