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Top sociologist accuses govt-sponsored CEPT Univ study for supporting chaturvarna, ignoring untouchability

By Our Representative
A top Indian sociologist has accused a recent Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University report for seeking to legitimize the chaturvarna social order as a “positive aspect towards life”. The CEPT report, titled "Impact of Caste Discriminations and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat" (2013) was prepared in order to question the findings of a top NGO, Navsarjan Trust, “Understanding Untouchability” (2009), which found widescale prevalence of untouchability in 1,589 Gujarat villages it surveyed. Criticizing the CEPT report, Prof Ghanshyam Shah says, it is guided by the “perspective” which “facilitates harmony or samras in society”, adding, “Such perspective contradicts the principles laid down in the Constitution.”
Sharply criticizing the CEPT report, which was sponsored by the Gujarat government, for “completely ignored to study the practice of untouchability”, as if it is a non-issue, Prof Shah says, in order to counter the NGO survey, it shockingly “carried out mainly a socio-economic survey in five villages”. In fact, according to him, the CEPT report “does not feel the need to argue why have they not correlated socio-economic data with the presence or absence of untouchability. Even government census gives economic and education status of scheduled castes (SCs)”.
Prof Shah’s critique has been published online in counterview.org.
Further, the top sociologist finds fault with the CEPT report for studying a different set of villages than those studied by Navsarjan. “What have they verified? The report on five villages is an usual socio-economic survey, nothing more”, he points out, doubting whether the researchers who carried out the survey of the five villages — including the principal researcher Prof R Parthasarathy — ever lived in any of the villages. “In which locality they lived? How did they interact with members of different localities? The report does not offer a coherent narrative”, he asserts.
Prof Shah criticizes the authors of the CEPT report for saying that “the issues of discrimination leading to social differences are largely related to perceptions and past practices over centuries involving a historically determined context”. He wonders, what the “authors mean by ‘perception’. He asks, “Is it just maya (illusion) in Hindu philosophical sense; or beliefs which do not have material base or false consciousness (deviating from spirituality)? To me, all perceptions/beliefs have some kind of material/existential basis as well as normative value: the notion of right and wrong. One has to experience humiliation in everyday life to understand ‘experience’ of untouchability. Those who do not have such experience can dismiss the phenomenon as a matter of perception.”
Commenting on Parthasarathy’s decision to avoid using the word ‘untouchability’, Prof Shah says, the CEPT report merely studies “discrimination, and that too in a very casual way.” According to him, “The practice of untouchability includes both discrimination and exclusion. All those who experience discrimination in different spheres are not victims of untouchability. Indian Constitution recognizes the difference. That is the reason it has Articles 14–16 which encompass the general principles of equality before law and non-discrimination. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them. And over and above, there is also a separate Article 17 dealing with the practice of untouchability, declaring such practice as an offence punishable by law.”
Moreover, he says, “The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, was enacted by Parliament to further this objective. It is obvious for any casual student of Indian society that all those who experience discrimination on the basis of sex, place of domicile, religion, physical disability, etc., may not experience untouchability. All discriminatory practices do not have religious and/or customary sanction through traditions.”
Questioning the objectivity of the CEPT report, Prof Shah says, “The report informs that 44 per cent of non-SCs, non-OBCs (upper or middle castes) do not take midday meal in the school. They prefer to go home for their meals. The authors leave us to speculate the reasons for this behaviour. One of the purposes of midday meal was to break social taboos. Here the responsibility of the government comes in. It is its responsibility to create such a situation so that all children take meal together as equal with dignity; and doing so is not insurmountable.”
Similarly, Prof Shah says, “the CEPT study observes but refuses to note that all labourers get less wages than the government-stipulated minimum wage. Like a positivist, the report mentions, ‘Overall, male workers get paid marginally higher than female workers. Lower daily wage has been reported by SC female workers than males during all the seasons; whereas not much difference is reported amongst OBC male and female workers’ daily wages; and it is higher for female workers of other caste and community (OCC) households during winter and summer’.”
Wondering what these facts tell, Prof Shah says, “Both SC males and females get less wages than others. Is it not discrimination based on caste as well gender? Is it not violation of labour laws? Perhaps for the authors, to say so is beyond the scope of ‘scientific’ objective study, or such interpretation may displease the government, the sponsoring agency. No wonder, the government has ‘encouraged’ the researchers ‘to publish the report with supporting grant’.” He recalls, in this context, how, in 2007 the Gujarat government rejected its self-sponsored findings (under the pressure of the state’s Safai Kamdar Vikas Nigam) on scavenging in Gujarat .
Prof Shah quotes from the report to say that the CEPT team notes now the SC people were ‘distant observer’s at the time of Holika Dahan ritual on the eve of the Holi festival. “On marriages and other social occasions, ‘social distance’ is maintained in some villages. The authors also find that SCs are called last on ritual/marriage/festival feasts and are asked ‘to bring their own utensils for food. They do not visit public temples. According to the authors, it is because the community as a whole ‘was not found to be religious'.”
The sociologist asks, “Is it so because of the fear to get humiliated and beaten up? Navsarjan recently (June 2013) visited all the five villages studied by CEPT and found prevalence of subjugation and helplessness, and also that the government would not protect them if they do not assert for their rights. This was the main reason for not vising public temples rather than ‘less religiosity’. The CEPT study has failed to observe that in all these villages, it is obligatory for the Chamars and Valmikis to carry corpses of dead animals. In two villages Valmikis are not allowed to take water from the village well. They have to wait for others to pour water in their pots. In one village, SC members perceive that they experience discrimination in village panchayat and school. I wonder why Parthasarathy’s team has ignored these spheres.”
Prof Shah has found that at places the CEPT report goes factually wrong. For instance, it argues that “all the SC communities bury their dead rather than cremating”. Calling this “surprising”, he emphasizes, “On the basis of study of five villages, the authors have the tenacity to generalize for all the SC communities in Gujarat. I wish they visit more villages and will find that some SC communities by custom cremate the dead. Any student of social-anthropology or any social activist, familiar with caste and customs, would tell them variations of customs and rituals in Indian society. Even in Ahmedabad city one finds that Valmikis cremate dead bodies.”

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