The polarising Dalit debate is mired in simplistic binaries, electoral implications and hagiographical identities that combine together to vitiate the social environment, and worse, numb the national senses to fully assimilate the extent of continuing debilitations of the Dalits in Bharat.

Societally, the comprehension-gap between the essentially-rural domain of the Dalits and the essentially-urban domain of the ‘casteless’ India, has increased dramatically, and the sub-text of the Dalit arguments have remained stuck at the lowest denominations, unable to connect with each other’s perspectives and sensibilities.

Dalit leadership in recent times has only managed a mathematical individuality in the electoral calculus, but has failed the Dalit cause in bridging the crucial comprehension-divide and in moving the entirety of the ‘nation-in-a-hurry’ (‘world’s fastest growing large economy’) to the perils of inadvertently leaving behind, over 250 million!

The absence of a BR Ambedkar, or more recently a KR Narayanan, who morally, intellectually and seamlessly persuaded Dalit empowerment into the national conscience and purpose, as an indispensable part of nation building or what Narayanan called, ‘throbbing with significance for the future’, is tragically missing today.

Ambedkar framed the operating walls-of-conscience for the nation, KR Narayanan went one step ahead, and demolished the lazy perceptions of stereotypes – today again, those walls have acquired a transactional import, with the winds of polarisation having revived the revisionism that militates against the constitutions’ ‘inclusive’ soul and agenda.

The two active Dalit solutions postulated today are between subsuming the Dalit identity under the larger canvas of a unitary religious identity (Ghar Wapsi) and between forming the fiefdoms of hair-splitting clusters within the disparate Dalit identities (e.g. MahaDalit). Both Ambedkar and Narayanan had managed to consolidate and center the Dalit issue as an opportunity to unleash the inherent potential and destiny of the nation, whereas the current Dalit leadership has regressed it to an ‘impediment’ role, which has crucially failed to shame the nation on the enormity of the Dalit issue.

KR Narayanan described himself as the ‘Citizen President’ as opposed to making his Dalit identity his calling-card, despite his acute financial, social and emotional hurt born out of the journey that started in a small thatched hut in Uzhavoor. Harold Laski’s favourite student at LSE had shone as a professional diplomat by Ambassadorships at China and USA, displayed unmatched gravitas and inclination by teaching at Delhi School of Economics and Vice Chancellorship at JNU, shown political acuity by winning 3 straight Lok Sabha elections from the Communist bastion of Ottapalam, personified constitutional sobriety and dignity while serving as Vice President, before getting insufficiently tagged as just the ‘first Dalit President’. The constitutionalist who insisted on working ‘within the four corners of the Constitution’ never missed a forum or opportunity to gently and fearlessly remind the nation of the urgencies on the Dalit issues, ‘not in the way of charity, but as human rights and as social justice to a section of society’.

KR Narayanan had brilliantly broached the contentious subject of ‘reservations’ not just in public sector but also in private sector by nuancing, “Indeed, in the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilised human beings.

This is not to ask the private enterprise to accept socialism, but to initiate something like the diversity bill and the affirmative action that a capitalist country like the US has adopted and is implementing”.

That the private sector in India has successfully initiated various affirmative actions towards interpretations of diversity, whilst enriching itself and not compromising on the much-bandied meritocracy, is a testimony to the foresight and presentation of the argument. KR Narayanan spoke compellingly in the language of ‘today and tomorrow’, by improvising, innovating and suggesting with his independent opinions without turning into an activist or becoming inflexible in his cause-leadership.

Today, despite having 60% of the Dalit lawmakers in the Lok Sabha, the ruling dispensation is struggling to alleviate the Dalit angst, sincerely. The recent specter of mob lynchings, Rohith Vemula, societal intolerances has the Dalit communities confused and sadly, acquiring militant undertones.

The Indian Constitution remains the most powerful protector of the Dalits, this too hasn’t been spared the threats of constitutional review. The opposition has propped regional Dalit leaders, but it is equally guilty of not escalating the issue beyond symbolism and tapping the undercurrents for electoral gratification.

The uproar and violence over the recent Supreme Court judgment banning immediate arrest of a person accused of insulting or injuring a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe member, is to be seen in the context of the unaddressed vulnerabilities and continuing humiliations perceived by the Dalits.

Had the state been perceptibly more responsive and assertive in protecting the Dalit concerns, vis-à-vis earlier times, the Supreme Court view that the decision was not an affront to Dalit rights but to protect innocents from getting arbitrarily arrested, would have prevailed.

The state has failed its moral instinct, the Dalit leadership its ability to nuance its disenchantment convincingly, and the national mainstream its ability to seize itself of the gravity of Dalit issues, holistically and empathetically.

Historically, it took statesmanship of a Nehru to invite his political and intellectual opponent, Ambedkar to the centrestage of national significance and governance, or for the sheer audacity of opinions, by a KR Narayanan, to showcase the auguries and privileges of investing in the socio-economically deprived sections of society. Today, neither is there comparative political magnanimity or graces across the mainstream parties, not the opportunity for such suppressed erudition to flower – essentially, the Dalit debate remains about solely about ‘reservation’ and not about social-emotional equity, and it remains about the ‘limitless quota’ irrespective of economic status achieved, when the reality is that a Dalit bridegroom still needs police protection to ride a horse in modern India.

(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) was former Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. He had served as Military Secretary earlier to then President of India KR Narayanan).