In India there is no escape from the Brahmanical caste structure, it is a story that needs no retelling. It has been the case since ages, and, quite distressingly, it will be so for at least few generations to come. My 18-month tenure in ActionAid Hyderabad Regional Office and my subsequent year-long fight with ActionAid India and ActionAid International not only affirmed my conviction, but it enlightened me about another phenomena, too; that an international aid agency’s “International Office”, which committed themselves to the poor and unprivileged, can also become as casteist and discriminatory as Indian casteists. To put it more bluntly, individuals from India’s dominant castes and the ones who believe in Brahmanical ideology rule those agencies.
Please read my earlier article, for more background: Caste Discrimination in Modern Workspaces: The Case of ActionAid India
1. Indian caste system is becoming a world problem
Caste system and Chaturvarnya1 principles of hierarchy is spreading across countries of the world; the caste Hindus carry their caste along with them wherever they go. As observed by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, “As long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”2 What Dr Ambedkar foretold in 1917, has become the truth today.
The people who migrated from India to different countries have formed their caste organisations in places like the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, South Africa and UAE. The table below lists a few of the websites of caste-based organisations across the world:
http://www.bbsl.org.uk/ – Bardai Brahmin Samaj London,
http://www.elebs.org/ – East London & Essex Brahm Samaj,
http://www.bbsl.org.uk/ – Bardai Brahmin Samaj London
http://brahminsamajcanada.com/ – Brahmin Samaj Canada
http://www.brahminsamajontario.org/ Brahmin Samaj (society) of Ontario
http://palwadatoronto.com/ Shri Palwada Audichya Brahmin Samaj, Toronto
http://www.vsna.org/ Veerashaiva Samaja of North America (VSNA)
http://www.bsgc-il.org/ – Brahma Samaj of Greater Chicago
http://rajputdhobiusa.weebly.com/ – Rajput Dhobi Samaj -USA
http://www.bardaionline.com/ – Sri Bardai Brahmin Samaj (Leicester) UK
http://www.bardai.net/ Sri Baradi Brahmin Samaj Northamptionshire
http://hinducouncil.com.au/ – The Hindu Council of Australia
http://www.mycasteishindu.org/ – Alliance of Hindu Organisations
https://www.ataworld.org America Telugu Association (ATA) Dominated by Kammas
http://www.nataus.org/ – North American Telugu Association- Dominated by Reddys
https://iynaus.org – The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States
email@example.com – Brahmin Samaj of Georgia Inc
http://mybsfl.com/ – Brahmin Samaj of Florida
http://www.bsoga.org/- Brahmin Samaj of Georgia
http://www.nhsf.org.uk – National Hindu Students Forum (UK)
Transvaal Hindu Seva Samaj- Johannesburg, Gauteng
http://www.hindusamajsheffield.org.uk/ – Hindu Samaj Sheffield – UK
http://hinducouncil.com.au/ – The Hindu Council of Australia
https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/uae_brahmins/info- Brahmin Samaj UAE
http://www.agrawalsamajusa.org/ Agarwal Samaj USA
http://agrawalamerica.com/links.htm Agarwal Association of America
http://iskcon.org/ – The International Society for Krishna Consciousness
The above list of organisations can also be found here:3 https://karthiknavayan.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/caste-based-organisations-across-the-globe/
The atrocities towards Dalits, namely, untouchability, humiliation, denial of equal opportunities and violation of human rights are similar in Indian organizations as well as in international organizations with notable Indian presence. Also, the caste practice of honour killings has migrated to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada along with Caste Hindus. In 2008, a so-called upper caste man called Subhash Chander, who lived in Oak Forest, suburb, south of Chicago in USA set fire to his pregnant daughter, his son-in-law and his 3-year-old grandson, and killed them all because he didn’t approve of his daughter’s marriage, as his son–in-law was a lower-caste man from India4.
As caste and its evil social practises spread across countries, the Dalit groups have started fighting back. Because of prolonged battle carried out by several anti-caste organisations, the Government of the UK brought a law, The Equality Act 2010, which treats caste as an aspect of race5. Equality Act 2010 was aimed at ensuring equality to diverse ethnic migrant groups in the UK. In 2013, when the UK government wanted to bring an Anti-Caste legislation, which is a special legal measure against caste discrimination in the UK among the Indians, some Hindu fundamentalist groups in the UK opposed it.
Then the government ordered a study on the presence of caste discrimination in UK. Dr Meena Dhanda, Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics, University of Wolverhampton headed a team of academics to conduct the study on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The research was a part of the commission’s Caste in Britain project, undertaken at the request of the Government, to help inform the introduction of a new statutory law. This followed the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 requirement that the government introduce a statutory prohibition of caste discrimination in British equality law6.
Noting the severity of the problem of caste discrimination, the European Parliament (EP) recognised caste-based discrimination as a human rights violation and adopted a resolution condemning it and urging European Union institutions to address it, in October 2013. The EP consists of 28 member-countries of the EU. Acknowledging that caste-affected communities are still subjected to ‘untouchability practices’ in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the October 10 resolution stressed the need to combat discrimination based on work and descent, which occurs also in Yemen, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia7.
Though caste is still haunting across the globe, the colonial misunderstanding of caste often repeats the same mistake. For instance, International Aid agencies like ActionAid International (AA International), which claim to be working for the Dalits and Adivasis in India, are primarily run by dominant caste individuals who do not have a proper understanding of the caste system and its socio-economic and cultural dimensions. This results in caste based discrimination on Dalits in their own institutional spaces!
As Ambedkar clearly pointed out on a different historical situation, the negligence of foreigners, including radicals, about the social fabric of India which by default bestows privileges, prestige, and confidence on the Brahmins in accordance with the Manusmriti, thus making the Brahmins the ‘governing class’ who deliberately excluded all the means for the ‘servile class’ to achieve self-respect and development.
Ambedkar observes, “Starting with the Brahmins who form a strong and powerful element in the governing class in India it is no exaggeration to say that they have been the most inveterate enemies of the servile classes, the Shudras (the old name for the non-Brahmins) and the Untouchables who together constitute about 80 or 90 percent of the total Hindu population of India. If the common man belonging to the servile classes in India is to-day so fallen, so degraded, so devoid of self-respect, hope or ambition, and so lifeless, it is entirely due to the Brahmins and their philosophy. The cardinal principles of this philosophy of the Brahmins were six—to use a correct expression, techniques of suppression—(1) graded inequality between the different classes; (2) complete disarmament of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (3) complete ban on the education of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (4) total exclusion of the Shudras and the Untouchables from places of power and authority; (5) complete prohibition against the Shudras and the Untouchables acquiring property, and (6) complete subjugation and suppression of women. Inequality is the official doctrine of Brahmanism and the suppression of the lower classes aspiring to equality has been looked upon by them and carried out by them, without remorse, as their bounded duty.”8
Without recognising the genealogy of the cultural, social, moral authority in the Indian social fabric, foreigners are taking these unmarked Indian Brahmanical class as representative of India. “These reasons cannot be beyond the ken of these radicals. Correspondents or no correspondents, is it not the duty of radicals to keep in touch with their kindred in other parts of the world to encourage them, to help them and to see that true democracy lives everywhere. It is a most unfortunate thing that the Radicals of England and America should have forgotten the class to whom they owe a duty to help and have become the publicity agents of Indian Tories who are just misusing the slogan of liberty to be fool and befog the world9.”
He again asks foreigners regarding their total faith in the Brahminical class, “Do they not realise that for the reasons for which the Sultan could not abolish Islam or the Pope could not repudiate Catholicism, the governing class in India will not decree the destruction of Brahmanism and that so long as the governing class remains what it is, Brahmanism, which preaches the supremacy of Brahmins and the allied castes and which recognises the suppression and degradation of the Shudras and the Untouchables as the sacred duty of the State, will continue to be the philosophy of the State even if India became free? Do they not know that this governing class in India is not a part of the Indian people, is not only completely isolated from them, but believes in isolating itself, lest it should be contaminated by them, has implanted in its mind by reason of the Brahmanic philosophy, motives and interests which are hostile to those who are outside its fold and therefore does not sympathise with the living forces operating in the servile masses whom it has trodden down, is not charged with their wants, their pains, their cravings, their desires, is inimical to their aspirations, does not favour any advance in their education, promotion to high office and disfavours every movement calculated to raise their dignity and their self-respect ? Do they not know that in the Swaraj of India is involved the fate of 60 millions of Untouchables?”10
Now it is crystal clear that without a serious introspection into the policies, interventions and staff diversity of ActionAid International and other Aid Agencies, neither can poverty and injustice be fought nor can democracy be established. The tall claim that the Aid Agencies in India are engaged in a so-called fight against poverty and injustice holds no water. Whose poverty are you going to end and to whom do you plan to bring justice without addressing the caste system which itself is the primary contributor to poverty and injustice? If anyone raises such a question, he will find abundant proof that the Aid Agencies, far from planning to end poverty and injustice, are actually giving artificial respiration to the ancient form of Hindu polity of a ‘hereditary governing class ruling a hereditary servile class’.
2. The Aid Agencies and their perception on caste
ActionAid International and other charity organisations which also speak of human rights, equality and justice, are filled with Brahmins and other dominant caste individuals. No aid agency is an exception. This rule even applies to the Indian units of the United Nations. A critical look at the historical formation of these caste interest groups will help us understand the root of this problem.
The European understanding of caste and tradition in India is influenced by a Brahmin-centric worldview. Colonial knowledge production about India and its past were accessed from Brahmanical sources which were taken for granted as authentic. As Debjani Ganguly observes, “The predominance of Brahmins as informants, no doubt, led the British, to write accounts of ancient India in terms of Brahmanical sociology of knowledge”11.
Caste thus understood and institutionalized by colonial forces was derived from the understanding of Brahmanical forces. Now, even annihilation of caste is also sought to be delineated by people from dominant castes who have access to the knowledge of their colonial masters. However, their representation often silences and shuts the voices of lifelong victims of caste oppression. Moreover, by using different international platforms they have been continuing their caste hegemony and diverting the radical idea of caste annihilation into caste reform. Once native informants now act as authentic reformers!
In the European context, social exclusion and marginalisation is understood as the problem of individuals that can be solved through liberal individual rights, but in the Indian context, exclusion and marginalisation take place and are maintained through community dynamics. Even a liberal individual cannot simply take back his community inheritance in modern spaces. Without considering this complex social process aid agencies are appointing “unmarked” liberal individual bodies as experts for the development of marginalised but these unmarked bodies often their liberal credentials as camouflage to brutally suppress or invisibilise the marginalised bodies in their spaces. As a result, the disease of ‘casteism’ will definitely affect any international organisation that sets up its chapter in India. Likewise, the casteist Indian who holds some power in any international organisation can also be deadly.
These aid agencies reflect a caste understanding which is historically rooted in colonial knowledge production in India which was aided by Brahmanical collaborators, and which subscribes to the hegemonic idea of Chaturvarnya and hierarchical social relations. They see it as normal and natural Indian social order, according to their understanding; it cannot be destroyed but may be reformed.
British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent has strengthened the Brahmin-imagined Chaturvarnya caste system, which demarcated the Brahmin as the highest ranking of the four varnas. In Hindu India, through the British colonial rule, Brahmins and other dominant castes have strengthened their position by occupying all available positions of power. When the defensive castes, the so-called lower castes, demanded the same treatment from the British rulers, the dominant castes have strengthened the Indian national movement.
Aloysius observes here, “with the establishment of Pax Britannica the vanquishing of the rajas and maharajas on the one hand and the switchover from other sword wielding to pen pushing as the new method of ruling other- the British discovered the religio-culturally but scattered dominant, the Brahmanical (the people of different castes who by birth first, but more importantly conscious – moral adoption believe in practise and stand to gain by Varnashrama in social relations) particularly of the surplus producing river valley as the eminently suited and valued collaborator for the delivery of their colonial objective. This discovery and the mutual beneficial partnership that ensured between what was even flaunted as the reunification of the too long last brothers of the same stock12.
In other words, Hadwa Dom clearly states, “The Brahmins of India actively collaborated with the English colonialists in their conquest of India. As a result, the English rewarded them by inventing the designated ‘Leaders of Hinduism’ for their loyal servants, their Aryan Brahmin cousins13.
Hadwa Dom further observes: “During British control of colonial India, many missionaries and humanitarians from Britain and other western countries decried the Hindu caste system as unfair. At the same time, the British government in India had often been perfectly happy to align itself with the Brahmins in order to preserve stability and introduce at least a facade of local control in the colonial regime”14.
The Brahmins were in alliance with the British scholars who studied the caste system. They portrayed themselves to be untouchable friendly and untouchability as a cultural heritage of this country. The very idea of caste system that the Britishers and other Europeans had was from Brahmins and other aggressive caste oppressors, not from the victims of the caste system. The colonial powers influenced by the manipulated knowledge given by the Brahmanical forces enabled dominance of the caste hierarchy and it is still holds sway in all walks of India’s life, be it in the judiciary, civil service, politics and what not.
3. Caste to be challenged at its conscious level
The British-born sociologist and eminent feminist scholar Ruth Frankenberg argues in the context of white racism “the physical distance between white and black settlements in the west is the mark of social distance between them, the material boundaries were also the symbolic boundaries.” She says that “the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality, and privilege rather than disadvantage”15.
This definition identifies whiteness as something that places white people in dominant positions and grants white people unfair privileges, while rendering these positions and privileges invisible to white people16. That means whiteness here acts as a privilege. In India, caste acts as a privilege rather than a mere social organising principle and a tool of discrimination. Caste privileges provide innumerable opportunities and access to people from dominant castes while the people who have no caste privileges are compelled to obey and work according to the norms of the former.
In intellectual and academic discourse, the Brahmin and other dominant castes are privileged to interpret and introduce the Indian caste system to the world through a systematic organisation of institutions. This is possible not only because of their advantaged positions in the academics but also due to their social privilege as upper castes, which endows them with a social legitimacy to speak.
As Gopal Guru pointed out in his famous essay titled How egalitarian are the social sciences in India, “There are historical reasons that gave a structural advantage to the top of the twice born (TTB) in consolidating its privileged position in doing theory. Historically accumulated cultural inequalities seem to have reinforced dalit epistemological closure. This in effect left the realm of reflectivity entirely free from the TTB. Such closures have its sanction in Manu’s thinking”17.
The Indian academia produced caste hierarchy in academics in the name of anti-caste literature. In a hierarchical caste structure, the people from dominant castes will preach about virtues, good, evil, bad and what to do and what not to do etc by relegating the marginalised to the position of mere listeners and actors. In the same way, academia also reproduces the same caste hierarchical structure by placing marginal people at the receiving end always.
In contradiction to the popular perception, radical thinkers like Ambedkar, Phule, and Periyar identified caste system as part of a larger construction of hegemonic forces of the time to enslave the larger masses. So for them caste as a system was not a natural order but an exploitative system supported by economic, cultural and social reasoning. Dr Ambedkar clearly identified the gravity of the caste system as deeply rooted in the cultural psyche of Indian society. Even victims and preceptors of the system deeply affected in the system so they cannot even achieve a development in their life world. Dr. Ambedkar says “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reforms unless you kill this monster” He also says, “caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.19”
This definition of caste by Ambedkar was not taken seriously by the academia or by activists and this resulted in the continuous reproduction of caste and its cultural values in the postcolonial democratic institutions. The international Aid Agencies who claimed to build an equal society free from ‘discrimination’ and ‘injustice’ have fallen into the same trap of practicing discrimination through the reproduction of the caste notion. They are not even ready to look at the ideal of annihilation of caste, which will require them to critically reflect upon caste privileges, symbolic boundaries on which caste is working in modern times and caste capital invested in their own institutional system. For them caste is a system that has to be humanised through their reformatory agendas as Hindu liberal nationalist have always tried to do.
4. Caste Discrimination in ActionAid Hyderabad Regional Office
March 2012 – October 2013
ActionAid India (AA India) and ActionAid International (AA International) have turned out to be casteist Brahmanical organisations not only because dominant caste individuals run them, but also because of their approaches and the procedures adopted to justify covert caste practises, such as in the case of two dominant caste employees in the Hyderabad regional office. AA India AA International managements took sides with the perpetrators of caste discrimination just because the AA India and AA International managements share the same social location and caste ideology as the perpetrators, the Programme Manager Indira Rani and the Regional Manager Raghu Pilla of its Hyderabad region. Both have practised discrimination against me because of my caste status as a Dalit.
I complained to India – Country Director and senior management team on 26th January 2013 explaining the discrimination that I was facing in the ActionAid Hyderabad region. I raised 5 specific issues to be addressed by the ActionAid India Management including the issue of downgrading my position to field officer after I was interviewed (in ActionAid Hyderabad Regional Office) for the post of Programme Officer and was appointed as a Field Officer with the same job description as that of the former but with an inferior salary.
The Country Director responded immediately, in a very technical and legalistic way and asked the HR to look into the matter. However, the HR did nothing apart from speaking to me for a couple of times over phone. No inquiry was conducted until the end of my contract period, i.e. 15th May 2013
Again, I complained to the Country Director and approached all staff on 26th June 2013. After this mail, 30 colleagues from different regional offices had supported me and wrote to the Country Director demanding an inquiry into the issues I raised
The enquiry was conducted only after 7 months had passed after my first complaint. It happened on 12th September 2014.The report was shared with me on 29th October along with another email informing me that they are closing my contract with ActionAid India. Therefore, the whole motive of this inquiry was to justify all the discriminatory decisions taken by Raghu and ActionAid management. Kumkum Kumar, another member on the committee did not participate in the inquiry and did not sign on the report.
I stayed with the organization from May 15th, to 31st October 2013 for a period of 5 months 15 days without the extension of the contract and without signing any agreement, but my salary was paid; leaves and travel allowances approved. How could this happen in an organisation whose HR policies are so strict? In addition, I felt like I was living in a claustrophobic environment throughout this period as the sword of uncertainty hung over my head. Every day I was worrying about whether I would be able to draw my salary since my contract was neither renewed nor extended. Often, I thought that was a strategy adopted to ‘punish’ me or to ‘push’ me to leave the organisation.
I wrote a mail to my line manager Raghu and HR manager Vijay Naugain requesting them to extend my contract for appropriate time. On 17th August 2013 , I copied this mail to Country Director and Programme Director, but there was no reply for 16 days. Therefore, I wrote another mail on 2nd September 2013 requesting them to approve my working from home, as I was not comfortable working in the office without a proper contract. My request to work from home was approved by Sehjo Singh, Programme Director 10th September 2013. She also informed me that my line management was changed on request from Raghu, and she asked me to report to her. Why was I asked to report to someone who does not sit in the same office? As per their decision at the time of my appointment, I was only a field officer, but now I was made to report to a senior/supervisor who sits in the country office. Was this to encourage me or to frustrate me further?
On 29th October 2013, Sandeep, Country Director, was in Hyderabad for a workshop. On the same evening Raghu planned a staff meeting, so that Sandeep could also participate. A day before, Raghu called me over the phone and asked me to participate in the meeting. The meeting started at 7 pm., and Sandeep announced that there was no specific agenda for the meeting and if anybody wanted to share anything, they were welcome. Some colleagues shared their experiences. After some time, Sandeep praised Raghu saying that, “Raghu is the only capable leader in whole of ActionAid India,” before adding further, “I love challenges, if anybody wants to challenge me, they are welcome”. Raghu also asked me saying, “Karthik, if you want to ask anything from Sandeep, you can ask”. I kept quiet, as I was not aware of why they were asking so. However, when I came home and checked my email at 9 pm, I found an email from HR saying that they have ended my contract with ActionAid India.
ActionAid India Management conducted an inquiry 7 months after my complaint and they involve an outsider, Martin Macwan, as a committee Chairman. They avoided ActionAid employee; another inquiry committee member, Kumkum Kumar, knew all the facts of the case. Is it part of internal procedure to include an outsider in the inquiry committee and exclude the internal member who knows all the facts of the case?
Moreover, they had not asked me to exercise my option to choose a member from my side. They constituted a kangaroo inquiry committee. They did involve Martin Macwan, the outsider, only because he was a Dalit! Samarendra Behera, second member was also a Dalit and staff of ActionAid India. Why did the inquiry committee not discuss its findings with Kumkum Kumar, the third member? She is the Programme Manager of ActionAid Kolkata regional office and had initiated a dialogue with the management demanding inquiry into my grievances. Therefore the ActionAid management proposed her name as a member of inquiry committee, as a tokenistic gesture, and did not discuss anything with her about the case. They planned the dates for inquiry in such a way that Kumkum Kumar could not participate in it, and they didn’t share the inquiry committee report for her approval. It was a clever strategy on the part of ActionAid India to include two Dalits in the committee. They were being used to justify ActionAid India’s own version of the story with the purpose of humiliating me and throwing me out of the job.
The national and international managements of ActionAid were ready to take the blame by taking sides with both those dominant caste individuals Raghu and Indira, instead of adopting democratic practices. The argument that ActionAid is working with or is sympathetic towards Dalits will not excuse the occurrences of caste discrimination by people employed in the organisation.
When Constitution of India under article 17, abolished caste based discrimination and untouchability, it does not mean that it is abolished in practice. It means that it aimed to do so, that is why Indian parliament has adopted several other protective legislations for the purpose of ensuring that the practice was stopped or prevented. Take the specific example of section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act -1989 which says, “Whoever, being a public servant, wilfully neglects his duties required to be performed by him under this Act, shall be punishable with imprisonment”.
ActionAid India did not have a grievance redressal mechanism to deal with the specific issue of caste-based discrimination, which is the reason why they ended up justifying caste discrimination by adopting different methods and different language, and with the systematic usage of bureaucratic and administrative rules, regulations and procedures.
Caste acts as a mobiliser, as a thread running inside a garland, among the people who believe in caste hierarchy. It acts as a base of social formation and social discrimination in Indian public life. Moreover, it gives certain privileges to certain sections and imposes prohibitions on others. In my case, the caste bond among the people in ActionAid adversely affected me. On my first oral complaint to Raghu (Regional manager of AA Hyderabad) against casteist attitude and discriminatory behaviour of Indira Rani, (Programme Manager AA Hyderabad) he didn’t initiate any discussion with me, but stood with Indira Rani.
When I complained two times to Sandeep Chachra (Country Director –AA India), he took a legalistic and technical stand only for the protection of Raghu, and when I complained to AA International, against the AA India Management, the Indian dominant caste individuals heading different departments in AA International stood with AA India management and did not conduct the investigation.
This situation is the result of our liberal public space which usually takes the caste privileges of certain sections as normal and caste assertion of the marginalized as abnormal. This impossibility of highlighting the caste privileges and caste bonds is never taken up as an issue in mainstream discourse on caste hegemony. By dismissing all this kind of nuances of caste, international agencies merely look it as a problem of poverty. And this results in lack of thorough understanding of caste manifestations at the consciousness level, cultural level, social level and the symbolic boundaries that caste create.
In India, caste shapes and controls the psyche, material production, culture and social positions too. Therefore, without understanding these dynamics of caste, nobody can challenge and change the caste landscape of India and its anti-democratic and inhuman practises of discrimination and untouchability.
In every advertisement, the ActionAid India proclaims that candidates from SC (Scheduled Castes), ST (Scheduled Tribes), BC (Backward Classes) and religious minorities are encouraged to apply. However, did this claim ever matter when it came to selecting or appointing the staff? There were very few persons from these SC ST communities in the organization. ActionAid India has a staff diversity policy on paper. However, there was no program which encouraged the members from these SC ST communities.
ActionAid India asks the caste of the candidates, who apply for jobs, in its standard application format. In a caste based society like India, if the affirmative policy is only to identify candidates’ caste and do nothing beyond that, it will potentially be counterproductive, no matter how inclusive the policy maybe. Moreover, it will affect the candidate; the staff members, who are not aware of the intention of such policy will covertly express a kind of prejudice towards the candidate and victimise him on the grounds of being ‘less efficient’. That actually happened in my case. Therefore, the policy should clearly stipulate the rights and duties for both parties. Interestingly in my case, the fact that the inquiry committee consisted of two Dalits has only served the hegemonic and the caste aggressive persons in ActionAid India to get away with their behaviour by mentioning their diversity policy.
I must say that the inquiry committee did not study the case either objectively or from victim’s point of view. They just played the role of a lawyer in defence of ActionAid India management. The basic human rights principle of justice says that it is the perception of the discriminated that has to be considered by the inquiry committee rather than the ‘perpetrators’ version. ActionAid India was hiding behind the clever use of flowery words where it should have been accepting the lacunae in its HR and social diversity policies, and attempted to correct its caste-blindness and its half-hearted commitment to the marginalized communities.
Here, other human rights organizations can take a lesson or two from ActionAid India on how not to conduct an inquiry on allegations of caste, race or gender discrimination. In my case, six fundamental principles were violated:
• In cases of caste, race or gender discrimination, it is the feeling of the victim/who is discriminated against that should be given more importance than the view of the perpetrator.
• Technicalities should not take priority over the merits of the case. Personal beliefs and prejudices determine appreciation of evidence, determination of guilt and award of judgment. These beliefs have the unmistakable imprint of social biases, relating to both caste and gender.
• Victim should be given the latest information by respecting his/her human personality. It is very essential for both sides to be informed of the process of investigation time to time.
• Discrimination is usually a process, not an event. Therefore, it is very difficult to provide a convincing answer for bits and pieces of questions.
• In cases of caste, gender and racial discriminations, the guilty should prove that he is not guilty. This understanding should have been very important for a human rights organization such as ActionAid.
5. Social Diversity of ActionAid India
The table shows, the staff diversity in ActionAid India. Jayanta Bora, the head of HR, ActionAid International, sent this, when asked by Eugene Culas, the Director of VODI.
The Actual Social Diversity in ActionAid India
According to 2011 census, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constitute 25% of total population in India . They were underrepresented in ActionAid India as SCs were only 9% and STs 4%, – total 13%. All those SC STs might be employed in menial jobs, peons, drivers, and other subordinate positions. In the year 2013, there was only 1 member from Scheduled Castes in the Senior Management Team, before that there was no member in of SCs or STs in ActionAid management.
Though the Mandal Commission report of 1980 estimated the OBC population in the country to be 52%, while the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey of 2006 quoted the figure of 41% , the OBCs are underrepresented in ActionAid India at 15%.
Muslim population in India according to 2011 census is 14.2% of the country’s population, but they are only 10% in ActionAid India . Persons with disabilities and LGBT, Transgender, PLHA – who together constitute over 2% of total population in India – are represented at 2% and 5% respectively in ActionAid India.
Therefore, SC, ST, OBC, Muslim, PWD, LGBT, Transgender and PLWHA, who all together constitute 82% of total population of India, have only 45% representation in ActionAid India. While the other dominant castes, which make up 18% of total Indian population, are overrepresented in ActionAid India at 55%! Their own statistics tell us what kind of diversity policy ActionAid India has.
6. The Inexplicability of ActionAid International’s attitude
January 2014 to November 2014
As the things remained where they were, I requested ActionAid International to intervene. I sent my submission to the Chairperson of ActionAid International, Ovonji Odida on 7th January 201424 and next day she ordered for an inquiry by an internal team via an email dated 8th January 201425. She wrote that the case should be investigated by adopting appropriate procedures.
Natasha Barker from ActionAid International acknowledged the same and asked me if I have any further information to submit26. I submitted another additional note with details on 20th January 201427. After a month passed, I wrote to Natasha Barker and others requesting them to update me on the progress they had made on the case, on 23rd February 201428. On 28th February 2014, I received a mail from Larne Amao29, confirming that the investigation was going on.
I am surprised to note that even after many reminders the ActionAid international office kept its silence. This is an unacceptable behaviour from an international office of an organisation which is known for upholding the human rights of millions of voiceless people in the world. This state of affairs is because the ActionAid International is peopled by Indian Brahmins and other members of dominant castes. To list a few decision-making people in ActionAid International: the HR Head, Director of Programmes, and Head of Emergencies etc. are individuals from dominant castes in India.
Within AA India and AA International, the caste system is perceived through the prism of mainstream discourse of Indian academia and their Brahmanical interpretations. That discourse in India and abroad always has been dismissive of the Dalit aspirations: that’s the essence of “Indian sociology”. The same is reflected in Indian and international development sectors too. It is a consequence of Gandhian idea of reformed caste practice without untouchability
Another reason: there is no Dalit in AA International; there is no Dalit in the decision-making bodies of AA India. Ditto with all other international development agencies. We find Dalits only in menial jobs. Without proper Dalit representation in such organisations, they can never understand the Dalits’ aspirations and their point of view. That is the reason why they keep on justifying their caste superiority as neutral and normal. If ActionAid International undertakes an honest attempt at looking into the matters of ActionAid India they will realise that the latter’s claim is just propaganda.
On 18th September 2014, Eugene Culas, the Director of London- based VODI (Voice of Dalits International) wrote to Judith Davey30, Director of People, Performance and Accountability, AA UK, to reinstate me. Judith Davey Replied on 19th September 201431, repeating ActionAid India management’s version. Eugene Culas wrote back on 23rd September 201432 saying, “After speaking again to Mr Karthik Navayan, we are still concerned about his issue. Because the case is about downgrading a Programme Officer position for which he was interviewed, to Field Officer, for which he was appointed, without following any prescribed norms within AA’s HR policy.”
Judith Davey Replied to Eugene Culas on 23rd September 201433 saying that “ActionAid India is an independent member of the ActionAid Federation therefore email copied to Sandeep Chachra, the Country Director as he is best placed to respond.” On 24th September 2014 Sandeep replied to Eugene34 saying he is “requesting our OE Director (Organisational Effectiveness) to respond to concerns raised in email”. Eugene replied on the same day35 saying, “It looks that the information that Judith is seeking is readily available. In that case could you send the information by this Friday so that we will share it with our international network. Look forward to hear from you/ OE Director”
On 26th September 2014, Dipali Sharma, OE Director, replied to Eugene Culas36 repeating the earlier lies that the Programme Officer position was not downgraded but I was offered a Field Officer’s job. From where this Field Officer’s position sprang from she did not write. On 30th September 2014, Eugene Culas again wrote to Judith Davey37saying that “You said you have copied my email to Mr. Sandeep Chachra, who is the India Country Director of Action Aid to respond to me. Further, you mentioned that AA India is an independent member of the AA Federation. Mr. Sandeep Chachra passed that responsibility to the OE Director, Ms. Dipali Sharma, to respond to my concerns. Unfortunately there was nothing in her response connected to my concerns. Instead I found it to be the typical, stereotyped, legalistic style of a caste perpetrator attempting to tackle issues of Caste discrimination faced by Dalits. They also flout the assurance of a reply given to Mr. Karthik Navayan by AA International Chair, Johannesburg, under the pretext of some old immature enquiry done by AA India themselves and some interested parties. Mr. Karthik is still waiting for the results of the further enquiry from Johannesburg as was promised to him”.
1st October 2014 Judith replied to Eugene Culas38 saying, “I am not able to advise on this, as it is Sandeep’s area of responsibility. Jayanta will be able to advise on whether there have been inquiries where the outcome has not been shared with Karthik Navayan” Since there was no reply from Jayanta Bora for 10 days, Eugene Culas wrote a reminder mail to him39 “I have been advised by Mr. Karthik that he has been waiting for more than the last 8 months for a response from your side. Hence, I brought it to the attention of Ms. Judith Davey of ActionAid UK, who also holds the view that a response from you is pending on the matter”.
On 12th October 2014, Jayanta Bora replied to Eugene Culas40 saying that, I learnt of the case only after receiving Judith’s mail and have been in touch with AA India’s ED and OE Director. I am afraid I will not be in a position to give a response to the case, as this is an AA India matter.” How can he write that it is ActionAid India matter, when the International Board Chair issued directions for an inquiry? Moreover, when it comes to discrimination, nothing is internal. If ActionAid International says that caste discrimination is ActionAid India’s internal matter, how can it raise the issue of women’s rights when a woman is beaten up by her husband? The husband may counter saying that it is their family matter.
Eugene Culas replied to Jayanta Bora on 12th October 201441 quoting all my communications with ActionAid International regarding my case. When there was no getaway for Jayanta Bora, he replied to Eugene Culas on 15th October 201442 saying, “We are in the process of reviewing all relevant information and related documentation with regards to the complaint. Our endeavour will be to provide the diversity data for AA India along with the third party investigation report on the complaint. We anticipate the overall process to be completed by around three weeks.”
After several rounds of emails, Jayanta Bora replied on 5th November 2014 he is the Head of Human Resources (HR) of ActionAid International, based in Johannesburg. There is nothing new in his mail except for the repetition of ActionAid India management’s lies. Jayanta Bora first point was that an “inquiry was conducted consisting of a committee with well-respected Dalit leader Martin Macwan.” However, this committee had just played the role of a defence lawyer for ActionAid India. I had explained the contradictions and illegitimacy of the inquiry committee report in my submission43.
His second point as he wrote: “Karthik had made the complaint immediately prior to his fixed term contract end date.” This is the biggest lie. How can people sitting in such big international positions so easily write such stuff? I complained to Sandeep Chachra (India – Country Director)44 and senior management team on 26th January 2013 explaining about the discrimination that I was facing in the ActionAid Hyderabad region45 ActionAid India did not conduct any inquiry, that is the reason why, for the second time, I complained to the Country Director and approached all staff on 26th June 201346.
The third point he wrote was, “the inquiry committee observed that there was no caste based discrimination as alleged by Mr. Karthik”. Here I challenge the very methodology that ActionAid India chose. By including two Dalits on the committee, they were just trying to justify the caste discrimination. Kumkum Kumar, the third member did not find the report worthy enough to ratify.
Fourth point as he writes, “that ActionAid India’s Governing Board, which consists of eminent national personalities including some leading Dalit movement leaders in India were well informed of the case and the process undertaken by the organisation. After reviewing the details of the inquiry and having satisfied themselves with the process, ActionAid India Board had shared its conclusions with AA International Board and AA International management. They have endorsed the third party independent investigation report findings.”
How can the ActionAid India Governing Board review a case which is in the consideration of International ActionAid? In addition, why was this information not communicated to the aggrieved party? Are these the principles of natural justice followed by ActionAid?
In his fifth point he wrote that the “ActionAid India is an autonomous member of the ActionAid Federation and there is no further need for a re-investigation into this case by ActionAid International.” ActionAid India was recently registered as a society in India but all its funds come from abroad. When an organisation is 100% dependent on foreign donors, in what way is it autonomous? On the one hand, they are benefitted in the name of Dalits and Adivasis while on the other they delegitimize the valid claims of Dalits and Adivasis in their institutional space. Shall we assume that ActionAid international is supportive of ActionAid India in latter’s caste-discriminatory practices?
Bora further writes, “Mr Karthik has written defamatory articles /mails in public and social network sites even after a fair and transparent enquiry process was conducted into his complaints and the report shared with him. There has been a continued attempt to defame ActionAid and inciting people against ActionAid. We strongly object to such conduct aimed at damaging the reputation of ActionAid.”
I have repeatedly said that while the inquiry itself was an atrocity, ActionAid International’s seal of approval of it was rubbing more salt into the wounds. They say the articles I wrote were defamatory. If I was writing lies and hurling abuses at them, why did they not write rejoinders? Bereft of any other means in their institutional space to defend myself, I was fighting with all the available resources. From the beginning of this issue, I have the following questions to ask:
1. Why and how was the programme officer position downgraded to field officer? And according to which rules of HR policy?
2. Why was I assigned the job description of a programme officer even after being appointed field officer and paid less salary?
3. Why was there no inquiry conducted during the period of January 2014 to September, for a period of 8 months, on my complaint?
4. Why did ActionAid choose Martin Macwan, an outsider, as a member of the inquiry committee? Is it according to the prescribed grievance redressal mechanism of AA India or was he chosen only because he is a Dalit?
5. Why did the report of inquiry committee not shared with Kumkum Kumar, the third member of inquiry committee?
6. If the inquiry committee’s report was shared with Kumkum Kumar – the third member of the Inquiry Committee, who knows all the facts of the case- why wasn’t it ratified by her?
7. The post, which I filled as Field Officer, was based on an advertisement that called for Programme Officer for 6 months. At the same time, another advertisement for Programme Officer did not carry any duration and was ‘duly’ filled by a person from a dominant caste and he was regularised too. What was the HR’s role in this entire episode? Shall we assume that there are no uniform HR rules in ActionAid India? Or, can they change the rules depending on the caste of the candidates?
8. Why did ActionAid India not communicate about the review of the case in the Governing Board to the complainant? Was this an appropriate procedure for an organisation which preaches the virtue of transparency to the world?
9. Why did AA India and AA International not communicate the closure of the case to me, without conducting an investigation as directed by Ovonji Odida, until the intervention of VODI?
10. Why do ActionAid India and ActionAid International not disclose their social diversity policies, if at all they do have any such policies?
. The general proposition that the social organization of the Indo-Aryans was based on the theory of Chaturvarnya and that Chaturvarnya means division of society into four classes—Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (soldiers),Vaishyas (traders) and Shudra (menials)
. B. R. Ambedkar Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, by, Paper presented at an Anthropology Seminar, taught by Dr. A. A. Goldenweizer Columbia University. 9th May 1916, Text first printed in: Indian Antiquary Vol. XLI (May 1917)
. Monica Davey, The New York times, Published: January 3, 2008, viewed on 17th June 2014 athttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/03/us/03chicago.html?_r=0
. Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain, Government Equalities office, Research Finding Paper No 2010/08
. Divya Trivedi, Hindu News Paper Dated 15th December 2013, viewed on 24th July athttp://www.thehindu.com/news/national/caste-discrimination-a-global-evil-says-european-parliament/article5234387.ece
. Debjani Ganguly, Caste, Colonialism and counter modernity notes on a post colonial hermeneutics of caste, p.43, Routledge, 2009
. Aloysius, Brahmanical inscribed in Body-politic, p.8, Critical Quest, New Delhi, 2010
. Myth of One Hindu Religion PT 2, By Hadwa Dom – http://www.raceandhistory.com/historicalviews/NoDefinitionofHinduism2.ht
. Frankenberg, R. White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.p 236
. Meredith J. Green, Christopher C. Sonn, Jabulane Matsebula, Reviewing whiteness: Theory, research, and possibilities, South African Journal of Psychology, 37(3), 2007, pp. 389–419
. Gopal Guru, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 50 (Dec. 14-20, 2002), pp. 5003-5009. Published by: Economic and Political Weekly, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4412959
. Ambedkar B R, Annihilation of Caste, available at http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/ambedkar/web/section_3.html, viewed on 12th July 2014
. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, Critical Quest., 2007, Delhi, p. 37.
. Email communication from Jayanta, the HR Head of ActionAid International addressed to Eugene Culas, the Director of VODI (Voice of Dalits International)
Karthik Navayan is a human rights activist.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.