An Eminent Dalit Author and Economist
Dr. Narendra Jadhav is on a book tour, promoting the new American edition of his book called Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India. I attended his book reading & signing event at the Stanford Bookstore today evening. Dr. Jadhav – a Dalit (a Mahar, a former untouchable) and a first generation learner – has a Ph.D. in economics and currently works as the Principal Advisor and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of
Dr. Jadhav is an eloquent speaker and hearing him speak was a wonderful experience. Unlike typical book readings, he did not actually read from his book. He spoke for about half an hour on how the book came about, gave some background about the caste system and his ideas about it, talked about his views on Gandhi and Ambedkar, and painted a highly optimistic view of the future. After that there was a Q&A session for about half an hour. In the following paragraphs, I list some of the aspects of his talk that I found especially interesting.
I had expected that Dr. Jadhav to be in favor of globalization – economist that he is. However I was surprised at just how vehemently pro-globalization he is. I, of course, share his sentiments completely on this issue. He said that the best thing that has happened to Dalits in
As is to be expected – and as is fully justified – Dr. Jadhav does not seem to have a very high opinion of Gandhiji, at least as far as his dealings with Dalits are concerned. His inspiration of course is Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Jadhav said that the word he hates more than anything else is “Harijan” – he considers it to be unbearably patronizing. In his view Gandhi never accepted the fundamental bigotry of the caste system, and sometimes even passed it off as “division of labor”. However it was not just a system of division of labor, but also a system of hierarchical division of laborers, a rigid division of people based on birth, with strict limitations on social interaction between them. In Dr. Jadhav’s view Gandhi never truly opposed the caste system. He narrated an interesting anecdote to highlight Gandhi’s prejudice. Once after a meeting with Ambedkar, Gandhi remarked to someone (Mahadev Desai, if I recall correctly) that it was difficult to believe that Dr. Ambedkar was a Dalit as he did not believe that Dalits could be so intelligent (or words to that effect). Dr. Jadhav also pointed out that Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi had different views on almost everything, for example Gandhi urged people to go live in the villages, while Ambedkar exhorted people to go live in the cities.
As I had expected, Dr. Jadhav expressed strong support for the reservation system of affirmative action in India, while at the same time accepting that some changes are needed to improve it. His argument is that if we start with the assumption that intelligence and ability are distributed randomly in the population, one should expect to see the overall population composition reflected in the various professions, at least in broad terms. If this is not so, it reflects the fundamental unfairness of the system. And reservations are needed to counter this fundamental unfairness of the system. I broadly agree with this. However I do think that reservation quotas should be determined by an independent commision or some other competent body, but not by politicians who tend to carve out quotas for castes based on how many votes that caste can deliver in the upcoming election.
One aspect of Dr. Jadhav that I had not expected, at least to such a degree, was the extreme optimism that he expressed in India’s – and in particular the Dalit community’s – future. He has great faith in the future and in India's democratic system. He pointed out the great strides that Dalits had made in recent years, with Dalits aspiring to excel in all occupations, from art to neurosurgery.
There were a few questions on how the status of Dalits in India compare with the status of African Americans in the U.S. Other than saying – correctly in my view– that the situations were very different, Dr. Jadhav was clearly out of his element on this topic. In any case, he has never claimed to be an expert on this.
There was however one issue on which I did not agree with Dr. Jadhav. He claimed that the caste system was solely – or at least primarily – responsible for