Social Justice Matters | Of caste-based discrimination in India's officialdom
A growing genre of scholarship and reports indicates that Dalit and marginalised groups are facing significant headwinds in government services
In October last year, the Supreme Court decided to exonerate senior Indian Police Services (IPS) officer Satish Gajbhiye, upholding an earlier Odisha high court judgment that quashed disciplinary proceedings against him.
Gajbhiye, a 2002 batch officer, was the superintendent of police in Odisha’s Malkangiri district in 2008 when he was accused of wrongdoing. After a major anti-Maoist operation, Gajbhiye was accused of siphoning off reward money meant for local police personnel (one havaldar and three constables) and two civilians. A subsequent inquiry found him guilty and his promotions were thereafter stalled.
In 2020, the Odisha high court set aside the disciplinary proceedings and said they violated the principles of natural justice (the officer alleged that he was not given an adequate chance to defend himself). When the case came up on appeal in the Supreme Court, a two-judge bench upheld the Odisha high court’s reasoning.
“…An opinion had already been formed at the stage of framing of charges. This could not have been done. It establishes predetermined mind of the authorities against the respondent no. 1 [Gajbhiye], even before any proper enquiry is conducted,” said the judgment.
The court also found that the authorities might have prejudged the issue, leaving little room for an “impartial adjudicatory exercise”.
“The authorities have proceeded in the preliminary enquiry as if it was a guilt-finding exercise and not an exercise on formation of opinion as to whether to proceed against the officer concerned with a regular disciplinary action or not,” said the two-judge bench.
After more than a decade, Gajbhiye can now look forward to restoring his reputation. And yet, for this to have happened to a scheduled caste officer appears to be part of a larger trend of people from marginalised locations finding it difficult to find their footing in the apparatus of the Indian bureaucracy.
Since Independence and the enactment of the Constitution, one of the primary ways Dalits and marginalised castes have sought empowerment is by sharing state power and becoming equal participants in official machinery that wields the authority of the government.
This is important in two ways. As envisioned by Dr BR Ambedkar, in a caste society where birth status is often the sole determinant of social capital and intergenerational mobility, the state is often the only countervailing force. It is therefore important that the state actively try to upend social power structures, and put erstwhile marginalised groups in positions of authority – the core logic behind India’s reservation system. Travel to any village in the country and you’ll find that occupying an important government position– a Dalit superintendent of police, an Adivasi district magistrate -- is key to the assertion of marginalised communities. This not only helps in the upliftment of the community – scheduled castes alone number more than 200 million people – but also helps in the integration of the country because marginalised groups now feel like they have a share and a stake in national progress.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. A growing genre of scholarship and reports indicates that Dalit and marginalised groups are facing significant headwinds in government services. Over the last decade, the Centre has repeatedly told Parliament that the numbers of scheduled caste and tribe officers in the top echelons of government services are far lower than their respective population shares. In 2016, after the death of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula, former IAS officer P Sivakami told reporters that she was forced to quit the services after being treated as an “untouchable” by her peers.
In his 2008 publication, Untouchable Bureaucracy, the Dutch scholar Sebastian Gool talks about his research in Uttar Pradesh and how scheduled caste bureaucrats faced particular resistance when they tried to help Dalit people.
“Non-untouchable colleagues and superiors may, and often do, take exception to this kind of “casteist” behaviour and will not easily defend a colleague who has been found to indulge in such practices,” he wrote. Moreover, if Dalit superiors helped their subordinates, they found themselves similarly censured, he found.
To be sure, it is true that evidence of such discrimination is sparse. Other than the government’s answers in Parliament and RTI responses, there exists little data of the phenomena too. But caste discrimination is insidious, and evidence making itself is fraught with risks. It only bubbles up to the surface with cases like Gajbhiye’s. We must start paying attention.
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