Wave of self-immolations raises deep social questions in India

October 16, 1990|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI,INDIA — NEW DELHI, India -- The night before, he told his parents that it was only going to be a bit of harmless drama. The next day, something else happened: Rajeev Goswami, struck a match, touched it to his kerosene-soaked trousers and sent himself into flames.

Almost a month later, the 20-year-old arts student's true motives still remain unknown as he battles for his life with burns over more than 50 percent of his body. But more than 100 other middle-class Indian students have followed the example of his Sept. 19 burning in an epidemic of self-immolations that continues to mount daily, posing painful, age-old questions for Indian society.

Some of the burnings, which have resulted in at least several dozen deaths, are believed to have been murders.

Others are believed to have been privately motivated suicides. But virtually all of them have been dramatized as acts of self-sacrifice in desperate opposition to Indian Prime Minister V. P. Singh's plan to establish new quotas for lower-caste Indians in filling highly sought government jobs.

Suddenly announced Aug. 7, Mr. Singh's "reservation" plan -- and the continuing firestorm of largely middle-class opposition to it -- has thrown India into its greatest political turmoil since the assassination of Indira Ghandi in 1984, cast doubt on the future of the tenuous minority coalition that put Mr. Singh in power only 10 months ago and revealed once more the extent to which the issue of caste still pervades India.

Moreover, Mr. Singh, perhaps unintentionally, has launched a pitched national debate over the future identity of the world's largest democracy.

Mr. Singh's backers claim he is finally bringing social justice to the hundreds of millions of impoverished Indians still bound by the indignities of lower-caste life, but his opponents charge he is backing away from India's recent strides toward modernization and leading the nation back into its caste-based past.

Reserving a portion of government jobs for the lowest segment of Indian society, the harijans or "untouchables," has been a sacrosanct part of public policy since India's independence in 1947. But, in addition to the 22.5 percent of central government jobs reserved for the harijans and some tribal peoples, Mr. Singh now wants to reserve another 27 percent of these jobs for what is called the "other backward castes," those essentially just above the untouchables on the traditional Indian social scale.

Critics say Mr. Singh's plan -- based on the 10-year-old recommendations of a government commission that had previously attracted nothing but lip service -- is a coldly calculated, dangerous attempt by the prime minister to play India's age-old "caste card" in an effort to steal the power base of the largest single Indian political faction, the Congress Party, which has been out of power for only four years during the more than four decades of independence.

Supporters acknowledge the potential political masterstrokwithin his plan -- the lowest castes make up a majority of Indian voters -- but insist that Mr. Singh's main goal is to do what no other Indian leader of late has had the political courage to do: break the hold of Indian upper classes on public decision-making by bringing more of the lower castes into the country's vast government bureaucracy.

Mr. Singh's welfare minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, claimed that aa result of the plan, the prime minister will be considered an "immortal" in India within 15 years.

Others are not so sure.

"The prime minister is speaking the language of radical change," said Bhabani Sen Gupta, a political scientist with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "If it works, the sweep of its effect will be enormous. If it fails, then Singh goes down."

Mr. Singh -- who used his long-standing image as a super-clean )) man of principle to remove the leader of the corruption-plagued Congress Party, Rajiv Gandhi, from office last November -- appears to be willing to take that risk.

For one reason, the plan's potential political payoffs -- consolidating a power base that for the first time would pose a strong alternative to the Congress Party -- would be enormous for a prime minister leading only by virtue of a minority coalition. For another, having alienated influential middle-class voters, he is perceived as having no other political choice but to stick by his reservation plan.

Embattled at once on several fronts -- among them, violent independence movements in Kashmir and the Punjab and a potentially violent Hindu nationalist movement led by a key party within his own coalition -- Mr. Singh has publicly reiterated his commitment to the plan several times, including from the ramparts of Delhi's historic Red Fort on India's Independence Day Aug. 15.

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