The country lost two of its most prominent bureaucrats on Sunday. Much has been written and discussed about the former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan, but little was said on the passing away of an equally important officer, P S Krishnan. Krishnan, like Seshan, was an institution builder. He was instrumental in making the government architecture more inclusive and accessible for Dalit and tribal communities.
His monumental contributions touched the lives of millions of Dalits and Adivasis across the country. For someone who was born in Kerala and served in Andhra Pradesh, his reputation preceded him. His following among the activists committed to the cause of social justice was spread across the ideological spectrum. He will be remembered for a number of landmark initiatives like the 65th constitutional amendment that gave constitutional status to the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the conception of separate financial allocation for SCs and STs through special component plans among others.
While delivering the first Ambedkar memorial lecture at the Indian Institute of Public Administration in New Delhi in 2006, he said, quoting from the observations of the working group on the development of the Scheduled Castes, “They constitute, in the main, the bedrock on which our society and economy rest. Rarely has any section of a nation contributed so much for so long, in return for so little. Indian society owes the Scheduled Castes a heavy moral and material debt”.
For him, social justice and national integration were two sides of the same coin. The caste-based social order was a “civilisational faultline of India” according to Krishnan. However, he rarely advocated a revolution. He remained a dedicated constitutionalist throughout his life and believed in the power of consensus building through discussion and debate. He was influenced by thinkers ranging from Ambedkar, Periyar, Gandhi to Narayana Guru and Swami Vivekananda. His wealth of experience in both activism and academia came from wide ranging interactions with relevant stakeholders from within and outside the community.
One of his most significant contributions to the Dalit movement was towards ending ideological untouchability. Throughout his public life, he shared the stage with both ardent nationalists and communists with equal aplomb if it was for the cause. For Krishnan, the cause was supreme. Many of the emerging Dalit activists and intellectuals can take this inspiration from his life. As Dalit activists, we often fall into the trap of ideological polarisation. This is a great disservice to the interests of the community. Krishnan often used to say that we must persuasively engage with people holding positions of power, influence and authority.
It has almost become fashionable in the contemporary Dalit narrative to be derisive of the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins. There are problems with the existing social order and it must undergo a transformation. Ambedkar always maintained that his struggle and resistance was not against the Brahmins, but against the idea of Brahminism that is indicative of privileged entitlements on the basis of birth. Ambedkar was financially supported by the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad in not only his education but also in his initial employment. Krishnan too was born in an upper caste family in Kerala and his life is a testament to the idea of social integration. There are innumerable examples when non-Dalits have taken up the cause of Dalits. In his departure, Krishnan will surely inspire the next generation of Dalit activists to have a more accommodative approach in the interest of the community.
There will always be fissures in the movement. But we must remember that a single individual or institution cannot claim the sole custodianship of Dalit interests. A real tribute to Krishnan would be to make the conversation around the Dalit discourse more consultative and less confrontational in the interests of the community.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2019 under the title 'An officer for social justice'. The writer is assistant professor at Patna University and adviser to the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry.