Letter to Bart Criel, Professor of Public Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine – donor agency to Institute of Public health (IPH) Bangalore

Letter to Bart Criel. Bart Criel, MD, DTM&H, MSc, PhD, is Professor of Public Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine – donor agency to Institute of Public health (IPH) Bangalore


Dear Bart,

The discussions over the last few days have got me thinking. I don’t pretend to know a great deal (because I don’t) but I feel it’s important that I share some of these thoughts with you………………

Bart, my concern is that you (and ITM) are lulled into a false sense of comfort about India’s problems. When you visit India, your contact is, almost exclusively, with the upper caste and class. They determine to a large extent what you do and do not see and how you understand issues. I feel that your understanding of un-touchability, exclusion and human rights violation is made “glossy” by the explanation offered by your upper caste colleagues.

Discrimination in India is like a clever demon – it dances sometimes at a cultural event, sometimes it gives speeches, it represents my country’s poor at international fora, it is smart and slick, it even cracks funny jokes. Then the world relaxes – India is now in good hands!! All you feel like doing is sitting back and admiring the show…….

Living in India, I am more and more conscious of a new kind of isolation – a ‘philosophical’ or ‘moral’ isolation. When certain specific issues, like discrimination and human rights violation, are brought up, the ‘argumentative Indian’ clams up. He or she will NOT be drawn into a discourse or dialogue. He will not fall for your bait, he will not defend his actions, she will continue performing actions that are denigratory to someone else, without offering a single word in the nature of an explanation. He will talk about discrimination like a boring past minor aberration that has only limited (like a fable) current relevance. She will talk about Government schemes. She will also tell you in no uncertain terms that the excluded groups are themselves rather unwilling to help themselves. She will talk about discriminatory practices as cultural phenomena representative of India’s traditional glory.
The ‘lower caste’ has no word to offer. They have no history except what is allowed and sanctioned. They are silent, they are stupid, and the very nature of their existence feeds their own belief of inferiority. They have no voice, so you will not hear them. You will only hear about them. And you will only hear so much as you are allowed to. You unfortunately are not allowed much. And you unfortunately do not seem to question much.

When there are outrageous social phenomena of humanitarian concern, there is a tendency to give the issue names that protect oneself. Have you ever heard an upper caste Brahmin talk to you about poverty except with the most clinical of terminology – the “below poverty line”, the “vulnerable”, the “marginalized”, the “under-privileged”, ‘the tribals’?

However, has anyone ever suggested to you that their own community, with customs and rituals that they consistently practice, systematically excludes and denigrates other humans? Has any one of them said to you ‘Bart, my religion is discriminatory’? When I said that ITM is a benefactor, I mean that you would view the world with a benign eye. You would rather, in your attempt at breaking the barrier between the developing and developed world, tolerantly nod at the exclusive rituals displayed and demonstrated to you, in the name of culture and tradition. Do you not question whether these very rituals are socially excluding?

This conflicting and contradictory behavior engulfs me – it is like a shroud that can blind, and can make me doubt my own sanity. What I hear and what I see are different. I wonder – “Am I the one who is wrong?? Can so many people all be wrong?? Why it is that injustice is so unheeded in my country and society? Is it because of karma?? Does karma mean one is fated to exist as an animal because of one’s birth? Does the fact of karma protect one or prevent one from looking with pity at one’s fellow human being’s suffering??”
I also feel that the terminology “Social Exclusion” in your planned research project is too mild. “Social exclusion” is something like children playing on the field. “I wont talk to Jan because she smells’, “Lets not’s play with Sam because he doesn’t have nice clothes’. I argue that the term is inadequate to describe the degradation faced by some of my fellow Indians at the hands of other Indians.

I would rather call it a systematic, planned and concerted effort to eliminate and subjugate a group of Indians, sanctioned, rather explicitly, by a majority religion. The process of exclusion is physical, social and psychological. The unique feature of the Indian social system is that the ‘victim’ is himself or herself convinced of his or her abject inadequacy to exist as a human being. Whereas racism could be argued to be against the majority religion’s core principles, the practice of caste in India faces intrinsic religious sanction.

One can pity groups, but I think in an extraordinarily discriminatory society such as mine, it is vital to look inwards at the contribution of oneself and one’s community to human rights violation. It is important to speak and it is important to acknowledge. There is an interesting analogy of a man who has a herd of cattle that he cares for very well. When asked why he just doesn’t set them free, his response is ‘But then, I can’t milk them”.
If you do not demand financial accountability from your partner Indian organizations, then that is commendable. It demonstrates a trust that is good and your willingness to break traditional “funder behaviour”. However, Bart, if you do not demand moral accountability, if you fail to look below and beyond what is made visible to you, then you do demonstrate a rather unforgivable flaw. The money ITM spends would never have reached the genuinely marginalized. This is the serious flaw I perceive in ITM’s fund contribution to India as well as ITM’s role as ‘master trainer’ for India’s public health professionals.

I see this flaw in the project I work currently with, but I am limited tremendously in having a say. The price I have to pay for belonging to a project and earning a salary is silence.

I however choose NOT to be silent – I would rather not have a salary and prefer my kids eat of a simple fare that is not earned at the cost of my fellow human beings. You think, maybe, by now, that I exaggerate.
I do not believe I do because I AM faced with this choice on a daily basis

I do not imply that my organization is bad. My only suggestion to you is that you have a serious moral obligation to question more than what you hear. To not believe even if it is told to you a thousand times (with evidence) by a narrow caste and class group. Do not even believe the voice of the ‘marginalized’ if it is presented by an upper class group.

Acts and thoughts of kindness are relative. They may be good, but they may not be good enough. Empowerment is not a joke. Empowerment is not a game. I want you to know this because some part of me feels you might understand. If you don’t, I at least know that I tried.



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