Indian leader begins long walk for freedom: Ex-PM demands rights and jobs for lower-caste Hindus and minorities

A FORMER Indian prime minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, has become an exile in his own land. The left-wing leader left New Delhi on Sunday to roam through the towns and countryside, vowing not to return to the capital until the government reserves more jobs for lower-caste Hindus and minorities.

Clad in simple cotton kurta pyjamas and turbaned against the punishing sunshine, Mr Singh stopped first to offer flowers at the shrine where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. 'I will return to garland the first youth from the backward classes who gets a government job,' he said, 'or they will bring my mortal remains back to Delhi.'

Few within his Janata Dal party were sorry to see him go. A rough free-for-all is now expected to break out over who replaces Mr Singh as the party's parliamentary leader. At times, Mr Singh's philosophical airiness was at odds with socialists, Muslim leaders and brawling regional strongmen who lead the Janata Dal party. Despite his crusade for the underprivileged masses who make up over 75 per cent of Indian's 870 million people, Mr Singh himself never tasted prejudice: he was born into a landed, princely family.

Mr Singh blamed the Congress government for failing to comply with a Supreme Court ruling allotting 49 per cent of all central government jobs to those poor and backward Indians at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Lowest down are the various tribes and 'untouchable' castes usually employed as sweepers, washermen, scavengers and labourers who comprise more than 200 million people. They hold a minuscule number of government positions. On the top end of the scale, Brahmins and other upper castes, who make up less than 18 per cent of the population, are said to control more than 99 per cent of northern India's top jobs in government, trade and industry.

Caste is almost as explosive an issue in Indian politics as religion. Mr Singh's revolutionary social experiment was partly to blame for his downfall. He lasted as prime minister for only 11 months, starting in December 1989. When he tried to enforce affirmative action for the lower castes, at least 80 Brahmin students around the country protested by burning themselves alive. The newspapers, most of which are owned and written by upper-caste Indians, also turned against Mr Singh, and waves of often violent strikes and protests battered his government.

As Mr Singh, a quizzical-looking man with glasses and a pencil moustache, vanished off down the heat-shimmering road leading out of New Delhi, few politicians were willing to place bets on when - or if - he would return. His goal is to follow Gandhi's footsteps, going into the villages and urging the people there to fight the discriminations of caste. 'The Janata Dal is not a party but a movement,' said Mr Singh. 'After suffering centuries of insult, it is time for the downtrodden to have a share in the power structure.'

This message of social upheaval is a potent one. Both the ruling Congress party and the leading right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party accuse Mr Singh of playing dangerous politics, though they are as guilty in this regard as him. Either Mr Singh succeeds in rallying the oppressed lower castes, or the farther he travels from Delhi the more his supporters will drift away, leaving him, as one newspaper put it, to wander India like a fakir - a holy beggar.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR Generalist - 2 week contract - £200pd - Immediate start

£200 per day: Ashdown Group: Working within a business that has a high number ...

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Recruitment Genius: Business / Operations Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well-established and growi...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive - Major Sporting Venue

£29500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible