PS Krishnan’s unassailable crusade for social justice

30 November 2019
Courtesy Soco Trust
Courtesy Soco Trust

Soon after joining the Indian Administrative Services’ Andhra Pradesh cadre, in 1957, PS Krishnan, a 24-year-old upper-caste Hindu from Kerala, did something unthinkable then for a civil servant. Vasanthi Devi, who wrote A Crusade for Social Justice, a book on her conversations with Krishnan, narrated the incident to me. That year, during a visit to the Thaticherla village in the state’s Anantapur district, Krishnan set up his official camp in a Dalit basti. “He used to stay there and eat food with the people of these bastis,” Devi told me. He carried out jamabandhi, an administrative process for maintaining the government’s land records, and distribution of government land at his camp. This forced the upper-caste people in the village to enter a “basti of ‘untouchables’” for the first time. “It provided a sense of self-respect to the people of bastis,” Devi said. “At the same time, it was a veritable earthquake that shook village after village that Krishnan camped in.”

Krishnan’s deep commitment to social justice took him to Delhi to work on a national level. In 1989, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, he authored the landmark Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The next year, in May 1990, as a secretary in the social-welfare ministry under the VP Singh government, Krishnan wrote a note to the cabinet on the basis of which the government passed the Mandal commission report, which proposed a 27-percent reservation to the Other Backward Classes. With that, for the first time in history, the OBCs, who were often marginalised by caste hierarchies and educational and economic backwardness, got a legal leg-up in the country’s educational institutions and government jobs. Three years later, under the PV Narasimha Rao government, Krishnan played a key role in drafting the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993.

While politicians get the credit for significant transformative legislations, often the contributions of officers such as Krishnan fall by the wayside. But in my conversations with his associates post his demise on 10 November, it was evident that Krishnan has left a mark as a crusader for social justice. “On the whole, a person who was born in a Brahmin family in Kerala but I think he was exceptionally committed to Dalit, Other Backward Classes upliftment through the governmental machinery and welfare methods,” Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a political theorist and writer, said. “He remained consistent from his collector days in Andhra Pradesh to present.”

Since the beginning of his bureaucratic career, Krishnan dealt with people of casteist mindsets. According to Devi’s book, in 1958, when Krishnan was appointed as sub-collector of the Ongole division, then a part of Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, he met one of the senior-most officers of the state, Anantaraman, for the first time. After initial small talk, Anantaraman inquired about his caste. Krishnan refused to answer the question. “I had conceived such contempt for the caste system that I cannot stoop to mention caste,” Krishan said.

The exchange led to Anantaraman visiting the district later to launch an enquiry against Krishanan. The senior officer showed Krishnan a heap of papers and said that they were all complaints against him for “fraternising” with and encouraging Dalits. When Krishnan brought up that Dalits are victims of untouchability and that it was his duty as an IAS officer to help them to resolve their problems, Anantaraman denied the existence of the practice. Krishnan retorted that the Manusmriti itself codified the practice. Anantraman replied in anger: “I have not come here to hear my religion maligned.” The enquiry ended there, but the matter did not.

Sreerag PS is an independent journalist.

Keywords: caste Lokpal Bill obituary Indian Administrative Services