PS Krishnan’s unassailable crusade for social justice

Courtesy Soco Trust
30 November, 2019

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.

In 1959, Krishnan was transferred to the position of assistant settlement officer in Anantapuram. Some of his peers continued to view him as an officer “partial” to Dalits, according to Devi’s book. A year or so later, the chief secretary MP Pai told him that a senior had left an “adverse” remark in a confidential report about his performance:

Undue partiality to depressed classes, excessive advocacy of inter-caste marriages, uses his knowledge of Sanskrit to debunk religion, prefers to go by the words of the villagers rather than village officers, acts in a manner that helps subversive elements.

Pai further questioned him on setting up his camp in Dalit bastis. Krishnan responded by asking him if there is a prohibition on doing so. Pai replied in the negative.

TN Ashok, Krishnan’s relative who is a journalist, recalled another such incident from a few years ago, which took place after Krishnan had delivered a lecture in the presence of a few bureaucrats. Praising Krishnan, a senior bureaucrat had said that he was “very intelligent, although he is a Dalit.” Another officer then informed him that Krishnan was, in fact, upper caste. The senior bureaucrat replied, “No wonder he is intelligent.” Krishnan was unfazed by such incidents, and neither was he affected by the confidential report or his experience with Anantaraman. Krishnan charged on.

During the enquiry, Anantaraman had also said that there was a complaint that Krishnan is a communist. In Devi’s book, Krishnan mentioned that the complainant ascribed his work to uplift Dalits to his ideological leanings. But Devi told me that Krishnan followed a “blend of essences of many ideologies,” and was free from rigidity. “As a Marxist, one would be swayed by class analysis, maybe as an Ambedkarite, one would be swayed by caste being the unit of Indian society. But he believed in a caste-class integrated approach,” Devi said. “He was very clear that a blind and mechanical application of Marxism would not work in India. He believed that the liberation, the progress and the growth of India would be possible.”

Krishnan went on to advocate not just inter-caste marriages, as mentioned in the report, but also “anti-caste marriages,” as he thought there should be a legislation prohibiting marriages in the same caste. “He expounded the concept of social incest in addition to that of biological incest,” Devi said. “Just like you cannot marry your biological brother or sister there must be a social incest that stops people from marrying within the caste.” Krishnan’s wife, too, was from the OBC category. Shepherd, who met Krishnan on multiple occasions said, “I think that might also have influenced him a lot.”

Even post his retirement in 1990, Krishnan continued to give policy recommendations promoting social equality. Between the years of 1993 and 2000, Krishnan served as a member-secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes. In March 1996, as the chairman of the Dehradun-based group National Action Forum for Social Justice, he released a Dalit manifesto, which incorporated the rights and entitlements of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and backward classes. Among Krishnan’s recommendations, he proposed “endowing every landless rural family of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes with at least a minimum extent of land through proper implementation of land ceiling and redistribution of legislations.”

Devi told me that he had led massive drives for redistribution of agricultural land at the beginning of his career as well. “He wrote his strategies based on constitutional values and he tried to introduce the whole thing within the legal framework—only thing is nobody was prepared to try it out.”

In 2011, the parliamentary standing committee was considering different drafts of the Lokpal bill, which would set up India’s anti-corruption body, presented by the government and various civil-society groups. Krishnan submitted a memorandum to the committee. In it, he pointed out that SCs, STs, OBCs and religious minorities from these categories were the worst sufferers of corruption. “Of the total number including Chairperson and other Members, not less than 15% shall be from the SCs, not less than 7.5% from the STs, and not less than 27% from the BCs including BCs of Religious Minorities,” he proposed. Krishnan noted that this would also ensure that the total number of these social classes does not exceed 50-percent of the total strength of the Lokpal. He added that at least “one-third” of the members should be women.

But his suggestions did not translate into the final legislation. As noted in a piece published by The Caravan in April 2019, while the committee that selected members of the Lokpal “technically complied with the act by appointing four candidates from the reserved categories, its choice of members shows, rather ironically, that this was little more than a pretence of representation and impartiality.”

Even under the Bharatiya Janata Party government, Krishnan was not afraid to raise his voice. In March 2018, the Supreme Court diluted the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which Krishnan had drafted. The judgment laid down “procedural safeguards” to prevent the misuse of the Act. Within three days, Krishnan wrote a letter to Thawar Chand Gehlot, the union minister of social justice and empowerment.

“To imply that check on the POA Act is a way to promote fraternity is a very limited view of the historical and present role of the caste system and casteism,” he wrote. He said that the union government must file a review petition in court to “remove suspicions which have found public expression that the Government, through weak pleadings in the case before the Supreme Court, colluded in bringing about the present situation.”

In January this year, the Indian constitution was amended to introduce a reservation of up to ten percent in government jobs and educational institutions for “economically weaker sections” of citizens. But the pool of eligible citizens excluded members of the SCs, STs and OBCs. Krishnan was among the critics of the move. “Our constitution introduced reservation and other social-justice measures for those who were excluded collectively from education and entry into services of the state and better opportunities because of the caste system,” he said, in an interview to The Wire. “It was not a programme to eliminate poverty,” he added. Even closer to his death, in September 2019, he penned an article for Frontline on the need to eliminate “landlessness” among Dalits to boost the national economy.

Shepherd told me that Krishnan’s “constitutional grounding” and consistency in fighting for social justice were among many reasons that his contribution to uplift marginalised communities exceeded that of many revered civil servants. At Krishnan’s cremation ceremony, Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi, described Krishnan as a “friend of all social movements.” His was a “great support,” because movements need that kind of support from “within the system.” He added, “I knew him through his works, I didn’t work closely with him. But I admired him that is why I came to pay my tributes.”