Divyang: The Latest Frontier
By Nandini Ghosh
The Constitution of India has laid out the principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity that guarantee citizenship rights to every person who has domicile in the territory of India. The Constitution also directed the state to promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. This was the first acknowledgement of the disadvantaged and deprived status of certain groups of people in comparison to others. However, over the years, subsequent state regimes, as a tool for electoral politics, have created and fashioned boundaries to designate groups that they think deserve specific kinds of positive discrimination. What this has served in the longer run is to further create schisms within the fabric of the society, wherein the disadvantaged are mocked and berated for benefiting from state resources. But the process of recognition has also set up a gatekeeping process where people who can lobby with the political powers benefit more, leading to the powerless being denied access to the positive actions initiated to help them.
One of the latest examples of state-led boundary creation is possibly the case of disabled people in India. While there was little mention of disabled people in the Indian Constitution at the time of independence, over the years there has been a slow but steady evolution in the strategies used for the ‘upliftment’ of disabled people, in terms of job reservations and support for education, mostly in response to lobbies of people with different disabilities. The attitude of the state and its encircling political structures was in tune with the larger personal tragedy/medical model of disability, which is a reflection of the dominant socio-cultural ideologies that construct the dependent, incapable disabled person as against the ‘normal’ ‘independent’ citizen. In consonance with the global disability rights movement which highlighted the social model of disability, activists in India also focussed on infrastructural, attitudinal, legal, financial, and social barriers. These barriers impede the inclusion and full participation of disabled people on an equal basis with others, and thus prevent the full enjoyment of rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
The first targeted legislation for disabled people in India, passed in 1995, became a victim of this ambivalent approach to disability in India – while it echoed the rhetoric of the disabled activists, it reflected the charitable attitude of the state, not only in terms of the provisions of the law, but also the fact that it was passed completely without debate in a joint sitting of both houses of the Parliament. The Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act also reflected the power lobbies within the disability sector with the majority of provisions catering to people with visual, hearing, and locomotor impairments, thus promoting an idea that these groups were educable and employable, while others, though recognised by law, were not.
What the PWD Act did was little in terms of changing attitudes. In the absence of proactive programmes and the active will of the state, disabled people continued to be marginalised with respect to concrete achievable targets in education, employment, and a barrier-free environment. It also led to the creation of a creamy layer among groups counted as disabled – while some impairment categories benefitted to some extent from the provisions of the law, others still experience social, political, and economic discrimination and denial of rights. There are yet more groups who are not even recognised as disabled.
In 2007 with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which India signed and ratified, the promise of equal citizenship made by the Constitution was seen as attainable as India was obligated to bring its domestic laws in line with the spirit and purpose of the UNCRPD. The UNCRPD clearly states the principle of full and effective participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society in order to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. Despite the UNCRPD and the increasing paradigm shift among activists in India from welfare to rights of people with disabilities, the Indian state is still dithering over adopting a proactive policy towards delivering the promises of empowerment. It took the state five years to prepare a draft law and four more years to pass legislation that can change the lives of the 5% of the disabled people living in India. Despite the inclusive process of drafting the law across the country, many of the progressive suggestions included in the first draft of the law have been removed from the law passed in December 2016.
The new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act includes 19 impairment categories, once again lapsing into the medical model of signifying disability. It retains the power of medical professionals to identify, designate and certify the ‘inability’ or limitations of a person assigned to an impairment category, but fails to identify proper mechanisms to bring about a change in attitudes and ideologies. Thus, in effect while the previous law had created, under one umbrella of disability, seven vertical divisions of disabled people, vying for benefits not just with other people but also among themselves; this law has broadened the conflict among the impairment categories by including 19 conditions that will compete for a 5% reservation in higher education and employment. What is more worrying for many people with severe disabilities is the fact that with the state increasingly abdicating its welfare role, the financial and resource allocations for disabled people is shrinking and competition for the same has escalated. Moreover, the inclusion of impairment categories that require medical interventions also means that resources for rehabilitation will be diverted to address the needs of these groups of people.
Partitioning disabled people are sought to be further promoted by the regressive use of religio-moral ideologies by the representatives of the state themselves. The appropriation of the discourse of the disability organisations that constituted the movement in India by the political positioning of the state reveals the subtle yet dangerous ways in which boundaries are created, recreated, and maintained at different levels of the political milieu. While it took nearly eight years for the RPD bill to be drafted and enacted as law, in recent times, the state has wasted no time in propagating and legitimising the use of the term Divyang, to designate disabled people literally as having divine body parts or being imbued with divinity as compensation for physical impairment. The word Divyang invests bodies with holiness and intends to change social attitudes towards disabled people but ends up reinforcing the negative attitudes that construct disabled people as evil and monstrous in the religio-cultural ideologies. The word is a repository of disgust towards disabled people with its religious connotations of sin and punishment, thereby reinforcing the charity/sympathy prism and is suggestive of a fatalistic acceptance of the gift from god. It is also a complete denial of the struggles that disabled people have been engaged in, for their socio-economic and political rights as well as for non discrimination, respect, and dignity.
What is more subtle is the schisms created by the projected affinity to the divine, wherein the blessed are people who have overcome barriers to become Supercrips, and those who are not blessed by the super qualities. By focusing the able-bodied gaze on disabled achievers, it relegates general disabled people, with not only the limitations of their impairments to reckon with but also negotiating insurmountable infrastructural, financial, and other barriers, to the margins of the disabled population. Celebrating the divinely-ordained Supercrips also leads to an under text – it is individual merit and not policy intervention that is required for excellence in different fields. It absolves the state of enacting proactive policies that enable equal participation in society. This removes the stress on the removal of barriers as advocated by the social model of disability and UNCRPD that pins the responsibility on the State to fulfil. By focussing on the divine parts of the body, Divyang also denies recognition to the entire gamut of disabilities that aren’t visible, like intellectual impairments and mental illnesses. It is precisely this group of people who have historically been marginalised even among the disabled groups and threatened with institutionalization and denial of legal capacity.
Disability activists recognise the parallels between the words Divyang and Harijan, both imposed by a seemingly benevolent outsider and condescending to those it describes. Like the word Dalit signifies discrimination and represents the struggle for political mobilisation, disabled people also identify with the stigma and discrimination that persons with disabilities are subjected to on account of the cultural, social, physical, and attitudinal barriers that inhibit their contribution to and participation in society.
The imposition of the word Divyang itself denies agency to disabled people to decide how they want to be named. It also reinforces emotions of disgust and shame towards disabled people by highlighting their sins and by likening them to being part of god, discards social and political responsibility towards acknowledging disabled people as citizens deserving of respect and equal treatment as human beings. It attempts to obliterate the fact that the disability is created by barriers that exist in the so-called normality narrative, in processes and structures that promote and sustain exclusion. In the final count, it denies disabled people access to citizenship in a modern state with its associated enjoyment of rights and discharge of responsibilities, along with a refusal to accommodate diversity, not only in form of impairment but in all forms of human social existence.
 This is approximate estimates once we take into consideration the nineteen categories of disabled people included in the new law.
Nandini Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Her research interests include disability studies, gender studies, and sociology of marginalised communities.
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