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Untouchable Laborers in India; Interview with "The Year of Living Constitutionally" Author A.J. Jacobs. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired June 14, 2024 - 13:28   ET




CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): The caste system is as old as the stones that built this temple. India's

segregation is cemented in nearly 3,000 years of religion, not law.

SUNIL KHILNANI, HISTORIAN AND POLITICAL SCIENTIST: It's one of the most complicated, sophisticated systems of social hierarchy and oppression that

the world has ever -- that human beings have ever devised, which is --

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Professor Sunil Khilnani teaches politics at the University of London. He's the author of an acclaimed book on contemporary

India and the complex legacy of the caste system.

It's a system that ranks every Hindu from the highest to the lowest according to the work they and their caste perform.


KHILNANI: Purity is an extremely important facet of religious observance. For example, the use of fire, which is very common in Hindu rituals, or the

use of water. There's a very strong sense of certain objects, certain things being taboo that you don't come into contact with them.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): For instance, the dead. Traditionally, it's the untouchables who prepare the corpses for cremation.

KHILNANI: They were those castes who performed the work that no one else in the society would do, such as dealing with the bodies of the dead, et

cetera. This was seen as work that somehow was profaning, that was impure.

AMANPOUR: The untouchables are considered so unclean that traditionally, not even their shadows were supposed to defile these temples. And today,

they are still relegated to the very worst that life has to offer.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Like Narayanamma (ph), she's been using her bare hands to clean public toilets for the past 19 years.

NARAYANAMMA (PH) (through translator): They look down at me, and it hurts my soul.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Narayanamma's family has been assigned this filthy job for generations, and for generations it's made them physically ill. In

big cities, they may escape the abuses they endured in the small villages, but often, their only choice will be to settle in slums, where no one else

would even think of living.

Henry Tufine (ph) is a local human rights worker.

AMANPOUR: Oh, good lord. Is this the toilet river?

HENRY TUFINE (PH), HUMAN RIGHTS WORKER: You see the man walking across it?

AMANPOUR: Yes. He's walking basically through an open sewer.

TUFINE (PH): Basically to -- yes, open sewer. This is all open sewer.

AMANPOUR: Kids are playing in this sewer.

TUFINE (PH): That's normal. That's normal.

AMANPOUR: That's normal?

TUFINE (PH): That's normal here.

AMANPOUR: That's normal for an untouchable.

TUFINE (PH): Yes. And these are the sanitary workers of the town.

AMANPOUR: The sanitary workers of the town?

TUFINE (PH): The town.

AMANPOUR: What, the people who clean the latrines and things?

TUFINE (PH): Who clean the latrines, who clean the streets.

AMANPOUR: Now that, that is truly disgusting, the latrine business. I mean, how people can accept to clean public toilets with their hands is

beyond me.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And increasingly, India's 200 million untouchables are resisting, through the power of the ballot and political protest. And

it's changing the face of India.

KHILNANI: Caste is a form of social imprisonment, is beginning to break down, I think. It's beginning to break down. People are beginning to assert

their rights. They are beginning to say, well, look, constitutionally, this is illegitimate. These are my rights as an Indian citizen.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): They are rights that were enshrined in India's constitution, which banned discrimination against untouchables. Progress

has been difficult, but now, for the first time in history, an untouchable has managed, through his own efforts, to become president of India, though

the office is largely symbolic.

But it's the local untouchable leaders, like Dr. Krishna Swamy, who are really shaking up the system, by building a political movement on centuries

of pent-up anger.

AMANPOUR: Is India a democracy for all?

KRISHNA SWAMY, LOCAL UNTOUCHABLE LEADER: No. It is a fake democracy. We are fighting for our self-respect.

AMANPOUR: Some local officials have been killed. Are you not afraid?

SWAMY: There are thousands and thousands of people ready for this fight.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Almost every time untouchables assert their rights, it provokes violence in the cities, and especially in the countryside,

where upper caste landlords still reign over their untouchable laborers.

That's what happened in the village of Bate one night.

AMANPOUR: More than 200 upper caste men, armed with guns and knives, attacked this village. They went from hut to hut, killing anyone they could

find, even children. And all these villagers had been asking for was what they considered a fair wage. One dollar's worth of rice a day for their

work in the fields.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): This is what they got for their trouble, unspeakable horror. The bodies of 58 villagers haphazardly sprawled where

their killers found them. Whole families were murdered, including Parwati Devi's (ph) son and his wife. Only her grandson survived, hidden in his

dead mother's dress.

PARWATI DEVI (PH): There was no reason to kill my son. He never argued with anyone. Like all of us, he just worked in the fields for his daily



AMANPOUR (voice-over): A pittance of a wage, paid by the landlords who own these fields, and who now are accused of leading the slaughter. Mohan

Chaudhary is the upper caste village priest.

MOHAN CHAUDHARY, UPPER CASTE VILLAGE PRIEST (PH) (voice-over): We never start the violence. It's the untouchables who pick the fight. And the

landlords just retaliate.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): So, in this part of India, untouchables are arming themselves. Only women are allowed in this militia. They're being trained

to shoot because they are most at risk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (PH): Nobody else will protect us. That's why I carry my own gun.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (PH): Recently, a young girl was kidnapped and raped by the landlords.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (PH): There's more violence every day, and the police don't help us.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Sister Suda (ph) is trying to help, but she uses the law. She's an attorney and a Catholic nun who chooses to live with and

defend the very lowest castes.

AMANPOUR: When you see untouchables, men or women, cleaning human excrement with their hands, being forced to drink from separate cups in tea

rooms, having to take off their shoes when they walk past an upper caste, is there a sense of outrage?

SISTER SUDA (PH): For sure. It's really a curse on humanity. The whole caste system.

AMANPOUR: Is there any escape?

SUDA (PH): Impossible. See, in India, everyone knows he's caste.

AMANPOUR: So, no matter how well you do in life, you will always be considered untouchable?


AMANPOUR: Unclean?


AMANPOUR: And less than human?

SUDA (PH): Right.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The untouchable's burden has been carried from generation to generation.

Now, Narayanamma (ph), the toilet cleaner, pleads that it not be passed on any further.

NARAYANAMMA (PH) (through translator): All I'm begging for is that my children don't inherit this job. It should end with me.


BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It should end with me, an important reflection back there from Christiane.

Well, now, decades later, still fighting for self-respect, the Dalit Vote helped change the fate of India.

Turning to our next story, how would you feel about reverting back to a lifestyle of the late 18th century? Well, that's exactly what our next

guest, A.J. Jacobs, did. As he documents in his new book, "The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the

Constitution's Original Meaning." And he joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what he learned from his experience.


HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A.J. Jacobs. Thanks so much for joining us. Your new book is called "The Year of Living

Constitutionally: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution's Original Meaning." Why do this? Why now?

A.J. JACOBS, AUTHOR, "THE YEAR OF LIVING CONSTITUTIONALLY": Well, first, thanks for having me and good morrow.

I decided to do this because I wanted to explore what the constitution actually says and how should we interpret it? And as you probably know, in

the last couple of years, the Supreme Court, the conservative majority, has embraced something called originalism, which says the most important thing

when interpreting the constitution is what did it mean when it was written 230 years ago.

SREENIVASAN: OK. So, how does an author get themselves into the mindset of the writers of the constitution in the 1700s?

JACKSON: Well, I did everything from -- to express my Second Amendment rights. I bore a musket around New York City, an 18th century musket, and I

got some strange looks to --

SREENIVASAN: Is that legal by the way? Wasn't there a law that actually went out to the courts on whether or not it's legal for you to be carrying

a firearm?

JACKSON: It's a grainy area. It's a bit of a gray area. Yes, luckily, I wasn't arrested. In addition to the musket, I wanted to express my First

Amendment rights. So, I got off social media and I wrote pamphlets with a quill pen.

So, the idea was to go back to the origins and express my rights the way that they were written using the technology and mindset of the founding

fathers. And it was fascinating. It was an entertaining and fascinating year, but I hope it had some serious points as well.

SREENIVASAN: Yes. So, tell me, I mean, were you kind of a constitutional nerd before this? Were you trying to kind of lay out and prove a point in

the first place?

JACOBS: Well, I was actually embarrassingly ignorant of the constitution. I learned that 60 percent of Americans have never read the constitution

from start to finish. And I was one of those 60 percent. But it has such a massive impact on how we live our lives with the Supreme Court ruling on

women's rights and gay rights and gun policy, I thought I need to understand this constitution.


So, I talked to dozens of actual constitutional nerds and law scholars from all over the political spectrum, but I also wanted to live it. That's what

I did for a previous book that you and I talked about a long time ago called "The Year of Living Biblically." I find that walking the walk and

talking the talk and wearing the tricorn hat and eating the mutton actually helps me to understand and get in the mindset. So, that was part of the

goal as well.

SREENIVASAN: OK. So, what were, I guess, the parts of the constitution that leapt out at you in terms of how much they have changed in how we live

with them today versus how the authors intended them to be at the time?

JACOBS: Such a great question, and that's sort of the heart of the book. And it was a shockingly different time. The past is a foreign country. And

I'll give you just two quick examples, the First and the Second Amendment.

So, the First Amendment, back then, was much more constrained. I love the First Amendment. Free speech, I'm a big fan. But I'm a fan of modern free

speech. Back at the founding, it wasn't quite Stalinist Russia, but there were Laws against obscenity, against blasphemy, sedition, was much more

cracked down upon. And we don't want to go back to that original meaning of the First Amendment, neither conservatives nor progressives. Because the

First Amendment would not allow for political contributions, unlimited political contributions to candidates. So, that's an example of one that's

very different.

And the Second Amendment, the technology was so vastly different. I mean, I went and I shot a musket and it is 15 steps to shoot a musket. It is, you

got to take out the ramrod, pour in the gunpowder, put back the ramrod. It's like building a desk from Ikea. It takes a while. So, it is a vastly

different machine.

And the question is, should there be regulations that are different because it is so different. And it's not something -- a musket would be very hard

to do a mass shooting with a musket because it takes so long to load.

SREENIVASAN: You know, this idea of updating with the times, I mean, we see that tension being played out pretty much every time there's a verdict

from the Supreme Court. We have people arguing on the losing side, this is not what the constitution was for.

JACOBS: Right. And it is -- it continues to be at the heart of the controversy. And the question is, how much should you update? Even

originalists would say, for instance, that the law -- the rule against unreasonable searches and seizures. Originally, that meant the constable

banging down the door to search your papers, but now, they say, yes, it does apply to the internet and iPhones, but it's inconsistent. When do you

update and when do you not?

So, a hardcore originalist like Clarence Thomas would say that the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection and due process, when that was

written after the Civil War, it did not apply to gay people or gay marriage. So, he would argue, that does not cover the constitutional right.

Whereas those who are on the other side, often called living constitutionalists or pragmatists, would say no, you have to update the

morals as well. With the times, the morals change and gay people should be protected by the 14th Amendment.

SREENIVASAN: One of the concerns that you have with the side that says go ahead and interpret this document and keep evolving it is where does that

slide stop? The experts that you've spoken to, how do they figure out how to modify that level of change so it's still consistent to what should be

the values of our country?

JACOBS: Right. It is. That is a huge issue and a tough one. And I don't have a simple answer. One idea is that the founders would be shocked that

these Supreme Court justices have so much power. That was not their vision. Most of them, they thought that the Supreme Court should weigh in on

judicial review, but not what's called judicial supremacy, where they have the final word. The -- and in the past, the president and Congress would

also weigh in on what is constitutional.

So, in that case, you wouldn't have this extreme power with just these nine unelected justices. And I like that.


Another issue is that it's so hard to change the constitution. The founders did not anticipate it would be this hard to change. They wanted it hard to

change, but they didn't see this static two-party system coming when it is impossible to get 60 percent or 66 percent of the Congress to agree on the

color of the sky.

The key is, pluralism, which is like a very founding father's idea. So, you balance the original meaning with the consequences, with the legitimacy of

the Supreme Court and their reputation, you have all these factors when you make a decision.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things that you did in your constitutional year of life, you've got the -- you've exercised your right to redress to petition.

What were you petitioning for?

JACKSON: Well, this was interesting. Yes. Petitions, first of all, First Amendment right, they're often overlooked and I thought I need to do it the

old way. I'm not going to do it the slacktivism way on the internet. So, I got out a roll of -- a big roll of paper and have people sign with a quill


Now, my petition was -- because I'm concerned about the president. Both Democrat and Republican presidents have way too much power. The founders

would be shocked by the war powers and trade powers. So, I went back to an idea from the founding fathers during the constitutional convention, when

someone brought up the idea of a single president. Several of the delegates said, are you jesting? That's a terrible idea. We just fought to get rid of

a king. Why would we want a single president? Let's have three presidents, three co-presidents. Let's have 12 presidents. Ben Franklin wanted a

council of 12 presidents. And I thought this is an interesting idea.

So, I brought a petition. to Congress, to Senator Ron Wyden in Washington. I was wearing my tricorn hat, my regimental coat, buckled shoes, the whole

thing. But he said he would consider it, which I think he meant he would consider it for five seconds. But he did agree with my general thesis,

which is the president is too powerful.

And we have a -- we have on the -- in the future, possible presidents who are going to be more authoritarian. So, we do need to constrain the

president. I don't actually think three presidents. I don't know if Biden, Trump, and RFK Jr. co-working in the Oval Office is a great idea. But there

are ways to constrain the president that we need to look into and give power back to the Congress, which is what the founders wanted.

SREENIVASAN: You know, you did take a couple of opportunities here to try and make this exploration a little positive and fun. Tell us about election


JACOBS: Well, this was my favorite part of the book, and it is a through line of the book. We don't want to go back to the 18th century voting. Of

course. It was sexist and racist. And -- but there are elements of 18th century life that are worth looking at again. And one of them is the idea

that elections for the privileged few who were allowed to vote were festive. They were this new right that was awe inspiring.

So, it was -- there were parades, there was music, there was a lot of rum punch. It wasn't quite Coachella or Burning Man, but it was exciting this

election day. And it reminded people of the awesome power of democracy. So, I thought this is lovely. Let's -- I'll try to restart this appreciation of

election day as something festive.

And one of the traditions was election cake. People would bake election cakes, sometimes huge. One recipe calls for 14 pounds of butter and 10

pounds of sugar. So, I didn't do that, but I made a big election cake and I went on Facebook, which I know is not 18th century, although it is one of

the older platforms. And I got people from all over America to bake election cakes and bring them to the polls and give them out to remind

people, our catchphrase was Democracy is sweet.

And I love that because it was -- it's such a unrelentingly negative time in politics to have this one positive moment. And there is evidence, there

are studies that say having a festive election day increases voter turnout. Australia has something called the democracy sausage where they have big


So, I love the election cake. It's not the end. We also have to fix gerrymandering and voter suppression, but let's start with election cakes

and get people excited again about the right to vote. And I'm doing it again in November.


SREENIVASAN: What did this project teach you about yourself? Especially, you know, we have had so many different conversations on this program about

digital detoxing and slowing down. And I imagine that has to do something to your brain when you are writing in such a slow format with a quill and


JACOBS: Exactly. That was one of my favorite parts is I wrote much of the book with a quill. And what I found is it changed the way I thought, which

was fascinating, because there were no pings and dings or temptations from the internet. And I could actually focus. And I think that I don't think

everyone needs to go back to quills, but I think writing and thinking offline is so crucial, and it allowed me to, I think, see the world in a

more subtle way.

And one of the big -- the other big takeaway for me was that it allowed me to see the other side a little more. I think we are nowadays so stuck in

our opinions, so intransigent and unwilling to look at the evidence and see the other side. And this is not a patriotic way of looking at the world.

The founders were very cognitively flexible. Ben Franklin said that the older he gets, the less certain he is of his opinions.

SREENIVASAN: And what's the ripple effect on the people around you, your family that has to live with a guy who's, I don't know, writing with a

quill and doing, you know, things by candlelight and waking up early in the morning, trying to be back in the 1700s? So, how do your kids feel about


JACOBS: That -- there is -- they are split. There is some -- one of them actually likes it, the other two are so embarrassed they walk 40 feet in

front of me. My wife, parts of it she likes, she loves history. She did it -- she did not like the smell of beef tallow candles, which smell like

rotten meatloaf in her opinion.

Also, there are some very awkward -- if you're following 18th century law, it's very sexist. So, there are -- married women, for instance, who are not

allowed to sign contracts. And my wife owns an event business where she signs several contracts a day. And I said, well, while I'm doing this

experiment, maybe I should take over the signing. At first, she said, great. I hate signing these contracts. I was so bad at it she fired me

after an hour. So, that did not work out for either of us.

SREENIVASAN: You point out that this is the oldest constitution that's around. So, I wonder what should we be thinking about in terms of, I guess,

just surveying the landscape and seeing what's out there, what could be better, what -- you know what we do right, what could we improve on, 2.0,


JACOBS: Right. Well, I love that. And I think it's fascinating because ours was the first modern constitution. And we didn't have a lot of data of

what works and what doesn't. And I think part -- some Americans think that it's almost unpatriotic to look at other democracies and how they have

structured it and what works for them and what doesn't.

Others like Justice Breyer, who retired, he was very interested in how foreign Democracy's worked. And I think I agree with Justice Breyer, let's

look at what is working and what is not. One thing that I don't think is working for us is the two-party system and I don't think the founders

wanted a two-party system. But you look at many European democracies, and they have six or eight parties. There seems to be a Goldilocks zone of

about -- I think it's about four to eight parties is the best. Because, yes, now we have such polarization that it's so hard to get anything


We were the first and we can be proud of that, but we also were at a disadvantage because we didn't know -- we didn't have data on what works

and what doesn't.

SREENIVASAN: Are you concerned for our democracy in 2024 today as we're having this conversation after you have engaged in this yearlong experiment

of living constitutionally?

JACOBS: Well, yes. But I'm more optimistic than I was when I started. Part of the whole project was to figure out can we save democracy, because it

does seem endangered around the world. And several things gave me hope. I'll just give you two of them. One is, just reading about the history,

they -- the founders faced unbelievable odds that they were going against the strongest army in the world, the British, and that they somehow were

able to make a break and and be independent. That's astounding. So, we have terrible odds against us now, huge problems, but they're not



The second part is that we have made progress. If you look at the constitution itself, you can see the progress in the amendments. So, black

people got the vote, women got the vote, indigenous people got the vote, 18-year-olds got the vote. So, we are -- the arc does point towards

justice. And there is backsliding and there's -- it's not a straight line, but I do believe that if we roll up our sleeves -- democracy won't save

itself, but I do believe if we roll up our sleeves and make some of these reforms, that democracy can continue to thrive.

SREENIVASAN: A.J. Jacobs, thanks so much for joining us.

JACOBS: Thank you. It was a delight.


GOLODRYGA: And that is it for now. Thank you so much for watching, and goodbye from New York.