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Dalits: From exclusion to assertion

There are over 260 million people in the world who are voiceless victims of caste discrimination who continue to suffer from extreme forms of segregation, violence, and exploitation because of their ‘low caste’ or outcaste status or other forms of discrimination based on work and descent. About 66% of them are from India.

Communities adversely affected by caste or caste–based systems include the Dalits of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Buraku of Japan, Osu of Nigeria, and Rodiya of Sri Lanka. Others with caste or caste–like systems include Senegal, Mauritania, Madagascar, Mali, Guinea and regions with significant Indian Diaspora such as Eastern and Southern Africa, North America, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and the United States.
In many cases caste systems exist side by side with otherwise democratic structures. In countries such as India and Nigeria, governments have enacted progressive legislation to combat atrocities against ‘lower’ caste communities. But discriminatory treatment remains endemic, and discriminatory societal norms continue to be reinforced with impunity by government and private structures and practices, frequently through violent means, with the connivance and complicity of the State.

As India’s then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao said in his address at the inaugural of the meeting of chief ministers at New Delhi on 4 October 1991: Attempts by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to … improve their lot and claim what is rightfully theirs, are often the principal cause of the atrocities that are perpetrated on them. There is a lack of sensitivity on the part of the police and the district administration … The law enforcers themselves, in many cases, fail to act promptly or collude with the other side. Government figures on the atrocities confirm that fifteen years down the line, the atrocities have increased.
Though there were many attempts to better the lot of the ‘untouchables’ most had only a local impact, and were based on a charity and welfare approach. While some may accept the benefits of a caste system, there is absolute consensus on the need to eliminate caste discrimination. However, in the competition to be higher on the caste scale, myths are invented to degrade others. Even Shivaji’s descendents had the ignominy of being considered Shudras once they were out of power!

Social reformers from Periyar to Sri Narayana Guru to Mahatma Phule opposed the caste system lock stock and barrel. Gandhi’s approach was more moralistic, depending on the goodwill of the oppressor castes rather than a right of the ‘Depressed Classes’. Though extremely sympathetic to the cause of the ‘Harijans’—he repeatedly expressed his desire to be reborn as one—he still felt that the caste system was right. It took the political and intellectual skills of B R Ambedkar to provide the pan Indian framework for Dalit liberation, in part because he wrote in English, to the consternation of Brahminism which until then had virtual monopoly over the discourse. Educated in the western tradition, he applied the rigorous academic analysis to the Hindu scriptures—much as the modernists did to the Bible in Europe—and provided a countervailing ideological framework for Dalit assertion. Though published by the Government of Maharashtra itself, his ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ [Collected Works, Volume 4] was made ‘out of print’ when hostile governments were in power. This iconic—almost demi-godlike—pan Indian recognition has provided the centre around which Dalit assertion has coalesced.

The Indian state and intelligentsia have been liberal. It was ensured that a Dalit would be the President at the 50th anniversary of Independence—equivalent to having a Black as the President of the US, which has not happened in their 220 year history. The ‘architect of the Indian constitution’ was Dr Ambedkar. It is also true that he was the first to burn it—an accurate reflection of the contradiction between our ideals and reality. This contradiction is illustrated in the Mandal Commission report—which all parties promised to implement in their manifestoes—and the reaction to the announcement of its implementation. The Mandal Commission recommended sweeping affirmative action measures to empower the weaker sections. Large parts of Indian society reacted negatively to this. Faced with this threat, Indian society closed ranks against the Dalits. Curiously, the recommendations were for reservations for the other backward classes, the OBCs not for Dalits! The SC/ST Atrocities [Prevention] Act, Protection of Civil Rights Act and several others to protect the human rights of weaker sections have a dismal record of conviction, let alone in their stated objective of prevention.

The claims of those pointing to the numerous affirmative action provisions are disputed by none less than the President K R Narayanan of India who noted on 26 January 2000: Untouchability has been abolished by the law but the shades of it remain in the ingrained attitude nurtured by the caste system. Though the provisions of reservation in educational institutions and public services flow from our constitution, these provisions remain unfulfilled through bureaucratic and administrative deformation or by narrow interpretations of these special provisions.

The practice has been to articulate lofty ideals, but ensure that the practice of these ideals does not happen in one’s neighbourhood—the ‘nimby’ syndrome: not in my backyard. The captains of Indian industry—not known for efficiency in the best of times—stoutly oppose any affirmative action in the private sector and want everything to be on ‘merit’. Ironically, two days after the public opposition—on the editorial page of a national daily—the same stalwart of Indian industry appointed his son the director of his company. How ‘merit’ and ‘seniority’ applied there is a mystery. Significantly, neither he nor large parts of society, saw the irony of it all.

With some mobility due to the global dynamics, increasing access to education, and job reservation in the public sector, some Dalits have refused to be degraded or be the waste absorbers of the nation. The social reaction has been to find more brutal ways of countering mobility and assertion. Mass gang-rapes of Dalit women in whole villages, burning entire families, total destruction of Dalit property in cycles of 12 to 15 years, denial of modern services, destruction of traditional livelihoods and new forms of discrimination are being invented to keep the Dalits under subjugation. Water, electricity, roads, schools and community halls—not to speak of the location of government offices and services—all reach the Dalit part of the village or city last. Even when the services do reach, the controls are kept with the dominant castes, so that they can control the Dalits. The electrical switches and water pipes being in the dominant caste part of the town or village is but one example. Dalits are specially targeted for conversion, and used as cannon fodder by all sides in communal riots. Segregated eating exists even in the mid-day meals given to students in government schools. Dalit children are forced to sweep the school and do domestic work in the homes of teachers—something that dominant caste children are not asked to do.

Relief was denied to Dalits during the recent Tsunami. For instance, in Karaikal the fisherfolk received 60 kgs of rice while the landless agricultural labourers—mainly Dalits—received only 5 kgs. This is bizarre since both have lost their livelihoods: the fisherfolk lost their boats and nets and thus the ability to fish while the Dalits lost their ability to get work on lands since the land became saline with the ingress of the sea. Even the government segregated the relief camps. So strong is the hold of the caste system that even in their distress, others refused to inter-dine or share relief camps with Dalits. Ironically, Dalits were imported from other areas to bury the dead.

Discrimination continues even on conversion to other ‘egalitarian’ religions like Christianity, Sikhism and Islam. When the Dalit Christians protested discrimination within the church—where they make up the majority but are minority of priests and even less Bishops—the church promptly diverted their attention by coopting the struggle and sought to paper over the internal contradiction by demanding reservations in government jobs for Dalit Christians. The present Dalit position is that they are neither Hindus nor Christians or anything else but Dalits. There is some movement towards Neo-Buddhism as a political expression of protest. Temple entry used to be high on the agenda but the emphasis now is more on ‘separate, but equal’ spaces both for worship, socialisation and livelihood. Even when Chandrababu Naidu tried out temple entry with government backing in Andhra Pradesh, it left the Dalits vulnerable to the certain backlash, which was not long in coming. Many did not even respond to the Chief Minister’s call, fed up with the tokenism, constant discrimination and struggle.

With the nascent Dalit middle class finding its voice, they have been able to link globally. There have been recent victories in the UN, which has appointed a special rapporteur and asserted that caste discrimination is a form of racial discrimination—over-ruling the Indian government. Their votes have become consolidated across the nation, and even those who swear by class and religion are forced to take notice of the caste arithmetic in their electoral calculations. Just how organised this section is politically can be gauged by this simple fact: with 50% of the population and votes, women have been struggling through consecutive governments for 33% of seats in parliament. With less than half that, de facto reservation for Dalits even in ministries is unquestioned. The contradiction is visible here too: Dalits are routinely prevented from voting, and contesting in the seats reserved for them. In some panchayats, they are prevented from filing their papers, or forced to resign immediately, or when force does not work slaughtered—as in Melavalavu.

At the same time, internal contradictions within the ‘Dalit’ identity have come to the fore. The well known Mala–Madiga conflict, where the better off claim all the benefits, is but one of the results of the stratification and sanskritisation among the Dalits themselves. The internal contradictions are not just between the castes that make up the ‘Dalits’—and who practice untouchability amongst themselves too—but also among men and women. The contradictions of larger society have found their way into the Dalit communities also. Though the Dalit women have stood shoulder to shoulder with their men, they are sometimes invisible and called ‘Dalits among Dalits’. In the words of the black women’s movement of USA, ‘all Blacks are men, all women are white’. The situation is no different in India. The Dalit women are invisible to both the Dalit movement and the women’s movements. It is no mean achievement that the list of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel peace prize has Ruth Manorama—the leader of the National Alliance of Women’s organisations, NAWO, and National Federation of Dalit Women, NFDW.

Indians blame all problems on the ‘foreign hand’. Unfortunately, this one is totally home grown. The Gandhian approach of ‘atonement’ has not even taken off. The Ambedkarite approach of assertion and ‘political power is the key’ has worked far better. The global shift to a sovereignty and human rights based framework makes obsolete anything less.

There has been some progress. However, much more needs to be done… and miles to go before we awake into ‘that heaven of freedom’.