Caste, class bias must end

Dalit Activism

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

There is lot of news in the media concerning the Dalits, who in recent months have asserted their right to a dignified existence. While activism of this section has been manifest in different parts of the country, the Centre’s recent ban on the word ‘dalit’ in official communications has spurred protests. Activists have noted that the establishment banned it from fear of the word that symbolises oppression, unity and self-assertion and therefore implying threat of rebellion.
Experts point out that the government feared the word because it had the potential to galvanise the oppressed. However, it may be mentioned here that the Gwalior Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court banned the official use of the word in January this year since “it does not find mention in the Constitution of India or any Statute”.
According to a Dalit activist Gurinder Azad, “the government wants to dilute the view of the social system that perpetuated inequality through caste but we have a right to use the word”. Another activist, Paul Diwakar cited how the Khatiks were a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh but not in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. One cannot deny the fact that the word ‘dalit’ gives a pan-Indian identity to the community, making it a single homogenous group and carries the potential to inspire a national movement as the dalits’ movement in April showed.
Meanwhile, in another major development, a group of 50 alumni from IIT across the country have quit their jobs to form a political party to fight the rights of SCs/STs and OBCs. This group, which is waiting for an approval from the Election Commission, has named their outfit ‘Bahujan Azad Party’. Its members don’t want to jump the gun and aim for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We will begin from contesting the 2020 Bihar Assembly and then aim for the next Lok Sabha polls”, stated Naveen Kumar, a 2015 IIT Delhi graduate, leading the group. An outfit, he elaborated was necessary to voice their demands, as over the years, they have not received their due share in terms of education and employment.
The government is aware of the increased advocacy of dalits and tribals for better facilities and upgrading their living conditions. Keeping this in mind the Prime Minister while launching the Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, also unveiled a roadmap for development of tribal areas in MP over the next five years. Under it, over Rs 2 lakh crores would be spent for development of areas under tribal panchayats.
It cannot be denied that even after seven-odd decades of independence, in many villages the nature of certain social equations has not changed. Such villages continue to remain what Dr. BR Ambedkar called “sinks of localism, dens of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”. How else should one view the incidents taking place where dalits are being exploited, not being allowed to be equal members of society and even their families remaining out of bounds to temple festivities?
Discrimination against dalits is widespread and ingrained in the psyche across India, particularly in rural settings. In some places it takes the form of violent oppression, in others it is disguised yet omnipresent. Though in recent times there is some responsiveness of the State to harassment of dalits, recurring acts and persisting practices against the dalit community makes one wonder whether State response and constitutionalism alone are enough to overcome longstanding social injustice and prejudices in India’s villages.
The overall performance sheet of successive governments has been rather poor as these did very little by emphasising on their education and bringing them into the mainstream. Not even five to seven per cent of dalits have been able to establish themselves and gain social standing and come out of the past’s stigma. As the political establishment is weighed in favour of upper castes and urbanites, they did not have the vision and initiative to alleviate their sufferings.
Large numbers of dalits now in college and university are first generation entrants like Rohith Vemula, whose suicide in the University of Hyderabad is now history. This is all the more significant given their difficult living conditions. As per a recent survey, 21% dalit families live in houses with thatch or bamboo roofs compared with 15% overall, 78% in one or two rooms compared with 69% overall, 35% have drinking water source within the house compared with 47% overall, 47% have no electricity compared with 33% overall and 66% do not have toilets compared with 53%.
Apart from this backwardness, lack of progressive social consciousness permeating society, constitutionalism, State actions and political equations simply do not suffice. It would have helped if the political actors who accommodated dalits among their party and governance structures, due to the their sheer weight of numbers as a representative section, also believed in and worked as conduits for social transformation. There is an imperative need to give dalits leadership roles in political parties so they could bring issues before their governments and aid the process of social and economic transformation.
Though in the last few years, there have been some changes in the composition of leadership of political parties, the problems of the dalits and tribals have not been considered in the right manner. There is need for a drastic change in the Government’s outlook towards lower castes as just reservation may not achieve this. There has to be awareness generation of the fact that we are born as equal entities and caste, class, religion comes much later.
Development has to be such that all sections of society get equal opportunities and the State helps in ensuring they could join the mainstream of life and society in a dignified manner. All-round development of each and every community is what is needed and must be accorded top priority. Mahatma Gandhi had been a votary of equality and a communitarian approach but successive governments had not given this the emphasis it desired.
One may also refer to Ambedkar’s observation: “The castes are anti-national. In the first place, because they bring separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality”. This has yet to become a reality due primarily to the lack of political will and the intention of the political leaders to rule on the basis of ‘divide and rule’ policy.— INFA