I am a Dalit, who are you?

Caste Cauldron
By Poonam I Kaushish

“The naïve notion that we can preserve freedom by exuding goodwill is not only silly, but dangerous,” wrote former US President Nixon in his book The Real War. His words of caution are water off a duck’s back as our netagan ready to celebrate 75th Independence Day. Replete with syrupy speeches of Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas and ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ which resonate to the aam aadmi’s raucous silence!
Sadly, 75 years on nothing seems to have changed. The past continues to survive and thrive in the present: Of India in the vicious tentacles of caste cauldron wherein Dalits, the most downtrodden citizens of an unforgiving Hindu caste hierarchy condemns them to the bottom of the heap.
In the last ten days caste hatred against “untouchables” barred its poisonous fangs again. The contemptuous ‘mockery’ dance, firecrackers bursting and caste slurs by upper castes men in UP’s Haridwar outside India’s Women Hockey Captain Vandana Katariya’s house after the hockey team lost to Argentina in the Olympics semifinals stands testimony to this. They were furious and blamed the loss due to many Dalit players.
In Delhi a 9-year old poor Dalit girl was gang-raped by priests who then hurriedly cremated her, resulting in a political slugfest between Congress and BJP. Rahul’s visit to the family and pledging to stand by them while reminding its rival of shrugging off responsibility by undermining the incident led to the Saffron Brigade accusing him of being selective to further his political agenda while being silent on atrocities of Dalits in Congress-ruled Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Amidst this some States are demanding a caste census which mercifully has been shot down by the Modi Sarkar. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Maharashtra to Manipur caste explosions and exploitations rule the roost. Whereby, it has become the most luscious mistress to be measured through the prism of power glass politics. With parties defining it according to its own warped and selfish needs, never mind if the countryside air is rent with cries of agony and aversion.
Despite laws to protect Dalits, more than 46,000 crimes against them were reported last year according to official statistics. Nine States: Rajasthan, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Andhra, Telangana, Kerala and Odisha accounted for 84% crimes against them in 2019 though they constitute 25% of population and 33.2% of prisoners in jails.
Shockingly, 15 Dalit women are raped every day in India according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Between 2009-19 while assault incidents saw a marginal drop of 5% rapes of Dalit women went up alarmingly by 159% from 1,346 to 3,486 and the conviction rate is just 32%.
Rising aspirations among young Dalits have fuelled violence against them by upper-caste members who are unable to accept this. Their crime can be as trivial as growing a moustache, marrying beyond their caste, riding a horse, passing through an upper caste locality etc.
Fueled by Mandalistation of politics which changed our polity. Whereby, it is now polarised on caste basis with elections being fought on caste considerations. Voters are regressively but decisively voting along caste lines. This social engineering via the ballot has become the mainstay. After all, why should the Brahmins and Thakurs, a mere 15% of the vote bank, rule the roost? In other words, political consciousness today terminates at the caste and community level.
Consequently, this social chasm widened with the emergence of “Made in India” leaders like Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati. If Lalu’s RJD kid gloved the forwards with his massive backward following, Mulayam’s SP played his Yadav and Muslim card to the hilt in Government and judicial appointments. Mayawati’s BSP revealed in “transfer Raj”, replacing many upper caste officers by Dalit officials.
Thereby, giving the rootless down-trodden a new identity and attitudinal changes. In fact, disdain for “untouchables” inherited over generations, coupled with entrenched misogyny in a patriarchal society and social justification flowing from patriarchy make upper castes extremely intolerant to Dalits trying to rectify their mis-fortune by birth.
Not just that. With everyone propounding their own recipes of caste harmony, the nation is getting sucked into the vortex of centrifugal bickering. So caught up are our leaders in their frenzied pursuit of political nirvana through caste separatism that they confuse themselves.
Touch any sphere of life — political, social, economic, administrative, educational and judicial caste has spread into its vitals. Tragically, bringing things to such a pass whereby everything today has degenerated into the caste paradigm.
Clearly, in the Kafkaesque world where caste vs caste fight and decide one’s fate no Party wants to jeopordise its caste vote banks. Wherein, the fight for getting the upper hand and votes has been reduced to politics of optics and perception, underscoring present reality and exposes the socio-political undercurrents at play.
Leading to rising tensions between castes over perceived injustices and demand for quotas stem from unfulfilled aspirations of employment and upward mobility. Simultaneously, quotas have failed to either solve the job problem or promote inclusion. The socio-political trajectory of the Dalit community is marked by frustrations and entrapments. Think, Dalit political activists have risen to political prominence thanks to their alliance with either the BJP or Congress. But as a community, they routinely fail to make an impact on the political process.
Trapped in the distortions of the political economy and rendered rudderless by the political bankruptcy of their leaderships, communities inevitably retreat to three things: Mutual suspicion, assertion of caste pride/identity and a confrontation in the shadows of history and memory. A sure recipe for inter-community violence.
Woefully, our leaders refuse to see the Frankenstein they have unleashed and are unwilling to learn from history. The past tells us that all clashes in India have been based on caste. From Bihar’s Thakur-Dalit violence in Belchi 1976, Punjab’s Jat-Sikh insurgency 1980-1990’s and Kashmir’s two-decades of continuing Hindus-Pandits ethnic cleansing by pro-Pak militants.
With all merrily playing the caste zero-sum game it is now difficult to recognize India as the same country which Emerson described as the “summit of human thought. Clearly, if political consciousness terminates at the caste level, the day is not far when divisive caste combinations will dominate Indian politics. Granted it will be suicidal not to take cognizance of the new-found aspirations of Dalits.
As it stands, vote-banks on caste lines are easier to build. At the same time, it is equally dangerous to indulge in ongoing caste power games, caste rivalries and politics of brinkmanship. By that token, the whole social reform movement will become meaningless, a ‘must’ for any modern nation that wishes to forge ahead.
Undeniably, our leaders are either unable or unwilling to break out of the caste mould. In the long run, this is bound to increase dissatisfaction all around. By making noises and finding a scapegoat, our polity runs the risk of changing major political alignments on caste lines.
India stands testimony to the fact that power in privilege stands further transformed through electoral competition into power in numbers. Time now for our petty power-at-all cost polity to think beyond vote-bank politics and look at the long-term implications. Which, if not arrested, could well boomerang on them and spell danger to our democracy. What gives? — INFA