Dalits demand justice, now

Dalit Rights activists release ‘Black Paper’, march to Parliament and submit 25 lakh signatures to PM; a ‘White Paper’ and ‘Ambedkar Decade’ demanded

“They say we are untouchables,  let’s be untouchables by be coming live wire,” was the call  given last week by minister  for communications Ram Vilas Paswan to hundreds of Dalit activists who had converged upon Delhi for the release of the ‘Black Paper’ on the status of Dalit Human Rights, a report published by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR).

The next day, on December 9, charged and electrified by the resounding rhythm of Dalit drummers and the rallying slogans of hundreds of Dalit activists who had marched with them from Mandi House to the Parliament, an NCDHR delegation met with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. They were accompanied in solidarity by Paswan, Ramdas Athawale, Member of Parliament, Bandaru Dattathreya, deputy minister for urban development, and Bangaru Lakshman, Member of Parliament.

Collectively, the group called upon the PM to implement the demands listed in the ‘Black Paper’, and to support the tabling of a ‘White Paper’ in Parliament on the actual condition of Dalits today and the performance of the Indian State since Independence in the area of Dalit Human Rights. They also urged him to declare the next decade as ‘Ambedkar Decade’ in order to implement the demands spelt out in the Black Paper’. 

The ‘Black Paper’ is a severe indictment of the State for its denial of Dalit rights to livelihood, education, reservation and employment, land and labour, life and security, and gender equity for Dalit women. It is a well–researched document containing enormous data on the socio–economic situation of Dalits today.

Upon releasing the ‘Black Paper’ the previous day, Athawale, who is also secretary, SC/ST Parliamentarians’ Forum, called the ‘Black Paper’ the “announcement of our fight for human rights and social justice. The rights in the ‘Black Paper’ are very important. If we gain these rights no one in the world can oppress us.”

He made an urgent and vigorous call to implement ‘Black Paper’ demands, including lowering the ceiling limit in the Land Ceiling Act and implementing the reservation policy and compulsory and universal education. Citing ‘Black Paper’ statistics, which show that 2/3rds of Dalits are illiterate and primary school enrolment among Dalit children is only 16.2 per cent, Athawale called upon the government to provide free and compulsory education to Dalits at all levels and to launch a total literacy program for Dalits to be achieved in ten years.

The link between landlessness and atrocities, noted Athawale, needs to be crucially addressed by taking stringent measures against culprits who perpetrate atrocities and by distributing five acres of cultivable land to each Dalit household.  86 per cent of Dalit households are landless or near landless. That struggle for land is a root cause of atrocities against Dalits is evident in the killing of 277 Dalits in Bihar between August 1994 and February 1999 by the Ranavir Sena, a militia of upper-caste landlords. Almost all those killed were poor and landless agricultural labourers who had dared to demand land and minimum wages.

“We should demand land. If by asking we don’t get it, we should build up our strength to fight and get it,” exhorted Athawale. “What is of urgent importance, therefore, is that Dalits have to be militant. When we start insisting on our rights, there will be resistance, but we should not be afraid,” he added, while minister Paswan appealed to the Dalits to join others on social justice issues.

“Irrespective of the parties to which one belongs, the cause of Dalit rights should be our priority concern and commitment,” said Paswan.

Paswan, Athawale, the NCDHR delegates, along with Dr. Dattathreya and Lakshman took up many of these same demands and issues the next day in their meeting with the Prime Minister.

When the Prime Minister commented that untouchability was on the decline, the group cited numerous surveys from the ‘Black Paper’ which show that a large majority of villages in rural India still practice various and numerous forms of untouchability, including the two glass system in hotels, barring temple entry, and separate water sources. Also, almost 9 lakh Dalits in India today continue to earn their livelihood as manual scavengers, 15,000 of them in the national capital itself.

They went on to urge the PM to bring an amendment to Article 21, Part 3, Fundamental Rights, to ensure livelihood rights and the passage of the Basic Rights Agenda 2000 in the 13th Lok Sabha for the upliftment of Dalits. 

Today, Dalits are denied even basic livelihood rights. Over 20 per cent of the community do not have access to safe drinking water, almost 50 per cent live below the poverty line, 70 per cent lack electricity, and 90 per cent lack sanitation. To ensure the livelihood rights to Dalits, the NCHDR calls for the allocation of 20 per cent of GDP and a 15 per cent annual income tax on the corporate sector.

For the protection of Dalit life and security, the campaign urged the Prime Minister to promote and enforce effective implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and Rules, 1995.  This would be further backed up by recruiting a proportional percentage of Dalits to different classes of the police force, providing arms and training for self–defence against the perpetrators of atrocities and violence, and establishing special courts at the Supreme Court and district levels to speedily try cases of atrocities and untouchability covered by the act.

Reiterating the necessity for continuing the reservation policy, Paswan emphasised the need for reservation in the judiciary and in promotion to all the services in the bureaucracy. He underlined the duty of the government to fill in all the Class I & II reserved posts that are currently being occupied by non–SC/STs. The backlog of SC/ST appointments is supposed to be enormous — around 10 lakhs in the Union Government Services, not to mention many more in different states.

The Prime Minister assured the group that he is committed to the empowerment of Dalits as has been forcefully stated in his party’s manifesto. Earlier in the week, Athawale had submitted to the Prime Minister a memorandum reiterating the demands of the NCDHR that had been signed by many other Dalit and pro–Dalit MPs.

Over 300 hundred Dalit women delegates also met on December 8 for a National Dalit Women’s Conference, the outcome of which was ‘The Dalit Women Declaration of Gender Rights and Demands’ to be presented to the Indian public and the government for immediate consideration and action. 

(Press release dated December 14, 1999 of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights).

Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2000. Year 7  No, 55,  Dalit Drishti 1



Related Articles