Historically, for Dalits to be on crossroads is a new phenomenon. They have, with their own labour and sweat, gradually progressed through a most difficult journey, unique in the world, from being treated and sanctioned as ‘untouchable’ to being equal citizens. And yet, the fact is, their enemies have been more powerful than the ten-headed imaginary demons.
They fought discriminatory laws during the colonial rule, the society at large which segregated them in all fields of life, and the religion, including its scriptures. Amidst all their weapons, including education, reservation and rejection of the enslaving faith, the most powerful of them has been the legal tools emerging from the Constitutional guarantees, post-Independence. The legal protection has been the latest crossroad in the epic journey.
A year ago, more than a dozen Dalits lost their lives when they descended on the streets to protest the Supreme Court directions on implementation of the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) (Prevention of Atrocity) Act. The Apex Court’s concluding observation was that the Act has been misused in the absence of any credible research or data.
Dalits had not expected this from the Apex Court, especially when, following Dr BR Ambedkar, they had adhered to non-violent and constitutional approach to fight the menace of the caste system. A year later though, the Supreme Court did not agree with its own order and removed the earlier directions.
However, Dalits and Adivasis did not celebrate this important milestone as victory. Perhaps the scar on their minds caused by the earlier Apex Court action has been too deep to retain their faith in the judiciary as neutral-judicious organ.
The second crossroad has been the political situation. The Dalits, who adored Dr Ambedkar almost as God, chose however to be part of the mainstream political parties rather than putting their stake in political party such as the Republican Party of India. They preferred not to be isolated and confine themselves into a party perceived as ‘Dalit-specific party’. Their strategy of political integration has been the reason for grave concern now.
The fact remains that even when the NDA won maximum Dalit and Adivasi reserved seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which gave them the edge majority, government data confirms that the incidents of atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis have increased between 2014-2018 (Ref: Bhedbharat
, 2019, ed: Martin Macwan).
|Karnataka BJP Dalit MP Narayanaswamy|
Death of manual scavengers in sewer lines, ironically, is not considered an ‘atrocity’. What is equally troubling is complete absence of state action and political will to control caste violence with a firm hand. The situation signifies that Dalits are losing the value of their ‘vote’, which has never been ‘untouchable’ to any political party, and their negotiating ability to better their situation.
For India, the largest democracy thriving to be a major economy in the world, the presence of untouchability has been deeply embarrassing. The present government, following the footsteps of their predecessors, has been far from willing to accept the fact that, amidst tall claims of development, we as a society have failed to abolish untouchability, a root cause of atrocities.
This situation raises a serious question on the definition of development itself. Post-Independence, India did not see a spirited social movement against untouchability, which was undertaken pre-Independence.
Today, the voluntary organizations which address the issues of untouchability, manual scavenging abolition and violence against Dalits and Adivasis as a ‘Constitutional call’ are intimidated by the government. Little doubt, these factors contribute in weakening the fight against the menace of the caste system and strengthening the caste system.
It was disturbing to see how the tricolour-wrapped body of a martyr of militant attack in Pampore (Jammu and Kashmir) was not allowed to be cremated in the common cremation ground in Uttar Pradesh because, although a martyr, he was an untouchable (June 2016). Caste violence on the families of Dalit security forces in their own villages, though not highlighted, is not new.
It was expected that there would be a national uproar over the incident in Karnataka last month where a BJP SC member of Parliament (MP), A Narayanaswamy, was not allowed to enter a village of his own constituency.
The villagers did not want their action seen as insulting, hence they sent a chair for the MP to sit upon outside the village. At the same time, the villagers took pride in the fact that even their own representative was not being allowed to enter their village.
This happened in the presence of the police. Not to be surprised, the government maintained complete silence over the incident. However, it was even more surprising that 88 Dalit MPs maintained studied silence over such a grave incident, in which the entire Constitution of India was insulted, which was worse than mere abrogation of Article 370.
|Martin Macwan at a Dalit gathering|
The lawmaker in his reaction for being treated as powerless untouchable MP advocated for change of conscience of people as a remedy to the problem of untouchability. The underbelly of the reaction was perhaps a painful admission of the fact that the tools for social justice, the law, the political reservations for Dalits and the vote value of Dalits at 16.5%, have lost its cutting edge.
Gandhi too had advocated the ‘change of hearts’ as the ultimate remedy to defeat untouchability. Dr Ambedkar had negated the Gandhian appeal and firmly advocated ‘rule of law’ to annihilate caste.
Worrisome has been the fact that this act of humiliating the Dalit MP has been committed by a community belonging to the other backward classes (OBCs).
OBCs have been poorer in many pockets and less educated than Dalits.
Political parties have been completely silent on the rising incidents of violence on Dalits committed by OBCs. One wonders whether this phenomenon of consciously promoting enmity between Dalits and OBCs as against the earlier long-term efforts to unite them as a force against economic marginalization of both has been the political conspiracy.
Gujarat has seen similar phenomenon where Dalits and Muslims were pitted against one another in many pockets during communal riots. Communal and social harmony amongst the marginalized population seems to be the biggest enemy of the rich in the war over unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth between the rich and the poor in India. So, the writing on the wall perhaps is getting clearer for Dalits: They need to ‘re-strategize’ their struggle for equality.
The situation is also due to the fact that Dalits have miserably failed to abolish caste distinctions among themselves. A Navsarjan study, first of its kind, ‘Understanding Untouchability’, confirms the fact that the same forms of caste-based discrimination, present in the relationship between Dalits and non-Dalits, are present within Dalits sub-castes.
Dalits have missed Dr Ambedkar’s call on the annihilation of caste by not being the ambassadors and crusaders of the movement for the annihilation of caste. While petty politicians have bred antagonism in the younger Dalits minds against Gandhi owing to bitter confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar during the Poona Pact, the fact remains that Gandhi and Ambedkar, both great minds, had a common conviction: The moral power is far more powerful than the legal or the positional power.
It’s a shame of the nation today that, while we have enormous money to spend for war planes, which will help nobody to win, we have no money and effective programmes to tackle malnutrition among mothers and children, especially among the Adivasis.
We tend to emphasize the illusion that solution to the problems of discrimination and justice lies with our political institutions. It’s time to re-think and understand the value of a stronger civil society, especially when the rich have followed the Ambedkar call to ‘organize’ themselves, but Dalits, Adivasis and other poor have ignored the call.
*Well-known Dalit rights activist, founder of Dalit rights organization, Navsarjan Trust; winner of Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award, 2000, declared one of the five outstanding human rights defenders for 2000 by Human Rights Watch. An edited version of this article has appeared in India Today