A question of caste
Two years ago, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee toured Gujarat after the national press and several fact-finding teams had established beyond a shred of doubt that his saffron brotherhood had made life hell for Christians in the BJP-ruled state. Not a word from the country’s chief political executive on the shocking incidents of attacks on people, targeting of churches or the burning of copies of the Bible. What we got instead from the PM at the end of his tour was the profound observation on the urgent need for a nation wide debate on religious conversions. When faced with an awkward situation, change the very subject of discourse or debate. That is the rather cheap but time-tested tactic that Vajpayee resorted to in the context of attacks on Christians. And that is what lesser mortals in his government are now trying to do with the Dalit issue.
An UN-sponsored, ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances’ is to be held in Durban in August-September this year. Dalit groups propose to use this forum to draw global attention to the fact that even 50 years after the birth of the Indian Republic, we continue to heap shocking indignities on a section of our citizens. In virtually every village, town, city and metropolis of this cradle of an ‘ancient civilisation’. Dalits, for example, will tell the world that despite a law to the contrary, we still have 8,00,000 Indians whose job it is to clean up human excreta after more exalted Indians have heeded “nature’s call.” They will point out that around 160 million Indians continue to be treated as “so impure as to be untouchable”. Among numerous other narratives, they will cite the case of a high court judge from UP who refused to occupy his high chair until it was “purified” with holy water from the Ganges — because his predecessor was an “untouchable.” Or they might talk of the upper caste man who continues to be a sessions court judge in UP despite being charged with the murder of a Dalit youth.
How very embarrassing! On apartheid in South Africa we Indians occupied the highest moral ground and were in the forefront of the campaign of sanctions and boycotts. But we have, quite wisely, figured a way out of our own predicament. Dalits want the global community to acknowledge, and thereby condemn, caste-based discrimination, “as a distinct form of racism”. The official Indian position is ingenious: insist that caste has nothing to do with race, so how can you discuss it at a conference on racism? End of problem! For the rest, our netas and babus will maintain in Durban that caste is an “internal issue”. Our neighbour Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, is more honest. It has no problem admitting before the global community that caste is an evil that must be fought. But we are different and that’s the subject of our cover story this month.
By now, Union home minister LK Advani has, hopefully, run out of all excuses and will soon grace the Liberhan Commission – inquiring into the demolition of the Babri masjid – by his august presence. A few months earlier, Advani’s saffron sister and Union minister, Uma Bharati, repeatedly told the commission she could barely remember what happened in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Just in case Advaniji, too, runs into a mental block, our special report this month could serve as a memory jog, starting with his 1990 rath yatra that in fact was a barely disguised call to arms.
Last month, some from among those actively engaged in the Talibanisation of Hinduism “retaliated” to the desecration of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by burning copies of the Quran in India. Retaliating to the retaliation, the fanatical Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) triggered protests in different parts of the country. Though the contagion was contained in good time elsewhere, in Kanpur it led to a full-fledged riot leading to serious loss of life and property. As will be evident from the report of a women’s delegation that visited Kanpur for fact-finding, which we are publishing in this issue, while fanatics and fundamentalists from both groups tried to engineer communal hatred, as good neighbours, ordinary Hindus and Muslims of Kanpur protected each other. But sections of the local police and the notorious PAC yet again betrayed their anti-Muslim bias. At the cost of sounding repetitive we cannot but warn of the dangers inherent in a situation where the country’s minorities lose all faith in the impartiality of the state machinery.
From August 31– September 4, when the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenopho bia and Related Intolerances(WCAR) meets in Durban, the first time since the discriminatory and centuries old regime of apartheid was overturned through much sacrifice and struggle in that country, another group of subordinated peoples, discriminated by descent and occupation, forcibly segregated by tradition and religion from access to common resources, will make their voice heard before the international community.
They will demand that caste-based discrimination, which amounts to descent and occupation based oppression, segregation and exclusion be recognised as a distinct form of racism. A distinct form of racism, because it amounts to the denial of basic human rights based on prejudice, discrimination or antagonism and is justified by well–entrenched beliefs about high and low, superior and inferior.
A wide network of Dalit groups from within and outside India will voice this demand on behalf of 160 million Indians. They will make their case through public testimonies of victims and documents drawn up by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights — NCDHR.
Predictably, there have been strong attempts by the Indian government to resist the bid to raise the issue of caste discrimination in an international forum. At the preparatory meeting for the WCAR, on February 19 in Teheran, the government made it’s stand clear — introducing caste into the ambit of the WCAR at Durban would amount to diluting the concept of racism. The government delegation was represented, among others, by the attorney general, Soli Sorabjee. More significantly perhaps, government spokesmen stressed that the problem of caste was an ‘internal’ one and therefore out of the purview of the UN.
Using his weekly column in The Times of India, (March 4, 2001) to emphasise the government’s position, Sorabjee endorsed the overall rationale behind the theme of the forthcoming conference;an acknowledgement that “no country is immune from the virus of racism whose roots lie in the hearts and the minds of the people”. He mentioned the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ECERD) convention but commented on the “misconceived attempts by some NGOs to equate racism with caste–based discrimination which is based on birth and occupation and has nothing to do with the race of a person.” Our Constitution, he said, recognises the distinction between race and caste, which are separately mentioned as prohibited grounds of discrimination.
In stark contrast to the Indian governmental position was the Nepal government’s candour on the same issue, confronted as it is with recent assertions of Nepali Dalits who account for not less than 15 per cent of the total population. The government of the only Hindu kingdom in the world openly admitted that caste is the source of acute discrimination and segregation within Nepal. This, it held, was a serious issue that falls under the theme of the forthcoming conference and should, therefore, form part of the official deliberations at the WCAR at Durban.
Apart from the Indian government, several academics, individuals and groups have also voiced serious concern over what, in their perception, is a Dalit move to link caste to race. This, according to them, is a dangerous move that would lead to a revival of the theory of race that resulted in “Hitler’s disastrous racial policies” and that was discounted decades ago (anthropologist Andre Beteille in The Hindu, March 12).
According to Beteille, “interested parties within and outside the UN would like to bring caste discrimination in general and the practice of untouchability in particular within the purview of racial discrimination... The practice of untouchability is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by one and all; but that does not mean that we must begin to regard it as a form of racial discrimination. The Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination… We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed. The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or making demands on the basis of disadvantaged groups.”(Emphasis added).
There are two substantive issues involved here. One is the theoretical rejection and support for Dalit demands by not just academics but other groups and individuals, movements and formations on the lines that Beteille argues. The other is the resistance to any attempt to take the issue of caste–based discrimination to a global forum; to solicit international condemnation of caste–based discriminatory practices and support for the struggle against it.
Put together, both amount to attempts to distort and thereby contain efforts by the Dalit movement to seek international focus and attention on caste based discrimination, legitimised for centuries through scripture and followed in practice by notions of high and low, superior and inferior, pure an impure. Even half a century after independence, the problem continues. The Dalit condition, which was the result of such a pernicious theory, is the result of a pernicious understanding of race by perpetrators of this condition and not the other way around. It is not the metaphor of race that is being invoked but the metaphor of racism, which was the outcome of the misplaced metaphor of race.
The re–emergence of a vibrant and vocal Dalit movement (after the Dalit Panther movement of the seventies) in the mid-eighties and early nineties has formed the backbone of the national campaign whose demands are now being heard. The systematic campaigns (see box), documentation and theorisation that have emerged reflect the painful reality of 160 million Indians (not counting Dalits of other religious denominations) even 54 years after political independence and democracy.
Even the dictionary meaning of the word racism, (Shorter Oxford: racism is the belief in or adherence to, by the perpetrators not the victims — advocacy of the theory that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities qualities etc specific to their race distinguishing as inferior or superior to another race or races; prejudice, discrimination or antagonism based on this), needs to hark to the theory of race to describe it’s consequences — the condition of racism described as antagonistic or prejudicial or discriminatory. Moreover, within political science and sociology circles, racism has come to typify and describe systems of inequality and discrimination.
The condition of 20 million Dalits more than fulfils the description of the conditions used to describe racism. The term is now being invoked to show how the same kind of dehumanising prerequisites (in terms of definition) that are used to describe, understand and protest against racism are more than fulfilled (thousand times over) when we speak of untouchability and caste–based discrimination.
Is it not time that we fill and feed such terminology with our own histories and thereby deepen their meanings?
To argue that caste-based discrimination — through exclusion, dehumanisation, segregation, violent atrocities and practices — is a distinct form of racism is surely not out of a desire to dangerously re-introduce, as Beteille seems to argue, the theory of race. Rather, the intention is to emphasise that despite the ostensible world wide rejection of the theory of race, even today, a fifth of the population in South Asia has to endure bitter prejudice, segregation, exclusion and discrimination legitimised by a tradition of superior and inferior, pure and impure. (In any case, the supposed rejection of the theory of race is obviously restricted to limited circles, as even today neo-Nazi squads in the West are a grim pointer to the awesome gap between theory and lived experience. )
The very theory of the atishudra — that even now, in the twenty- first century excludes an entire segment of men, women and children out of the Hindu caste fold, but controls this section through an elaborate system of exploitation, economic, social and political — is a theory of superior and the mleccha, the pure and the impure. The millions so exploited are used for backbreaking manual and menial tasks. Worst of all, they are even excluded from discourse, from the mind’s eye.
To state that caste, descent and occupation-based discrimination is a distinct form of racism is to evocatively highlight the depth and details of the sub–human conditions that a fifth of the population of India is forced to endure — through segregation, exclusion and discrimination, hierarchy and domination.
It is to racism, and not the theory of race, that the Dalit movement as a whole seeks to link it’s condition and demand world understanding, international condemnation and, yes, support. There may be individual voices within the movement who hark back to the issue of Dalits being a race but for the moment, at least, the overwhelming Dalit position goes beyond it. (Incidentally, theorists associated with the movement intimately, especially Thorat of the JNU, are emphatic in pointing to Dr BR Ambedkar’s own rebuttal of the Brahmanical theory of race that justifies the exclusion and brutalisation of the atishudra.)
The Dalit campaign urges all people, political parties, civil liberties groups, human rights organisations, to address not the whys of caste but address it’s present day existence, manifestation and reality. What continues to motivate us as a people and a civilisation to segregate so brutally 20 per cent of our people and prevents us from lending support to their struggle?
Elected representatives across party formulations — RPI, Congress(I), CPI and the CPI(M) — have allied with the ongoing struggle for international condemnation of continued caste-based discrimination and exclusion. At the preparatory conference in New Delhi between March 1–4, former prime minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Mohini Giri, CPI MP D Raja, RPI MP, Ramdas Athavale, Congress MP, Praveen Rashtrapal, CPI(M) MP, Arindam Sen, all declared allegiance to the move for international solidarity.
Yet, in the wider section of the political class, the intelligentsia, academia, progressive groups and organisations, there has been a distinct tendency to stay aloof from the issue at hand. The general fragmentation of social movements could be one of the reasons for the exclusion of the Dalit issue and its specific demands from other struggles and also the misunderstanding of the thrust and focus of the Dalit campaign. But the distance and divide is also reminiscent of what happened 50–70 years ago, when the voices of Ambedkar and Periyar were drowned in the lead-up to the national struggle against colonialism, for freedom against foreign yoke.
Then as now, Ambedkar’s stance was deliberately misconstrued and ignored by the dominant discourse. Ambedkar had to bear the burden of being labelled a traitor simply because of his plea that the rights of Dalits, the ‘untouchables’, should be made a pre-condition for independence from the British. His own lived experience, of having to endure the humiliation of being treated as ‘impure’ even after his education at Columbia University, pushed him towards the demand for separate electorates. Today, an honest look at not just the plight of Dalits (see box) but also the exclusion of the Dalit issue from other struggles is a stinging reminder of the possible validity of Ambedkar’s position.
The questions raised by Ambedkar decades ago are relevant even now. They are questions about prejudicial and discriminatory methods of production and social relations, methods and relations based on principles of exclusion, denial and humiliation that have existed within the Indian sub-continent for 3,000 years before the British arrived. These centuries’ old practices continue to result not only in the creation of wealth and security for half of the population at the cost of the rest, but also in the distinct dehumanisation of a fifth. This state of affairs, sanctified by religious scriptures and practised in the name of caste, is not very different even today.
Why did the national movement not lend support to Dalit concerns? Was it an internal discomfort, a discomfort in dealing with and facing the reality and shame of caste, that reduced us to denigrate and label Ambedkar then and what impels us to resist the demands and support the Dalit movement now?
In the face of growing articulations from the Dalit movement,and demands putbefore the forthcoming WCAR, serious introspection is required over our resistance to the Dalit move to list the shame of caste, in facts and figures and to seek international solidarity and support. Our response is especially strange considering that in non–governmental circles especially, international solidarity on issues of social concern — for example, the iniquitous new economic regime under GATT, displaced persons by big dams, discriminatory labour laws, gender issues, peace and de–nuclearisation — is accepted practice. Why then is there such resistance to the idea of caste indignities being highlighted internationally?
The significance of the forthcoming conference should not be underrated. The abolition of apartheid in 1991 did not, of course, immediately result in the transformation of South Africa into an egalitarian society with an equitable distribution of resources. But the discrediting and abolition of such a discriminatory system within South Africa was largely due to international pressure and support.
The world has seen, before and since, a variety of exclusions, xenophobias and intolerances that have resulted in the genocide of different sections of the people. The plight of Bosnia and the Bosnian people in the very heart of Europe is an example. It will be interesting to see where and how that issue gets representation, if at all. The orchestrated genocide of the Iraqi and Afghani people suffering exclusion, death and poverty as a result of the unjust UN–imposed sanctions ought to find some space in the deliberations if at all the WCAR is intended as an event meant to convey a serious commitment to the issues under deliberation. Caste–based discrimination goes back thousands of years and it is time it receives world condemnation.
And what of the other sharp and very real intolerances that have emerged in South Asia and even Southeast Asia? Can we honestly look at South Asia in the context of the theme of the Global Conference and not reflect on or highlight the intolerances that have so sharply surfaced in the name of religion?
The crude destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas recently cloaks what the terror of the Taliban means to it’s own people especially women. In India we have been witness to the insidious movement of the Hindu rightwing, which in the name of Hindutva is manipulating the individual faith of millions to legitimise a religion–based nationalism and destroy democracy. Strife and sectarian violence within Pakistan are testimony to the failure of religion–based nationalism. Bangladesh that fought a secular liberation struggle for independence from Pakistani Punjabi domination is today grappling with it’s own demons in the garb of Islamic fanatics. Farther east, for the past three years Indonesia has been torn apart as ethno–religious strife (between Muslims and Christians) poses a serious threat to the polity.
Can we from South Asia really speak at the ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances’ without any mention of the intolerances and xenophobia being created in our part of the world in the name of faith?
|Caste in the United Nations
The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 referred to race, colour gender and religion but not caste as a basis or source of discrimination.
For many years, UN bodies and international covenants, conventions such as ICCPR, ICESR, ECERD and CEDAW and ILO omitted any reference to caste. As a result, Dalits could only make little use of the space offered by human rights bodies to raise the issue of caste-based discrimination.
It was the ECERD committee in 1996 (whose convention has been ratified by India in 1969) that for the first time made explicit reference to caste discrimination, untouchability and the scheduled castes.
On September 17, 1996, the concluding observation of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ECERD) was “that the situation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” and that the term “descent” contained in Article 1 of the convention does not refer solely to race, and encompasses the situation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. (Document ECERD/C/304/Add.13). The present demand emanating from the Dalit movement for human rights that is being strongly resisted by the Indian government is an echo of the progress already made within international covenants and the law.
In 1996 and ‘97, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial discrimination had requested a visit to India to “evaluate the situation (of untouchables) in co-operation with the government and the community concerned.” The Indian government has, to date, refused the request for a visit.
The CEDAW committee, in its final report, 2000 had mentioned, “The committee considers (that) such social practices as the caste system present major obstacles to the implementation of the convention.”
The 52nd UN sub–commission in Geneva in August 2000 unanimously passed a resolution commissioning expert member Rajendere K Goonasekere to prepare a working paper on ‘discrimination based on descent’. The objectives of the report were to a) Identify communities who continue to experience discrimination based on occupation and descent; b) Examine existing constitutional, legislative and administrative measures for the abolition of such discrimination c) Make any further concrete recommendations and proposals for the elimination of such discrimination. The Indian government has opposed all these resolutions.
Archived from Communalism Combat, April 2001 Year 8 No. 68, Cover Story 1
- In 1950, the Indian Constitution abolished untouchability (not caste), which meant that upper caste Hindus could no longer segregate Dalits or force them to perform ‘polluting’ occupations. The reality, however, is that caste bias continues to run deep. Even the police and judiciary are not immune to it; they let caste atrocities go off lightly and unpunished.
- A high caste judge in Uttar Pradesh got his chamber washed with the holy water from the river Ganges to purify it since the earlier occupant of the judge’s chair happened to be a Dalit.
- A Dalit boy was mercilessly thrashed and died as a result. When the matter was being heard in the Gujarat High Court, the police prosecutor spiritedly defended the police action (the thrashing that led to death) saying, “My Lord, the law differs from person to person.” Subsequently promoted to the bench, the same prosecutor is today a sitting judge of the Bombay High Court.
- A sessions judge charged with the murder of a Dalit youth still enjoys his position. The investigating officer is on record stating that the accused is interfering with the evidence in the case.
- Allocation of jobs on the basis of caste is one of the fundamentals of the caste system. While within the caste system, the division of labour for the four varnas is not the most rigid, for the Dalits who occupy the ‘lowest’ caste category, it is caste and caste alone, which is the determinant factor for the attainment of social, political and economic rights.
- A lack of access to education and training, combined with rank discrimination while seeking other forms of employment, has relegated Dalits to jobs like leather workers, disposers of dead animals and manual scavengers — all jobs that are basic become dehumanising when relegated to one section, forcibly. We have 8,00,000 manual scavengers in India despite abolishment of the practice in law (Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Offenders, which include those who employ manual scavengers and those who construct dry latrines, are liable to punishment of a year in prison and fine in addition to prosecution under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989). But the Act has been rendered toothless by the judiciary itself (see box).
- In the Eighth Five–Year Plan, Rs. 464 crore was allocated for the construction of flush latrines in place of dry latrines and the rehabilitation of scavengers; the money is completely under–utilised.
- A job as a manual scavenger is physically and mentally soul destroying. Most scavengers live in segregated colonies and are forcibly prevented from using common resources. At times, in one row of toilet there can be as many as four hundred seats that have to be manually cleaned. Even other scheduled caste people will not touch the safai karmachari; it is untouchability within untouchables.
- In Gujarat alone, reported deaths of manual scavengers due to inhaling of carbon monoxide while inside a manhole was a staggering 20 over a year. In Mumbai, even today children are lowered into manholes and there have been deaths.
- In 1995, the Commission on Bonded Labour appointed by the Supreme Court estimated as many as 1.25 million bonded labourers in Gujarat. This despite the Bonded Labour (Abolition) act, 1976, and the SC/ST (POA) Act, 1989. Around 80-90 per cent of the bonded labourers are from the scheduled castes or scheduled tribes.
- Of the total Dalit population, 85 per cent live in rural areas. Presently, almost half (49 per cent) of the rural Dalit population are agricultural labourers while only 25 per cent are cultivators. In stark and shocking contrast, in 1961, 38 per cent of rural Dalits were cultivators and 34 per cent were agricultural labourers.
- Only 31 per cent of Dalit households have electricity as compared to 61 per cent non–Dalit households. Only 10 per cent of SC households have sanitation while 27 per cent of non–SC households enjoy this facility. The state and socially dominant groups play an active role in denial of basic amenities. Electricity, sanitation and safe drinking water are provided in the dominant caste section but not in the Dalit colony.
- SC persons in most rural areas have separate sources of drinking water.
- Since the early 1990s, violence against Dalits has escalated dramatically in response to greater demands and awareness of rights’ violations. Between 1995 and 1997, as many as 90,925 cases were registered all over India as crimes and atrocities against scheduled castes. Of these, 1,617 were for murder, 12,951 for hurt, 2,824 for rape and 31,376 for other offences listed under the prevention of atrocities Act.
- The abysmal failure of successive governments to provide free and compulsory education is a failure that has affected all sections, only Dalits proportionately more. So, two–thirds of the Dalit population is illiterate as compared to half of the rest. The literacy gap between Dalits and the rest of the population reduced by a bare 0.39 per cent between 1961 and 1991.
- Dalit enrolment in the year 1993 at the primary level was a low 16.2 per cent while among non-SCs, it was 83.8 per cent (annual report 1994–95, HRD, GOI)
- According to two annual reports of the SC/ST Commission (1996-97 and 1997–98) the dropout rate for Dalit students was a high 49.35 per cent at the primary level, 67.7 per cent for middle school and 77.65 per cent for high school. The factors behind dropout rates include the compulsion to work. But abusive treatment of Dalit children is increasingly being recorded as a significant form of discrimination.
The campaign was launched by Dalit Ezhumalai, minister for health and family welfare on December 9, 1998; three days later, a delegation met President KR Narayanan with the documents that detailed the focus of the campaign.
Support was assured to the campaign from the then leader of the Opposition, Sharad Pawar and Ram Vilas Paswan (union minister for communications).
On December 13, and 14, 1998 an NCDHR delegation consisting of PL Mimroth (national convenor), Rajini Tilak, Attam Singh Bhatti and MP Chaudhary met Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, Lok Sabha speaker Balayogi, and leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi.
A ‘Black Paper’ was released from 15 states and Union Territories on December 8, 1999 in New Delhi; at the release function, Paswan gave the inaugural address and Ramdas Athavale, MP and secretary of the SC/ST Parliament’s Forum, gave the keynote address.
On December 8, 1999 the National Dalit Women’s Conference was held at which 300 delegates countrywide attended. Ms Veena Nayyar, member of the National Commission for SCs/STs gave the keynote address. The outcome was a Dalit women’s charter of demands.
December 9, 1999: Submission of 25 lakh signatures collected from all over the country in support of Dalit human rights.
The cross–party delegation consisted of Paswan, Athavale, Bhandaru Dattatheya, deputy minister for urban development and Bangaru Laxman (both Dalit representatives).
The demand was for the tabling of a White Paper in Parliament and declaration of the next decade as ‘Ambedkar Decade’.
The culmination of one set of the NCDHR’s activities was the National Public Hearing organised at Chennai in April 2000. A representative jury, consisting among others of former judge of the Bombay high court, justice Suresh, former judge, AP high court, justice Punnaiah, former judge, Patna high court, justice Amir Das heard 57 cases from 10 states highlighting 17 major forms of human rights violations. These included untouchability practices, denial of access to cultivation, grazing and ownership of land, rights of Dalit women, manual scavenging and continued state violence against Dalits.
Internationally, the Dalit rights campaign has included the formation and activities of International Dalit Solidarity Networks (IDSN), programmes undertaken by international human rights activists, advocacy and lobbying efforts at the UN level and in different countries.
-- Praveen Rashtrapal, Congress MP
At the preparatory meeting for the WCAR held at New Delhi recently, Praveen Rashtrapal, a Congress Dalit MP from Gujarat, made a forceful presentation on the utter voicelessness of Dalit demands in Parliament. He spoke to Teesta Setalvad in an exclusive interview. Excerpts.
You mentioned that there was lack of unity and impact of Dalit demands issue Parliament despite there being a fair number of Dalit members. Why is this so?
In the Lok Sabha, there are 79 SC members and 40 ST members; in the Rajya Sabha there are in all 18 SC/ST members). Still we are unable to bring the Lok Sabha to a standstill over substantive issues like land rights for Dalits or atrocities against Dalits.
For at least 20 years, we have had the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Members of Parliament Forum. But this forum is largely inactive. Only recently have we begun to reactivate the forum. But at the root of the problem is how all parties, whatever the ideology, have treated the Dalit issue. Among Dalit representatives, too, the tendency has been to limit ourselves to issues concerning the while-collar Dalit – the issue of reservations – at the cost of issues concerning 70 per cent of the Dalit population – land rights, access to basic amenities, atrocities perpetrated consistently against our population.
How does this state of affairs continue?
It is a bitter testimony to the fact that whatever the party, whether it is the Congress that I belong to or others, a deep-rooted caste bias has influenced all programmes. The worst type of atrocities against Dalits in Gujarat has taken place during earlier regimes as much as during the reign of the BJP.
For example, look at two similar cases of atrocities under two different regimes, Congress and BJP. In 1980, two Dalits were burnt to death in Billia village, near Sidhpur in Patan taluka. Following this ghastly incident, the government directed that a new residential colony for Dalits be constructed on the Ahmedabad-Palanpur highway.
But what has happened? The magistrate acquitted those guilty of arson and murder and the state government did not go in appeal. Until today, the Dalits of the village live in slums, while others have occupied the colony built for them 20 years ago!
Just after Diwali last year, from New Year’s Day, Dalits from Tokrala village (Surendranagar) were attacked by armed Rajputs from Gedhi village; until today, the culprits have not even been arrested.
Among Dalit representatives, too, the tendency has been to limit ourselves to issues concerning the white collar Dalit – the issue of reservations – at the cost on issues concerning 70 per cent of us
What is the SC / ST MP Forum supposed to do?
It was set up during Mrs Gandhi’s regime when Yogendra Macwana was Union minister. As I said before, it has not been very effective. But we have recently tried to revive it. We have submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister making significant demands for the rural section of Dalits. These include the demand for land to the landless SCs. We have recently unearthed government figures to show that six crore acres of land in the country is wasteland: cant this land be converted to cultivable land? We have demanded 10 acres each to every SC family.
Another important demand relates to monies earmarked by the Planning Commission for the Special Component Plan (SCP) and the Tribal Sub-Plan. These are large allocations made by the Centre to be matched by respective state governments and are specifically earmarked for welfare measures for SCs (under the SCP) and STs (under the TSP). But because of deep-rooted caste bias, they have never been utilized for the purpose intended.
Major defaulters have been state governments who simply do not allocate the amount they are obligated to do. For example, under the last plan, Andhra Pradesh was required to allocate Rs. 250 crore to match the Centre’s contribution; it did not. Our demand, therefore, is that the Prime Minister monitors the implementation of the SCP and TSP effectively and in a time-bound manner.
Yet another demand relates to the issue of disinvestments by governments in the public sector undertakings (PSUs). This will severely snatch away employment in PSUs guaranteed through reservation to Dalits. Our demand to the government, therefore, is not to disinvest more than 49 per cent of equity so that controlling and decision making powers, including retention to reservation, remain with government. If that is not possible, we have asked for a new central legislation to ensure that all units in the private sector, particularly those that have been turned over to the private sector by disinvestments, are compelled to implement the policy of reservation even after change of ownership. These are only some of the demands.
Do you support the Dalit demand that caste-based discrimination be raised at the forthcoming WCAR?
How else will caste discrimination ever be removed? Did apartheid against blacks go until the international community intervened? Besides caste bias here is so deep-rooted; it affects all structures and organisations. Dalit rights are not regarded as human rights at all. Human rights organisations would happily fight for the rights of prisoners but not so easily for the rights of Dalits.
Do you know that despite the existence of the POA, 1989, the judiciary has worked in unison to contravene the provisions of that law? Under the Act, there is no provision for bail; yet, in every single case since 1989 all those accused of atrocities under the law are released on bail! Should not the Bar Associations be raising this question? There are also few convictions by judges under this law.
With the rise of BJP and RSS in Bengal, the question of 'who is an nationalist and who isn't' has become more pronounced. What did the great Rabindranath Tagore say about nationalism? Watch this video to find out.
With the rise of BJP and RSS in Bengal, the question of 'who is an nationalist and who isn't' has become more pronounced. What did the great Rabindranath Tagore say about nationalism? Watch this video to find out.