Who’s afraid of the word ‘Dalit’?

The removal of the term ‘Dalit’ from official docs by the Maharashtra government, weeks before the state assembly polls, is an attempt to neutralise rising Dalit Consciousness

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The BJP led Maharashtra government has shown its eagerness in following the Central government’s last year’s ‘directive’ asking all state governments to refrain from using the word ‘Dalit’ in official communication. This also comes just weeks before the announcement of assembly polls in the state.

The Devendra Phadnavis-led Maharashtra government has asked all its departments not to use the word, “Dalit” in “in all official transactions, matters, dealings and certificates and instead use Scheduled Caste or its appropriate translation in other national language(s)”. A notification issued by the joint secretary of the social justice department D R Dingle says in keeping with directives issued by the Centre’s social justice ministry, the word ‘Dalit’ should be replaced with “Schedule Caste or Anusuchit Jati (in Marathi)”.

Justification of this overtly political play is a judicial decision of the MP High Court in 2018. This court order had invited sharp criticism last year. A reading of the Court’s order in question, however, shows it only wanted the Centre “to consider the question of issuing such direction to the media and take suitable decision upon it.” The court had not gone into the merits of using the term. After it was brought to its notice that the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had issued a directive to use only the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ in all official matters, the court merely noted that since media institutions were not a party before it, the I&B Ministry could consider the question of issuing a similar direction to the media. The I&B Ministry’s advisory had come across as confusing as it uses the words “for all official transactions, matters”, though the media’s references to the community are usually beyond official contexts.

However, Dalit groups have vociferously criticised the ‘ban’ of the use of the term Dalit over the past year and have asserted that the word conveys a sense of identity and is of political significance.

The debate over the appropriateness of using the term ‘Dalit’ to refer to members of the Scheduled Castes is neither recent nor new. Merely a decade ago, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes had not favoured the use of ‘Dalit’, which it felt was ‘unconstitutional’. This is because belonging to a ‘Scheduled Caste’ is a legal status conferred on members of castes named in a list notified by the President under Article 341 of the Constitution. Therefore, some believe, ‘Scheduled Caste’ may be the appropriate way to refer to this class of people in official communications and documents.

A similar view was expressed by Tejas Harad, writer and intellectual, currently working with the social science journal, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). He said, “I feel this decision by Maharashtra government is fine because Scheduled Castes is a clearly defined category. Dalit is a word that emerged from political movement in Maharashtra and its contours were not very well defined until now. Now too the word Dalit doesn’t exactly correspond with Scheduled Castes. As far as government restricts this decision to its administrative part, it’s fine. But it was wrong on the part of Press Council of India to ask the media to not use it. The word is not a caste slur, it’s not an offensive word rather it has a history of decades of political assertion. Government can’t force anybody else to stop using the word. That’s wrong on the part of the government.”

However, the debate seems to be beyond the usage of the term in official documents. “Dalit” literally translates into “broken” or downtrodden.”
“Ambedkar used ‘Dalit’ as a quasi-class term, included within its ambit was the downtrodden and poor. This gave character to the germinating anti-caste movement at the time.” Eminent intellectual Dr. Anand Teltumbde highlights the context in which the term surfaced

Rumi, a Mumbai based artist, sculptor and an independent researcher who has been interrogating the subject of identity politics and Dalit visual art practices, taking the discourse forward, “The term Dalit is an Assertive Anti-caste position, and is important for researchers, writers, artists and ethnographers of the Dalit consciousness movement, which is a rising phenomena right now.”

Rumi also shines a light on the historical usage of the term. She adds, “The term is especially important because Jyotiba Phule used it first, and later BR Ambedkar did. It was further popularized and mobilized by the Dalit literary movement of the 60’s, especially by Dalit Panthers. It’s a term of assertion and is not derogatory in any ways. How can it be, if Babasaheb and Phule used it to locate caste oppression.”

The focus of the government to keep indulging in the matters of nomenclature when it comes to the several other issues that communities face at large could also be a case of misplaced priorities, as also highlighted by the former Mumbai University Vice-Chancellor, Bhalchandra Mungekar who said that instead of changing nomenclature, the government should implement policies for the welfare of Dalits. “The term Dalit has acquired worldwide acceptance because it denotes not only the former so called ‘untouchables’ but a vast majority of disadvantaged sections. Instead, policies drafted for welfare of Dalits should be implemented and Dalits must feel the government is working for them,” he said.
After the I&B Ministry’s advisory to media on the issue last year, The Press Council of India too had said there could not be a ban on the word ‘Dalit.’

Gangadhar Pantawane, a Dalit writer from Maharashtra defines Dalit as a notion of change and revolution. The Dalits belief was humanism instead of sacred books, heaven, and hell as it made them a slave to other castes. “What is Dalit. To me, Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change an revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism.”  “.. Dalitness is a matter of appreciating the potential of one’s total being.

Rumi says,” The new constitutional term cannot be made mandatory, as Dalit Is the preferred and accepted term of the literary writers, artist’s, ethnographers from the Dalit consciousness movement, they should speak up at this point, and assert the term Dalit.”

The term Dalit has evolved over a period of time and has come to symbolise different meanings. Some of these are- self-respect, assertion, solidarity and opposition to caste based exploitation. In the past Dalits have been forced to lead an undignified life full of shame, trauma and atrocities. Dalits have been referred as ‘untouchables’ but the official term used by the British was ‘depressed classes’. Mahatma Gandhi referred to Dalits as ‘Harijans’ which was rejected by the community which saw the word as patronising and sanctimonious. Moreover, Gandhi wanted to keep Dalits within the sphere of Hinduism and hence he chose the term which first figured in the hymn Vaishnava jana by Narsinh Mehta.

However, such usage led to a debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar who wanted to represent Dalits as a separate community.

After Ambedkar’s death, the first Dalit movement that revolutionised the discourse on Dalit politics was the Dalit Panthers Party founded in the 1970s in Maharashtra’s then Bombay. Its method of fixing instant accountability with the upper caste, caught the imagination of Dalits in Maharashtra who were facing atrocities despite the Constitution outlawing inequality and caste-based discrimination.

The Dalit Panthers manifesto was published in 1973 and gave a new definition to the term ‘Dalit’: ” Dalits are members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, landless and poor peasants, women, and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”

A close aide of the Dalit-Ambedkarite group Bhim Army, Kush, says, “Scheduled Caste is a limiting term. In the past, we have been abused using the term ‘Dalit’ but this hatred united us under one umbrella, which has now become our collective identity. This is the reason why the term Dalit is being removed from books, or sometimes this sort of propaganda is done in the name, but the truth is that the government is afraid of our unity.”(अनुसूचित जाति एक सीमित शब्द है आज से पहले दलित कहकर हमे गाली दी जाती थी लेकिन इसी नफरत ने हम सबको दलित शब्द के नीचे एक कर दिया जो आज हमारी संयुक्त पहचान बन गया है इसी एकता से सरकार डरती है इसलिए कभी किताबों से दलित शब्द हटाया जाता है तो कभी इस तरह के प्रोपगंडा किया जाता है हकीकत में ये हमारी मजबूती से डरते है।)

Rumi also believes that the removal of the term from official documents is an attempt to curb the rising public Dalit consciousness and that voices must be raised against this from all quarters, especially the ones making and amending laws. She says that this kind of neutralization in the public consciousness isn’t a “good thing”.

Several scholars in the past year too, have questioned the need for this ‘word-play’. Social scientist Satish Deshpande had asked, “To prohibit or even ban insulting terms etc. is understandable, but why do this for a self-chosen word/name? The only reason I can think of is that word brings to mind the antagonistic relationship between caste Hindu society and the so called “out-castes”, the discrimination and oppression still practiced by the dominant sections of society.

Over the past couple of years, if any people’s movement has self-organised and resisted government’s atrocious policies, it is the Dalit movement with its several strands and colours, especially the Ambedkarites.

Whether it was the struggle for social justice after the scholar Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder or the resistance after Bhima Koregaon, a vibrant Dalit movement has time and again posed vast challenges for the government in terms of asking to be accountable for its actions. While grave issues such as manual scavenging still persist in the Indian society even after seven decades of independence, the government chooses time and again to indulge in word-play which may be unnecessary or even suited to its own majoritarian agenda.


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