Warning: a new 'two-nation theory' is gaining ground

It ought to be an uncontested understanding in a polity founded on the fundamental principles of liberty and equality that denial of these basic qualities of civic life will end in social and political unrest. India's development and growth can progress only when the nation shows the social and political will to end the evil of caste discrimination.

I have encountered the painful reality of what differing perceptions Dalit children can have about their own village, compared to other children, when I asked children from different villages and regions of Gujarat to colour with red and green the parts of their own village that they had not visited (on account of caste disability) and the parts they had visited. On the sheets given to Dalit children, the red part of the village was always larger than the portion they painted green.

During my village visits, I have more often than not come across cases where Dalits trying to liberate themselves from meagerly paying labour in farms owned by dominant castes had invested money to start self-employment, such as a gem-polishing unit, only to be soon forced to abandon it as electricity supply to their unit would be snapped. Now, there is violence against Dalits, in a village barely 15 km from Gujarat's capital Gandhinagar, for even sporting a moustache! While the public flogging of Dalit youths in the most unimaginable and humiliating way right in front of a police station and in full public view at Una had caught national attention, the reality of caste discrimination is not much different in other parts of India.

Before Independence, in the absence of a nation with its own independent legal framework, caste discrimination and untouchability were not even considered crimes and hence there were laws that prohibited Dalits from owning property and they were compelled them to perform menial caste-based jobs. For the Dalit youth of today who are educated, employed in public and private services, entrepreneurs, owners of private vehicles and live in houses that are sometimes better than those owned by upper caste people, the continuing unequal and humiliating treatment of Dalit youth, despite legislation to prevent discrimination, is frustrating. That's the cause of their rising anger.  

The economically poor non-Dalit's discriminatory behaviour towards Dalits has more to do with jealousy than their faith in the caste system, which has been frustrating them, too. They find it hard to cope with the new Dalit identity, which carries itself with dignity and a progressive way of life that they have never faced earlier. There is a significant presence of Dalit teachers in public schools who are empowered to educate non-Dalit children.

Dalits have gained by protesting against the caste system, and the chief manifestation of their protest is the adoption of education, on which they faced social and religious prohibition for long. The hunger for education and accessing legal provisions has made them vulnerable to violence but has also given them the motivation to liberate themselves from the psychological subjugation of caste. For those who have become poorer in a competition-based  economy for lack of both education and modern attitudes, their having a higher caste status has been of little help.  

There is little doubt that although Dr. B R Ambedkar had to retract from his demand for a separate electorate for Dalits in the face of Mahatma Gandhi's opposition, the policy of reservations in education and jobs has brought more 'development' than political reservation would have. Hence, the increasing demand from other sections of society for the benefits of reservation.

While Ambedkar's ideology is influencing the Dalit young minds of today, they are frustrated with the Dalit political leadership. These leaders have fallen silent on Dalit issues. Hence, often, when Dalits vent their anger, it is against these leaders. Actually, the loyalty of these political leaders to their political party bosses rather than to Dalit concerns is seen as them having become "ambassadors" of continuing caste rule, rather than for the Ambedkarite mission to annihilate caste.

There is also visible helplessness among Dalit youth who feel that polity and its institutions have become increasingly casteist. This feeling has become strong after the incidents of Una, Sahranpur and Koregaon Bhima, where the State has refused to act decisively as expected of them under the law. This situation, characterised by state apathy, has caused considerable stress among young Dalit minds who are ignited with the passion of gaining equal space in society but face helplessness due to their inability to influence the State. Many therefore are inclined to feel that both politics and the law are failing them.

Those youth who are influenced by individual leaders and organisations into believing that religion has to be held up as the supreme institution end up justifying the rule of caste, and hence the possibility of rising confrontation with Dalit communities, leading to more social unrest.

The rising anger in Dalit minds cannot be ignored or branded merely as a law and order problem. India has to realise that the quality of the nation rests on the quality of its citizens. The contradiction between the parallel rule of caste alongside constitutional rule has to be firmly resolved to stem the growing perception of a new "two-nation theory".

(The writer is a Dalit rights activist)

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