The Information & Broadcasting ministry’s advisory to private television channels to stop using the term ‘Dalit’ and instead use Scheduled Castes has no sound rationale and is difficult to comprehend. The ministry has stated that the constitutional term Scheduled Caste or its translations may be used in compliance with a Bombay high court order on the matter. This statement does not convincingly make out a case for changing the nomenclature which is in use for decades. The Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court had issued a directive in June to “consider’’ using the term Scheduled Caste in place of Dalits, and the government had told its departments, its own media and state governments to comply with it. But it has now been extended to private channels. The advisory has met with opposition not only from the channels but also from Dalit groups and organisations.
When the government refers to Scheduled Caste as a constitutional term, it can only mean that the word finds mention in the Constitution. It does not at all mean that the use of Dalit is unconstitutional. The word Dalit has found acceptability among those whom it refers to and their organisations and has been used by them to denote themselves. It is a word loaded with meanings and connotations and has empowered them. It came into currency during the Dalit assertion movements of the 1960s and 70s and has since been in common use. There is nothing derogatory or insulting about it. If a community wants to call and describe itself in a particular way, why should the court or the government want to change it? The government for some reason left out print media from the scope of its advisory. There is opposition to the advisory from many members of the News Broadcasters’ Association. There are also practical problems, like how to leave out the word Dalit from the replays of past footages or from the speeches, etc., of politicians and others which are reported live.
The Modi government has been on the defensive in matters regarding Dalits. Dalit communities and their leaders and organisations have expressed unhappiness with the government and protested many times over various issues. There have been many cases of ill-treatment and oppression of Dalits by people and groups supporting the government. By a nomenclature change, the government may be trying to send a positive message to Dalits. But it also conveys the message that the word Dalit, which gives pride and a sense of identity to Dalits, is a bad word for the government. Words have meanings, and they cannot be changed easily. The bid to change the nomenclature is one more misstep towards Dalits that will boomerang on the government.