Too hot to handle?

Govt’s ‘Dalit’ Problem

The emergence of the ‘Dalit’ identity has been the result of a long history. ‘Dalit’ is a popular identity in India as it is in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other parts of the world. Further, ‘Dalit’ is not limited to Hindu religion alone. The identity transcends religion as there are Christian Dalits, Muslim Dalits, Sikh Dalits, Buddhist Dalits and Jain Dalits, too. This is therefore a word and an identity embedded in the Indian discourse of the oppressed.

The suggestion now by the government, without any public consultation, to prohibit the use of the word ‘Dalit’ in official communications is perplexing. This comes about six months after the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh issued an order asking all departments to add ‘Ramji’ as the middle name of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The move was criticised as politically motivated, among others, by Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar. Ramji was Ambedkar’s father, but the addition has clear political motives and is designed to make the BJP appear aligned to Ambedkar and the struggle of his followers. It is clear that there is something amiss. We can see the political awakening of the 16.6% of the Indian population who are Dalits, and the State and the ruling BJP clearly are unable to handle this awakening.

In America, the ‘Blacks’ have popularly preferred the identity of ‘African-Americans’. In India, Dalits have had a much longer history of multiple identities before reaching the most popular identity of their choice, which is expressed in ‘Dalit’. It started from imposed identities of ‘Untouchable’, ‘Unseeable’ and ‘Unapproachable’. The British in Madras province referred to ‘subjects’ as ‘Black Castes’.

The first attempt to develop an identity based on their precarious living conditions was made by Jyotiba Phule, who coined the word ‘Shudra-ati-Shudra’. He and Savitri Phule set up the first school especially for Dalit girls back in the 1850s after taking up the fight against untouchability.

Gandhi, who risked orthodox ire and their financial support to his ashram at Ahmedabad, popularised a religious identity, ‘Harijan’, which was coined by the 14th century Gujarati Bhakti poet Narsinh Mehta. The latter was ostracised for continuing to sing bhajans at Dalit homes. Gandhi not only renamed his ashram as ‘Harijan Ashram’, he went on to publish a periodical, ‘Harijan’ after a bitter confrontation with Ambedkar in the aftermath of the Poona Pact over separate electorates.

Ambedkar popularised the term, ‘depressed classes’ and he ridiculed Gandhi for perpetuating what he called the exclusion of Dalits from others by calling them Harijan. Post-Independence, the use of Harijan was banned by various state governments. The term ‘Scheduled Castes’ was accepted as the official, constitutional term to identify Dalits. The Constitution refers to a uniform identity of ‘Scheduled Castes’ (the list of castes added to the Constitution as a ‘Schedule’) based on evidence of such castes having suffered disability arising out of the practice of untouchability.

India is perhaps the only country in the world where there have been books such as ‘Manusmriti’ which even dictated what names various castes should give their children, with a view to protecting the varna-based caste system.

The community, battered by humiliation, discrimination, oppression and subjugation over centuries, were in search of an identity that could help them carry themselves with pride, not as ‘untouchable/impure’. Dalits defied ‘Manusmriti’ and gave their children other names, besides changing their own surnames.

In Nepal, concerned with the trend of blurring caste identities with common surnames, the administration in some parts decided to ask people to add in brackets the caste status of citizens after the surname.

Conversion of Dalits into other faiths such as Christianity, Islam and later to Buddhism had raised serious concern among organisations like Arya Samaj (and, lately, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad), leading to programmes of re-conversion.

Interestingly, the ceremony requires ‘shuddhi’ (making ‘pure’) of the converts as they were subjected to ‘impurity’ associated with other faiths and to ensure that after ‘shuddhi’, they returned to their Hindu untouchable status and obtained a ‘Scheduled Caste’ certificate, without which they cannot protect their rights in terms of ‘reservations’. There is ample evidence that Ambedkar had put before the Lothian commission of a conspiracy in various provisions to show a much lesser population of the ‘depressed classes’ in order to lessen the quantum of political reservation.

A strong political force

The question arises as to how and why, in the midst of a host of challenges the government is facing — the falling rupee, rising oil prices, tensions over NCR in Assam, the general feeling of drift and rising voices from the opposition — the government finds the time to push through a directive ordering that term ‘Dalit’ not be used.

It is much easier to deal with ‘Scheduled Castes’, further divided into sub-castes fighting with one another as groups get embroiled in questions on who is garnering more benefits. It’s difficult to deal with a population that, under the continuous influence of Ambedkar, calls for the “annihilation of caste” and has chosen to unite and organise, especially politically, under the ‘Dalit’ banner.

The fact is, Dalits have emerged as a political force. The movement has its place, power and logic in the Indian political firmament. The battle over the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, with a section of the Marathas demanding that it be scrapped and the dispute over its operational procedures, shows that the heat caused by the political organisation of Dalits is being felt.

The government’s directive not to use the term ‘Dalit’ must be seen in this light. It is uncalled for and shows that misdirected action comes from misdirected politics and policies. And they will all misfire.

(The writer is founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation fighting for human rights since the 1970s)

(The Billion Press)

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