To be a Dalit in the 21st Century is to continue to suffer social oppression and discrimination and incessantly rebel, rise and question the oppressive social system and order— armed with the Ambedkarite ideology.
Dalits or untouchables (called “Harijans” in Mahatma Gandhi’s usage, now officially banned) are officially known as Scheduled Castes since the Government of India Act,1935. Caste system, which according Dr BR Ambedkar is ordained by the Hindu religious scriptures, has placed untouchables outside the Chaturvarna system of social division and imposed oppressive and in human rules of treatment against them. These rules emanate from several other religious texts such as Manu Smriti, which has now come under renewed criticism. It’s 2018 and the untouchability related oppression still continue in many forms and the oppressors reinvent modern methods of discrimination and inhuman treatment.
The primary classification of Dalit comes from ‘untouchability’, as if a Dalit is born impure and should be shunned from touch. It was up to a messiah — Dr Ambedkar— to rescue the untouchables during the British colonial period. He firmed up the equality provisions and remedies to discrimination in the 1950 Constitution of India. But the Indian social order, as it exists, defies the equality enshrined in the Constitution and laws that emanated to protect the Dalits and continue to treat Dalits in an inhuman way.
An exhaustive and reflective list of treatment of Dalits in modern day India can be read from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as amended in 2016.
In the Act, atrocities against Dalits are listed as- “Putting any inedible/obnoxious substance into the mouth; forces to drink/eat inedible or obnoxious substance; dumping excreta/sewage/carcasses/any other obnoxious substance in premises, or at the entrance of the premises and dumping excreta/waste matter/carcasses/ obnoxious substance in neighbourhood. Garlanding Dalits with footwear/parades naked or semi-naked; forcibly removing clothes/forcible tonsuring of head/removing moustaches/painting face or body on Dalits. On the economic side - occupying and cultivating land owned by Dalits, illegally taking possession or transferring land allotted to Dalits. Dispossessing of Dalits from their land and/premises ;destroying crops/taking away the produce; Forcing them to do inhuman work such as ‘beggar’/other forms of forced or bonded labour; compel Dalits to dispose/carry human or animal carcasses/to dig graves; make Dalits do manual scavenging. Forcing Dalit girls to become devadasis.”
We have come a long way, but nothing much has changed. Modern form of untouchability is forcing Dalits not to vote; there’s an institution of false/malicious/vexatious suit or cases against Dalits in government employment.
It’s not just limited to a certain section of the society. Often, even top officials who are Dalits are insulted and humiliated with caste slurs. Sometimes, Ambedkar is abused too through destruction of objects related to him. There is a hatred against Dalits and that is often promoted through words and visuals. This is unabated.
The Dalit community also faces abuses in this age where their basic resources—such as water—are poisoned. They are often denied the right to access a public place.
Forcing them to leave their house, village or other place of residence, and sometimes even burning them down; obstructing them from using common properties such as burial and cremation grounds are cruel. But at the same time, the reality.
The more inhuman practices prevent Dalits from riding bicycles, wearing footwear, buying new clothes, taking out a wedding procession. They are often prevented from entering any place of worship which is open to the public and other persons from the same religion, they are not allowed to be a part of social or cultural processions, including jatras.
This atrocity against Dalits is very much prevalent in schools too. Dalit children are discriminated against when it comes to mid-day meals and getting access to clean toilets. The UGC guideline of prevention of discrimination in higher educational institutions came into light after University of Hyderabad student Rohit Vemula’s suicide. Meanwhile, Dalit women are framed as witches; thereby ensuring that the family is socially ostracized in the village.
Even public servants who are supposed to protect Dalits sometimes fall prey to caste prejudice and work against their rights.
On paper, there are plethora of laws and related notification of government which list the practices against Dalits and try to prevent and punish the offenders. But too often, it doesn’t quite work in the ground.
The Indian social order keeps reinventing itself as we progress to bring in equality. The growing insensitivity in the urban class towards the sufferings of Dalits as they attack constitutional remedies such as reservations is a fine example to show the problem in the 21st century.
So, what is it like to grow up as a Dalit and suffer these atrocities? How does the Dalit in India rise to oppose and seek equality as a human being? It is the faith in the Ambedkarite ideology — a Dalit resort —which is primarily trusting the Constitutional mechanisms and scheme of remedies. Ambedkar guided Dalits to emancipation in several ways. The biggest of them was the packaging of remedies against discrimination and oppression within the 1950 Constitution.
Any tampering of that will bring Dalits back to medieval India’s oppressive levels. That is the reason why Dalits carefully guard the Constituent of Ambedkar and rise against any attempt to tamper with it.
Secondly, Ambedkar showed the path away from discriminative social order that is ordained by religious texts by moving to another Indian religion of Buddhism in 1956. Ambedkar’s greatest achievement is to bring in political equality by bringing in Dalit representatives in legislative bodies as early as 1937. As Dalits continue to struggle to seek equality in everyday life and in the social order, the mindset of both rural and urban class prevent it. And that is why Rohit Vemula happened, that is why Una happened, and that is exactly why Bhima-Koregaon happened in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Now we have two classes in the country. One, who wants to continue with the oppressive social order by social dominance because it suits their social status. The other class is the Dalits and the tribals who want to break this social order to bring in constitutional equality in reality. There is a third class—the one of passive urban watchers who are just not bothered about any social change, but who occasionally squeak and scream against Ambedkar and reservations.
This fight for equality is going to define the 21st century India for us, whatever might be the economic prowess we achieve. Being a Dalit today is an existential question.
(Dr.Raja Sekhar Vundru is an IAS officer and has recently published Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System. Views are personal.)
(#BeingADalit is a series on what it takes to be a persecuted minority in India. In an attempt to go beyond the numbers, News18 also mapped incidents of Dalit atrocities over the last one year across India)