One Full Vote and Half a Life
In April 2018, more than a dozen Da lits lost their lives when they descended on the streets to protest a Supreme Court order, diluting certain provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
With no credible research data to back its assertion, the court had, in its concluding observation, referred to “misuse” of the Act by “vested interests”. An order, passed on March 20, 2018, had set guidelines to prevent said misuse, banning, for example, a provision that allowed arrest on complaint, and allowing anticipatory bails for the accused. For Dalits, this was a low blow.
They had not expected this from the country’s highest court, especially when they had never veered from the path of non-violent, constitutional methods of resistance, as advocated by their guiding spirit Dr B.R. Ambedkar. In early October this year, the Supreme Court rolled back the March 2018 order and removed the earlier directions, but Dalits and tribals did not celebrate this important milestone as a victory. The wound from the earlier court action was deep and the scars have remained, making it hard to repose the same faith in the judiciary once more.
For Dalits, these crossroads are familiar landmarks. They have encountered many on their hard journey to secure basic human rights, on their slow, gruelling progress from being cast off as ‘untouchables’ to becoming equal citizens, if still only on paper. Their enemies have been way more powerful.
During colonial rule, they fought discriminatory laws besides society at large. They faced prejudice in all walks of life, not excluding religion, and even in the supposedly holy scriptures. In the modest panoply of weapons at their disposal-including education, reservation, even the rejection of the enslaving faith-the most powerful were legal instruments handed by the Constitution. But even those hard-won constitutional guarantees are now at risk. At the new crossroads in their epic journey, Dalits find that their last-resort legal protections are also vulnerable.
On the political front, rather than throw in their lot with an openly, avowedly Dalit party like, say, the Republican Party of India, they found it expedient to go mainstream. Despite adoring Ambedkar as a demigod, they went with mainstream political parties rather than risk isolation. But there are grave concerns now about the strategy of political integration.
In The modest set of weapons dalits possess, the legal ones are the most powerful. But even those hardwon means are now receding
Even though the NDA won most SC/ST reserved seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which gave them an edge-majority, government data confirms that atrocities on Dalits and tribals increased during their first term (see: Bhed-Bharat, published by Dalit Shakti Prakashan, 2019, Ed. Martin Macwan). What is most troubling is the
complete absence of state action, the utter lack of a political will to firmly deal with caste violence. The death of manual scavengers in sewer lines is not even considered an ‘atrocity’. What all this points to is a devaluation of the Dalit vote, which remarkably was never an ‘untouchable’ for any political party. For India, the world’s largest democracy striving to be a major world economy, the taint of untouchability is, or should be, deeply embarrassing.
While grandstanding about India’s economy and the country’s great development potential, the present government too, following in the footsteps of its predecessors, looks away from the sordid reality that India has failed to rid itself of untouchability-a social evil that lies at the very root of the atrocities committed against Dalits. This situation raises serious questions about the meaning of ‘development’ itself.
After Independence, India did not see a spirited social movement against untouchability of the kind witnessed before Independence. On the contrary, the government today intimidates voluntary organisations who raise these issues and demand the abolition of untouchability, manual scavenging, the violence against Dalits and tribals-as a constitutional call to action. And that can only weaken the national resolve, if there was ever such a thing, to fight the menace of the caste system.
It was disturbing to witness the bitterness over the cremation of Constable Vir Singh’s tricolour-wrapped body in June 2016. Singh, a Dalit of the Nat community from Nagla Kewal village in Uttar Pradesh’s Firozabad district, was one of eight CRPF personnel killed in a militant attack in Pampore (Jammu & Kashmir). It took some heavy-duty intervention by district officials to persuade the high and mighty upper castes in Singh’s village to allow the cremation of his body on public land. This story is not even an outlier: caste atrocities against families of Dalit armed forces personnel in their own villages are not new, though they seldom make the news.
That should not surprise anybody. How many even registered the fact that a Dalit MP of the ruling BJP in Karnataka was not allowed into a village in his own constituency last September? Was there a national uproar? Was it a worthy enough cause? As if to rub it in, though apparently intended as a placatory gesture, the villagers sent a chair for the MP to sit on-outside the village. In a further testimony to their even-handed discrimination, they proudly asserted that even the local Dalit MLA had not been allowed to enter the village. All this happened in the presence of the police.
And the government/s maintained a deafening silence. Even worse, 88 Dalit members of Parliament kept mum. Did they not see fair cause in this mockery of the Constitution to raise their voices in protest? The lawmaker himself sought to make a virtue of a necessity, maintaining that he eschewed the use of force because he wanted to engineer a change of heart and make an appeal to people’s conscience. What underpins his reaction is a tacit admission that the instruments of social justice-the law, the vote (16.5 per cent, no less), the political reservations for Dalits-have lost their cutting edge.
Incidentally, Gandhi too was an advocate of the change-ofhearts approach to defeat untouchability, while Ambedkar, negating the Gandhian appeal, held out for ‘the rule of law’ to annihilate caste. It bears consideration that this humiliation of the Dalit MP was perpetrated by OBCs (Other Backward Classes), who are, in many pockets, less educated and worse off than Dalits. The political parties have been completely silent on the rising incidents of violence on Dalits by OBCs.
One wonders if it is a political conspiracy to pit Dalits against OBCs, just as Dalits and Muslims were set at odds in many pockets during the communal riots in Gujarat. The rich have an instinctive distrust of communal and social harmony among the marginalised populations, because harmony can even be a precursor to making common cause in a potential war over the distribution of the nation’s wealth.
It seems clear as daylight that the Dalits must re-strategise their struggle for equality. The crisis is deeper because Dalits have failed miserably to abolish caste distinctions among themselves. ‘Understanding Untouchability’, a first-of-its-kind study, done in 2016 by the Gujarat-based grassroots Dalit organisation Navsarjan Trust [of which this author is the founder], confirms the fact that the same forms of caste-based discrimination prevail in relationships between various Dalit sub-castes as do between Dalits and non-Dalits. Clearly then, Dalits have themselves missed Ambedkar’s call to annihilate caste.
While petty politicians have bred antagonism in young Dalit minds against Gandhi-citing the bitter confrontation between him and Ambedkar over the 1932 Poona Pact-the fact remains that both these great minds had a common conviction: that moral power has greater traction than legal or positional power.
It’s a great shame that we, as a nation, have all the money to spend on warplanes that will ultimately help nobody win, but we do not have the money for a sustained assault on, say, the scourge of malnourishment nor for effective programmes to target the most vulnerable in this regard-tribal mothers and children.
We tend to sustain the illusion that solutions to problems of discrimination and injustice lie with our political institutions. It’s time to rethink this conundrum, and to understand the value of a stronger civil society. Perversely, the rich seem to have heeded Ambedkar’s call to organise themselves, while Dalits and tribals, the poor and dispossessed, whom he meant to rally, have largely ignored his call.
Courtesy : India Today