Why Dalit is a bitterly contested word today
A government advisory has asked media to stop using the word. While some have welcomed the move, others see a sinister design to make Scheduled Caste an apolitical category.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting recently issued an advisory to the media asking it to stop using the word Dalit to denote untouchables and touchable lower and marginal castes which come under the Scheduled Caste (SC) category.
The ministry has recommended that only the term SC should be used to refer to the group, while the word Dalit should be completely dropped.
Following the I&B ministry advisory, a debate started on social media, among academicians and masses over what could be the possible political implications of the move and how relevant is the advisory.
What needs to be pointed out here is that various high court orders have directed government set-ups and employees to not use the word Dalit and use SC instead.
The latest court to have issued an order on the same lines is the Madhya Pradesh High Court which emphasised that only the term SC should be used to refer to the caste group in all government communications.
The controversy is therefore not new. Various sections have been opposing the ‘ban’ on the use of ‘Dalit’ in many states. However, some castes that fall within the SC category have objected to being called Dalit. They have asserted that they should be referred to by their caste names instead. But many falling under the SC category prefer to be called Dalit as it helps to homogenise their social identity.
The term SC, however, appears neutral when used for administrative purposes. It denotes only those castes that come under the SC group. However, the term Dalit includes Other Backward Castes (OBCs), lower caste Muslims and other marginalised and subaltern groups as well.
It is a word which signifies a group which faces subordination and a culture of exploitation.
The word Dalit emerged from the Sanskrit word Dalan, which means oppressed. So basically the word assigns an identity to a whole group of people oppressed under the caste system in the Indian society.
The word also contains a political significance because of its popular use by Dalit and Bahujan leaders such as Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
So the use of the word SC may end up diluting its cultural and political significance.
Mayawati’s political mentor, Kanshi Ram himself frequently used the word Dalit in his political discourse. He evolved a much bigger identity for the oppressed in Indian society as ‘Bahujan’, which included SC, OBC, ST, Muslims. In short, the Bahujan samaj excluded only the upper castes from its ambit.
The term Bahujan emerged from the Buddhist discourse and entered the Marathi Dalit discourse before finding traction with Kanshi Ram and Mayawati to launch a caste consolidation movement across Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India.
Mayawati restrained herself from using the word Dalit.
It is interesting to note that a large section of SCs use the word Harijan to identify themselves. However, this term has been completely rejected by the middle class, educated and urban SC population.
People living in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who fall under the SC category are not too familiar with the word Dalit, they prefer to refer to themselves by their caste names. They only mark themselves under the SC group while filling forms for government jobs or to avail the benefits of government schemes. But when they attend rallies organised by either Bahujan Samaj Party or some other Dalit group, they may call themselves Dalit or Bahujan.
This clearly proves that people who form the SC category bear multiple identities which are interchangeable based on the context.
If a fixed identity is attached to them, it will kill all other fluid identities which they use in everyday life.
Those opposing the abrogation of the term Dalit see the government advisory as an attempt to make the SC category apolitical, while the state is making efforts to reduce the whole group to being a subject of governance.