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The Ambedkar Award was instituted in 1991 by the Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. This year the awards for 2011, 2012 and 2014 were given together. Former chairman of the UGC and the ICSSR, Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, who received the award for 2011, says he has accepted it with “great humility, but with mixed feelings of anguish and pain, in a situation of a rising wave of atrocities all around on Dalits in recent times in Mirchpur, Una, Ahmednagar, Saharnpur and at other places”. Excerpts from an interview.
What does the Ambedkar Award mean to you?
It is always a good thing to receive an award, indicative of recognition in some quarters. So in that sense it is a matter of satisfaction, as my efforts of more than 40 years for the Dalit cause are recognised. I work hard to influence policies to make some difference in the life of those who were treated as untouchables. But I feel unhappy that despite some positive change, the problems of untouchability and caste discrimination persist at an unacceptable level. I accepted the award to pay respect to that great man, Dr Ambedkar, but with a heavy heart.
What is the extent of discrimination that persists?
Official data from Crime in India indicate that during 1995-2014, 2.43 lakh cases of caste discrimination and atrocities were registered [by people who used to be treated as untouchables] under the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and Atrocity Act 1989 — an average of about 13,000 cases per year. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as only serious cases get registered. Primary studies have revealed that the discrimination is deeply embedded in social relations and persists in a significant measure. The India Human Development Survey 2011-12 of over 42,000 households revealed one-third of persons admitting practising untouchability. The Action Aid Survey 2010 of 565 villages in 11 states revealed the practice of untouchability in 80 per cent of the villages… The Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in 2015 revealed economic discrimination in various markets, including the labour market, supply of inputs and services and in the sale of products by the erstwhile untouchables among farmers and non-farm-producers/businesspersons, and also in non-market institutions.
In recent times, Dalits have sought equal rights through protests or assertion.
What is disturbing is that the efforts by Dalits to enjoy equal citizenship rights are opposed not through discussion or democratic methods but by violent ways. In fact, out of the 2.80 lakh cases of discrimination, almost 96 percent are under the Atrocity Act and only 4 per cent under Protection of Civil Rights Act. Unlike in the 1950s and ’60s when opposition was mainly by individuals, now the violence is by a community as whole. The recent cases of Una in Gujarat, then in Maharashtra, Haryana and now Saharanpur in UP are examples of mass violence.
Why does discrimination persist despite the law?
As back as 1943, Ambedkar has argued that laws are necessary. In fact he worked hard for enactment of the Untouchability Offence Act of 1955, but at the same time he argued that rights are not protected by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. If social conscience is such that it recognises the rights that law chooses to enact, rights will be safe and secure. But [when] the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no Parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them rights in the real sense of the word. Law can punish a single solitary recalcitrant criminal. It can never operate against a whole body of people who are determined to defy it. Social conscience is the only safeguard of all rights fundamental or non-fundamental.
Has the focus so far been only victim-centric and not ambitious enough to focus on building social and moral conscience of a society supportive of justice?
Our focus so far has been on the victims — that is those who used to be treated as untouchable — in terms of legal safeguards and safeguards against discrimination in jobs, education and legislature through reservation, which is necessary, but there has been less effort on the change of norms and values that induce people to practise discrimination. Since the objective has not been to deal with fundamentals, people’s behaviour continued to be influenced by the old norms supportive of discrimination. The programme of social change to build up the social and moral conscience through education and other channels is the need of the time.