The word “Dalit” refers to castes stigmatised in the socio-economic, political and cultural discourse of Indian society. The “untouchables”, until the Constitution abolished untouchability. Gandhi glorified them as “Harijans”, the term Ambedkar vehemently denounced. It was the British government that categorised them as the “Scheduled Castes.” The same was done in the case of the Scheduled Tribes.
When the BJP declared Ram Nath Kovind as the NDA’s presidential candidate and since he belongs to a Dalit caste, it was as if “being Dalit” suddenly became a virtue in Indian politics. What was disturbing was that, rather than discussing his personal attributes and capabilities, the entire focus of public discussion was on his caste background — Amit Shah, BJP president, while declaring Kovind’s candidature, mentioned his caste about 15 times. Would this have happened had the presidential nominee been a non-Dalit?
Now, not only constituents of the BJP-led NDA such as the TDP, but the BJD, TRS, YSR-Congress, AIADMK etc have declared their support to the BJP candidate. The JD(U) was the first to endorse his nomination, notwithstanding the fact that it was Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister and the supreme leader of the JD(U), who first suggested putting up of a common candidate by the non-BJP (read “secular”) parties. In this background, the Congress and its co-travellers had no option but to offer a Dalit candidate. This made Meira Kumar their final choice. That these parties, even in view of the BJP and its supporters having majority in the electoral college, could have contested the presidential election more effectively, is a different story.
Evidently, no political party could risk being seen as “anti-Dalit”, whatever may be the ground realities about the social, economic and political marginalisation of the Dalits in every walk of life. The Dalits constitute about 20 per cent of the country’s population. What is their share in economic, political, administrative, educational and judicial power? Are they in a position to even enjoy, freely and truly, the freedoms granted to them by the Indian Constitution? Are they free from caste-based discrimination, hatred, prejudice and bias that, many times, cripples their confidence and creates a feeling in their minds that they are reduced to “second grade” citizens? And, what about the caste-based atrocities against them that have become a feature of the nation’s daily life?
According to the Union Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau, between 2009 and 2015, about 2,27,000 cases of crime against Dalits (including cases of atrocities) have been recorded. During 2009-2013, there were 3,194 incidents of Dalit murders, 7,849 Dalit women were raped. During this period, the seven states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh accounted for 80 per cent of the total crimes and atrocities, with UP alone accounting for about 25 per cent.
Despite the stringent provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, the conviction rate is abysmally low, thanks to the destruction of evidence by the accused and their supporters including the police, delay in trials, threatening of witnesses and the fear of social boycott, paucity of fast track courts, and the callous attitude of the entire state machinery. Second, ideas of “purity” and “pollution” still dominate the deeply entrenched caste-based mindset. This is reflected in the incidents of “honour killing”, particularly in the northern states, over inter-caste marriages, especially when brides belong to the so-called upper castes.
Third, caste-based discrimination against Dalits is still rampant, be it disguised or open. Notably, institutions of higher education are the citadels of such caste-based discrimination. There have been instances of Dalit students committing suicide due to their inability to withstand such discrimination. The suicide of Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad Central University last year shook the country. Five Dalit youths were flogged and beaten almost to death by the lumpen and self-appointed “gau rakshaks” in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow. Last year, a 22 year-old Dalit boy was killed in Nagar, Maharashtra, for setting a tune related to Ambedkar on his mobile.
Recently, a Dalit woman was paraded naked in Buldhana district of Maharashtra for an alleged offence of theft. Earlier this month, a sedition case was filed by the Haryana government against 10 Dalit students of Kurukshetra university because they had grievances against university authorities. Fourth, following the Central government, not a single state government is allocating funds from its annual budget in proportion to the population of the SCs and STs in the state as proposed in the Scheduled Castes and Tribal Sub-Plans, the two special schemes introduced by Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, to ensure their speedy economic development and bridge the gap between them and the rest of society.
Fifth, Dalits constitute about 40 per cent of the total agricultural labourers in the country. Another 40 per cent are marginal and small farmers and, like agricultural labourers, they too depend upon agricultural wages as their main source of livelihood. The Agricultural Wages Act of 1948 has prescribed the revision of these wages every five years. But not a single state government is following this provision.
When Dalit agricultural labourers ask for higher wages, their demand is put down with a heavy hand by the rich peasants, sometimes with the brutal force of the separate “senas” maintained for this purpose, particularly in the northern states. Nearly 25 per cent of the cases of violence and atrocities against the Dalits in rural India, including their murder and burning of houses, are caused by these economic factors.
Lastly, only a few of the Dalit political representatives elected on the reserved seats, who constitute about 15 cent of all members of Parliament and state legislatures, raise issues concerning Dalits. Apart from the fact that they are divided along party lines, they are scared of their upper-caste party bosses. This explains why all political parties are in favour of continued political reservation.
If political parties are really serious about the socio-economic, political and educational empowerment of Dalits, and tribals, they must go beyond mere symbolism. They must address the harsh ground realities. Taking the name of Dalits and symbolically “branding” Ambedkar may bring them political dividends, but will not help Dalits to break the shackles of social stigma, economic misery, educational backwardness, nor lead to genuine political empowerment.
The writer is a former member of the Rajya Sabha and Planning Commission