Those who purvey the myth that caste is no longer a factor in determining the chances one gets in life are living in denial. Caste consciousness is a part of our everyday lives; its universality renders it normal. We are all scarred by it. But the brutal fact is that our dominant culture is not prepared to accept the Dalit as an equal citizen.
It is true that state-sponsored policies — howsoever, inadequately implemented — are in place to empower the Dalits economically. However, woefully little has been done to recognise and ensure their dignity and self-respect. How distressing it must be to be told that you cannot ride a horse or take your baraat through certain public spaces because you are a Dalit. We are now told that prospective Dalit candidates for a police entrance exam in Dhar in Madhya Pradesh had the initials “SC” branded on their chests, apparently with the intent of humiliating them for being beneficiaries of the reservation policy. And let’s not forget that, like always, Dalits are everyday victims of lynchings, rapes and violence. It is not surprising then that Kanhaiya Prabhu, the first Dalit to be ordained Mahamandaleshwar of Juna Akhara, recently confessed to having suicidal thoughts due to relentless caste discrimination. The recent debate on reservations and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act must factor in this oppressive milieu.
In a glaringly unequal society of rigid hierarchies, Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan’s statement demanding that sanitation staff be paid salaries equal to that of IAS officers has predictably been met with howls of abuse, derision and rage in social media. In the brouhaha, Paswan’s larger point about our elitist obsessions and the need to pay attention to the problems of our vulnerable Dalit fellow citizens, who predominantly do socially-disdained and hazardous sanitation work, was ignored. This essentially middle class outrage is not surprising when one considers that the chorus against reservation in jobs and education and against the punitive clauses of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is also spearheaded by the middle class.
In the seven decades that reservations have been in place, have we empowered Dalits so much that they are now equal partners in the nation’s governance? The reservation policy is about the most victimised section of our society being provided government jobs, higher education opportunities and legislative positions proportionate to their number in the population. In fact, affirmative action in favour of Dalits is restricted to only a minuscule fraction of the millions of jobs, where Dalits are marginalised due to crippling social constraints. But sadly, even in the limited sphere where Dalits are beneficiaries of affirmative action, the actual outcomes expose a clear institutional bias against this beleaguered group. As on date, there is just one officer from the Scheduled Castes among the 85 secretaries in the central government. Of the 747 officers holding the rank of director and above, less than 10 per cent belong to the SC/SC community. However, out of all central government employees, 23 per cent are SC/STs, but they are mainly in the bottom-most rung, occupying more than 45 per cent of the safai karmachari posts — in keeping with the tradition of assigning the most menial jobs to them.
Extremely worrying is the fact that the Supreme Court and other courts have, time and again, used the questionable arguments of “merit”, “administrative efficiency” and “creamy layer” to stall affirmative action in favour of the Dalits, ignoring the crucial fact that the raison d’etre for reservation is not economic but the social and cultural stigmatisation associated with being a Dalit. In a pointed attack on the reservation policy, a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P C Pant, observed in 2015 that some “privileges remain unchanged” since Independence and that in the “national interest” all forms of reservation in institutions of higher education should be jettisoned. But the oppression against the Dalit has also not changed since Independence. In a backhanded judgment in 2017, the Allahabad High Court held that in universities, reservations for teachers should be calculated department-wise and not on the total posts in the university, knowing well that reservation cannot be applied in departments that have only one professor or one assistant professor — in other words, the verdict would reduce the number of SC/ST faculty. Instead of appealing against the judgment, the University Grants Commission has cleared the decks to implement the court order.
The mass Dalit protests of April 2 reflect a dramatic shift in the subaltern response to oppression. It would be a mistake to view the upsurge as merely anger at the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. It was the catalyst that brought to a boil the deep-seated Dalit rage at the iniquities in the system. The movement has a visceral link with Rohith Vemula, with Una, with the inhuman intransigence of the caste structure. The country-wide protests were a damning indictment of a centuries-old ruthless hierarchical system. It was an authentic grass roots movement that used social media as the prime vehicle for interaction and synergy. The self-styled, opportunistic leaders of Dalits were studiously ignored.
Having realised their power to unsettle the status quo, the Dalits are now aware that they are a force to reckon with. The country will have to decide whether the Dalits are the problem or whether they are the group whose problems will have to be addressed. To ensure social harmony, we need to squarely confront our pathologies regarding caste and address the relentless socially-sanctioned oppression of Dalits. If we ignore the warning signs it will be, to quote an American slave song, “no more water but the fire next time”.