Many watched the recent discussion on atrocities on Dalits in the Lok Sabha with hope. They felt that since the present policy has had limited success in reducing atrocities on Dalits, the discussion would throw up a new initiative. What emerged at the end of day, however, did not touch the core issue: The roots of the continuing violence against Dalits and a durable solution to the problem. There were some rays of hope. The members recognised the problem of persisting atrocities. Most suggested that political parties should incorporate the discourse on caste and equity. They felt that access to education, agricultural land and capital would help improve the condition of Dalits.
The government responded by reiterating its commitment to the Dalit cause. However, there are still enough grounds for pessimism.
The first suggestion was that political parties should make caste and equity their prime agenda. They can do so by appealing to the provision of equality in the Constitution and also by recalling our traditions of equity. In this respect, a reference was made to B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was clear about the traditions that support equity and those that do not. In his view, in ancient times, Buddha represented the former strand, while Vedic Brahmanism represented the latter line of thought. Later, reformers like Guru Nanak, Ravidas, Kabir, Mangu Ram, Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar were concerned with questions of equity while Dayanand Saraswati, Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Balgangadhar Tilak and V.D. Savarkar led the counter-discourse — notwithstanding their occasional arguments for equity.
The 19th century counter-discourse lead to the emergence of what is known as Hinduism today.
Scholars tells us that the word Hindu, which originally meant people living beyond Sindu river, became an “ism” in the 19th century — with different shades of meaning. According to Ambedkar this meant “neo or reformed Brahmanism” that embraced the caste system.
Political parties that wish to have equity on their agenda must, therefore, follow the tradition that fought against the caste system and untouchability — they may incorporate the ideas of some thinkers of the counter-discourse who were against caste. The cause of equity will be harmed if Ambedkar is misappropriated.
Attributing atrocities to anti-social elements will also not help since that will take the focus away from the religious and social roots of violence. The two-and-a-half lakh cases of atrocities against Dalits since 1995 is a reflection of the upper caste response to the Dalit assertion for equal rights. Political parties will have to counter the anti-equity discourse that is behind such violence against Dalits.
There are also economic reasons behind the atrocities against Dalits. During the Lok Sabha debate, members rightly stressed on the economic empowerment of Dalits through education and ownership of land and capital. Ambedkar believed that Dalits would be unable to secure justice in a village society where they were a minority and dependent on upper caste people. Attempts by Dalits to secure equal rights were sure to be countered with ruthless violence and economic boycott, he believed. Ambedkar, therefore, suggested separate settlement of Dalits where they would be economically independent vis-a-vis the upper castes. But are Dalits today economically independent of upper castes? The current situation does not offer any hope.
In 2012, only 23 per cent of Scheduled Caste rural workers owned land. About 14 per cent SCs in rural areas and 32 per cent SCs in urban areas owned petty enterprises/businesses. About 53 per cent of SCs in rural areas and 23 per cent in urban areas depended on upper castes for wage labour. The land reforms have practically bypassed the Dalits, so have the policies that encouraged the growth of enterprises. The present government’s initiative to encourage Dalit enterprise through loans is welcome, but help is likely to reach only a few.
South Africa adopted a similar policy for Blacks, which benefited only a few people of the community. But South Africa learned its lessons fast. It adopted the Malaysian model of economic empowerment: The government increases the share of the poor in the capital of domestic and foreign companies, and thereby, assures regular flow of income to them. The share of the Malay community in companies increased from seven per cent in 1970 to about 20 per cent in 2000 as a result of this policy. India could learn from the experiences of Malaysia and South Africa. Public land and the cultivable wasteland could be distributed to Dalits for horticulture and livestock rearing.
However, only a few can be successful entrepreneurs. For the majority of Dalits, regular salaried jobs remain the predominant source of livelihood. Education and employment through reservation was a major source of upward mobility for Dalits till the early 1990s. But privatisation — both of education and employment avenues — has chipped away at the sources of Dalit empowerment.
The share of the public sector in jobs was 20 per cent in 2012. In other words, there is no reservation in 80 per cent of employment avenues in the country. In 1995, private institutions took in seven per cent of students who opted for higher education. In 2014, their share had gone up to 30 per cent. This works to the detriment of Dalits in accessing education. Selective discrimination has blocked the entry of Dalits in private jobs. This explains the high unemployment rate of the SCs: 7 .3 per cent compared to 5.6 for STs, 5.3 for OBCs and 4.8 for upper castes in 2011.
Reservation is a necessary remedy for discrimination against Dalits today. But it does not remedy “past” exclusion from rights to property and education. Compensation is the appropriate remedy for the latter form of discrimination. Dalits have been excluded from property and education since the codification of the Manusmriti. As the enrichment of the upper castes came at the cost of impoverishment of Dalits, there is a moral and legal ground for compensation. This is a long overdue social debt that upper castes owe to the untouchables.