The directive of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to the media to “refrain from using the nomenclature Dalit” and to stay with “Scheduled Caste” is problematic. The ministry has chosen to blindly follow a Bombay High Court order that asked the Union government to “consider” issuing a directive to the media on the matter. In March, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had issued orders to all state governments that only the term Scheduled Caste should be used in official communication. Scheduled Caste, of course, is the term used in the Constitution. And the judiciary and government can decide on the preferred term in administrative matters. It could even be argued that “Dalit” is a more encompassing, less precise term. Yet, the directives of the ministry and the court reveal an insensitivity towards the history and context that led to the adoption of the Marathi word to describe the erstwhile “untouchable” castes.
Dalit is a political identity that emerged in the 1970s in connection with the rise of Dalit literature in Marathi and the Dalit Panthers, a militant movement based out of Maharashtra’s urban centres. It drew inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar and sought to build on his political legacy. It rejected the patronage of mainstream political parties and preferred the idiom of self-assertion. Though the Dalit Panthers did not survive as a political outfit for long, the term found widespread acceptance in Ambedkarite groups and movements that emerged across India in the 1980s. What is unique about Dalit, therefore, is that it is a term that emerged from the political struggles of the oppressed castes, unlike administrative descriptions like Depressed Classes and Scheduled Castes and Mahatma Gandhi’s coinage, Harijan, which Ambedkar and his followers rejected as patronising. So to disallow the use of the word, Dalit, is essentially to ignore, if not reject, an important part of the political history of India’s oppressed castes.
Despite the outreach of the BJP leadership, this government is battling perceptions that it is acting against the interests of Dalits. Incidents such as Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the flogging of Dalits in Una by gau rakshaks, the controversy over the Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act, and anti-Dalit violence in Western Uttar Pradesh and its aftermath have strengthened the perception that the Narendra Modi government is insensitive to Dalit concerns. The I&B ministry’s move is likely to harden this sentiment.