Updated: June 3, 2022 7:50:22 am
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi is planning to rename streets and colonies in the city with the word “Harijan” in their names after B R Ambedkar. Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam has tabled a proposal on this. According to sources in the government, the minister has also chaired a meeting with senior officials to expedite the process.
The neologism ‘Harijan’ (child of God) was adopted by Mahatma Gandhi as a replacement of backward or suppressed classes. “Hari is a popular Vaishnavite title for the supreme God, and this association with Bhakti devotional themes was intended to counter the stereotype of the ‘untouchable’ as licentious carrion-eater and blood spiller,” anthropologist Susan Bayly writes in her book, ‘Caste, society and politics in India from the Eighteenth century to the modern age’. Gandhi founded the Harijan Sevak Sangh (Servants of untouchables society) in 1932 as a means of making the nationalist movement committed to the cause of uplifting India’s socially oppressed castes. Gandhi’s solution formula to the distress of the ‘Harijans’ was simple: Hinduism needs to be reformed from within, and Harijans be made part of the Hindu social order.
But this formula for the upliftment of ‘untouchables’ was severely criticised by those who differed with him on the idea that ‘Harijans’ were people who had to be uplifted in accordance with the ideals of Hinduism. Foremost among those who opposed Gandhi was Ambedkar, one of the first from the lower castes to be Western-educated and professionally qualified. In his works like the ‘Annihilation of Caste’ he bitterly denounced Gandhi for suggesting the upliftment of the untouchables within the Hindu social order, and suggested that it was indeed the social system of Hinduism itself with the caste system being an essential part of it that was the root cause behind the distress faced by the suppressed classes. Accordingly, he also differed with Gandhi in the usage of the term ‘Harijan’ on account of its religious associations and preferred to use the term ‘Dalit’ or ‘suppressed classes’ instead.
Dalit, which in classical Sanskriti means ‘broken’, has for years been used to identify those who fall outside the four-fold caste system in the Brahmanical social order, and have been subjected to untouchability.
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The debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar reached its conclusion in the 1932 Poona Pact when there was consensus on the reservation of electoral seats for the suppressed classes, much against the wishes of Gandhi. The decision to implement separate electorates was carried out in the Government of India Act of 1935 that granted full provincial autonomy to elected Indian constituencies. Bayly writes that “it was at this point that colonial authorities set up intricate machinery for listing or ‘scheduling’ for the new special caste-based constituencies”. The gigantic exercise was undertaken in 1936 to identify each and every depressed community in the country and finally some 400 such groups were listed who were described as the ‘scheduled populations of British India’.
After Independence, the Constituent Assembly continued with the prevailing definitions of ‘Scheduled castes and tribes’ through articles 341 and 342 and the complete list of castes was given out in the ‘The Constitution (scheduled castes) order of 1950’.
After the death of Ambedkar in 1956, his followers formed the ‘Republican party of India’ as a means of representing the interests of the Scheduled castes and other depressed communities in the country. However, the lack of an organisational structure and efficient leadership resulted in the Dalit youth rejecting its methods and adopting more militant strategies.
“These Dalits, especially educated Dalits in Maharashtra, came forward and took up the task of bringing all the Scheduled Castes into one platform and mobilising them in their struggle for their rights and justice,” writes sociologist S M Michael in his book ‘Dalits in modern India: Vision and values’.
These groups gave a new found meaning to the term ‘Dalit’. The term was now used in a way to incorporate a spirit of pride and militancy among the depressed classes. The term gained its political currency when the ‘Dalit Panthers’, a group of activists and writers in Bombay, came out to protest against injustice. There were others like the Dalit Liberation Army, the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, the Dalit Sena and the Dalit Sahitya Movement and several others that struggled in cities and villages for social justice and also sought to develop a consciousness of pride in Dalit art, literature, culture and the like. With time, and through their methods, they also gained importance in the national politics of India.
The Dalit movement of the 1970s, therefore, instilled a whole new meaning to the term. As Michael writes, “the term Dalit is not merely a rejection of the very idea of pollution or impurity or ‘Untouchability’, it reveals a sense of unified class, of a movement towards equality. It speaks of a new stage in the movement of India’s Untouchables which is now a century old.”
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