The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting earlier this week asked the media to refrain from using the word ‘Dalit’ and instead use the constitutional term ‘Scheduled caste’. The order comes a month after the Bombay High Court, in its response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Pankaj Mesharam seeking the removal of the word ‘Dalit’ from all government documents and communication, asked the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to consider issuing an order to the media to stop usage of the word.
The order has been criticised by Dalit rights activist groups, who assert that the term holds political and cultural significance. “It marks the shift from brokenness to strength and power. We see this as part of the larger scheme of what the government is doing to the community, the anti-reservation discourse, the attempt to erase our identity little by little. We will file a PIL against the move in the Supreme Court if need be,” says Dalit activist Asha Kotwal in an interview to The Indian Express.
The word ‘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. In the past few decades, however, the term has acquired a political connotation, being associated with the radical movement of the depressed classes. The distinction between the two terms — ‘Scheduled caste’ and ‘Dalit’ — is rooted in the larger narrative of the evolution of caste movements in India, and the various strings of the movement that sought redressal for the depressed castes in separate ways.
The Gandhi vs Ambedkar debate
By the late 19th century, Indian society had undergone a rapid transition. The 1857 revolt and the decennial Census that began in 1871, brought the colonial rulers face to face with certain social and religious realities of the country that had to be taken stock of in order to govern effectively, the most important among these being the caste system. This is not to suggest that caste was turned into a reality in the hands of the British. Caste was indeed part and parcel of Indian social life for centuries before the British stepped in. However, by calling people to name their caste in the process of recording the census, by ranking them in a certain order, as determined by those in the higher castes and by attaching social characteristics to each of the groups, the census in many way enlivened the caste spirit in the country, that was hitherto a dormant feature.
By the turn of the century, when the nationalist movement was just beginning to gain currency, caste had acquired a whole other social recognition. “From the 1880s, the hundreds of organisations which called themselves caste associations or caste conferences acquired sizeable memberships, and were accorded much attention in official reportage as well as in the Indian-owned vernacular and English press,” writes anthropologist Susan Bayly in her book, ‘Caste, society and politics in India from the Eighteenth century to the modern age’.
By the 1920s, the term ‘untouchability’ gained widespread usage in association with the caste system, to refer to those who were considered ‘unclean’ and left outside the ambit of the caste order. The Gandhian movement, which had taken off by now, was particularly mindful of the social conditions of the untouchables and the need for their upliftment. In his writings, Gandhi repeatedly referred to how the doctrine of untouchability was a ‘horrible and terrible’ stain on the Hindu faith. “Surely judgement will be pronounced against Hinduism, if we as a body do not rise as one man against this social and religious atrocity,” he wrote in January 1926.
Gandhi’s solutions to the problem of untouchability, however, were of a religious nature as well. He adopted the neologism ‘Harijan’ (child of God) 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,” writes Bayly. 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.
Gandhi’s formula of the upliftment of untouchability, however, 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 B R 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 used the term ‘Dalit’ or ‘suppressed classes’ instead.
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’.
The political activism of ‘Dalit’
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, lack of an organisational structure and an efficient leadership resulted in the Dalit youth, to reject its methods and adopt 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 which meant ‘downtrodden’ or ‘broken’, 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.”