Dalits in 21st Century’s India

dalit lives matter

Dawn of 21st century, for Dalits, should have been better because of the long war they waged on superstructures of discrimination, the price they have paid with their lives, agony, torture and humiliation they have been subjected to should have resulted in offering better fruits. They should not have faced even an iota of discrimination; notorious primitive forms of untouchability should have disappeared totally and like anyone else their life should have been normal in the nation. But after two decades of this century, one would find that the story, unfortunately is worse than the earlier centuries in terms of violence, in reducing hard earned constitutional guarantees, self-respect and freedom to grow. Conflicts and ruptures between, Dalits and caste Hindus in India have re-acquired the notoriety of pre-modern times. The story slightly differs from the earlier centuries in terms of Dalits becoming more assertive. But one would see that the counter to such assertion is becoming more ruthless, consequences of assertion is becoming unbearable or painful and such an action and reaction interplay is becoming much more aggressive, ironically, as the time progresses instead of becoming less.

Reasons for aggressive suppression of the Dalit assertion is easily understandable. In 19th and 20th centuries, the caste Hindus saw that the Dalit assertion was against caste system not against Hindu religion though it is inbuilt in it. Neither Jyothi Rao Phule nor Ambedkar made a distinction between these two. More specifically Ambedkar suggests either uprooting Hinduism or conversion as a solution. However, liberal/hypocritical Hindus like M. K. Gandhi, cleverly fought against such radical rejection and made sure that Dalits remain in Hindu religion. Therefore, struggle for annihilation of caste was not equated to uprooting Hindu religion. It was understood that Dalits convinced themselves to be comfortable with Hindu religion and lessen their aggression on it.  Such a perception is quite natural as most of Dalits in this country are Hindu Dalits. Upper caste Hindus knew that it would be difficult for many Dalits Hindus to break away from their religion. They were forced to remain in Hindu religion for want of religion, culture and to benefit from constitutional guarantees. In fact, constitutional guarantees (reservations) which are hardly guaranteed have ignorable impact on life of the Hindu Dalits. Though they offered chance of upward movement, such movement has hardly resulted in elimination of caste related humiliation to Hindu Dalits even if a Dalit is President of India. The present President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, who could have been respected by the all-in executive, has been publicly made to respect to his masters and made to stand with trident next to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Home Minister and the leaders of Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) who were sitting in chairs. At Jagannath Temple, Puri, Odissa, the President and his wife Savita Kovind were not allowed to enter.  This indicates that the Vedic-Brahmanism which governs the religious, cultural and social spheres of the nation makes sure that it sets limitations to Dalit empowerment. It does not want to give the impression that there could be a complete empowerment which could be endowed with power and equality. If a Dalit like that of a non-Dalit in a constitutional position has to exercise the power that is inbuilt in it he/she needed to be permitted to do so.  This permission comes, if the custodians Hindu religion are under the pressure of proving that religion treats Dalits equally for political gains. Otherwise, it is the nature of a typical Hindu to treat a Dalit as an untouchable in thought and in practice. K. R. Narayanan was an exception. His case is different. He was assertive and he was not looking for any one’s permission to assert his rights and duties as the president of India. This is the difference from President of India, a Dalit but a member of RSS and a President of India, a Dalit but highly educated intellectual, assertive and progressive. Most of Dalits acquired power and position through reservations in various spheres could not avoid humiliation in different forms. Compare to Budhist, Christian and Muslim Dalits, Dalit Hindus are not doing well. They might be at little bit of advantage in terms of benefiting from schemes of emancipation. Hindu Dalits, in one way, in various degrees, adhere to Hinduism and on the other, seek liberation from the atrocities of caste Hindus. Ambedkar did not believe that it is possible. Demanding for equal treatment of Dalits within Hinduism was not attacking superstructure though it sends shock waves. Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement from 1927 was a direct organised attack on the superstructure. After that, seeking lands rights, fighting for education and employment opportunities, fighting against deprivation of life essentials and for reservation in opportunities and in power has brought intensity in conflicts between Dalits and non-Dalits. Such an organised assertion of Ambedkar scared Gandhi who was more concerned about Dalits breaking away from Hindu religion than Dalits getting liberated from atrocities of caste system. Gandhi’s response to Communal Award, 1932, is a best example to point out why Hindus wants Dalits to remain within the fold of Hinduism and also why they expect to be loyal. Gandhian tactics have not stopped Ambedkar who has already determined to liberate Dalits from domination of upper caste.  Chronology of Ambedkar’s anti-caste movements: Mahad Satyagraha (1927), Communal Award (1932), speech on Annihilation of Caste (1936) and converting into Buddhism (1956) clearly indicate the fact that Ambedkar step by step tightening grip. Taking charge of Jyothi-Savitri Phule’s legacy which consisted strong ideological foundations, anti-caste literary narratives and institutional arrangements, Ambedkar set goals for himself for the betterment of Dalits. From 1927, aggressive, radical and rebellious Ambedkar fought against the strong enemy that never have faced a challenge like Ambedkar, after Buddha.

His multi-pronged struggle that produced anti-caste theory, built narratives of caste discrimination, theorised life of Dalits, provided proof of Dalit history, exposed the hypocrisy and criminality of the upper caste and uncovered the true colour of caste for the rest of the world to see. Ambedkar did all this single handily and expected his followers to carry forward. To do this, another Ambedkar would not have needed. But after his demise, if we look work done by Ambedkarites, except, perhaps, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati Prabu Das, Bojja Tharakam, Katti Padma Rao and Tholakppiyan Tirumavallavan we did not see many who are serious enough. However, Ambedkarites, as activists, academicians, politicians and students did what they could to take Ambedkarism forward. There are problems and deficiencies in the Ambedkar movement. In earlier centuries, every educated Dalit naturally could not become Ambedkarite. Becoming conscious of Ambedkar and the question of oppression of Dalits was urban centric idea even till today. However, from 1990s, there is growing consciousness among rural Dalits because expanding urbanism along with which Dalit consciousness was spreading and number of students who were joining in the city colleges and universities is growing. Even then, in 21st century in a context where every educated Dalit, naturally should have become conscious of oppression, suppression and discrimination, there are educated Dalits who are genuinely under the influence of caste system that normalised discrimination and among them there are those sees caste as a taboo maintaining distance is better than identifying with it. While the earlier group, in future would add to the social justice movement, that latter would continue to remain as selfish Dalits.

Yet compare to earlier two centuries, 21st century saw the dramatic expansion of Dalit consciousness propelled by the Dalit intellectuals (multi-lingual as well as vernacular) and activists. The information revolution provided some speakability to Dalits. However, careerism, caste, cultural and religious slavery, selfish interests and political obligations have always kept these Dalits away from Ambedkarism. They might have their own reasons. But for a community which should only fight for its rights through democratic movements where mass participation of the people is very essential, even single Dalit staying away from the boundaries of Dalit consciousness and movements not only de-moralise the Dalits spirit for fighting for justice but also discourage them to build confidence. This is major drawback for the Ambedkarite movement

Challenges to the social justice movement are plenty. The strength of the enemy is biggest challenge. The upper caste/caste Hindus, as custodians of culture and protectors of social positions would be very inventive in generating means and methods of keeping its discriminative culture and social positions. They are in corridors of power, possess economic resources and have access and ability to manipulate law. This is enough for them keep weakening the will and strength of the Ambedkarites. They keep investing their intelligence and criminality on generating anti-Dalit sentiments.  Anti-Dalit sentiments are very powerful because they are drawn from jealous of the development of an individual. Say if A feeling jealous of B because B (he/she) causing damage to the economic, political and social interests of A, it is just jealous caused by an individual growth. But here, A’s concern is more to do with B who is religiously, socially and culturally not equal to A is challenging or causing damage to the foundations of A’s history, religion and his social position which are providing needed cultural/social/political capital. Every move a Dalit makes against it, the entire upper caste/caste Hindu network gets alerted and invokes all their channels to generate immediate reaction and long-time planning. It is against such a powerful enemy, the Ambedkarites are fighting.

Minority position of Dalits, object poverty of Dalit, sub-caste fractions within Dalits, inaccessibility of education and extreme religiosity of the middle-class Hindu Dalits and Christians have been roadblocks for the penetration of Ambedkarism into large scale Dalit masses. It has been the problem of the last two centuries. However, the emergence of Ambedkarites from higher educational institutions from 1970s which began to gain momentum in India and abroad has led to the new brand of intellectual Ambedkarites who are forming themselves into associations and organisations to perform functions such as addressing immediate discrimination they face at personal level as individuals and also as group, theorisation of Dalit experience, sharing ideas and internationalising problems of caste and Dalit discrimination. Some of them have become lifelong activist-academicians who has more filed experience on the experience of Dalits better in theorising Dalit experience. They also formed many Non-Governmental Organiations committed to provided needed assistance to Dalits fighting for justice. These are main functions. But their objectives are not limited to this alone, they have been researching on Dalit’s history, economy, politics and culture. Formation of student associations in higher educational institutions (central and state universities and institutions) which are also forming national and state level of student associations and unions too have been doing commendable job in addressing the discrimination that they face and also reflect on issues of Dalits, caste and general student issues at regional, national and international level. Emergence of Dalit feminism and the emergence of semi-urban and rural Dalit activism are, though had roots in the last century, becoming quite visible and their struggle, activism and building of narratives of discrimination has added new dimension to anti-caste and justice movements.

The caste Hindu society is as usual in 21st century as it has been for centuries. There is no absence in practicing notorious forms of untouchability in rural India and there is no dearth for inventiveness in generating newer and more sophisticated forms of untouchability in urban India. While the notoriety in the rural and sophistication in urban seems to be performing their functions. Rural India would need notorious forms of untouchability and repression as it does not want to lose its grip on Dalits. It has not gone through much of change in terms of integrating Dalits into the rural mainstream society. Urban sophistication is needed for the upper caste/caste Hindu society to control thought process, curtail the spread of Dalit consciousness and keep assertion under control.

Blue wrist bands to school children to identify them as Dalits, beating a teenage boy for wearing Ambedkar T-shirt, killing and chopping private parts of Dalit boys for loving caste Hindu girls and developing grudge over Dalits  for riding bikes, wearing jeans and sun glasses, beating Dalits for accidentally touching water bucket, shooting Dalits for entering into temples and for arguing, urinating in their mouths,  forcing Dalits to remove their slippers, tonsuring half of their heads, raping Dalit women at will and wish and inserting things in to their private parts and beating a boy for keeping Ambedkar song as ring tone, burning an old Dalit man for entering into temple and the list go on. There is no change in its cruel character. In fact, it became more aggressive in its reaction to fight for justice of Dalits.

The youth of caste Hindus of this century believe that they are provided with new means and methods of cultivating caste pride and prestige. They have become more organised in their thought and action. Most of them drawn from engineering and science disciplines have never read much about caste discrimination or on the existence of caste.  Those from social sciences and literature who would read about caste and understands it would not only involve in generating anti-Dalit narratives on many issues, especially against constitutional guarantees to Dalits as an unfair favour from the government at the cost of their hard work, opportunities, property and wealth but also organising themselves to attack rights conscious assertive Dalits in multiple ways. They would continue to do it as long as Dalits uses assertion as a tool of fighting for justice. They have been using social media as effectively as they can to abuses Ambedkar, Dalits and their leaders. Social media, in fact, became their favourable tool in humiliating Dalits. They attack Ambedkar statue, they beat a Dalit to death, they stamp their feet on Ambedkar statue-head and even urinate, they use abusive casteist slur on Dalits and make videos. This is 21st century’s new tool in the hands of caste Hindus is to show their strength and to warn of consequences of violating the established social norms and also warns of severe consequences of any assertion or fight for justice. There could have been thousands of such videos made by the young men/women of the caste Hindus so far. Not many of them have faced the heat of law. So, this century’s caste Hindu youth is different. They acquired the ability of generating narratives which would justify caste system, social and economic inequalities. They use their ‘intelligence’ to normalise the inhuman socio-cultural traditions. They are capable of locating their history and culture in the framework of nation/nationalism. They invest their intelligence in developing social/cultural/political capital that naturally declares the Dalit youth, activist and intellectuals as the enemy of both the casteist society and the nation as well.

Even the matured caste-Hindu politician is no exception. Many of them in this century have also behaved like their youth. In fact, they reciprocate with each other. A Dalit boy and caste Hindu girl’s love marriage in Tamil Nadu has led to the emergence of anti-Dalit political formation into which even Muslim parties could also join. This is unthinkable in this century.  But it is a reality. This clearly indicates that the caste Hindu society would never be able to discontinue from its culture of discriminating Dalits. No matter how many centuries passes by

The rise of the Hindutva Hindus is one of the important aspects of this century. Its agenda and objectives would appeal to the general caste-Hindu population whose identity is primarily based on caste, religion and culture. Caste Hindus and Hindutva Hindus shares same identity and concerns. Political affiliations of many caste Hindus publicly might force them to maintain visible distance from hardcore ideology of the Hindutva Right. But that does not mean that they don’t admire it. Majority of caste Hindus believe that forces of Hindutva are essential for the nation as they allegedly provide needed strength for ‘national culture. In other words, ideologically, many caste Hindus might be critical or even act as haters of Hindutva Right but they reciprocate with each other. Very less percent of educated, conscious and intellectual caste Hindus because of their personal convictions, ideological subscriptions and political ambitions would maintain a visible distance from the Hindutva Right. As force of criticising the unfairness of the unacceptable behaviour of the both caste Hindus and Hindutva Right, this minority might be useful. It, to some extent, becomes the representative of nation’s positive ideals. But, within this small minority, there might be some who are oscillating between recognising the positivity of not only the caste Hindus but also Hindutva Right and importance of keeping secular traits and social equality alive. They, most probably lean towards the Hindutva Right. These camouflaged progressive intellectuals might be more dangerous than those who out rightly oppose Ambedkar and Dalits. Thus, the age-old caste rot is not only continued into the 21st century, enemies of Dalits are getting more aggressive and sophisticated. Dalit among Dalits to spread consciousness, to secure justice and rights and to be more assertive, Dalit unity, if needed, they need to join with social forces fighting for the protecting rights of the deprived.

Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao teacher history at Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu


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