A long road lies ahead of Dalits
(DECCAN HERALD, April 15, 2004)Considering the fact that oppressed Dalits cannot hope for support from others, they have to fight for their own rightsBY P N BENJAMINAt the beginning of the 21st century, caste in India is as significant in understanding the social matrix as it was a century ago.
The birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar signifies the need for a continued struggle against caste oppression in Indian society today.Dalit children are being segregated from the children of other caste backgrounds in schools.Dalits are fined by village elders for violating caste norms by entering a temple. And Dalits are denied burial grounds. The Dalit can be killed, his mother and sisters raped and murdered. But the state, society and intellectuals and NGOs who fight for Dalit rights hardly struggle to uproot the causes that breed it.Shameful situation
The enormous pain and frustrations suffered by the Dalit population in our country must make every sensitive citizen to hang his head in shame. The tragedy is that not only have we not eradicated untouchability during the last five decade despite the good intentions of the founding fathers of independent India, but also have created newer and subtler forms of untouchability. India is as far away from being a civilised casteless society as ever.Long ago, Tolstoy acidly observed: "The abolition of slavery has gone on for a long time. Rome abolished slavery. America abolished and we did, but only the words were abolished, not the thing." We in India have performed a similar feat of verbalism vis a vis the Dalit victims. The colonial masters called this social proletariat ‘depressed classes’ and Gandhiji called them ‘Harijans’, a Sanskritic, sophistic substitute to upgrade at least in name this subhumanised category. Their status substantially remained the same and "Harijan" became a blend of the pejorative and the sanctimonious, without the higher castes integrating them, with egalitarian passion, into a casteless Hindu fold.Dr Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, fought this malignant degradation and tried his best to set his brethren free as equal members of the Indian society. He battled and wrote into the Constitution purposeful provisions to prevent caste victimisation and promote the Dalits’ socio-economic status. Dr Ambedkar was a human catalyst of social action against injustice to the suppressed sector of the Indian people – the Dalits. He was a dynamic figure who devoted himself to the cause of justice, freedom and dignity to the lowliest, the lost and the last in the socio-economic hierarchy. He rightly believed that political democracy without social and economic democracy is a double deception.Ambedkar’s legacy has not succeeded in breaking the status quo. He had felt that organisation, education and agitation would enable the Dalits to reverse caste prejudices. As it has turned out, Dalit political groups are totally disorganised. Education has only led to the emergence of an elite class, which has slowly distanced itself from agitational Dalit politics. Dalit movements have either been absorbed into mainstream parties or have degenerated into negative militancy.Activists bereft of any ideology are unwilling to disturb the existing caste equations.Almost all Dalit political leaders have showered only lip sympathy to the blood, sweat and tears of the Dalits, in order to get their votes, but with no intention of doing anything to ameliorate their conditions. These leaders and the elite among Dalits swallow the few jobs in the government and admissions to professional courses. Dalit politicians and leaders holding very high political posts have in practice proved to be "Uncle Toms" because of the compulsions of Indian polity. These self-seeking status quoits have only aided in pushing the outcasts out of our society, out of the mainstream.Ambedkar’s truth
What Dr Ambedkar said long ago about the Dalit leaders being ‘selfish’ and quarrelsome on ‘petty matters’ is still true. Dalit activists 30 or 40 years ago may have been expected to launch agitations to create public awareness against atrocities against them in various parts of the country. The deification of Dr Ambedkar by building Ambedkar Bhavans and statues in every village appears to have taken precedence over any fight for equal rights. The real protection of the Dalits and other underprivileged sections in the community lies in their being organised and led in active mass movement committed to awaken them in defence of their interests. Guts at the political level and a willingness of the Dalit leaders to dirty their hands while organising the wretched of the Indian earth offer the only valid answer to the plight of Dalits in this country.Given the developing trend, the Dalits should stand up and fight for their rights. It would be futile to expect others to give them support with real change of heart. This can only be achieved by following intelligently Ambedkar’s exhortation: Educate, organise and agitate. A long, tortuous road lies ahead of the Dalits of India. And it is not an easy road either.