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Class & Caste Discrimination
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The country is witnessing cries of alleged indifference to Dalits, tribals and those from the lower castes. Reportedly, nothing new as the lower classes and castes have always been at the receiving end. Some political analysts think this is a fall-out of neo liberalism which has manifested itself in protecting the interests of the rich and middle income sections. Alongside, the emphasis on the urban sector and stagnation of the rural area has aggravated the situation over the years.
Obviously, the widening inequality and discrimination of low castes cannot continue for long. This manifested in the late 60’s when the Naxalites revolted violently against the social order. Though the problem is under control except in a few places, the latest Dalit upsurge poses a big challenge for the Government.
Recently, Prime Minister Modi while acknowledging that a few incidents had been “very shameful”, underscored that divisive elements were politicizing issues relating to Dalits. Stating that discrimination among people was unacceptable Modi urged the need to “give due respect to our Dalit brothers and sisters”.
Add to this, a Dalit Mahasammelan organized by Gujarat’s Una Atyachar Ladat Samity (UDALS) pledged to break free from century old practices of disposing off animal carcasses and took an oath not to clean underground drains by going down manholes. Highlighting oppression of Dalits and lower castes the meet decided to stand against this humiliation, even as it criticized the Prime Minister for neglecting the welfare of the community.
However, fearing the backlash a section of the BJP, led by Chairman of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations Udit Raj resolved to hold agitations across the country in an effort to curb violence and discrimination against Dalits. He hit out at those who talked about nationalism and protecting Hindu religion in the same breath while ill-treating lower castes and Dalits.
Pertinently, Dalit mobilization has gained momentum post Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula’s suicide which reflected the structural issues. Certainly, reservations has given birth to Dalit entrepreneurs and a middle class benefiting from Government jobs. But in spite of this or because of this, anti-Dalit attitudes, sometimes leading to violent protests are on the rise.
Notably, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) cases of anti-Dalit atrocities are notoriously under-reported, but despite this the number has jumped by 17.1 per cent in 2013 and was 19.4 per cent in 2014. Whereby, the word ‘atrocities’ needs to be fleshed out, else it will become another bureaucratic, abstract euphemism.
Besides, Article 23 prohibits bonded labour and Article 15(2) stipulates that no citizen should be subject to restriction with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of entertainment, use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort on the grounds of caste.
In 1955, the Untouchability (Offences) Act reasserted that Dalits should not be prevented from entering any public place. Again in 1976 the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed. In 1989, why did a new, detailed law have to be made which listed instances of “offences and atrocities”?
Alas, in spite of these legal commitments, there has not been much difference to the social status of Dalits in society even after 69 years of Independence. Think. In many villages the nature of certain social equations has not changed for centuries. Such villages continue to remain what. Ambedkar called “sinks of localism, dens of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”.
Consequently, how else should one view several incidents wherein Dalits are being exploited, dis-allowed from being equal members of society and even their families are treated like pariahs where temple festivities are out of bounds for them.
Undoubtedly, these are not isolated incidents as discrimination against Dalits is widespread and ingrained in our psyche across India, particularly in rural areas. In some places it takes the form of violent oppression, in others it is disguised yet omnipresent.
True, in recent years the State has been responsive to harassment of Dalits, but recurring acts and persisting practices against the community makes one wonder whether State response and Constitutionalism alone are enough to overcome longstanding social injustice and prejudices in India’s villages.
Importantly, the overall performance of successive Governments has been poor as little was done to emphasize on Dalit education and bringing them into the social mainstream. Shockingly, a mere 5-7 per cent of Dalits have been able to establish themselves, gain social standing and erase past stigmas. Given, the political establishment is weighed in favour of upper castes, they did not have the vision and lack initiative to alleviate Dalit sufferings.
Moreover, a large numbers of Dalits students in college and universities are first generation entrants like Rohith Vemula. This is significant given their difficult living conditions.
Scandalously, according to a recent survey, 21 per cent Dalit families live in houses with thatch or bamboo roofs compared with 15 per cent overall, 78 per cent in one or two rooms compared with 69 per cent overall, 35 per cent have drinking water source within the house compared with 47 per cent overall, 47 per cent have no electricity compared with 33 per cent overall and 66 per cent do not have toilets compared with 53 per cent overall.
Apart from this backwardness, lack of progressive social consciousness permeating society, Constitutionalism, State actions and political equations simply do not suffice. It would have helped if the political actors who accommodated Dalits in their Parties and governance structures, due to their sheer weight of numbers as a representative section, also believed in and worked as conduits for social transformation.
In sum, there is an imperative need to give Dalits leadership roles in Parties so that they could bring issues before the Governments and aid the process of social and economic transformation.
Arguably, barring the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), leadership of major Parties suffers from a clear diversity deficit, with Dalits being severely under-represented in leadership across Parties. True, being made part of the political leadership — one way of being among the elite — will not by itself guarantee eradication of social prejudice, nevertheless it would be a step in the right direction. .
As Babasaheb Ambedkar observed: “The castes are anti-national because they bring separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality”. —- INFA