While nominations were being filed by Shri Ram Nath Kovind (now Hon’ble President of India) and Smt. Meira Kumar (Ex-Speaker of Lok Sabha), the term Dalit was used too frequently by media, press, political leaders, etc. I was wondering why they need to be identified / branded as Dalits. Are they really Dalits? Yes, I agree that their grandfathers (or may be their fathers) were Dalits. But surely and certainly, those two personalities were never Dalits. Incidentally, if they are Dalits, 99% of Indian population are Dalits. This happens to be the precise reason I was forced to write this article.
Dalit, meaning “oppressed” in Sanskrit and “broken/scattered” in Hindi, is a term for the members of lower indigenous aboriginal communities in India which have been converted from a tribe to a caste by Sanskritisation. The term mostly used for the ones that were subjected to untouchability. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold Varna system of Hinduism and thought of themselves as forming a fifth Varna, describing themselves as Panchama. It was perhaps first used in this sense by Pune based social reformer Jyotirao Phule, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile “untouchable” castes from the twice-born Hindus.
The term Dalit was in use as a translation for the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935. It was popularised by the economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) who himself was a Dalit. India’s National Commission for Scheduled Castes considers official use of Dalit as a label to be “unconstitutional” because modern legislation prefers Scheduled Castes; however, some sources say that Dalit has encompassed more communities than the official term of Scheduled Castes and is sometimes used to refer to all of India’s oppressed peoples.
In 1932, the British Raj recommended separate electorates to select leaders for Dalits in the Communal Award. This was favoured by Ambedkar but when Mahatma Gandhi opposed the proposal it resulted in the Poona Pact. That in turn influenced the Government of India Act, 1935, which introduced the reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, now re-named as Scheduled Castes.
From soon after its independence in 1947, India introduced a reservation system to enhance the ability of Dalits to have political representation and to obtain government jobs and education. In 1997, India elected K. R. Narayanan as the nation’s President. Many social organisations have promoted better conditions for Dalits through education, healthcare and employment. Nonetheless while caste-based discrimination was prohibited and untouchability was abolished by the Constitution of India, such practices still continue. To prevent harassment, assault, discrimination and similar acts against these groups, the Government of India enacted the Prevention of Atrocities Act on 31 March 1995.
Scheduled Castes is the official term for Dalits in the opinion of India’s National Commissions for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), who took legal advice that indicated modern legislation does not refer to Dalit and that therefore, it says, it is “unconstitutional” for official documents to do so. In 2004, the NCSC noted that some State Governments used Dalits rather than Scheduled Castes in documentation and asked them to desist.
Mahatma Gandhi coined the word Harijan, translated roughly as people of God, to identify untouchables in 1933. The name was disliked by Ambedkar as it emphasised the Dalits as belonging to the Greater Hindu Nation rather than being an independent community like Muslims. When untouchability was outlawed after Indian independence, the use of the word Harijan to describe the ex-untouchables was more common among other castes than the Dalits themselves.
It is a fact that Dalits had had lowest social status in the traditional Hindu social structure in the past. They were believed to be so impure that caste Hindus considered their presence to be polluting. The impure status was related to their historic hereditary occupations that Hindus considered to be polluting or debased, such as working with leather, working with night soil and other dirty work.
Even though the quality of life of everyone of the underprivileged population in India is not similar to that of the overall Indian population, on metrics such as access to health care, life expectancy, education attainability, access to drinking water and housing, etc., it has improved to a substantial level. Moreover, untouchability has long been abolished from the society. They are now part and parcel of society.
According to a 2014 report to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, over 44.8 per cent of Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 33.8 per cent of Scheduled Caste (SC) populations in rural India were living below the poverty line in 2011–12. In urban areas, 27.3 per cent of ST and 21.8 per cent of SC populations were poor.
Some Hindu Dalits have achieved affluence, although most remain poor. Some Dalit intellectuals, such as Chandra Bhan Prasad, have argued that the living standards of many Dalits have improved since the economic liberalisation began in 1991 and have supported their claims through large surveys. According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, nearly 79 per cent of Adivasi households and 73 per cent of Dalit households were the most deprived among rural households in India. While 45 per cent of SC households are landless and earn a living by manual casual labour, the figure is 30 per cent for Adivasis. A 2012 survey by Mangalore University in Karnataka found that 93 per cent of Dalit families still live below the poverty line.
- It is indeed a huge predicament so far as the usage of terminology of “Dalit” is concerned. Going by the meaning of the word, the protection given by the Constitution, the clarifications given by National Commissions for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), the prevailing social status of people in general and Schedule Castes in particular, it is totally unjust to use the word “Dalit”.
- It is really an irony that real affluent and powerful people belonging to Schedule Castes like Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, Union Ministers, State Ministers, Bureaucrats, etc. have been issuing this term (Dalit) to perpetuate their support base from really needy, support-less and economically weak brethren.
- Vote Bank politics are common in India, usually based on religion or caste. Indeed, the term itself was coined by the Indian sociologist, N. Srinivas. Dalits are often used as a vote bank.
- While the economic condition of Schedule Castes has improved to some extent, it has not improved to the desired level as the well to do people (taking the advantage of the reservation policy) in the community have been grabbing the opportunity generation after generation at the cost of their brethren.
- Once the so called Dalits have become rich and powerful, it is very unfortunate but a trend now that they will try to sever relationship with their relatives / community. They will get their son or daughter married to the so called Upper Caste people.
- In normal situation i.e. when there is no huge forthcoming gains like winning an election, they will try to suppress their identities and they do not want to be identified with that Dalit Tag.
- While the real under privileged are not getting the benefits they deserve, the so called Dalits are garnering a large support base by invoking their sentiments.
- The Caste system has caused and has been causing irreparable damage to the society. The use of Dalit always instigates not only the Caste system but takes to us era of Untouchability though that is non-existent.
I would like to suggest that the use of Dalit must be stopped by media / press / government forthwith and in its place “Underprivileged” (in English) and “Alpadhikarprapta / Alpasuvidhaprapta” (in Hindi) can be used in the same way as “Vikalanga” has been replaced as “Divyanga” by our Hon’ble Prime Minister.
One more suggestion: The benefit of reservation for job must be broad based. It means that the benefit will be given only once to a family and not to each member of the family so that it cannot be a perpetual benefit to only a very few well to do families at the cost of needy majority.