Liberty, Equality etc --- but not for Dalits

Ram Puniyani

The UP state government's decision to emasculate the Anti-Dalits Atrocities Act and the BJP-led coalition's policy not to recognise caste as a race and, accordingly, to prevent its discussion at the World Conference against racism at Durban is encouraging further Violence against the Dalits

The recent increase in the social atrocities against the Dalits in UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and MP is disturbing. The number of murders, rapes and other crimeas has shot up since the BJP-led NDA's coming to power at the Centre. The decision of the UP state government to emasculate the AntiDalit Atrocities Act is contributing to the same.

Two years ago, Bihar witnessed some of the worst massacres of Dalits by the landlord Senas in recent times. The landlord armies gunned down 70 Dalits in Laxamnanpur and 11 in Ramanathpuram around the same time. On July 11, 1997, 10 Dalits were the victims of unjustified firing in Mumbai. Not an atrocity in the physical sense but a related act of omission due to bias of the state and the controller of the ruling party of Gujarat, RSS. Now the post-earthquake relief work in Gujarat controlled by the RSS is not reaching the Dalits, Muslims and Kolis.

These are just a sfew of the infinite number of acts of violence against the "children of lesser Gods". Literally so, as according to Brahminical Hinduism, Gods are also caste specific and their weightage on the divinity scale is determined by the social weightage of the caste which worships them.

The violence against Dalits can be categorised into four main types. The first and foremost has been the one related to the struggle for land and liverlihood which is often witnessed in Bihar, UP, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and many other states. The struggle relating to land or the demand for better wages is met with the bullets of the private armies, which work under the patronizing umbrella of the upper caste politica parties.

The prestige of the upper castes, primarily seen in UP, is the issue in the second type. It is abetted by the move of the BJP government not to register cases under the Anti-Dalit atrocities Act unless investigated by the police. But the police and the upper castes join hands to show the Dalits their place in the social hierarchy. The atrocities committed against Dalit women constitute the third type. Stripping them naked and parading them in the villages, rape and other forms of violation of their modesty is common. It is meant to put the Dalits in their place and warn them against overstepping the "Lakshman Rekha" as defined for them by the Manuvadis.

In the last category comes the violence unleashed by the police on the Dalits especially when they take to the streets on emotive issues like defiling of the statues of Dr. Ambedkar or other social issues. This rough generalisation broadly tells us something about the persistence of the particular mindset amongst the upper caste and state machinery while dealing with the Dalits.

Such anti-Dalit atrocities have been on the rise with the ascendance of the communal politics in society beginning with the Ram Janmbhumi movement and the accompanying assertion of the upper castes, which has given new teeth to the vested elements. The Ram Janmbhumi movement crystalized the upper castes and also increased the electoral and political power of the BJP, which has been doing some tight rope walking on the caste issue. While paying lip service to the Mandal and taking the political stance of not believing in the caste system its policies have been giving blatant strength to the upper castes. While many other political formations also show this bias, the case of the BJP in particular is an indicator about the social dynamics where the upper castes are 'punishing' the Dalits on all possible pretexts. Lately more crimes are being witnessed against Dalits for trying to live as social equals.

Due to the policies adopted by the ruling outfit and its mentor (RSS) in Gujarat, preachers of Hindu Rashtra, the Dalits share their plight with minorities as far as distribution of relief material is concerned. It also reveals the true colours of the RSS and the BJP. For them, Hindus mean the upper castes and they are unfair both to minorities as well as the Dalits who are opposed to be part of the Hindu fold. The double standards are obvious. They are called Hindus, but perswecuted if they want to convert to other religions. But so far as their real place is concerned they are to be de factor treated, as the ones who have to lead a servile existence to the elite Hindus.

It is in this light that one has to understand the atttitude of the BJP-led coalition not to recognise caste as race and, accordingly, to prevent its discussion at the forthcoming World Conference against racism at Durban. The government representative at the 57th session of the meeting on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia held that caste is not a race and so it does not come under the purview of the meeting.

The atrocities and discrimination, which Dalits face, are the same as in racial discrimination. They are both based on one's birth and part of the social mindset. The Indian Constitution does provide safeguards to Dalits for social justice. The Constitutional provisions juxtapose caste with race and sex as prohibited grounds of discrimination and equate caste discrimination with racial discrimination. Article 15 of the Constitution outlaws discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and treats caste on par with race as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Further, Article 16 while declaring equality of opportunity in matters of public employment as a fundamental right specifies caste as a prohibited ground of discrimination on par with race and also protects and declares the provision for reservation in educational institutions, job opportunities and legislatures (a form of affirmative action). Action 17 while declaring the abolition of untouchability has, in effect, accepted the existence of caste-based discrimination and its effect of untouchability as racial discrimination. Article 23 prohibits forced labour as a form of discrimination.

It is another matter that since communal politics became strong these provisions are being undermined more and more in practice. One can also say that the present assertion of communal politics is meant to push back the journey in the direction of social equality, which the Dalits have been striving for through their struggles. Every social and political move to recognise their plight gives them courage to move further isn their quest for social justice. BJP's efforts to push these atrocities under the carpet are a calculated move to hide them from International scrutiny. The BJP is aware that representations of the case of Dalits in the International forums will embolden them to intensify their fight for their social and political rights, which goes against its social constituency - the upper castes - and hence this vehement refusal to let caste to be discussed at the Durban conference.

With the dark clouds of communal politics in the social sky, the forces opposed to social equality have got emboldened and the pres3ent brutalities are an outcome of that. Do we need another Ambedkar to stem the rot for these 'broken people' or will the secular democratic sections rise to the threats posed by the upper caste assertion laced in the emotive language of religion-based politics, to protect and strengthen the basic values of our freedom struggle, the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?

(Dr. Ram Puniyani is Secretary of EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity).

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Source:"Meantime", Bangalore, Vol. III, Issue 12, August 1, 2001
Referred by:Mukundan CM
Published on: July 17, 2001
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