The choice before Dalits
Indian Express, September 5, 2000
Bharat Jhunjhunwala

The reservation-based policy of Dalit empowerment has certainly benefited the Dalit community. However, 95 per cent of the Dalits have been left out. The Dalit leadership has the moral responsibility to aggressively seek policies for their upliftment. Reservations cannot possibly help all the Dalits. The focus must shift to problems of land reforms, right to work and credit.

The issue emerged during a discussion among Dalit intellectuals on the constitutional review. The mainstream leadership wanted no dialogue with the Constitutional Review Committee set up by the government. Their argument was that the present Constitution -- despite its limitations -- has provided morerelief to the Dalits than they had got in the past 500 years. A dialogue withthe committee would amount to an endorsement of the review; or an admission that the Constitution could be changed. That would endanger the gains via reservations. One bird in the hand was better than two in the bush.

The dissenters contended that Babasaheb was himself not happy with the Constitution. If 95 per cent of the Dalits had been left behind, the problem,in part at least, lay with the Constitution, too. Instead of being defensive,while preserving the gains from reservations, efforts should be made to amend the Constitution in order to deal with problems of landlessness and unemployment. The poor Dalit had no bird in the hand to lose.

The mainstream leadership was interested in focussing on the expansion of reservations in the judiciary, defence, organised private sector and higher educational institutions; and continued access of reservations to the creamy layer and of those whose parent had once benefited. Exclusion of the creamy layer or past beneficiaries, they contended, would be discriminatory against the children of Dalit IAS officers.

The dissenting intellectuals wanted the benefit of reservations to be diffused and the focus to shift to land reforms and other issues. They noted that the existing situation in regard to land reforms could not possibly benefit the 95 per cent. Most of the land had already been fragmented. It was necessary for the government to acquire land for redistribution, increase the deduction for social purposes during land consolidation from five to 15 per cent, and reduce the level of ceilings. On unemployment, they noted that the Centre and the states were spending about Rs 95,219 crore (the 1997-98 Budget estimates) on various social welfare schemes like education, health and mid-day meals. Most of this money was pocketed by the upper castes. The government should find another Rs 70,000 crore for the implementation of a right-to-work programme.

The dissenters wanted these questions to occupy the centrestage. Both sides agreed that the present political leadership had mainly failed to raise theseissues in Parliament. The Dalit MPs were restricted by party discipline and whips. They were more interested in keeping their party leadership in good humour so that they would get the party ticket in the next elections.

The mainstream intellectuals wanted more social pressure to be exerted on the Dalit MPs to combat this non-performance. The dissenters suggested that the application of whip should be restricted to no-confidence motions alone. Besides, as Ambedkar had feared, those elected from reserved constituencies had been coopted by the establishment. Therefore, we should introduce theoccupational constituencies. Let the voters be divided by their occupations like landless labourers, small farmers, traders, homemakers, industrial workers, and government employees. Some of these constituencies, as of landless labourers, would be Dalit-dominated. Those elected from them would be honour-bound to primarily plead for the interest of their constituents. The voice of the 95 per cent would not be drowned.

The mainstream Dalit leadership has a choice to make. They have benefited personally but little has flowed down to the common Dalit. They will have tofight for issues affecting their less fortunate brethren. If not, the common Dalit would be justified in doing away with the mainstream Dalit leadership.

The writer is a former professor of economics, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

Copyright 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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