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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011

Relevance of Dr Ambedkar’s Demand for Separate Settlement

Ever Increasing Violence Against Dalit Human Rights

Thursday 21 April 2011

by A. Ramaiah

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The Indian Constitution is also very much in tune with these universal ideals with its commitment to secure all citizens liberty, equality and fraternity. But according to the Brahmanic theory of caste, which is still the dominant theory, all human beings are not born free; all human beings are not equal in dignity and rights; all human beings are not endowed with reason and conscience and therefore should not act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Such contesting basis of caste, which goes directly against the fundamentals of human nature, seriously endangers the peace and harmony of Indian society. And any effort to alter the foundation of caste, which is based on graded inequality, is often with dire consequences.

According to the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Reports of the National Crime Records Bureau, Govern-ment of India, on an average every day two Dalits (Scheduled Caste persons) are murdered and four Dalit women are raped and the overall incidence of reported crimes against Dalits continue to be over 30,000 annually: 30,031 in 2007, 33,615 in 2008 and 33,594 in 2009. These data indicate that not only the overall number of crimes against Dalits, but also serious crimes such as murder and rape are on the increase, reminding every Indian and all those committed to valuing human rights and dignity of every individual the world over of the fast-eroding image of India as a nation that is committed to human values, dignity and rights and of the urgent need of addressing those.

To understand the gravity and implication of the issue under discussion, a few incidents of violation of Dalit human rights in India may be brought to light. On August 31, 2005 the Jats (one of the Backward Castes) in Gohana, a small town in Sonepat district, Haryana, burnt down more than 55 Dalit houses, along with valuable household items. A similar incident took place within a week’s time on September 4, 2005 at Belkhed, about 60 kms away from Akola, Maharashtra, where about 25 Dalit houses were burnt down. The killing of four Dalits of Khairlanji village in Mohadi Taluk, Bhandara district, Maharashtra on September 29, 2006 is yet another such incident. Sometimes, Dalit women are labelled as witches and subsequently beaten, as it happened in the Tonk district of Rajasthan on August 29, 2010,1 and sometimes they are even beaten to death as it happened in the case of a Dalit couple of Jorapur village in Palamu district, Jharkhand State on October 12, 2010.

SUCH inhuman incidents are not isolated ones. Even in States like Tamil Nadu, which is known for its anti-Brahmin movement, the Dalits in many villages live in perpetual terror. There were also incidents in which some Dalits were forced to consume human urine and excreta even by those caste Hindus who embraced Christianity. On January 17, 2010 in the Dindigul town of Tamil Nadu, a group of high-caste Christians forced human faeces (excreta) into the mouth of a Dalit after beating him mercilessly for his ‘crime’ of walking with chappals on their street.2 Dalits in many Tamil Nadu villages still have no right to walk through the main street of their own villages, and where they have the right, they are not allowed to use footwears. Separate tumbler system in tea stalls is still a practice in most villages. In some villages, they cannot even wear clean clothes and when they do so, they are laughed at, particularly in villages of Virudhunagar, Sivagangai and Ramanatha-puram districts. Though the Dalits have the right to contest elections to local bodies, there are cases wherein they are unable to exercise their power as elected panchayat leaders/presidents or members even to protect their own self-respect and dignity, leave alone protecting the interests of others, In some panchayats such as Papa Patti and Keeripatti in Tamil Nadu till the last election the Dalit presidents elected from such reserved constituencies were forced by the dominant castes to resign soon after winning the election. In fact, such constituencies have remained all along as another means of causing humiliation to Dalits. A recent study,3 conducted by Evidence, an NGO in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, found that, except in a few villages, discrimi-nations of various kinds were observed in most of the villages studied in the 213 panchayats across 12 districts in the State. According to this report, 104 villages out of the total villages surveyed recorded the practice of two-tumbler system, revealing 49 per cent prevalence. The study also reported that fortyfive Dalit panchayat presidents experienced discriminations and harassment by the non-Dalit panchayat members and others. These include the caste-Hindu elected members’ demand for the appointment of a caste Hindu “Writer” in the panchayat office, their refusal to cooperate with the Dalit panchayat president, their obstructionist tactics to stall the smooth conduct of the affairs of the panchayat, and their harassment to Dalit women panchayat presidents. All these incidents indicate that the crimes against Dalits are increasingly becoming more inhuman over the years.

Such inhuman practices prevail even today, despite the practice of untouchability having been formally abolished as early as 1950 under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, special protective laws such the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Cates and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and a special Commission, at both the Centre and States to monitor the working of all the safeguards and to report to Parliament and State Legislatures urging necessary action. But unfortunately, most of the cases taken to the police are not registered since the police in general belong to the dominant or upper castes, often the caste of the accused, and therefore prefer to standing by the side of the accused, instead of the victims. Many a time, instead of registering the complaint, the police often discourages and even threatens the complainants directly or indirectly from registering the case or to withdraw the complaint. (Ramaiah, A. 2007).4

While this is the reality, particularly in rural India, it is rather illogical and impractical expect the Dalits to be powerful enough to use such special laws and to exercise their electoral and other rights as citizens of India to protect their interests. After all, the Backward Castes (dominant castes) and other upper castes—being numerically large and economically more powerful—have no hesitation in committing inhuman crimes against Dalits to perpetuate their caste superiority over the Dalits. Although the Dalits did revolt against indignities and crimes whenever and wherever possible, they very often had to face a violent backlash.

All these are indicative of the failure of most of the upper caste people in general and of the democratically elected government and of our meritorious bureaucracy in particular in upholding and adhering to the values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. This scenario may also be understood as their unequivocal support to the most undemocratic, unjust and unethical social institution of India called “caste”. The architect of the Indian Constitution once wrote:
All are slaves of the caste system. But all the slaves are not equal in status, and therefore all cannot be mobilised for an attack on the caste system. (Ambedkar, 1979: 72)

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote in his much celebrated book The Discovery of India:

In the context of society today, the caste system and much that goes with it are wholly incompatible, reactionary, restrictive, and barriers to progress. There can be no equality in status and opportunity with in its framework, nor can there be political democracy…. Between these two conceptions, conflict is inherent and only one of them can survive. (Nehru, J. 1946: 257)

But unfortunately the much-revered national leader, Mahatma Gandhi, praised caste till his death. In the Young India of February 25, 1920, Gandhi wrote:
I am one of those, who do not consider caste to be a harmful institution. In its origin, caste was a wholesome custom and promoted national well-being. In my opinion, the idea that inter-dining or intermarrying is necessary for national growth is a superstition borrowed from the West.

It seems the mindset of most of the political leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, and of the intellectuals in general, irrespective of their ideological orientations, is largely governed by such preachings of Gandhi. As per the principles of caste or Varnashrama dharma, the violent reaction of the upper castes against the Dalits’ assertion for self-respect and dignity, which are indeed their constitutionally guaranteed rights as citizens of India, is not only justified but also considered as their God-ordained duty.

Education is always viewed as a solution to most of our problems, including the caste based problems. But the invalidity of such a claim seems evident from the fact that even most of the educated Indians eulogise the caste system, adhere to caste rules and thus practise caste discriminations without any sense of guilt. Despite frequent large-scale organised crimes against Dalits, which are often performed as the legitimate right of the upper castes, the upper caste intellectuals continue to argue that caste has withered away and thus “class” should be the basis for considering special safeguards such as “reservation” for any community or individual. Even the Gohana crimes in Haryana, the Akola and Khairlanji crimes in Maharashtra and the Kodiangulam crime in Tamil Nadu do not seem to change the mindset of the popular academia. Except a negligible number of upper-caste leaders and intellectuals who overtly fight for the cause of the Dalits, most of them do not tolerate the Dalits’ economic advancement and assertion for self-respect and dignity. Instead, most of them continue to work towards ending the existing constitutional safeguards for the Dalits. What then is the solution to ensure the safety and security of the Dalits in India?

REALISING that the caste Hindus would never give up the status and power that they had been enjoying all along by virtue of being the upper castes, Ambedkar viewed the entire problem differently. Though Gandhi regarded Indian villages as ‘little republics’ and particularly favoured village panchayat as the best means to ensure justice to his ‘Harijans’ (children of God, now known as Dalits), Ambedkar considered the village panchayat as a viable mechanism for the upper castes not only to justify but also to perpetuate oppression and exploitation against the Dalits. Commenting on the power and attitude of the village panchayat presidents who mostly belonged to the upper caste, Ambedkar once observed that the Dalits—given their socio-economic and numerical vulnerability—would not be in a position to impress upon the village panchayat to protect them and ensure justice. As a solution, he categorically stated:

So long as the present (village) arrangement continues, it is impossible for the untouchables either to free themselves from the yoke of the Hindus or to get rid of their Untouchability.

He further suggested that “the untouchables, who are as matter of fact socially separate, should be settled into separate village exclusively of untouchables in which the distinction of the high and the low and of touchable and untouchable will find no place”. (Ambedkar, 1979: 425). The same suggestion became his demand as per the resolutions passed by the Working Committees of the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation held in Madras on September 23, 1944. (Gaikwad, 1942)

This important demand of Ambedkar did not gain momentum during his time. Perhaps for some political compulsion, he could not take it up with full vigour. Till date, even the Dalit intelligentsia have not paid due attention to this most pragmatic solution which would ensure permanent protection to the Dalit communities as a whole. If there are separate settlements for Dalits far away from the dominant castes, with their own means of livelihood particularly land, there will be no upper caste to discriminate and humiliate them. There will be no one to infuse a sense of inferiority complex in the Dalit children’s mind and kill their creativity and personality in their early childhood itself. If fraternity is what we want to achieve, Dalits should be allowed to live a life that is fit for realising their worth as human beings and as citizens of free India. They should feel that they live among civilised human beings. This, however, cannot be achieved in the present village arrangement and with the present caste based social relations.

It is, therefore, high time that the government came out with a policy to resettle the Dalits in separate settlements and protect their human rights and dignity as citizens of independent India. Separate settlement does not mean a separate Dalit State. It would only mean shifting of all Dalits, particularly those residing in villages predominantly inhabited by the upper castes, either to one or two districts or to a taluka in each district where there will be no upper castes to claim caste superiority over the Dalits. It is only in such an atmosphere would the Dalit children be able to grow up as citizens of India. The second most important thing that the government may consider is to provide cultivable land to families so shifted so as to ensure their economic independence. The third thing to be done is to provide decent means of livelihood to all those Dalits engaged in demeaning ‘jobs’ such as manual scavenging and mechanise the entire process of sewage and garbage management. After all, Ambedkar’s struggle was essentially for “reclamation of human personality, not merely for material wealth”. It was for parity, not for charity.

REFERENCES

Ambedkar, B. R. (1979: 425), Dr B.R. Babasaheb Ambedkar— Writings and Speeches (Vol 1), Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai.

Ambedkar, B.R. (2002), Dr B.R. Babasaheb Ambedkar—Writings and Speeches (Vol 1), Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai.

Gaikwad, Pradeep (1942), Report: Scheduled Caste Federation 1942, Deeksha Bhoomi Sandesh, Nagpur.

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1946), The Discovery of India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Ramaiah, A. (2007), Laws for Dait Rights and Dignity: Experiences and Responses from Tamil Nadu, Rawat, Jaipur.

WEB REFERENCES

1. http://www.zeenews.com/news651486.html (accessed on March 10, 2011)

2. http://thecandideye.wordpress.com/2010/01/17/dalits-are-forced-to-eat-human-excreta-by-christians/ (accessed on March 10, 2011).

3. http://www.hindu.com/2011/03/07/stories/2011030762870 900.htm (accessed on March 10, 2011).

The author, a Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, is the Chairperson, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at that Institute.

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