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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 40 New Delhi September 22, 2018

Do Not Say ’Dalit’, For It Is Too Real

Tuesday 25 September 2018, by Badri Raina


It is no less than a pyrrhic historical atrocity to want to eliminate the reality of a whole section of living people by refusing them the right to call themselves what they wish.

It is understandable that if and when asked, any court in the land would say official records should use the nomenclature Scheduled Castes’ since this is the term that the Constitution recognises and validates.

But to suggest that the word Dalit’ had best not be used in public discourse as well is just a brazen stretch.

The reason for this suggestion is not far to seek: Dalit’ is a loaded political term that bespeaks a whole history of oppression and, even more dangerously, of the proud and sentient resistance to that oppression. Much as a rose remains a rose by any name, historical realities are often successfully erased by erasing the names by which we have learnt and known them. At least for periods of time.

This is clearly our own time of Podsnappery. This term is owed to that nouveau riche man in Dickens’s novel, Little Dorrit (of which Bernard Shaw had said, If you would know about finance capital, read not Das Kapital but Little Dorrit) who wards off all unpleasant news by dashing a forearm against the messenger and turning his head in the other direction.

The latest piece of advice from official quarters seems to come as an etymological assault on being: by eradicatingor rather seeking to eradicatethe word Dalit, the powers-that-be hope to evacuate the thick reality of caste oppression of its substance and contentindeed to disembowel, as it were, a creature that struts too much of late. Little surprise that the ruling party’s Dalit scions have not taken kindly to this terminal attack on their own identity, one that has been constructed through gruesome phases of social, intellectual and political struggle. Imagine that another diktat were to come tomorrow requiring that Muslims and Christians no longer be called Muslims and Christians but just minorities. Wouldn’t that leave the field glowingly open only to upper-caste Hindus being called by their proper name, as clearly enunciated owners of the realm?

But is there perhaps a more crass reason that informs this unbelievable offence to freedom and dignity of some fifteen per cent of Indian citizens? We think so: the Brahminical order that now lords over the republic is very apprehensive that such terms as Dalit Muslims’ and Dalit Christians’ may continue to find greater traction in social discourse and, god forbid, at some point acquire acceptance of a legal kind. The safe thing about saying Scheduled Castes’ is that such reference is ab initio eliminated.

It is one thing, one terribly churlish thing, to want to alter the names of roads and buildings to install alternate deities. But it is no less than a pyrrhic historical atrocity to want to eliminate the reality of a whole section of living people by refusing them the right to call themselves what they wish. The attempt would be just hilarious were it not so dangerous.

The days to come may show us that the limit has been reached, and this latest gimmickry may prove the thin end of the wedge. India may now be poised on the cusp of a concerted pushback.


The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of ThingsIndia and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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