October 22, 2002


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Setback to secularism

Praful Bidwai

Reality of Dalit oppression

Chakwara, Rajasthan:

For many Indians, especially urban people, the thorny, bristling reality of persistent oppression of the Dalits is often softened and dulled by the -- fairly rare, but true -- success stories of individuals who belong to the former untouchable castes.

After all, Ms Mayawati rules India's largest state. Until one-and-a-half years ago, the BJP had a Dalit (Mr Bangaru Laxman) as its party president. More Dalits are visible today in the middle layers of the bureaucracy than ever before. A significant proportion of them now use the educational opportunities opened up by reservations. Untouchability of the overt, "in-your-face," kind has declined at least in the cities. The Dalit problem, the gradualist optimistic view holds, may be on the way to resolution…

This view requires a reality check. Nothing furnishes such a check better than a visit to Chakwara, a dusty, dry, non-descript village, barely 50 kilometres from Jaipur. Drive there, and you plunge straight into the Middle Ages. This is a society based on terrible inequalities, social servitude and economic bondage. At the centre of this serfdom, and legitimising it, is systemic, systematic discrimination against Dalits, sanctified by religion. For a year, Chakwara has been in intense turmoil over the issue of access to a common resource: the village pond, bathing in which is a Hindu religious ritual.

The pond and the steps leading to it (ghats) have been built and maintained over the years with state funds and contributions from the entire village, including the Dalits. But the Dalits have always been barred from the common ghats. "Tradition" demands that they be treated lower than the buffaloes, cows and pigs which have virtually unrestrained access to the pond. (The only exception is women who too, irrespective of caste, have always been barred.)

On December 14 last year, two Bairwa Dalits, Babulal and Radheshyam, decided to defy the hallowed casteist "tradition" and "custom" and take a dip in the pond. Outraged, the caste Hindus subjected the Bairwa community to vile abuse, threats of a "bloodbath", a nightly siege of their homes, and a crippling social boycott. No caste Hindu landowner would employ them; they could not buy vegetables or even a cup of tea in the village; the local doctor would refuse to treat them; they would be heckled at the village hand-pump; the local mechanic wouldn't repair their bicycles. Their men were stalked, their women abused.

The local administration and police should have acted with alacrity to protect and support the Dalits. Instead, they generally sided with the upper castes. Legally, untouchability and discrimination against the Dalits are prohibited under the Constitution (Article 17), Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and above all, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA). The POA was drafted explicitly to provide exemplary punishment to those who perpetuate abuse and violence upon Dalits. Abuse is here defined fairly comprehensively, i.e. beyond name-calling and barring Dalits' entry into places of worship or ritual sites; it includes subtler forms of discrimination too.

The Jaipur district officials and the police failed even to register a case against the caste Hindus under these laws, or act on a First Information Report filed by Babulal on December 22. Instead, in January, they bullied some Dalits into signing a "compromise" agreement, which effectively erased their right to the pond. The agreement produced discontent and resentment -- which has since simmered. Last month, the discontent culminated in another effort by the Bairwas to assert their rights through a rally on September 20-21 from Chaksu, another village, through the tehsil town Phagi, to Chakwara in collaboration with human rights organisations, including Centre for Dalit Human Rights, Jaipur, and People's Union of Civil Liberties. The aim was to take a collective dip in the pond.

The savarnas (caste Hindus) led by the Jats decided to confront the Dalits "physically" and "teach them a lesson". On September 21, they gathered a mob of about 15,000 men, armed with sticks and gophans (slings which can deliver heavy stones over long distances). By 10:30 am, the mob was raring to go, defying the police. The Dalits, sensing big trouble, and not assured of police neutrality, terminated their rally in advance of Phagi. The savarnas attacked the police with a fury driven by raw caste hatred and lust for power. The police had to use teargas and open fire. More than 50 people were injured, including 44 policemen, some badly.

Today, the anti-Dalit confrontation has, ironically, pitted the state machinery temporarily against savarnas. The district administration, under a new collector, is pursuing complaints against caste Hindus. This has encouraged the Bairwas to bathe in the pond regularly. But the savarnas have kept away from it since September 24 -- another boycott!

Chakwara today seethes with tension, fear and anger. Unless an initiative for reconciliation is launched, and reliable protection provided to the Dalits, the village could witness a bloody carnage. Rajasthan has recently seen numerous anti-Dalit atrocities, the worst of which was the massacre of 17 Jatavs in 1992 at Kumher. Justice Saghir Ahmed, chairman of the State Human Rights Commission, told me that "the caste situation in Rajasthan is extremely bad, indeed volatile; the Dalits are terribly insecure."

Rajasthan has a dismal record of offences against the Dalits, with an annual average of 5,024 crimes in the last three years alone. These include 46 killings, 134 rapes, and 93 cases of grievous injury every year.

There is extensive discrimination against, and abuse of, Dalits in all parts of Rajasthan. These abuses include name-calling, prohibiting Dalit women from using footwear in the main village, denial of such services as even the barber's, segregation of schoolchildren, forcing Dalits to sit at the back of the classroom, prohibition of rituals such as riding a horse during weddings, and gross inequality in access to water and other common resources like pastures and wastelands. There is systematic discrimination in state-run employment-generation and drought-relief programmes as well.

Rajasthan in this regard is only a microcosm of India. The vicious oppression of 160 million Dalits is one of the most nauseating, but enduring, realities of India's countryside. As is violence against them, especially Dalit women. To be a Dalit today means having to live in a sub-human, degraded, profoundly insecure way. Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted in India. Every day, three Dalit women are raped; two Dalits are killed. This violence has a definite function: to perpetuate the hierarchical Hindu social order, freeze inequalities, including inequality of opportunity, defend social bondage and servitude, and preserve conditions for the ruthless exploitation of the underprivileged.

A series of corrective measures are needed -- urgently. The most important of these is the application of the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the 1995 Rules under it. The best course would be to declare Chakwara and surrounding villages as "atrocity-prone", and appoint a monitoring committee, which can survey abuses, alert the administration, and prevent violence. The rules also provide for the limited arming of Dalits. Equally important is Section 4 of the POA, which punishes public servants involved in anti-Dalit atrocities. Rajasthan has never applied Section 4.

However, in the long run, administrative methods must be combined with "social solutions," -- purposive attempts to transform people's perceptions of caste and "tradition" through a reform of oppressive customs, based on modern ethics and ideas of justice. India has had a great social reform movement. This movement was an integral part of the freedom struggle. Indeed, it preceded it and infused content into its political goals.

The reform movement made substantial gains in the last century, which were incorporated into the Constitution. However, the reform momentum ran out by the 1950s. Since then, social conservatism has flourished. Over the past 10 to 15 years, this has found its highest expression in Hindutva, itself steeped in rank casteism.

The social reform movement must be revived and re-energised. Without it, Indian society will not be able to combat numerous evils, like vicious male-supremacism, sati and bride-burning, or superstition, irrationalism, widespread ignorance, illiteracy, snake-oil remedies and blind faith in the occult. Related to this ignorance are semi-literate but obscurantist notions such as, "the Vedas contained all the modern sciences", and Indian ("Aryan") civilisation is "eternal" -- the greatest in human history, indeed the only great one.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves two questions: What is the meaning of development and progress, if the most wretchedly oppressed people remain in a state of permanent subjugation? What does that say about the quality of our democracy? Should it be acceptable to us that millions of Indians should have no personal freedom, no human agency, no way of realising their elementary potential? Secondly, can we tolerate gross injustice against the most underprivileged of our people without generally legitimising large-scale injustice, and accepting lawlessness as a "normal" way of life? Where does that leave our idea of building a modern, open, equal and just society?

Postscript: The horrific October 15 lynching of Dalits in Jhajjar, Haryana, in the presence of the police underscores social reform's urgency and the VHP-Shiv Sena's vile Hindutva casteism.

Praful Bidwai

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