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'The Dalit movement is much more intense and dangerous now'
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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December 06, 2006


This Marathi term when spoken with a tinge of contempt is an abusive way of calling a so-called low-caste person.

"For years, the Dalits (downtrodden) were addressed with disrespect but now, if you call any scheduled class person 'oyire' he shouts back with equal scorn 'kai re?' " says Prakash Vishwasrao, Mumbai-based progressive publisher-owner of the New Age press.

The recent violence in Maharashtra against the desecration of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's statue at Kanpur and the Khairlanji killings in Bhandara district in which a Dalit woman and her daughter were raped and killed and her two grown-up sons were also killed has hardened the mood among the 17 crore Dalits in India.

The November 30 riots that spread in about a dozen places in Maharashtra resulted in four deaths and left more than 100 people injured. Three trains were burnt in Mumbai causing damage estimated at Rs 7 crore.

The burning of the Deccan Queen which shuttles between Pune and Mumbai has shaken many so-called upper caste Hindus.

The Deccan Queen, a favourite of hundreds of daily commuters to Mumbai, was stopped by Dalit protestors on the outskirts of Mumbai. Commuters were asked to get off the train and an angry mob set the train on fire.

Arjun Dangle, distinguished Dalit poet and one of the founder�members of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra, told, "For many decades the Deccan Queen was the symbol of Pune, seat of the Peshwa Brahminical rule. There is a meaning behind the burning of train."

Dangle, who has chronicled underprivileged classes' literary movement in Maharashtra, claims the current Dalit movement is not the movement of illiterates.

Vishwasrao says, "The young generation is hungry of information. At the Nagpur book fair more than 100 titles on Dalit literature get released in a week. Dalit literature sales is above Rs 20 crore annually."

The biographies of Dalit leaders who have earned successes in mainstream India are in demand. Revolutionary poet Namdeo Dhasal and his contemporaries have also helped Dalits emerge out of darkness, says Vishwasrao.

"Dalit children are now saying 'I am not a small person'. Dhasal's father was doing one of the dirtiest jobs by assisting a Muslim butcher while living in a red light district of Mumbai. But the new generation of Dalit children are able to say, 'I don't want to do this dirty job, let a Brahmin do it'. They have got education and information. They are now alert and aware."

Satish Kalsekar, publisher and activist, says, "The Dalit movement is much more intense and dangerous now than ever because Dalits are aware of the injustice due to a casteist society. They are educated and will not keep silent. It is the responsibility of other castes to see that they are treated well."

Now, the scheduled castes are getting information with as much speed as any other classes. In Mumbai there are four Dalit dailies that include the Vishwa Samrat and Lok Nayak. There are large number of bloggers and websites helping in the percolation of information.

Dangle says, "Dalits are not only well-aware of their rights now but they want a share in resources. They know power, wealth and status has been the privilege of upper caste but now they are all set to struggle to have a share of power, wealth and status in society."

The intensity of violence and fury has not surprised Dalit leaders or experts.

The establishment's attempt to cover up the Khairlanji incident and the media's lapse in not reporting it for the first three weeks have hurt the mass psyche of community deeply.

Once again this shows the deep-seated bias in Indian society and that irks the Dalit community.

According to official statistics between 2003 and 2005, 69,216 cases of rapes, arson, atrocities and other such crimes against Dalits have been recorded in India but it rarely becomes headline news.

Dangle says, "Most people and the police are biased against Dalits. Our movement should be your movement. The Dalit issue should not be confined to Dalits only. When we take out a morcha, the police hit out with more force but when the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hit the streets they are softer towards them. Why? The police forget that Dalits are on the streets to evoke humanity within you but political parties are evoking your baser instincts. When are we going to get social justice?"

The activists say that there was an attempt to "hush up" the rape and murders in Khairlanji. It is now beyond doubt that police, doctors and the administration tried to cover up the event. Even the district Superintendent of Police Suresha Sagar said: "This incident is the height of brutality."

Bhalchandra Mungekar, member of the Planning Commission and a Dalit, after visiting Khairlanji told the media, "How could so gruesome a crime happen in the land of Phule and Ambedkar? It is sad that the entire state machinery in Maharashtra, as well as the Dalit leadership there, have gone into a complacent, neutral limbo."

Only when Buddhists started protesting on the streets and the blogosphere brought the news out did the world came to know about killings in Khairlanji.

On the net and in Dalit newspapers graphic details of the abuse of the Dalit family before they were killed have been published. The Buddhist community is slowly and steadily organising the Dalit movement which is in search of a leader who can be trusted.

This time activists prepared a report of the Khairlanji event, e-mailed it widely, sent it to the media, got it published in local newspapers and even set up a website and campaigned in Mumbai and even in the US.

On November 24, the Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace protested against the killings of Dalits in India before the United Nations at New York. They presented a memorandum to Ambassador Nirupam Sen at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations highlighting the suffering of Dalits/Untouchables.

Another important factor behind current mass fury is that the image of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the founder members of Constitution, is getting stronger than ever. In the changing times of globalisation, Dangle says, Ambedkar is 'a like-minded friend' for Dalit youth.

He says, invariably, in villages the Dalit is a landless labourer. In the cities, he is without any capital to start his own petty business. His only option is to get a decent job. "For educated youth job opportunities have shrunk after India got liberalised. He doesn't have any option but to participate in agitations on the streets. There is social and political unrest and Dalits want to become a political force in Indian politics."

That seems difficult because of the absence of a unifying force and a leader. In Maharashtra Ambedkar initiated his politics through the Republican Party of India in the early 1950s. But after Ambedkar's death no leader has filled up the gap. The RPI today is fragmented party with as many as five groups led by personal ambitions and egos of leaders like Joginder Kawade, R S Gavai, Ramdas Athavale and Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Ambedkar.

Achyut Yagnik, social activist based in Ahmedabad, says, "India is on move, but in process of globalisation tribals and Dalits have remained on the margins."

He says that the Dalits of India who were in small and petty sectors of commerce and industry are losing out their vocation and skills.

"They are angry because college degrees don't guarantee jobs. On other hand, they are struggling for an identity. Ambedkar has given them assertive edge. Asserting their identity and the frustrating search for economic opportunity keeps them volatile. The current violence is an expression of the minds of Dalits in today's India," Yagnik adds.

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