At a crossroads

Published : Dec 29, 2006 00:00 IST

The Dalit leadership faces a credibility crisis in the absence of a radical political vision.

VIOLENT protests against the massacre of four members of a Dalit family by a caste-Hindu gang at Khairlanji in Maharashtra and the desecration of a statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Kanpur have once again brought centre stage issues relating to a long-neglected section of socially, economically and politically deprived people across the country. The militant protests must be seen against the backdrop of the indifference of the Central and State governments to Dalit sentiments, the ineffectiveness of Dalit welfare programmes, the lack of concern in civil society, and the lack of focus in recent years of Dalit leaders, who are preoccupied with manipulative politics and electoral pressures.

The protests have been perceived as reflections of disillusionment with Dalit political leadership and a quest for more effective ways to fight caste oppression. Poverty, dwindling employment opportunities, denial of human dignity and persisting untouchability are some of the issues that Dalits today would want the political class to address.

Data collected by the government and its agencies highlight the scale of physical aggression and oppression faced by Dalit communities. The 2005 Annual Report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs states that a crime against Scheduled Caste (S.C.) communities is committed every 20 minutes in the country. It records that 26,127 cases of atrocities against S.C communities were reported last year. In 2004, the recorded number of crimes against Dalits was 26,887. The 2005 report states that there were 1,172 cases of rape of Dalit women, 669 cases of murder, 258 cases of kidnapping and abduction and 3,847 cases of causing hurt. There were 291 cases under the Protection of Civil Rights Act and 8,497 cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

More significantly, the NCRB report points out that the conviction rate was abysmal. While charge-sheets were filed in 94.1 per cent of the cases, the conviction rate was only 29.8 per cent. A total of 57,804 persons were arrested in 2005 in cases of atrocities against Dalits; 46,936 of them (82.4 per cent) were charge-sheeted, but trials were completed only in the cases relating to 12,691 persons.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in its report on "Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes" authored by retired civil servant K.P. Saxena and published a couple of years ago, analysed the status of Dalits. The report made 150 recommendations to ensure that laws meant to protect Dalits are implemented. While releasing the report, Commission Chairperson Justice A.S. Anand called for a rights-based approach, and not a welfare-based one, in enforcing laws governing Dalits' problems. He said that civil society's "refusal to change its mindset" was to blame for the continuing discrimination and atrocities suffered by Dalits.

The report indicted successive governments for their lukewarm response to atrocities against Dalits and criticised the continued hostility to Dalits amid orthodox and influential sections in the dominant community. What is unique about violence against Dalits is that the victims are "chosen on the basis of birth in a given society", the report said. It blamed the caste-based, hierarchical social structure, a creation of the dominant castes, for dividing society into privileged and subdued groups with Dalits at the bottom and outside the caste order. "The frequency and intensity of violence," the report said, "is an offshoot of desperate attempts by the upper-caste groups to protect their entrenched status against the process of disengagement and upward mobility among lower castes, resulting from affirmative action of State policy [enshrined in the Constitution of India]."

Atrocities against Dalits range from verbal abuse to rape and forcing them to consume human excreta and urine; from denial of access to public amenities such as drinking water, roads, bus stops, markets and temples to denial of civil rights; from physical harm to social boycotts. Police personnel often play a role in the violence against Dalits; custodial rape and violence are among the most frequent forms of assault on the community. All sorts of things invite attacks on Dalits: alleged "disobedience" of village elders, refusal to perform `duties' such as conveying information about deaths, or a Dalit boy falling in love with a caste-Hindu girl. Even the victory of a football team of Dalit boys in a school match, or a Dalit bus driver's refusal to oblige a caste Hindu by stopping the vehicle near his residence, have provoked atrocities against Dalit villages in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

When the Tamil Nadu government announced its decision to name a transport corporation after an 18th century Dalit warrior, Sundaralingam, caste-Hindu mobs went on the rampage and burnt down buses. When the buses were renamed as planned, caste-Hindu drivers refused to drive the vehicles and caste-Hindu passengers refused to board them. Finally, the government found a solution by dropping the practice of naming transport corporations after leaders. At least 10 regional bus corporations lost their names.

Successive governments have brought in legislation and programmes to protect the rights of Dalit communities. The safeguards enshrined in the Constitution stipulate that governments should take special care to advance the educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, that untouchability is unacceptable and that all Dalit communities should have unrestricted entry in Hindu temples and other religious institutions. There are political safeguards in the form of reserved seats in State legislatures and in Parliament. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, are designed to advance these safeguards. But prejudices die hard.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is considered to be one of the most powerful pieces of legislation of its kind. But its implementation is unsatisfactory. The police, whose ranks are filled with members of the upper castes, are often reluctant to file cases under the Act, which provides for heavy punishment not only for the offenders but also officials who fail to take action. Often, the police take advantage of the victims' ignorance and file cases under the milder Indian Penal Code. Only 8,497 cases of the 26,127 cases registered in 2005 came under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which clearly shows the trend. Instances of the police refusing to register cases or even to accept complaints are widespread.

The 1990s, during which the nation celebrated the birth centenary of Ambedkar, saw a Dalit upsurge in several States, including Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar. In many places, this took the form of powerful retaliation against the dominant castes, drawing in turn a backlash of violence against Dalits.

In his Foreword to the NHRC report, Justice Anand makes a special mention of the NHRC's action in bringing the issue of discrimination and "historical injustices" against Dalits to international attention: "At the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban in 2001, the National Human Rights Commission opined that it was not the `nomenclature' of the forms of discrimination that must engage our attention, but the fact of its persistence. The Commission observed that the Constitution of India, in Article 15, expressly prohibits discrimination on grounds both of `race' and `caste' and that constitutional guarantees had to be vigorously implemented."

It is not physical violence alone that the legal safeguards fail to end. Legislative measures such as the one seeking to end manual scavenging have for years existed only on paper. Reservation in education and government jobs has not brought about the expected degree of uplift, even after decades of implementation. Even the small gains effected through legislative measures are now under threat in the face of the government's policy of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Ironically, the 1990s, which witnessed the Dalit upsurge, was the period during which the Indian ruling dispensation made its turn to the Right.

The growth of the Hindu Right during the 1990s also had the potential to frustrate the social, economic and political advancement of Dalits. A principal task of the state machinery under the Sangh Parivar was the propagation of the very Hindu religious scriptures that gave ideological legitimacy to caste-based social stratification. The change in the power equation cast its shadow on Dalit political movements and to a large extent sapped their energy to fight back. Electoral compulsions forced the Dalit political leadership into alliances with the two principal contenders for power, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), causing a loss of focus on the core issue of empowering Dalits socially, economically and politically.

The divided Dalit movement appears to be at a crossroads, with many of its leaders across the country losing their credibility. The "leaderless" violence in Maharashtra, many observers said, was a reflection of this reality. Fakir Bhai Vaghela, vice-chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, pointed out that while violence in any form could not be condoned, it should make Dalit leaders study the sentiments that caused it. "The sense I get is that [the] Dalit masses are getting increasingly upset at politicking between the leaders of the community and they want these leaders to come on a common platform that would advance Dalit interests in a united manner," he told Frontline. A number of small Dalit formations work in distant villages to get grievances redressed at various levels and to bring about a qualitative shift in the Dalit perspective about liberation. It is these groups that keep the flame alive.

Land reforms are one of the areas that can unite these forces for a more meaningful struggle. Almost all studies and reports on Dalit issues have highlighted the need to bring the land issue to the fore, because Dalits account for the largest number of landless people in most parts of the country. Studies have shown that Dalits' access to cultivable land, whether through ownership or otherwise, has come down substantially between 1961 and 1991. The NHRC report said: "The increase in the percentage of S.C agricultural labourers shows that many S.Cs who owned land earlier (and some may have cultivated land as tenants) have lost them - a single most depressing indicator of their worsening economic situation which directly mirrors their vulnerability."

The number of anti-poor measures in respect of agriculture since 1991 must have increased the number of landless agricultural workers. Indeed, Dalits have been vulnerable to forms of deprivation such as illiteracy, ill-health, bonded labour, child labour and extreme poverty. The NHRC report said: "Despite distribution of the ceiling surplus and other land, the percentage of landless households among S.Cs has increased from 12.62 per cent in 1982 to 13.34 per cent in 1992." Studies made in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka clearly bring out the incidence of discrimination in occupation, employment, wages, land and other economic spheres. Evidence from Orissa also corroborates discrimination in the matters of land and labour market. The NHRC report said: "The poor implementation of land reforms, particularly in States where Scheduled Castes constitute a large percentage of the population, has deprived them of access to this asset to improve their economic position and reduce their vulnerability."

However, the State has shown in the past that wherever serious land struggles were launched, Dalit awareness had grown remarkably. The Dalit and Left movements have before them the task of redeeming one of their election pledges by launching a struggle to retrieve the Panchama land allotted to them about 120 years ago, but alienated from them later by caste-Hindu land grabbers.

Mainstream Dalit parties have clearly not taken this message seriously in the past two decades. Would the recent protests and the motivations behind them, which signify a kind of pressure from below, inspire them to chart out a new course? While there are no tangible indications of this happening at the moment, there is little doubt that a positive answer will have a far-reaching impact on society and the polity.

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