Victims, still

Print edition : December 29, 2006

Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Dalit activism has enabled the community to make some progress, but it is still subjected to oppression across the country.

Northern paradox Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in New Delhi

BIHAR and Uttar Pradesh, the two large north Indian States, present a striking paradox in terms of the social, economic and political status of Dalits. Empowerment of Dalits and other socially oppressed communities has been a central slogan in the political practice of the two States since Independence and the processes related to it acquired increasing intensity and momentum over the last three decades.

Both States have politically significant and organisationally resourceful Dalit-oriented parties with leaders who have occupied important positions of power. Mayawati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the largest Dalit organisation in Uttar Pradesh, which won 91 of the 403 Assembly seats in the 2002 elections with a vote share of 23.06 per cent, has had two terms - albeit short - as Chief Minister. Ram Vilas Paswan, president of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the leading mainstream political outfit of Dalits in Bihar which won 10 of the 243 Assembly seats in the 2005 elections with a vote share of 11.10 per cent, has occupied various positions in the Union Cabinet for nearly two decades.

Yet large segments of the substantial Dalit population in both States suffer from acute social and economic backwardness. A large number of Dalit communities in these States continue to bear the brunt of sustained physical atrocities too.

Consider this. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2005 Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of crimes against Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in the country with 4,397 cases. That is, 16.8 per cent of all crimes committed against S.Cs in the country. Bihar was not far behind with 1,824 cases and ranked fifth in the list of States with high incidence of crime against Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Dalits constitute 21.1 per cent and 15.7 per cent of the population respectively.

As per the estimates of various government agencies, including the National Scheduled Castes Commission (NSSC), the incidence of poverty among S.Cs in Bihar is as high as 64 per cent, while it is 45 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. Only 28.5 per cent of the S.C. population in Bihar is literate compared with the State average of 47 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh, the corresponding figures are 46.2 per cent and 56.3 per cent respectively.

A study done by the Delhi-based Indian Social Institute in the late 1990s in five districts of Bihar (Bhojpur, Jehanabad, Madhubani, Palamau and West Champaran) showed that Dalits had not been able to benefit from the highly erroneous land reforms undertaken in the State over the past six decades. The study projected that only 12.4 per cent of the Dalit communities would have benefited from land reforms. It also pointed out that among the households it surveyed, only 50 per cent of those allotted land could occupy it, obviously on account of social and physical oppression.

Dalits in the two States have similarly low indices in other areas too. Only 34.5 per cent of the Dalit population in Bihar completes primary school, while the corresponding figure is 57.4 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar, 82.9 per cent of members of other Hindu communities complete primary school education, while the figure is 86.5 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. Only 16.4 per cent of the S.C. population in Uttar Pradesh completes matriculation, while in Bihar the percentage is only 11.1.

A comparison between the two States in terms of social indices indicates that Dalits in Uttar Pradesh are in a better situation than those in Bihar. This "improvement" is also reflected in the conviction rate in cases relating to atrocities against Dalits. The NCRB tabulation of the conviction rate in 2005 states that in cases of this genre the rate was 49.4 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and only 30.3 per cent in Bihar. The national average is 29.8 per cent. In fact, the conviction rate in Uttar Pradesh is the highest in India.

This "improvement" in the conviction rate in Uttar Pradesh has been rationalised by many north Indian Dalit observers as a reflection of the superior public-political presence and organisational network of the BSP when compared with the LJP. The BSP has developed over the past decade into one of the big parties of Uttar Pradesh. In terms of seat share as well as vote percentage, it was second only to Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in the last Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

Nil Rattan, Professor of Political Science at the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, told Frontline that demographic conditions as well as the methods employed in building up the organisational machinery had imparted an element of militancy to the BSP. "And hence," he added, "the interventions of the BSP are much more effective in forums of administration and law enforcement." He is also of the view that these interventions have created a relatively better social environment for Dalits in Uttar Pradesh.

Over the past two decades, this correspondent had occasion to witness the development of this "relatively better social environment". Until the mid-1980s, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh suffered extreme forms of social discrimination. In hundreds of villages and towns in the State, Dalits were not even allowed to walk through the main streets or use public utilities, including transport services. Many Dalit communities were even treated like slaves by upper castes. So much so, women of many Dalit communities were, as a rule, sexually oppressed by upper caste men.

But all this changed to a large extent on account of the sustained political interventions of the BSP at the grassroots and in the arena of realpolitik since its emergence in the mid-1980s. The present situation, where at least some Dalit communities such as the Jatavs are able to stand up to social oppression, is essentially the result of the BSP's initiatives.

Lok Janshakti Party Chief Ram Vilas Paswan.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

According to a senior law enforcement officer in the State, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, even the registration of a higher number of cases relating to atrocities against Dalits reflects a higher level of social awareness among Dalit communities. "Two decades ago," he said, "several Dalit communities would not have even dared to file complaints against the oppressing upper-caste communities." He added that a large number of these cases related to grabbing of land owned by Dalits by members of other communities, including upper castes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The tussles between S.Cs and OBCs over land ownership are more widespread and conspicuous now, he said.

The flipside is that this social awareness and militancy are not shared uniformly among all Dalit communities. The BSP draws its organisational strength mainly from the Jatav community, to which Mayawati belongs, and there can be no doubt that Jatavs are more equal within the Dalit firmament than communities like the Pasis, the Valmikis, the Malhas and the Musahars, a community termed as the `Dalitest of Dalits'. Obviously, the interventions of BSP cadre at the grassroots level and the initiatives of the BSP leadership at the political level have a greater focus on issues and concerns of its principal political-organisational base.

A similar phenomenon has been witnessed in Bihar too. The benefits of Dalit empowerment politics have, by and large, gone to the Dussadh community, to which Ram Vilas Paswan belongs. Other Dalit communities such as the Musahars, the Jolahas, the Bhatiyaras and the Dhobis have had a smaller share of the advantages of the politics of empowerment. In fact, the political organisation that has predominantly taken up the cause of the Musahars across the length and breadth of Bihar is the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The outlawed CPI (Maoist) has also consistently worked among the Musahars and other lowly placed Dalits, championing their rights at the social level.

AT AN ALL-PARTY meeting in Mumbai on December 2, Republican Party of India leaders Ramdas Athavale (second right) and Prof. Jogendra Kavade with Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil.-

The CPI(ML) took up the causes and concerns of this extremely deprived community when it was pursuing a policy of armed struggle and after its conversion to electoral politics. Some of the initiatives it took during the armed struggle phase led to massive conflicts with upper castes and resulted, in most cases, in the assertion of the social and human rights of Dalits. However, after joining the parliamentary process, the CPI(ML) has never been a part of the State government. There is a view among sections of the LJP leadership that this is a major factor in the Musahars remaining as the `Dalitest of Dalits'.

While this contention may be partly true, it does not hold good as a general justification for the huge imbalances in the "development indices" of Dalit communities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A number of observers, including the academics Fernando Franco and Archana Sinha, have pointed out that the "BSP's role in creating a Dalit identity in Uttar Pradesh is one of the most obvious examples" of what the scholar Paul Brass calls "identity construction by a political elite". This is, in many ways, true of the LJP's political practice in Bihar too. Both parties lack a clear ideological orientation and are not guided by well-delineated political ideas or democratic organisational values.

So much so that at BSP meetings Mayawati occupies a chair on a high pedestal while all her associates and supporters sit either at a level lower than that or even on the ground, in an outrageous repetition of the discrimination faced by lakhs of Dalits across the country. In her speeches, the BSP leader often recounts how those who wrote history wiped out all traces of Dalit rajas and maharajahs. The sub-text obviously makes a call to acquire the position of maharajahs. Premises such as these militate against the very principles of egalitarianism.

Kanshi Ram, Mayawati's mentor and the original ideologue of the BSP, did build up the party exhorting Dalits to demolish social and caste hierarchies, but the political practice of the party has been conspicuously bereft of concrete action plans to advance this agenda, such as sustained struggles for land reform. The focus of the BSP, and to a large extent the LJP, has been on realpolitik initiatives that would somehow help capture a share in power. The narrow focus is clearly a fundamental deficiency. As long as this political-ideological shortcoming continues to dominate mainstream parties such as the BSP and the LJP, comprehensive Dalit empowerment will elude the Hindi heartland.

Leadership crisis Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai

Oh God, we have been the victims of atrocities/You have watched impotently while these were committed/Now, we, the godmakers, serve you with a notice/We tell you that your services are no longer required.

THE poem from the early 1970s was written at the high point of Dalit political activism, when the militant Dalit Panthers brought in a new dimension to the fight against social and official apathy. That era is long past. The zenith of Dalit politics, literature and intellectual debate has faded. What remains is political opportunism in the guise of leadership, a floundering culture and a growing number of misdirected youth who react spontaneously and often violently, as was seen in the spate of riots in Maharashtra after the murder of the Dalit Bhotmange family in Khairlanji.

One of the reasons why Dalits - especially the Mahars who converted to Buddhism and are known as Ambedkarites - face hostility is that the counter-culture they propose is completely against the social and political status quo. Whether it is a Dalit teacher in a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-dominated college in Nagpur, a Dalit bureaucrat who has suffered the hidden barbs of his colleagues, a Dalit police officer in Bhandara who has dropped his surname in an effort to `de-caste' himself, or a Dalit journalist who was told the profession was not for him, all Dalits know they have to live with the challenge of a fight.

This is not so much of an issue with them as is the poor support from their leaders. Politics has been integral to Dalit progress and in Maharashtra the Republican Party of India (RPI) shouldered this role. The initial cohesiveness of the party soon gave way and a failing vision resulted in a fractured RPI and a directionless Dalit population. As Pramod Anand, a former vice-president of one of the factions, said, "factionalism occurs for no greater reason than the personal ambitions of party leaders". While RPI leaders insist that there are no ideological differences, the fact remains that the party has failed in its basic agenda of achieving equal opportunities for Dalits. After its formation in 1957, the party split within the first year. Since then it has been through innumerable reunifications and separations.

The most notable reunification was on December 6, 1989, when all factions were dissolved and leaders pledged themselves anew to the cause. The resolve lasted 45 days, after which the party was fractured into an unbelievable nine factions. As one critic remarked, "they could not even stick to the promise made on Babasaheb's death anniversary".

The RPI has a potential vote bank of over 30 lakh voters in Maharashtra. Yet the representation of its various factions in government is dismal. The Upper and the Lower Houses in the State legislature have two representatives each from Dalit parties. Of the State's 48 Lok Sabha seats, only one is held by a Dalit. Unlike the other parties in the State (including the young Nationalist Congress Party) the RPI has been unable to consolidate its position at the grassroots. This is ironical because, as elsewhere in the country, the majority of Maharashtra's Dalits still live in rural areas. The irony deepens when it is realised that the social work being carried out by non-political Dalit organisations continues to be strong at the grassroots.

The lack of solidarity among leaders has left the RPI open to manipulation by political parties. Previously, RPI (Athavale) Member of Parliament Ramdas Athavale, former MPs Prakash Ambedkar and Jogendra Kavade and former MP and current Bihar Governor R.S. Gavai were the most prominent Dalit leaders in the State. Now, none of them can be said to represent the larger Dalit population. Veteran Dalit leader B.C. Kamble had said that the RPI was unable to put up a united front because "right from its inception it has been a target of assault by other political parties". He said the key to a future for the RPI lay in "the leaders understanding their own party and its principles. Only then can they look to allying themselves with others". Unfortunately, it continues to operate from under the wings of other parties.

The 2004 Lok Sabha and subsequent Assembly elections in Maharashtra make an interesting case study of Dalit politics in the State. The election results show that by and large Maharashtra's Dalits are still loyal to the splintered RPI, but the floundering leaders are so caught up in personal ambitions that they are unable to draw on this loyalty. In 2004, realising deep erosion in the RPI's support base, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided to enter Dalit politics in Maharashtra. Though it was not the first time the BSP was contesting elections in Maharashtra, it was certainly the first time it was doing so on such a grand scale. The party put up candidates in 272 out of 289 Assembly constituencies - even more than those put up by other political parties. The RPI fielded only 44 candidates.

In the final outcome, the BSP did well in terms of percentage of votes polled. It polled 3.05 per cent of the total votes in the Lok Sabha elections in the State and 4 per cent of total votes cast in the Assembly elections. The splinter groups of the RPI got 0.46 per cent and 0.67 per cent respectively. While the higher percentage was no reflection of the BSP's influence in the State, the low ratings of the RPI indicated that the party was in dire straits though Dalits still clung to it as their only political hope.

The ruling class in Maharashtra has traditionally been Brahmins and later the Marathas. Historically, there is no love lost between the two groups but political expediencies have narrowed the gap. Dalits, however, remain on the political periphery. They are used as easy vote banks by the RPI and other political parties, but the political gains made rarely benefit the larger population of Dalits.

While the Congress and, more recently, the NCP have mastered the art of using RPI leaders, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have not lagged behind. The Sena, known for its strong anti-Dalit stance, even tried to tap into the Dalit vote bank by calling for Shiv Shakti and Bhim Shakti - a powerful combined force of Sena and Dalit power. While that plan fell flat, the Sena did manage to lure former Dalit Panthers leader Namdeo Dhasal into the party.

Leaders of the RPI have a miserable political record. Apart from the election of four united RPI candidates to the Lok Sabha in 1998 and the appointment of the State's first Dalit Chief Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, there have been no political highs. Attempts by the government to woo Dalits directly have so far been clumsy. After the murder of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji, the NCP's R.R. Patil, in his role as Home Minister, suggested arming the Dalit population in villages where they are in a minority. While the suggestion itself was not taken seriously, it exposed the government's headless chicken approach of tackling lawlessness by creating lawlessness.

The long-term impact of the Khairlanji murders is chilling; they are an eye-opener to the way caste tensions are on the upswing below the liberal, progressive flow that denotes life in Maharashtra. Less than three months after the Khairlanji incident, a Dalit woman was attacked by three Maratha men and her house was set on fire in Brahmangaon, a Maratha-dominated village in Nashik district. The dispute arose over the villagers seeking the Dalit family's land to construct a toilet on it. The police registered a case against the three under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Statistics indicate that Maharashtra has a lower rate of atrocities against Dalits than other States. According to the 2005 Annual Report of the National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Madhya Pradesh reported the highest figure at 6.6 per cent, followed by Rajasthan at 6.2 per cent and Andhra Pradesh with 3.9 per cent against the national average of 2.4 per cent. But activists believe that though reportage of crimes is high in Maharashtra (since the average Dalit is politically aware of his rights), the administration is slow to register cases under the Atrocities Act. This was true in the Khairlanji case. It is now an accepted fact that if an earlier incident of assault against a Dalit in Khairlanji had been registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, the September 29 murders may not have taken place. Even the Khairlanji crime was registered under the Act only after a public uproar.

National statistics also show low conviction rates. The same report said that the average rate of charge-sheeting for crimes against Dalits was 94.1per cent but the average conviction rate was only 29.8 per cent. Such poor support from the administration is disheartening for Dalits. Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, the sole survivor of the attacked family in Khairlanji, refuses to go back to the village because he fears for his life.

Describing the lackadaisical attitude of RPI leaders as a "crime", a Dalit activist from Nagpur said they were killing a "robust socio-cultural movement and demeaning the identity people had struggled for". Political and social consciousness among Dalits is high. A strong community bond exists for obvious reasons, but the leadership has never tried to maximise this. Dalits form 12 to 15 per cent of the population in Maharashtra, compared with about 24 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, this small population has made a deep impact on the Dalit movement, partly because of its conversion to Buddhism. One person described the act as marking "psychological and intellectual freedom". Buddhist values, combined with a determination to pursue education, have sustained the community. Its early political leaders kept alive these values. Sadly, this is no longer the case.

Slow change S. Viswanathan in Chennai

THE Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu has a long and chequered history. Iyothee Thass, Erattaimalai Srinivasan, M.C. Rajah, N. Sivaraj and L. Elayaperumal were some of the stalwarts associated with the movement at various stages. The founder of the Self-respect Movement and the Dravidar Kazhagam, `Periyar' E.V. Ramasami, was also among the early champions of the Dalit cause.

Thol. Thirumavalavan, general secretary of Viduthalai Siruthaigal.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

One of the earliest organised endeavours for the Dalit cause was perhaps a memorandum submitted to the Governor of Madras Presidency in the early 1890s on the horrifying living conditions of Paraiyars, one of the two principal social groups among Dalits, in the then Chingleput district. The memorandum, presented by British missionaries, highlighted the fact that these people served as slaves to their caste-Hindu masters and landlords, and suggested that they be provided house sites and land for cultivation.

Following this, Pariayars and others sections of Dalits were assigned what was termed `Panchama land'. Over the years this land was grabbed by caste-Hindu usurpers in violation of the provision against the transfer of its ownership. A hundred years later, in 1994, a movement was launched in the same district to restore the land to its rightful owners. This agitation, in which two people died in police firing, marked the beginning of the present phase of the Dalit movement in the State. Inspired by the Ambedkar birth centenary celebrations in 1991, the movement apparently decided that the major task before it was to respond to the challenge posed by a series of atrocities against Dalits in different parts of the State.

Incidents of Dalits' confrontation with caste Hindus were more frequent and more devastating in terms of loss of lives and property during the current phase of the movement, particularly between 1995 and 2004. Media attention played a part in the creation of greater awareness among the people about the issues involved.

Conflicts between Dalits and Thevars, a caste-Hindu social group, in the southern districts are not new in the State and Dalits have mostly been at the receiving end. However, since the mid-1990s there have been some qualitative shifts in the conflicts between the two following a change in their economic relationship. Sections of Dalits benefited from the reservation of seats in education and employment. Besides, many Dalit families got money from relatives working abroad and were no more dependent on Thevars for survival. Caste-Hindu oppressors were intolerant of this economic independence of Dalits and became apprehensive of their potential to hit back. In many places Dalits did hit back.

When it came to controlling the situation, the Thevars in the police force, who were a significant presence, invariably threw their weight behind caste Hindus. This happened in 1995 at Kodiyankulam, a relatively prosperous Dalit village in Tuticorin district, which the police ransacked under the pretext of searching "for deadly weapons", and subsequently in numerous other towns and villages.

A Government report showed that in 1996 there was a 34 per cent increase in caste-related violence over the previous year. Of the 282 reported incidents, 238 were between Dalits and caste Hindus (Thevars, Naidus and Vanniyars). In 1997 and 1998, too, there was a spurt in incidents involving Dalits and Thevars.

Dr. K. Krishnasamy, leader of the Puthiya Thamizhagam.-N. RAJESH

The collusion between the police and caste-Hindu attackers of Dalits was attributed to the following factors: the large presence of the particular caste-Hindu group in the police force; a retired chief of the State police headed the organisation that protected the interests of the particular caste group; a person close to the power centre belonged to that dominant caste.

A significant outcome of the confrontation between Dalits and caste Hindus in different parts of the State for nearly a decade is the emergence of two principal political organisations, Puthiya Thamizhagam led by Dr. K. Krishnasamy and Viduthalai Siruthaigal of Thol. Thirumavalavan. While Krishnasamy was elected to the State Assembly in 1996, Thirumavalavan won in 2001 in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which, however, failed to retain power.

After the DMK came to power in 1996, the attitude of the police to incidents of caste violence also began to change, but not before 17 persons were killed in police action against a procession of striking estate workers, a large number of them Dalits, in 1999 in Tirunelveli. The DMK government was also not seen as friendly to Dalits.

Caste-related violence continued for some time before it subsided about five years back. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalithaa's second term as Chief Minister (2001-06) saw a perceptible fall in incidents of caste violence, probably because the power centre sought to distance itself from any particular caste-Hindu group.

A fallout of these developments has been a corresponding fall in the political influence of the principal Dalit organisations. They are not willingly accepted as electoral allies. The 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2001 Assembly elections saw Puthiya Thamizhagam and Viduthalai Siruthaigal isolated from the mainstream political parties. In the 2006 Assembly elections, Viduthalai Siruthaigal won two seats in partnership with the AIADMK, but left it to join the DMK a few months later.

The let-up in visible Dalit political activism and the growing isolation of Dalit organisations in recent times point to the need for them to look afresh at their role, alter their policies and programmes and evolve a strategy to suit the changing situation in order to protect the vitality of the movement.

The reduction in reported incidents of caste violence against Dalits in the past few years in the State does not mean that their lot has improved. Untouchability continues to be practised even 55 years after the Constitution banned it. Dalits continue to be denied access to drinking water, temples and other public facilities and suffer discrimination and humiliation even in teashops. Their electoral rights are not respected and their empowerment is resisted. Sections of caste Hindus refuse to share power with them in panchayats.

As the most vulnerable section, Dalits are among those worst affected by the reforms regime. Dwindling job opportunities in public sector units owing to the government's rigorous pursuit of the policy of liberalisation and privatisation have made a mockery of reservation. With little possibility of extending reservation to the private sector, they are threatened with growing unemployment. The neglect of agriculture has already caused enormous difficulties to the marginal landholders and agricultural workers, a considerable number of whom are Dalits. Loss of jobs and cuts in wages stare them in the face.

"Apart from responding to incidents of caste violence against Dalits wherever they take place, Dalit parties ought to have addressed many issues relating to their livelihood, which remain unresolved for long, with a little more seriousness," said a Dalit leader. He cited the problem of retrieving the Panchama land, pending for a long time now, and also the larger issue of getting land for landless agricultural workers and house pattas for both rural and urban Dalits. Dalit parties, he said, should not fight shy of joining hands with Left, democratic forces in making land reforms more meaningful.

"Even now, the Dalit movement remains vibrant and the upsurge that began in the 1990s has started percolating to the hitherto neglected sections, said a Dalit activist. For instance, he said, in the last couple of years the movement had spread among Arunthathiyars, the third predominant Dalit group after Pallars and Paraiyars. He said the massive protests against the murder of a panchayat president at Nakkalamuthanpatti in Tirunelveli district, who refused to be a puppet in the hands of the caste-Hindu vice-president, was evidence that the Dalit movement was alert and active. The activist also cited the recent struggles against manual scavenging and the Arunthathiyars' fight against the social boycott of Dalits by caste Hindus at Kalapatti in Coimbatore district and K. Velayuthapuram in Tirunelveli district to reinforce his point.

New identity Annie Zaidi in Chandigarh

"IF you want to see the new face of Dalit identity in Punjab, look at the backs of motorcycles in Boota Mandi. Where once youngsters proudly sputtered round on bikes saying `poot jattan de' (sons of Jats), today it is `poot chamaran de' (sons of Chamars)," says Professor Ronki Ram, who teaches Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He has just concluded a two-year study of the emerging socio-political situation of Dalits in places such as Dera Sach Khand at Ballan village near Jalandhar, and believes that the worm is turning, once again.

The Saint Ravidass temple on the campus of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Early in the last century, when the Ad-dharmi movement took root in the State, the emphasis was on establishing an independent quamiyat (community identity), mazhab (religion) and majlis (organisation). While there may not be significant numbers of people lining up to convert to Ad-dharm, the call for a separate identity continues, although this is complicated, given that there are at least 38 sub-castes. But wherever Dalits have shaken off the economic ties binding them to upper castes, they seem determined to shake off the cultural yoke as well, by turning round the traditional burden of caste and wearing it on their sleeve. Increasingly, they are building their own places of worship too - Ravidasiya temples, Balmiki temples and what are described as "parallel gurdwaras" for Mazhabi Sikhs.

At the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, the largest teaching hospital in the State, there are buildings representing each religion. A Sri Hari temple, a church, a mazaar, a gurdwara, a Ravidass temple and a Balmiki ashram which is under construction. Until 2003, all these structures were unauthorised. When the administration woke up to this fact and decided to bulldoze the structures, they began with the Ravidass temple. And they stopped there, for the howls of protest resounded all the way to Delhi. "It was not about the demolition of a temple. If they had bulldozed all the buildings, we would not have minded. But they began with the temple for Dalits, although the Sri Hari temple is the first in line from the road," said Ram Chander, general secretary of the temple trust. "Only some part of the church was also damaged, but they didn't dare touch the Hindu temple or the gurdwara."

As matters took a politically fraught turn, the land was allotted to the temple and the structures were all regularised. The Ravidass temple has been rebuilt and for now that is enough, says Ram Chander. "This is not just about a building. We want a place that is our own. This space serves as a platform, too, for the community to meet and talk and unite."

However, this wave of assertion is not indicative of Dalit well-being. Much of the defiance remains concentrated in the districts of the central Doaba region. Large parts of rural Punjab remain dependent on agriculture and the majority of Dalits remain landless, and thus at the mercy of upper caste landlords. At Asron village in Nawasheher district, for instance, though there were very few Jat households, none of the Dalit families had much land. Rattan Kaur, a widow, is landless. Of her four sons, only one finished his schooling. "They dropped out - in the fourth, or fifth or seventh."

There is a primary school in Asron, where most of the pupils are from poor families who cannot afford the Rs.300-a-month fees that private schools nearby charge. The nearest secondary government school is in Ropar town, which requires children to travel several kilometres on bicycles. Those who do not have bicycles cannot study further.

The major problem in the rural areas, however, is land and indebtedness. Says Professor Manjit Singh, who heads the Ambedkar Centre at Panjab University, "Dalits form nearly 33 per cent of the rural population, but own only 2.3 per cent of the land. Also, our studies show that at least 58 per cent of Dalit households are caught in debt traps; we estimate a total debt amounting to at least Rs.1,906 crores."

Frontline has recorded the rising unemployment and debt traps leading to bonded labour among Punjabi Dalits. Not much has changed. In fact, the situation may be getting worse. In 1991, S.Cs were estimated to account for at least 52 per cent of the State poverty statistic. This has now gone up to 62 per cent.

Manjit Singh points to research conducted across five districts by a scholar in the Sociology Department of Panjab University. It showed that 97 per cent of the agricultural labourers were from S.Cs and work participation was as low as 28.8 per cent. At least 20 per cent of the surveyed villagers agreed to work as "attached" labourers, which is half a step away from bondage. Studies have shown that although the spate of suicides in the past decade is commonly referred to as "farmer suicides", at least 30 per cent of the victims were landless labourers.

To nobody's surprise, the majority of landless Dalits are teetering on the edge and are just as vulnerable. "When you don't even own a patch of land to relieve yourself in, how can you raise your voice against the dominant castes?" asks Manjit Singh. "If you rear cattle, you need land to bring fodder from. If you are willing to work, you need a field to work in. Socio-economic boycott is an ever-present threat."

Most Dalit youth seek to escape deprivation and discrimination by going abroad. The only reason why Dalits in the Doaba region can afford to be more assertive is that they are economically independent, since many of the men work abroad and send money home.

While Punjab does not suffer from the purity-pollution severity of casteism, caste does play a role in the continuing socio-economic oppression of Dalits. The Malwa region remains largely feudal, a chilling reminder of which came in the form of the assault on Bant Singh of Jhabbar village in Mansa district, which led to his losing three limbs (`Casteist assault', Frontline, February 10, 2006). Once the tragic case captured national headlines, the subsequent pressure from activists and the media glare forced the government to pay compensation and make arrests.

Bant Singh was not an exception. Anil Kumar Lamdharia, an advocate in the High Court who deals with Dalit human rights violations, rattles out accounts of atrocities, each more horrifying than the previous one. He said: "In Ferozepur, about a year ago, a Dalit boy was forced to drink urine out of an upper caste person's jooti (shoe). In Ludhiana, a Dalit girl was raped, dismembered and thrown into a ditch. In Faridkot, a Balmiki boy was killed and his eyes were gouged out because he had dared to stare back. Incidentally, in this case, the police moved application 169 - which could lead to discharge without trial - citing lack of evidence on which to prosecute. Following protests, they withdrew the application. We are now demanding cancellation of bail."

According to Lamdharia, only those cases are heard of where the victim has the strength and the wherewithal to talk to lawyers. He told Frontline: "Half the time the police refuse to file an FIR. Yet, I don't know of even one person convicted under Section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act? This Section makes the official culpable for not taking proper action."

The State administration, however, maintains that in Punjab atrocities against Dalits are rare. In police records, the total number of crimes against S.C.s in 2005-06 is only 101. It was 98 for 2002. Lakha Singh, Additional Director in the Department of Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, told Frontline that thanks to the Sikh gurus untouchability did not exist. He added that Dalits were increasingly misusing the Act and registering false cases.

Punjab has much to answer for. The conviction rate under the S.C./S.T. Act is practically nil. No district or village has been considered "sensitive" enough to ensure that steps are taken to prevent atrocities. Only 17 acres of surplus land was transferred to S.C.s this year and before that none at all. Of the 111 bonded labourers identified between 2001 and 2004, only four were rehabilitated. Although Rs.1,154 crores has been allotted for the development of S.C.s under the Special Component Plan, experience shows that the State rarely releases the entire amount. Last year, less than 45 per cent of the allocation was actually spent.

Political parties are not above blame either. The focus of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is Uttar Pradesh, though its founder, Kanshi Ram, hailed from Punjab. The oldest political voice of the Dalit movement, the Republican Party of India (RPI), Babasaheb Ambedkar's party, is a shambles. It shuffles along on the heels of a few dedicated old-timers who claim to be true to the Ambedkar legacy. Mukhtiar Singh Arshi, who heads the RPI unit in the State, said: "We are weakened because we cannot keep up with resource-intensive politics. Everything is about money. But we intend to make a concentrated bid for unity in the coming elections, especially with the breakaway factions of the BSP."

The breakaway factions are mostly the BSP's own doing. Leaders of the three factions - BSP (Kanshi Ram), BSP (Ambedkarite) and the Bahujan Samaj Morcha - blame Mayawati for neglecting Punjab and taking political decisions with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister's chair. Pawan Tinu, who was thrown out of the BSP for questioning the leadership, admitted that Dalit political activists' courage broke when Kanshi Ram died. But he was confident that they would regroup on a common platform.

Despite talk of uniting, none of the factions seems to have qualms about seeking a partnership with the Congress or the Akali Dal, both Jat-dominated parties, or the BJP, with whom they can share no ideological ground. One Dalit activist asked, "Why is [Shamsher Singh] Dullo [Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president] not the chief ministerial candidate? Surely, it is time."

Many activists and researchers believe that the conflict between Dalits and Jats is bound to worsen. With the emergence of a new Dalit identity that wants not just social-spiritual equality, but also a share of the economic and political pie, conflict is inevitable, and with it, possible violence.

Frittered gains Parvathi Menon in Bangalore

When Mahadevaswamy and his friends from Kamanakerehundi village in Mysore taluk decided that they would no longer remove the carcasses of dead animals from the village or perform the dirge at village funerals - two demeaning caste functions traditionally expected from Dalits - they brought on the fury of the `upper castes'. The upper-caste-dominated village panchayat declared a social and economic boycott against eight Dalit families, banning anyone from employing them, or even talking to them. Shopkeepers who sold them groceries were fined, and they were not even allowed to make calls from the public telephone booth. Nor were they allowed to vote during the gram panchayat elections. Denied jobs, some of the Dalits left the village in search of a livelihood. This took place in a village just 13 kilometres from Mysore town.

M. Venkatarayappa, A witness to the Kambalapalli killings in 2000 in which he lost four family members, after the verdict was announced in December 2006. Court records say he turned hostile.-K. GOPINATHAN

The Kamanakerehundi incident is the most recent case of overt caste discrimination that has come to light in Karnataka. For every case that makes it to the pages of a newspaper, there are many more that go unreported. A similar case of social boycott of Dalits was recently reported from Kadkol village in Bijapur district. Here, too, upper-caste residents of the village imposed a crippling boycott against Dalits for the `crime' of using the drinking water tank in the village. The upper castes not only polluted the tank, but refused to employ Dalits and, as in Kamanakerehundi, all village amenities were closed to them. Media coverage on Kadkol led to the district administration stepping in to break the boycott and offer the landless Dalits jobs and economic security in the form of land. Official intervention, interestingly, appears to have driven the boycott underground. While upper-caste members no longer openly denied jobs to Dalits, the latter did not ask for jobs from their traditional employers out of a sense of fear. Even though the government offered to pay for land, the Dalits found that there was nobody willing to sell land to them.

Caste atrocities in the State have been steadily increasing over the past few years. The number of cases reported has increased from 1,232 in 2002-03 to 1,517 in 2005-06. Convictions, on the other hand, have fallen drastically over the same period, from 24 in 2002 to five in 2005, and none at all in 2006 (until October). Acquittal figures have been falling too, from 341 in 2002 to 23 in 2005, and just one in 2006 until October. Read along with a falling conviction rate, the falling acquittal rate points to a very slow legal process and inordinate delays in getting Dalits justice in atrocity cases.

A good illustration of this point is provided by the recent judgment in the Kambalapalli atrocity case, where all the accused were acquitted. In March 2000, seven Dalits were burnt alive by Reddys in Kambalapalli village in Kolar district. This was done in retaliation for the murder, allegedly by Dalits, of an upper-caste resident of the village. Thirty-two people were arrested in the case. Seven of them were released during the investigation as it was proved that they were relatives of the Reddy landlord who had been killed and had come from other villages for his funeral the day after.

The case was heard at the Second Additional Sessions Court in Kolar and all the 25 accused men, who were under non-bailable arrest, were acquitted in December 2006 as 40 of the 56 witnesses turned hostile and there was, therefore, no case against the accused.

When Frontline visited Kambalapalli soon after the court verdict, the reasons why Dalit witnesses turned hostile were evident. Ironically, for the Dalit residents of Kambalapalli who have to engage from a position of weakness with upper-caste domination every day, the judgment was almost a relief, as it removed a potential source of conflict with the upper castes. "I am very happy that the accused have been released," Venkatarayappa, a Dalit agricultural labourer, who was a young boy when the incident took place, told Frontline. "There is no problem in the village," he declared, under the watchful eyes of a few Reddy residents who were standing nearby, and who had just told Frontline that there was no caste animosity in the village between Dalits and Reddys.

This reaction to the verdict contrasted strongly to what Frontline encountered in `mini'-Kambalapalli, a village created by the district administration after the 2000 carnage, in which 44 Dalit families who were related to those killed by the upper-caste residents were resettled. The two villages represent two different worlds, both in physical features and in spirit. With neat concrete houses, each with a small front yard sporting flowering creepers, broad roads with proper drainage and street lighting, a primary school building and community hall, mini-Kambalapalli is a near-perfect urban settlement. The residents are poor, but unlike in Kambalapalli, do not appear to be crushed by the weight of a proximate upper-caste presence. Witnesses who turned hostile admitted to doing so and explained why.

"I changed my version because the women folk of the accused came and begged me to do so," said Sapala Gangalappa, one of the main witnesses. "Besides, if I had spoken the truth, the Dalits arrested for the murder of Krishna Reddy would not have been released. All of us told lies," he said quite simply. Several Dalits, who had been arrested for the murder of Krishna Reddy, were also acquitted of all charges. The principal witness in the Dalit murder case, M. Venkatarayappa, who lost his wife, two sons and a daughter in the carnage, also turned hostile, according to court records, although he denied having done so, speaking to Frontline. "What can one man do against the system?" the old man asked. "They have given the witnesses money. I have not changed my version," he insisted. "Whatever I said to the police, I said in court."

Although the State government announced plans to appeal the Kambalapalli verdict in the High Court, there was no real public outrage or a sustained political campaign either by the many Dalit organisations or by the major political parties like the Congress and the Janata Dal (S). This contrasts with the explosion of public anger that met the Khairlanji killings in Maharashtra. This is reflective of the weakness and disarray of the Dalit movement on the one hand, and the upper-caste moorings of the two so-called "pro-poor" parties on the other.

"The old moorings of the Dalit mobilisation of the late 1970s and 1980s are no long there, and the movement has splintered," G.S. Siddalingaiah, one of the earliest leaders of the Dalit movement, a poet, and at present the Chairman of the Kannada Authority, told Frontline. "The Dalit movement today lacks vision, it has turned opportunist. They react to immediate issues but seem to be constantly involved in face-saving."

The Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS), born in 1975 out of the massive Dalit upsurge and awakening of that period, is today splintered into at least 12 groups. The four main factions of the organisation are the DSS led by N. Venkatesh, the DSS (Secular) led by D.G. Sagar, the DSS (Ambedkarwada) led by Mavalli Shankar and the Karnataka Rajya Dalit Sangharsh Samiti led by Lakshmi Narayan Nagavara.

"The Dalit movement itself has split along caste lines, with different caste groups claiming different identities," said Indudhar Honnapura, a Dalit activist and writer. The Dalit movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which saw massive agitations against the prevailing political system, created a high degree of self-awareness among Dalits, and was successful in wresting benefits from the state. To that extent it achieved its aims, he argues. "Today, that form of Dalit-ism is not there - after all, any movement has a life span - but there seems to be no consolidation of the gains of that era, either." Dalits, who constitute the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society, are the first victims of communalism and globalisation. "Many are being drawn into naxalite movements. "At a time when caste has been legitimised, the legacy of Ambedkar is only at the emotional level. Dalits are not following his teachings. They do not seem to understand that their emancipation is in their own hands."

Kerala contrast R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala has the lowest proportion of Dalits in South India. The 68 communities included in the list of S.Cs form a mere 9.81 per cent of the population in a State dominated by four major communities, Muslims (24.70 per cent), Ezhavas (an estimated 22.91 per cent), Christians (19.02 per cent) and Nairs (an estimated 12.88 per cent). S.Ts form a minuscule 1.1 per cent.

Sree Narayana Guru, the social reformer.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

The Dalit population is distributed all over the State, although its concentration is high in some districts such as Palakkad, Thrissur, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. They have come a long way, overcoming extreme forms of caste oppression and hurdles to education, healthcare facilities and ownership of land and employment opportunities, to a situation where they face no explicit form of discrimination and are, in general, not lagging behind other communities in terms of opportunities for social progress and better living conditions.

The Dalits of Kerala are the most literate among the S.C. populations in the country. The female literacy rate among them is also the highest in the country. In the last three decades, their sex ratio has shown an increasing trend from 1,012 in 1971 to 1,048 in 2001. The overall sex ratio in Kerala is 1,058 females per 1,000 males.

According to the recent "Kerala Study" conducted by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), Dalits top the list of communities in the State in terms of `social mobility index' and `educational mobility index' and have an average per capita annual income of Rs.12,317 (S.Ts Rs.9,022, Hindus Rs.17,762, Muslims Rs.17,538 and Christians Rs.21,897). However, in a State with a huge remittance economy and a large proportion of non-resident Indians (NRIs), only 3.3 per cent of the S.C. families get incomes from outside the State, an average of Rs.3,066 a month. In contrast, 34.3 per cent of Muslim families earn an average of Rs.6,709 every month from outside, mainly through relatives employed in West Asia.

Dalit representation in government jobs in Kerala is 7.6 per cent, which, though not on a par with their percentage in the population, is a better proportion than that of Muslims (who have only 11.4 per cent of government jobs even though they form 26.9 per cent of the population).

Significantly, among the Dalits in the 18-25 age group, 10.30 per cent are in college, 6.6 per cent are engaged in other studies and 42.2 per cent are employed (corresponding figures for Muslims are 8.1 per cent, 6.2 per cent and 30.5 per cent respectively) and 40.9 per cent are unemployed (Muslims, 55.2 per cent).

Work participation rate among Dalit women in Kerala is also very high at 34.5 per cent compared with 7.1 per cent among Muslims, 24.8 per cent among Hindus and 20.9 per cent among Christians. Among Dalit women in the 18-35 age group, 31 per cent are employed, 40.6 per cent are homemakers and 28.4 per cent are in search of a job, according to the KSSP study. The corresponding figures for the Muslim community, for example, are 7.5 per cent, 60.7 per cent and 31.8 per cent respectively.

A statue of Ayyankali in Thiruvananthapuram.-S. MAHINSHA

However, the proportion of the Dalit population in Kerala with incomes below the poverty line (Head Count Ratio) is still high at 38.0, while that of Muslims is 28.7 and Christians 14.0. The poverty index is also high among the S.Cs (3.0) (S.Ts 8.8, Hindus 1.0, Muslims 1.2 and Christian 0.7). However, according to the 1991 Census figures, the incidence of poverty among Dalits in the State is only half of that among them at the all-India level.

The average land owned by Dalit families in the State is 27 cents (Hindus 69.1 cents; Muslims 77.1 cents; Christians 126.4 cents.) and the per capita consumer expenditure a month among them is Rs.873 (Hindus Rs.1,064; Muslims Rs.964 and Christians Rs.1,371). Dalits also follow the general trend in Kerala of spending huge amounts for weddings, Rs.74,342 on an average, compared with Rs.18,911 among S.Ts and Rs.149,253 among Christians.

In fact, social researchers who are keen on exposing continuing inequality and deprivation among traditionally disadvantaged groups in Kerala do not include Dalits any longer in their list of communities that still represent "distinct pockets of deprivation". The list includes only "the traditional coastal fishing communities, the S.Ts of north Kerala, and the new underclass of Tamil migrant workers who come to the State in search of low-skill manual jobs or low-income self-employment opportunities".

However, it is not that the Dalits of Kerala had it easy, while their brethren elsewhere in the country continued to struggle. They were virtually thrown into the path of progress much earlier by a cocktail of social, economic and political forces that created modern Kerala and fashioned its own unique form of development.

It is, therefore, important to look again at the period in history when Kerala was described by Swami Vivekananda, famously, as a "lunatic asylum" because of its tyrannical caste system. For example, the following description by the wife of a Christian missionary in 1860 Travancore may surely seem to be about the conventions of social life inside a "cuckoo's nest", but what it offers is a glimpse of the very real forms of social discrimination and strange rules of the caste system, including those of `unapproachability' and `unseeability', as practised in Kerala in the latter part of the 19th century.

E.M.S. Namboodiripad after being sworn in as Chief Minister of Kerala, in Thiruvananthapuram on March 6, 1967. Dalits' integration with the rest of the State, which started with their participation in Communist-led struggles against landlordism and caste discrimination, was complete with the success of the land reforms initiated by his Ministry.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

As quoted by Robin Jeffrey in his 1994 study on "The Decline of Nair Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore, 1847-1908", the description goes thus: "... a Nair may approach but not touch a Namboodiri Brahmin: a Chovan (Ezhava) must remain thirty-six paces off, and a Pulayan slave ninety-six steps distant. A Chovan may remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan sixty-six steps off, and a Parayan some distance farther still. A Syrian Christian may touch a Nair (though this is not allowed in some parts of the country) but the latter may not eat with each other. Pulayans and Parayars, who are the lowest of all, may approach but not touch, much less may they eat with each other."

For sure, Kerala had the most oppressive caste system in India, which for a long time in its history was a hurdle to social progress and reinforced divisions in the minds of its people. Only the Namboodiris, the Malayalam-speaking Brahmins who read the Vedas and were at the top of the hierarchy, had any real immunity from this oppressive system.

Importantly, all castes and communities enjoyed the freedom to lord over those below them in the social hierarchy, even as they faced discrimination from above. According to various accounts, among the caste-Hindus, the Nairs, who could enter temples, had the lowest rank and their own separate discriminatory rules to obey and to impose upon others. Similarly, below them were the Ezhavas, considered `outcasts' but who formed the "upper-tier" of Kerala's (roughly) "two-tier system of untouchability".

At the bottom of the heap, bearing the burden of such an obnoxious scheme of things, were Dalits, including slave castes such as Pulayars, Parayars and Cherumars and the tribal people (and the Ezhavas, to an extent), who did not have access to public places, temples, bathing ghats or public roads. They were allowed "to wear only coarse cloth and not any clothes at all above the waist", a horrible custom that made them stand out even at a distance and be shunned, following the hierarchical norms of `distance pollution'. They were "not allowed to carry umbrellas, wear slippers, have Sanskrit names, keep milch cows, use metal vessels, or use certain words in conversation with those above them in social hierarchy". They had no land or educational or employment opportunities outside their traditional caste-based vocations.

There came a point for each of these communities when they could bear it no more. The history of the social, economic and political advancement of almost all castes and communities in Kerala from then on is perhaps also the history of how, when and why they embraced this urge for freedom from the unique shackles of Hindu society, for literacy and modern education and for ownership of land. It is interesting that at different points in their history all these communities, one by one, used the services respectively of Western missionaries, the British and local rulers (for obtaining literacy, education and a modern world view), self-critical social reform movements from within the communities (for cleansing their own stables), the nationalist movement, the liberating Communist influence and the policies of the new State of Kerala (for furthering opportunities for education, gaining ownership of land and eventually joining the mainstream of an evolving, progressive society).

The model case of the Ezhavas (as also most other communities) - of how they liberated themselves from untouchability, distance pollution, and other caste taboos through the social revolution launched by Sree Narayana Guru, and their rise to dominance in an egalitarian society - has been well documented.

But the not-so-well-known Dalit revolution in Kerala had started much earlier, with the arrival of the first of the Western (Protestant) missionaries who came to evangelise but found they could do that only if they offered a permanent solution to the appalling status of the oppressed people of the region. Dalits joined them in droves when they became the first organised agents of change by opening modern schools and hospitals (initially, exclusively) for these people, which spread the message of literacy, hygiene and public health, and encouraged, often with state support, the breaking of caste taboos and legislation against slavery and torture.

By the early 19th century, there arose sporadic caste-based movements led by enlightened leaders from among Dalits themselves, who understood clearly that the solution to their problems lay in education, in demanding dignity of life, and in breaking the chains that tied them to the landowners who always came from the upper castes. The tools-down agricultural revolts launched by Ayyankali, the intrepid leader of the Pulaya masses of south Travancore, for access to public roads and admission of Pulaya girls in government schools, and the `Upper Cloth Riots' by the Channar community, which fought for its women's right to clothe themselves above the waist, are well-known examples of early Dalit rebellion in Kerala. Ayyankali and his followers refused repeated missionary promptings to convert and displayed amazing political consciousness even in the early part of the 20th century. They insisted that they wanted to fight and win and yet keep their Dalit identity intact.

However, as later events proved, and though there arose some more caste-based groups among Dalits, it was obvious that the furtherance of their cause in the special circumstances that arose all over Kerala lay in submerging their caste identities under the emerging class consciousness in the State. Dalit aspirations began to merge with those of mainstream freedom fighters during the Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1924-25 (for the freedom of entry of the oppressed classes on the roads leading to the Vaikkom temple). Subsequently, when Dalits began to get disillusioned, their aspirations merged with those of the Communist organisers of Kerala, who offered them a coherent and liberating vision about their future along with a clear agenda for Kerala's transformation.

The politicisation of the Dalit masses and their integration with the rest of the people of the State became complete with their large-scale participation since the late 1930s in the Communist struggles against landlordism and caste discrimination and later, through their wholehearted participation, in progressive Left-initiated State projects for land reforms, health, education, women's emancipation, demographic change, total literacy, effective public distribution system and decentralisation of government.

It is this history that makes the lot of Dalits in Kerala strikingly different from those of their counterparts in other States. However, they too have complaints today, about lack of sufficient employment opportunities, educational facilities, economic support from government and representation in government bodies. But interestingly, they are the same complaints that other communities too air frequently in the State.

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