Social Issues

Dalits: In a state of unfreedom

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Jayamma, a Dalit woman garbage collector, in Bengaluru. A 2008 picture. Informal sectors such as ragpicking and garbage collection engage workers who are exclusively from the community of untouchables. One may consider their work environment-friendly and hence a service to society and even to the nation. But the very obnoxious nature of this work denies them the advantage of feeling dignified. Photo: K. Gopinathan

A video grab of Dalit youths being beaten for skinning a dead cow in Una in Gujarat in July 2016.

The aftermath of violence unleashed on Dalits in Natham Colony in Naikkan Kottai in Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu in November 2012. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

In incidents of violence against Dalits, usually the targets are the symbols of cultural modernity such as pucca houses, vehicles, electronic gadgets, fashionable attire and even modern hairstyles. Here, at Natham colony in Dharmapuri. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

1930, Kalaram temple, Nashik. The protest here by Dalits to allow them entry into the temple is a landmark in the history of Dalit movement in India. B.R. Ambedkar urged his people through the Marathi journal he started, "Bahishkrit Bharat" (The Excluded of India), to hold a non-violent agitation to secure the right of entry into the temple. The temple remained closed for about a year following agitations. Photo: The Hindu Archives

In the past 70 years of Independence, most Dalits have been continuously pushed into obnoxious spheres of work. The concept of freedom for them is where they can participate in a more creative, competitive and attractive sphere of decent opportunities.

In a socially plural society such as India, the idea of freedom tends to acquire internally differentiated meanings with varied emphasis. Hence, it becomes unavoidable for both analytical and political reasons to process this concept through the hierarchy of its significance. In the hierarchy of significance, one meaning of freedom becomes much more significant than another. Thus, during the anti-colonial struggle, Indian nationalists treated political freedom with topmost significance. In the post-Independence period, particularly in the dominant nationalist imagination, political freedom continues to be treated as top priority; this is evident in the language of nation-building and now in the rhetoric of the “Make in India” campaign. For hedonists, it is economic freedom or the freedom of consumption that acquires supreme significance. Most of those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy would put social freedom or freedom from social bondage right on top of their priorities.

However, in the past 70 years of independent India, the idea of freedom in the public imagination has continued to be articulated with a skewed meaning and an uneven emphasis. This is evident in the case of social freedom or the freedom to appear in public without social stigma—a freedom that has not been able to enjoy stable public support. The recent “spectacle” of Dalits being beaten at Una in Gujarat is a case in point. The growing number of atrocities against Dalits thus is constitutive of unfreedom or denial of freedom to Dalits who constitute one-fifth of India’s population. In this context, it becomes necessary to decide which of the three kinds of freedom (political, hedonistic or social) provides a solid ground on which one can evaluate India’s 70 years of independence.

Let me argue that on moral grounds, it is the situation of the weaker sections, and now the minorities, that is a strong criterion to evaluate the performance of India’s independence. For such an assessment, it would be adequate to address the following questions that have a bearing on the tense relationship between the Dalit identity and the idea of freedom. To what extent has the Indian nation created conditions within which Dalits can enjoy social freedom? How does one assess the progress of the concept of freedom as perceived and received by Dalits?

Viewed from the standpoint of Dalits, the concept of freedom, which is on its way to becoming a reality for Dalits, tends to acquire a paradoxical, if not crooked, form. That is to say, in the past 70 years the concept of freedom has seen moments of progress and regress. Hence it is necessary to put the idea of freedom in a proper historical perspective.

Historicising freedom

In a historical sense, for Dalits, the idea of freedom in its liberal incarnation initially came as an opportunity to pursue their project of emancipation. In such a liberal conception, even for Dalits, freedom comes as a choice that arbitrates and decides between autonomy, agency and assertion on the one hand and spatial segregation, social servility and political subjugation on the other. It was natural for Dalits to make an individual choice for a clean job offered by the market over an unclean job imposed on them by the Jajmani or caste system. It was but natural for Dalits to be part of the radical rotation of job opportunities facilitated by universal criteria and not by the particular criterion of caste. It is in this sense that they had to rely on the state to put in motion a radical rotation of opportunity structures so as to enable them to exercise their freedom to choose jobs that were different from the defiling ones that existed during caste-based feudalism.

Arguably, the public sector, particularly in its heyday, did help Dalits enjoy their freedom to acquire clean jobs that were created and controlled by the Indian state. However, this state-mediated freedom of Dalits seems to have acquired rough edges to its inner dimension which is certainly benign. To put it differently, the very practice of freedom by Dalits and the consequences of such practice have made the very idea of freedom paradoxical.

Paradox of Dalit freedom

The long and continuous history of the oppressive caste system may provide Dalits a valid reason to develop a fascination for individual freedom that promises them a radical separation from servility and subjugation that continue to be the defining features of the caste system. In view of their almost total deprivation, they may find the intervention of the “democratic” state morally less problematic. Some of them even argue that for the sake of the Dalit community they would not mind curtailing their freedom of mindless consumption. They would not be too possessive about their individual freedom. For some Dalits, the moral commitment, such as “pay back to the community”, would appear to be quite revolutionary. It is for this reason that some sections of Dalits find it necessary to mediate this freedom through the intervention of the state and now the market.

But curtailing one’s own freedom for the cause of wider emancipation has two basic problems. First, it insulates one from critiquing one’s inability to separate the act of being politically correct from becoming politically conscious about the structures that determine the asymmetry between giving help and receiving help. Second, within the Dalit discourse of freedom, what dominates Dalits’ political sensibility is the language of obligation rather than the language of rights. It is the language of rights that provides the initial condition for not only making claims to freedom but also appreciating the limited role of “possessive individualism” that seeks to put on test Other Backward Classes’ (OBC) liberal capacity to tolerate Dalits’ right to possess certain individual property.

In the recent decades, it is but true that OBCs have become the custodians of caste ideology. This is borne out by the fact that it is the members of OBCs who are allegedly involved in committing atrocities against Dalits. In such growing violence against Dalits, usually the targets are the symbols of cultural modernity such as pucca houses, vehicles, electronic gadgets, fashionable attire and even modern hairstyles. To put it differently, atrocities against Dalits perform the regulatory function to decide who can exercise the freedom even to participate in the consumer market. It is in this sense that even conservative shades of freedom acquire a dynamic character over the freedom which is driven by morality of obligation.

The dynamism of Dalit freedom is the result of enduring tension between Dalits and OBCs. For Dalits, freedom suggests the following: What is lost in tradition is confidently gained in modernity. For OBCs, freedom means the inverse of that: what is lost in modernity is gained in tradition. OBCs in general and upper castes in particular tend to retain their domination in tradition only to make up for the losses they incur while accessing the shrinking opportunities that define Indian modernity.

The OBCs’ inability to accept Dalits’ claims of freedom is further evident in the civilisational violence that the former inflict on the latter. The social boycott imposed on Dalits amounts to civilisational violence that breaks the comprehensive frame of freedom—freedom to communicate, to carry on dialogue and associate themselves with the collective life of the village. Social boycott imposed on Dalits in many Indian villages gets intensified in the denial of certain natural rights such as water and access to physical spaces. Ironically, it is the stamina with which the labouring Dalits resist that deepens the normative meaning of the concept of freedom.

Normative meaning of Dalit freedom

The robust and transformative conception of freedom is linked with the moral stamina that the labouring Dalits demonstrate in terms of taking the risk of publicly articulating the emancipatory principles of equality, friendship and dignity as given by Babasaheb Ambedkar. These principles inspire the labouring Dalits to exercise their sociocultural and intellectual freedom. Such normative spheres of freedom articulated by common Dalits through their struggle for dignity do not exhaust the strength and validity of the principles given by Ambedkar. On the contrary, these principles get dissolved in the pragmatic motivation nurtured by most Dalit politicians and their cultivated supporters. In other words, these principles acquire enduring life with validity and strength only in Dalit oppositional imagination.

It is the labouring Dalits who show an extraordinary degree of freedom to retain through their struggle the strength and validity of Ambedkar’s principles. But such freedom to show a robust commitment to the principles is contingent upon the moral capacity to remain in opposition to the centres of temporal power or electoral power. Dalit freedom appears in the world whenever Ambedkar’s principles are actualised and asserted in the event of the negation of Ambedkar by his opponents both vocally, as in the case of Maharashtra, and not so vocally elsewhere in the country. As the experience of the past 70 years of independence shows, the response of untouchables to freedom does two things: it deepens the understanding of the complex layers that the concept of freedom has; and secondly, it seeks to expose the hollowness of this concept when it is accessed by the privileged lot of Indian society.Dalit freedom, without commitment to such principles, remains hollow and even false. This falseness is evident in their “presence” in the most obnoxious spheres of informal economy.

Conceits of freedom

Informal sectors such as ragpicking and garbage collection engage workers who are exclusively from the community of untouchables. In fact, a major chunk of those involved in such “self-employed” work are Dalit women. One may consider their work environment-friendly and hence a service to society and even to the nation. Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been projecting a positive image of the workforce engaged in the informal sector. It considers the contribution made by workers in the informal sector vital to the country’s economy.

Dalits have reached a stage where they do not have the opportunity to assert their freedom against the master. Because, in the informal sector they do not have to work under any feudal lord or any employer in modern times. They can say that they are self-employed in ragpicking, waste picking and garbage collection. The very obnoxious nature of this work denies them the advantage of feeling dignified.

Informalisation of the economy under the regime of neoliberalism has been responsible for creating a false sense of freedom among Dalits. The conceit of freedom resides in the incongruence between Dalits’ self-perception and their self-expression. In their perception they do not want to associate themselves with ragpacking or garbage collection, but in their self-expression they project that such jobs are worth doing. In Dalit estimation, which is driven by the force of necessity, ragpicking and scavenging and garbage collection may have some worth, but the same work appears as obnoxious in the moral estimation of both the state and civil society. The conceit of freedom would suggest that the Dalit women are self-employed and to that extent they enjoy freedom without the tangible, or visible, master who during feudal times pushed the Dalit into a state of servility and segregation. What is at the core of Dalit freedom is the moral essence linked to dignity. Secondly, the tag of self-employment seeks to re-feudalise social relations that have led to the degeneration of the quality of life of Dalits to a modern low.

In conclusion, one can say that the freedom to participate in a more creative, competitive and attractive sphere of decent opportunities is treated as the normal conception of freedom. In the past 70 years of Independence, Dalits are yet to enjoy such freedom. Most Dalits are subjected to unfreedom on account of their being continuously pushed into more obnoxious spheres of work. However, this is a weak evaluation of the concept of freedom. There is a strong evaluation of the concept of freedom, which resides in the assertion of Ambedkar’s principle of equality, friendship and dignity.

Gopal Guru is Professor, Faculty, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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