Print edition : February 02, 2002

The Madhya Pradesh government organises a conference in Bhopal to discuss the problems faced by Dalits and releases a document that demands a reasonable share in the fruits of development for them.

MANOHARLAL'S son completed his B.Tech in Computer Science from the Regional Engineering College in Kurukshetra, Haryana, and was looking forward to attending the campus interviews. He had secured the sixth position in the college despite his modest background, and there were a number of good positions available in the information technology sector. Several big companies held campus interviews and Manoharlal's son attended them. However, to his dismay, his name figured in none of the lists of the selected candidates. Moreover, he saw his classmates who had won lower grades getting selected.

The conference in progress.-A.M. FARUQUI

Manoharlal, an assistant in the Chandigarh Secretariat of Haryana, was depressed. Some people advised him not to mention in his son's biodata the fact that he belonged to a Scheduled Caste. He acted accordingly, and companies that subsequently interviewed Manoharlal's son decided to recruit him.

The story of Manoharlal's son (his name has been withheld to protect his identity) forms the prologue to the Bhopal Declaration released by the Madhya Pradesh government on the eve of the conference "on charting a new course for Dalits in the 21st century" held on January 12 and 13. The document, described as an attempt to put forward an unexpurgated agenda and invite a free and frank debate on the future of 250 million people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes, reviews the lack of progress of Dalit movements in the past 50 years.

The conference, attended by 250 delegates from various States, has been hailed by leading Dalit intellectuals and activists as a major event. Such characterisation of a largely academic conference held with state patronage could, though, be disputed by critics.

However, it was primarily because it was a conference held with the support of the Madhya Pradesh government that it assumed significance. It was the first time since Independence that a State government sponsored a major conference on issues facing Dalits and invited even known the critics of the State government's policies and approaches to Dalit emancipation to participate and offer suggestions.

Although the State government would have had political motives in holding such a major conference, it also demonstrated the power of Dalit assertion and the interest of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in issues facing Dalits. In fact, Digvijay Singh and some of his ministerial colleagues attended the conference and responded to some of the ideas expressed to improve the lot of Dalits in Madhya Pradesh. As the first congregation of Dalit representatives from across the country since the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in South Africa in 2001, the Bhopal conference provided them a unique opportunity to meet each other, exchange ideas and review the progress in their struggle.

As the story of Manoharlal's son indicates, the concerns of Dalits are no longer confined to reaping the benefits of affirmative action in education, employment in public services and representative forums. Dalits' quest for political power is also not considered seriously as a means to achieve social and economic progress. As Digvijay Singh pointed out in his inaugural speech, reservation was no longer the only effective tool to empower Dalits as it would still leave out about 18 crore Dalits from its ambit even if the system was implemented properly. He added that even the extension of reservation to the private sector would not benefit Dalits. K.S. Chalam of Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, argued that as political power can be sustained only with economic power, Dalits should seriously ponder why they have hardly produced notable names in contemporary times.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh addressing the Bhopal Conference on Charting a New Course for Dalits for the 21st Century.-A.M. FARUQUI

In fact, Dalits' quest for a reasonable share in the fruits of development emerged as the dominant theme at the Bhopal conference. This 'paradigm shift', as Chalam put it, would be the highlight of Dalits' manifesto in the coming months - a paradigm shift because it was perhaps for the first time that Dalits articulated their aspirations beyond the constitutional framework of positive discrimination and affirmative action.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Bhopal Declaration says, had won three major rights for the S.C.s and S.T.s: representation in government and quasi-government jobs and legislative bodies, freeships and scholarships for S.C./S.T. students, and reservation in admissions to state-run and aided educational institutions. However, since then there has been neither any addition to these rights nor any serious effort to defend the existing rights. At the social level, there has been no significant reduction in the level of discrimination against Dalits. In fact, if one considers the extent of economic backwardness among Dalits and the level of violence against them, the limits of state intervention in ensuring Dalits' safety, security and progress are very glaring.

The nature of Dalit movements in India may also be a reason for the lack of progress in their emancipation. Chandra Bhan Prasad, columnist and a panelist at the Bhopal conference, pointed out that it was true that Ambedkar was a unifying force among the various Dalit organisations. However, as experience has shown, Ambedkar's personality was not sufficient to instil a pan-Indian sense of identity among Dalits. One major hindrance was the lack of a common language of communication. In fact, at the conference the delegates from the Hindi heartland States protested against the use of English by certain panelists. On the other hand, when some panelists spoke in Hindi as it was preferred by the majority of the delegates, the embarrassment caused to the delegates from southern and northeastern States was obvious.

Conscious of the need to learn English, Prasad, who knew Hindi, spoke in English: he refused to speak in Hindi despite demands from the audience. Prasad explained that if Brahmins and other upper-caste people could achieve economic power across the country, it owed a lot to their knowledge of English. Similarly, Prasad said, if Dalits learnt English, they could plan common struggles and aspire for economic success. The Bhopal Declaration calls for implementing 'Diversity in Admissions' in every English medium school. Delegates said that knowledge of English could also help Dalits acquire scientific and other specialised qualifications and seek career advancement.

Historically, the plight of Dalits has been attributed to the absence of land reforms. The Bhopal Declaration admitted that the agenda of land reforms had vanished from political discourse. Moreover, since the landowning castes had attained enough political clout to force most mainstream parties to voice their grievances, it seemed unlikely that any government would introduce radical land reforms based on the slogan of "Land to the Tiller", it said.

The Declaration recommended the Madhya Pradesh model of redistribution of agricultural land to tackle the problem of landlessness among Dalit agricultural labourers, who constituted the majority of the Dalit population in the country. On March 4, 1998, the Madhya Pradesh government issued an order asking all District Collectors to reduce the extent of grazing land from the existing 7.5 per cent of the total land area to 5 per cent. Consequently, about 1.54 lakh acres (about 62,320 hectares) of surplus land was distributed to S.C. and S.T. families (the measure involved the distribution of 80,470 pattas). On September 19, 2001, the State government reduced the proportion of grazing land from 5 per cent to 2 per cent. A total of about six lakh acres (about 2,42,810 ha) of surplus land is expected to be distributed among four lakh S.C.and S.T. families.

The 21-point Bhopal Declaration demands legislation to enable Dalits to have an equitable share in the appropriation and use of rural and urban common property resources. It seeks diversity in the workforce not only in public institutions but also in private industry and corporate houses.

The Declaration demands that every government and private organisation must implement 'supplier diversity' from socially disadvantaged businesses and 'dealership diversity' in goods and services. The demand has the potential to facilitate the economic emancipation of Dalits. The Madhya Pradesh government, which has accepted the demand, is implementing it first in the State government's Department for the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The department, which runs about 2,005 hostels, will now have to buy 30 per cent of its annual supplies from S.C. and S.T. shopkeepers. Chandra Bhan Prasad said that although there would not be enough Dalit shopkeepers, a State government task force could be constituted to identify and train potential shopkeepers.

Digvijay Singh has promised a review, after six months, of the State government's progress in implementing the 21 points in the Declaration. However, for the Dalit movement it appears to be an immense challenge to carry forward the message from Bhopal across the country.