Continuing Discrimination Against the Dalits: Reasons and Possible Solutions

 

 

We have begun a new life,

We have found our own temples

Regained our lost faith

All are equal here

- Dalit poet, Harish Bansode [1]

 

Despite decades of struggle and conflict, the scheduled castes in India today continue to face widespread discrimination and inhumane treatment from a society still split over the caste system. Call them Untouchables, Harijans or Dalits; the plight of these 200 million continues to be a black mark upon South Asia’s landscape. They are denied entry to temples of their own religion, made to find menial work under the most degrading conditions and abused and looked down upon by the other classes. Although India has outlawed caste discrimination in its Constitution, in practice this is rarely enforced and it will take a sea change in attitudes towards the practice of untouchability before any policies can be affected. Alongside widespread corruption and unchecked criminal acts, the problem is exacerbated by the self interests of the upper castes in maintaining the status quo which exploits the labour of the Dalits.

 

In this essay, I will discuss the factors behind discrimination against the Dalits and offer possible reasons for their inadequate resolution, in spite of the best efforts of human rights groups and the implementation of government policies aimed at positive discrimination for the scheduled castes.

 

Origins and Principles of The Dalit Movement

 

The term ‘Dalit,’ which means broken, was coined by Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Dalit fight against oppression. He rejected Gandhi’s usage of ‘Harijan’ or ‘Children of God’ to describe the untouchable castes, which he felt failed to encapsulate the true downtrodden nature of those relegated to the lowest rungs of society and exploited by the other classes. Ambedkar advocated a more radical, modern approach to eliminating the oppressive practice of untouchability, as well as more ambitious aims: “Ambedkar's programs were intended to integrate the Untouchable into Indian society in modern, not traditional ways, and on as high a level as possible. This goal stood in marked contrast to Gandhi's "Ideal Bhangi" who would continue to do sanitation work even though his status would equal that of a Brahmin.”[2] Ambedkar’s high aspirations for the Dalits struck a chord with them and he found widespread support.

 

In the problem of untouchability, Ambedkar found some parallels with Marxist ideas of class conflict. Ambedkar however rejected the notion of achieving equality for the lower classes by violent means; he advocated a peaceful resolution in the Buddhist tradition, saying “That is where the fundamental difference lies, that the Buddha would not allow violence, and the Communists do.”[3] The principle of non-violence is certainly admirable and logical in principle; an attempt at overthrowing of caste discrimination by use of force would in all likelihood perpetuate an endless cycle of bloodshed for both sides. However, this has not prevented widespread acts of violence and murder against the Dalits, who bear the brunt of a society unwilling to accept them as equals.

 

Factors Leading to Discrimination Against Dalits

 

Even as organised movement against caste discrimination gathers force, discrimination and violence against the Dalits is growing.[4] The reasons for this are numerous: failure of the Indian government and authorities to take sufficient measures to prevent such acts, in contradiction of the Constitution, complicity of local police and law enforcement agencies who are bribed or themselves reject the idea of fair treatment for the Dalits, exploitation by the higher classes, and especially the deeply ingrained practice of the caste system. All these are perpetuated by the powerlessness of the scheduled castes to improve their socio-economic and political situations, which might offer an avenue of escape from the problems they face.

 

The root of the problem, according to the Dalits, lies with a 3000-year old social institution: the caste system. The priests and law-makers lie at the peak of the social pyramid made up of 4 classes, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. The untouchables are those who do not fall within this system of organisation, either by birth or by the nature of their work – leather tanners for example. The caste system is perpetuated by a cultural and religious belief in the law of karma, that the lower castes are there by virtue of them being punished for sins in a previous life. Social stigma aside, the primary reasons for discrimination boil down to more selfish concerns. The Brahmins have a vested interest in seeing the caste system perpetuated and can enact or influence laws or religious rulings, suppressing any attempt by the lower castes to push for social change which might compromise their privileged position. In addition, the economic and political influence wielded by the Brahmins gives their opinions considerable weight in the Indian government, from which any enforcement of policies meant to address the problem of discrimination, would have to originate. It is thus a case of ‘rich get richer and poor get poorer’ as poverty and social stigmatisation prevents the Dalits from rising in society and having their voices heard. They gain little support from the non-Brahmin classes as well, who themselves are guilty of discrimination. As noted by social anthropologist M N Srinivas, “I am equal to those who think of themselves as my betters, I am better than those who think of themselves as my equals, and how dare my inferiors claim equality with me?”[5]

 

In their desperation, some Dalits renounce Hinduism for Islam, Buddhism or any religions that preach equality, though Ambedkar favoured Buddhism since its roots were in struggle against caste, as in a quote attributed to the Lord Buddha:

 

“No Brahmin is such by birth,

No outcaste is such by birth.

An outcaste is such by his deeds,

A Brahmin is such by his deeds.”[6]

 

This conversion is as a means of releasing themselves from religious segregation which prohibits even a Dalit eating off the same plate as a non-Dalit. The Valmikis of Gudar Basti in Kanpur are such an example.[7] Though the move seems more politically motivated, since they believe converting to Islam offers them opportunities and protection afforded by nearby Muslim communities, this is the only way they see of freeing themselves from the oppression of their religion.

 

The exploitation of the Dalits by the higher classes for land, money and labour is a persistent problem in Indian society. The emancipation of the untouchables was the driving cause behind many caste reformists, with some making the complete downfall of the caste system their main goal. Ambedkar condemned the systematic subjugation of the Dalits and saw the solution to this in the removal of the social structure that supported the discrimination against them. He was only partly successful in his endeavour, facing an uphill battle in fighting centuries of unquestioned abuse of the caste system. His legacy to the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement however, lives on in the unifying nature of his inspirational writings.

 

The situation is not as hopeless as it may appear though, as the Dalits are slowly deriving strength from their numbers. When 25%[8] of the population is discriminated against so adversely, it is only a matter of time before policy change must come about if the situation is not to boil over into revolution. The time for passive acceptance of their state is over and organised resistance in the form of civil rights groups and political organisations, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, have arisen under the helm of outspoken leaders in the like of Kanshi Ram, who formed the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities Employees Welfare Association in 1971, and Jotirao Govindrao Phule, a militant advocate of lower caste rights.

 

To a large extent, the Indian government and its functionaries are responsible for the inadequate implementation of policies, in particular constitutional amendments, which are intended to improve the lives of the Dalits. Although the government has taken steps to redress the plight of the underprivileged via positive discrimination (similar to affirmative action), and Article 17 of the Constitution has banned untouchability and made its practice a punishable offence since 1950, in practice these rules are rarely enforced, especially in the more traditional communities and villages. The job quotas meant to aid scheduled caste members are rarely filled, due to the indifference of civil servants responsible for their fulfilment, who often go so far as to destroy job applications from Dalits.[9] Even those with jobs face daily discrimination in the form of denial of promotions and relegation to the worst tasks. The educational system shows signs of endemic signs of Dalit segregation and mistreatment as well, with cases of Dalit students being issued different coloured school entrance forms and exam answer scripts from non-Dalit students.[10]

 

Corruption, abuse of power and complicity of local authorities with powerful landowners or the upper castes is another reason for the continued discrimination against the Dalits. Poorly-paid policemen often justify taking bribes from thugs or gangs as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes. There have also been documented cases where landlords and the police use sexual abuse and violence against women as a way of intimidating dissenters. As often occurs, the weak and defenceless are used a pawns in a political game, with young Dalit women facing the worst treatment of all due to their age and gender.[11]

 

Solutions and their Feasibility

 

One of the ways from preventing abuse of power is to have a rigorous selection process for policemen and those in positions of power; only those with irreproachable integrity and honesty should be allowed to assume office. In practice, however, this is certainly no easy task. Besides the difficulty of ascertaining true character, the Indian civil service faces the problem of ‘bullets-to-ballots’: it is riddled with corrupt politicians and ex-criminals, a notorious example being the ex-Minister of Railways, Laloo Prasad. The Parliament itself currently has more than 100 of 542 lawmakers facing criminal charges. [12] Against such a background, until the Indian government takes a firm and decisive stand against corruption and criminal acts by its servants, the plight of the lower classes will continue. It is vital that improper practices be prevented and harshly dealt with; audits and checks must be conducted on a random basis by an independent government agency to root out corruption.

 

It cannot be underemphasised that solving the problems faced by the Dalits requires serious intent and enforcement from the government. Land reform laws are one area that requires overhauling: although the ruling party proclaimed the success of their policies in redistributing surplus land among Dalits, in actual fact only 35% of the available land was given to them.[13] Positive discrimination towards the Dalits may help to some extent, but raises the same problems as with affirmative action in the United States: the loss of goodwill and begrudgement of Dalits who obtain work not on merit but because of their social class. Ideally, this positive discrimination policy should only be used to overcome the imbalance in Dalit representation in positions of power but should be abolished at some point.

 

Furthermore, overcoming centuries of endemic historical bias requires a paradigm shift in the attitudes and beliefs of Indian society towards the caste system and the idea of untouchability. Social activists are an integral part of this process but they are limited by the hostility they face from those with interests in maintaining the status quo; this is where the government can step in, by lending them the infrastructural and financial support they require. The Dalits themselves must also push for the social awakening of their society; without activism and struggle from the Dalits themselves, no progress will be made. Thus education and literacy play a vital role in their movement, in attaining improved economic standing and work which leads to upward social mobility. Ambedkar regarded education as a fundamental human and civic right vital to the struggle of the Dalits.[14]

 

The global community must also play a role in the emancipation of the Dalits, by applying pressure on the Indian government and contributing aid in the form of material support and experience. South Africa, for example, has extensive experience in dealing with racial bias and the struggle against the apartheid system was in fact one of Ambedkar’s inspirations. What is being done to the Dalits is no less a crime to humanity than is the apartheid system or the slave trade. Oftentimes governments are wary of interfering and commenting on the internal affairs of another nation for fear of provoking criticism of their own policies. Thus human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch must take the initiative to speak on behalf of the Dalits, as many of them have already done so.[15]

 

As suggested by some academics such as Louis Prakash,[16] the Dalits could gain strength from fraternal alliances with other downtrodden groups – women, children, backward castes and ethnic minorities. Their goals are common: to seek fair and humane treatment and a change in society’s mindsets towards discrimination of certain groups. An alliance would give the opportunity to exchange and consolidate resources, which would otherwise be divided in the struggle against the rich and powerful. A united front would also be of greater impact, both politically and socially. But in order to do this, the Dalit communities need to be self-critical and look internally to eliminate discrimination against their own women first. As quoted by Ambedkar, "If you want to educate your children, first educate women." [17]

 

Surmounting endemic discrimination is always an uphill struggle; however the success of the Negroes in the United States and South Africa have proven that given the will and courage, radical change is achievable. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “It is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Michael, S.M. et al, Untouchable, dalits in modern India (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

 

Moon, Vasant translated by Gail Omvedt, Growing up untouchable in India : a dalit autobiography (New Delhi : Vistaar Publications, 2001).

 

Nikam, Shriram and Shinde, J.R., Destiny of untouchables in India : divergent approaches and strategies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar        

(New Delhi : Deep & Deep Publications, 1998).

 

Omvedt, Gail, Dalits and the democratic revolution : Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit movement in colonial India (New Delhi: Newbury Park: Sage Publications , 1994).

 

Zelliot, Eleanor, From untouchable to Dalit : essays on the Ambedkar Movement   

(New Delhi : Manohar Publications , 1992).

 

 



[1] Steven M. Parish, Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1996, p. 82.

[2] Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. Manohar Publications: New Delhi, 1992. Quoted from http://www.foil.org/inspiration/ambedkar.html

[3] Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji.  Buddhism and Communism. Bombay:  Siddharth, 1982. p. 184.

Quoted from http://www.stanford.edu/~flsamson/ambedkar.html

[4] “Violence Against "Untouchables" Growing, Says Report.” Human Rights Watch press release

(April 1999), (http://indianterrorism.bravepages.com/violenceagainstdalits.htm)

[5] Partha S Ghosh. “Positive Discrimination in India: A Political Analysis.” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol XV, No. 2 (July 1997) p. 135

[6] Felix Raj, “Religion and Dalit Identity,” The Goethals Indian Library and Research Society. (May 2001), (http://www.goethals.org/rdiden.htm)

[7] Ramachandran, “The strength of the weak,” Hindustan Times, 1998 (http://www.saxakali.com/southasia/strength.htm)

[8]  Indian National Census, 1991

[9] Partha S Ghosh. “Positive Discrimination in India: A Political Analysis.” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol XV, No. 2 (July 1997), p. 135

[10] Writer unknown. “Caste Based Apartheid In The Indian Institute Of Technology, Madras, India”. Dalit E-Forum (August 2004), (http://www.ambedkar.org/research/CasteBased.htm)

[11] “Violence Against ‘Untouchables’ Growing, Says Report.” Human Rights Watch press release, (April 1999) (http://indianterrorism.bravepages.com/violenceagainstdalits.htm)

[12] H S Nanda. “Analysis: Criminals in Indian Parliament”. Washington Times Online. (18 Jun 2004), Web edition. (http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20040618-105410-7386r.htm)

[13] Prakash Louis, “Regaining Our Lost Faith”. India Seminar Online. (Jul 2004)

(http://www.india-seminar.com/2001/508/508_prakash_louis.htm)

[14] Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  "Buddhism and Communism."  Bombay:  Siddharth, 1982. p. 99. Quoted from http://www.stanford.edu/~flsamson/ambedkar.html.

[15] “Caste Abuse Akin to Racism: Amnesty”. The Hindu Online. July 27 2001. Web version, (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2001/07/27/stories/0327000e.htm)

[16] Prakash Louis, “Casteism is more Horrendous than Racism; Durban and Dalit Discourse.”

(New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 2001, p.2.

[17] Ambedkar, p. 188.