A Bird called Equality

By Gladson Dungdung

Indian Currents 15 June, 2003

“Untouchability is a phenomenon where a person is discriminated, insulted, tortured, assaulted, beaten, treated as a lesser human, lynched and killed because of his/her birth in certain casteThe culprits often go unpunished as they are always privileged. Economic insecurity is one of the major causes for untouchability. Most of the cases of atrocities do not come out because of economic insecurity. The majority of Dalit community depends on daily wages for their livelihood. If they challenge the landlord or moneylenders, they will be thrown out from the job”.

Recently the Media highlighted two news regarding Dalit atrocities in Maharashtra. The Loksatta dated, 30th April 03 broke the news that ten Dalits were beaten up at Jategoan village in Sholapur district because they had dared to enter the village Temple. Another news was about Dilip Shendge, who was burnt (97%) and is battling between life and death. Seven members of his family including his mother and sister were badly beaten up by upper caste people on 14 May 2003 at Bhutegoan village of Jalna district. Dilip Shendge’s only crime was that being a Dalit, he took water from a public hand pump.

The news is not new but crucial because discrimination, segregation and exploitation occur on the basis of caste hierarchy in contemporary India, where we are taught that India is a great country, biggest democracy, etc. The Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee too has a vision for India; he wanted to see India as a developed country by the year 2020. But the question is, does socialist, secular, free, biggest democracy… make any sense to the people of cross-section of the society like Dalit? Or does anyone have a vision for such community? The irony is that the Constitution of India begins with the word “we” and emphasizes on Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity… but it is seldom practiced. It seems paradoxical to relate the fundamental rights with the ground reality, meanwhile the state is duty bound to respect, protect, secure, ensure and enforce the rights of every citizen of the country.

The Architect of the Constitution and Dalit leader Dr. B R Ambedkar was thrown out of a bullock cart, for even the wooden cart and bulls were claimed to be more auspicious than Ambedkar when he traveled for Goregaon. The stigma of untouchability, which Ambedkar realised, could be understood because; the incident took place 80 years ago. But it is a great shame for a country where a heinous offence like untouchability is still practiced. 150 million people of the country are kept far from the mainstream society like we keep shoes out side at home.

The former President of India, K R Narayanan’s Republic Day address of 2001 also narrates the prevalent of untouchability. He said, “untouchability has been abolished by law but shades of it remain in the ingrained attitudes nurtured by the caste system”(Islam, 2002:10). It is an irony that the President’s address also does not make any difference to the situation of the community as well as government programmes. Untouchability is a phenomenon where a person is discriminated, insulted, tortured, assaulted, beaten, treated as a lesser human, lynched and killed because of his/her birth in certain caste. The culprits often go unpunished as they are always privileged.

Untouchability was abolished by the Constitution of India under Article 17. Article 14 justifies for equality before the law and equal protection of the law. Article 15 says that the state shall not discriminate any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Similarly, Article 16 promotes equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to public employment or appointment to any office under the state. The Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 46) speaks about the promotion of education and interests of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections. To enforce these solemn commitments, the Government of India passed the Untouchability (Offence) Act, 1955. It was amended in 1976 and is known as Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976. But the discrimination, segregation and exploitation did not stop. The Government of India then enacted the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 to protect dalit and tribal rights. Still the law is not able to protect such communities.

One of the worst kinds of untouchability was seen in the capital (New Delhi) of the great country on 1 Feb 2002. During a function at Vasant Kunj, ten families of the Jusadh caste were unceremoniously dragged out from their homes, forced and asked by the organizers to leave their homes at 5 a.m. to a forest area 300 meters away because their presence at the venue of havan would be inauspicious. Mr. LK Advani and Company attended the havan, which was followed by his laying the foundation stone for the Vedic Studies and Social Services. Sri Rama Vitthal Shikshana Sewa Samiti and Sudesh Foundation organized the function. A new form of untouchability also was seen in the House of the people (Parliament) on 12 March 2003. Media highlighted the issue saying that it was a moment to discuss on the issue of Dalit atrocities under the law 193. Ironically, only one Cabinet Minister was present in the House. Though, the opposition demanded the presence of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, he was absent in the House. Inspite of the presence of opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, the ruling party’s chairs were empty.

Often NGOs claim for justice, equality, freedom and fraternity, but discrimination is quite visible here. There are at least 30,000 (registered number is much higher) active Voluntary Organizations, Charitable Trusts, Social Action Groups, Research and Training Institutes working for social change, and approximately more than 2,00,000 people work with these Institutions. These organizations’ projects move around either Dalit or Tribal communities, procuring money from national and international donors. The point is how much benefit reaches to such communities? How many Dalits and Tribals get jobs and how many of them are involved in the decision making process of such organizations?

The so-called activists keep saying that they do not want caste dynamics in the organisation. Excellent! But if only upper caste people work in an organisation with an annual budget of tens of millions of rupees with professional staff drawing salaries at “market rates” and with corporate structures (Samuel, 1996: 36) is it not a matter of discrimination? What do you call it when my friend Parma (a Dalit) says that 80 percent of Dalit and 20 percent of upper caste people work in an organisation where he works, but the 20 percent of upper caste people occupy top positions and make all the decisions? He does not dare to challenge the status quo because of the fear of losing his job.

Discrimination is practiced even in Panchayats which could be depicted with a classic example in Rajasthan on 22 Sept 2002 when a Jat (upper caste) dominated Panchayat charged a “fine” of Rs. 50,000 to the Bairwa community for using a Temple Pond at Chakware village in Jaipur where animals are free to use water from the same Pond. When they refused to pay the community was excommunicated. No one would sell them anything, or give work, or even speak to them.

The Court is a place where justice is sought and rendered. But an incident that occurred with Bharthari Prasad a Dalit Judge is witness of discrimination in the court. The Scheduled Caste Judge in Allahabad has appealed in the Supreme Court against his compulsory retirement in the aftermath of an incident in which his Courtroom was purified with `Ganga Jal’ by his upper’ caste successor. The incident took place in Allahabad when Bharthari Prasad (Additional Sessions Judge) was transferred to another Court and was replaced by A K Srivastava in June 1998. A.K. Srivastava got the entire chamber and its furniture washed with `Ganga Jal’ because a Judicial Officer previously occupied it belonged to Scheduled Caste.

Invisible discrimination also can be seen in the Supreme Court of India. What you call if when 25 Judges of SC are picked in random order not a single judge represents the Dalit community. Do Dalits have only a quality of doing menial work as Manu preaches? The fundamental question is why has only one Dalit been able to become a Judge of the Supreme Court even after 55 year of independence? The answer is upper caste people do not want to see a Dalit sitting on the respective Chair. It would be a great insult for them because Dalits are considered as untouchables. Obviously one cannot shield oneself from the bitter fact of discrimination saying that a Dalit had already occupied the Chair of the First Citizen of the Country.

In the month of April 03 I attended the wedding ceremony of my friend’s brother at Satara, which is a well-known district not only for its economic growth but also because Dr. Ambedkar studied there. I was shocked to see the discriminations, which is quite visible here i.e. Dalit Bastis (settlements) are situated separately from the main villages across the Koregoan Taluka. Dalits have small houses, broken huts; children stray nakedly, narrates about their vulnerable condition. I could see only Dalits in the marriage ceremony. Later, my friend narrated the woes of being a Dalit. Though they want to be identified and treated as human beings, they remain as isolated community.

The 2001 report of the National Commission for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribe shows bitter facts of atrocities against Dalits. The report speaks about how atrocities are steadily increasing in comparison to the year 1999 when 27,561 cases were filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. In the year 2000, this number increased to 28,441. The Indian Parliamentary Committee admitted in July 1998 that untouchability was prevalent in 12 prominent states of the Indian union i.e. Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Haryana. Bihar is a witness to the worst kind of atrocities against Dalits. 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in different Police Stations in the last ten years. 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse were registered.

The cause of untouchability lies in the Varna system, which is deep rooted in the society through the religious perspective. Manu said that a Sudra was created to be the slave of a Brahmin. (Bhargava, 1989: 38). Manu also said that the Sudras are impure because they are born of God’s feet. So that only occupation the Lord prescribed to the Sudra was to serve meekly the other three castes. Manu makes Dalits powerless saying, he who raises his hand or a stick against a high caste man, shall have his hand cut off; he who, in anger kicks with his foot shall have his foot cut off. A low-caste man, who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished (Islam, 2002). Jharjjar Dalit lynching is a crucial example of the worst kind of discrimination based on purity and impurity, where 5 Dalits were lynched on 16th Oct. 2002 for skinning a dead cow.

A clause also lies in the Constitution of India, which abolishes untouchability, but at the same time it does not define the nature of untouchability. Without knowing the nature of untouchability, it is very complicated to claim about the practice of it. For instance, Dalit Bastis are situated separately in north direction from the main villages in Bihar, U.P. Maharashtra… how can one claim that it is a kind of untouchability? If it is an offence then who is to be punished for such as an offence? Clauses can be seen in the Untouchability (Offence) Act, 1955, which made to abolish the practice of untouchability. During the period, untouchability was very strongly practiced, that is why law was made but the punishment was nominal. A person who practices untouchability would be punished with a mere fine of one to five hundred rupees or imprisonment for a period of one to six months.

The “Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989” was enacted to protect rights of Dalits and Tribals. But, still there lies a lacuna in the Act. The Act does not describe about segregation of Dalit Bastis while thousands of Dalit Bastis are situated separately from the villages across the country. Economic insecurity is one of the major causes for untouchability. Most of the cases of atrocities do not come out because of economic insecurity. The majority of Dalit community depends on daily wages for their livelihood. If they challenge the landlord or moneylenders, they will be thrown out from the job. An illustration to this kind of insecurity is that a Dalit farm worker Velu was thrashed and paraded half naked when he resisted the use of machine, instead of human labour, for desalting a village tank at Satharasan Kottai in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. Discrimination happens because of a power game. Somebody wants to remain superior, treating other communities as lesser humans. Obviously, Dalits do not have bargaining power and the power is derived from knowledge, social status, wealth, and political connections or muscle power. Dalits have very less of these. The major potential of the Dalit lies in their vast number. But the number is divided into many folds.

Obviously only law cannot eliminate discrimination from the society। It is not only a matter to be dealt by law but also a matter of attitude and behavior. The most important step is that untouchability needs to be defined. Dalits need to become aware about their rights. Untouchability is an obstacle for Dalits and also for people who practice it because they cannot integrate with them during gatherings, festivals, marriages, rituals, ceremonies, during travel by public transport system like buses, trains and so on.

The issue can be easily addressed by exchanging Roti, Beti and Mati (bread, bride and land) between the touchable and untouchable communities. Involving youth, a vision needs to be made for Dalit for years 2010, 2020 and so on as our PM has. Untouchable youths should be trained to claim, resist and fight for the cause and say no to discrimination, segregation and exploitation but yes to justice, equality, liberty and fraternity. But, who would dare to bell the cat is a big question.

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