THE August 7, 2018 advisory (see below) by the central government requesting media houses not to refer to members of the Schedule Castes as Dalits, came once again in limelight with the Supreme Court refusing to interfere with the advisory. It is surprising that the Supreme Court chose not to interfere with the said advisory, even though, on the face of it, it denies our right to identity. Though it is disappointing to see courts not interfering in matters as provocative and historically revisionist as this, it makes no difference to those who identify themselves as Dalit.
Background of the controversy
Origin of the issue lies in a PIL (see below) filed by an individual before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court. It was the case of the petitioner therein that, the term “Dalit” is derogatory, and therefore reference to such term by government and other public bodies, including media houses be restrained. It was his case that the Supreme Court in certain judgments has held that the term Dalit is derogatory[i]. The Petitioner had further quoted from translations of Dr Ambedkar’s writings and speeches, to demonstrate that word Dalit was objected to by the Babasaheb himself[ii].
While the case was pending, one of the scholars filed his intervention in the matter.[iii] He opposed the petition by giving detailed research on the evolution of the very term. Very importantly he had contended that Dr Ambedkar never objected to such term, and reliance has been placed on faulty translation by the petitioner himself. He had cited many pieces of literature where the term Dalit has been used in history by followers of Dr. Ambedkar and other stalwarts in earlier and contemporary times and later times.[iv]
He also brought it to the notice that careful perusal of the cited judgments does not mean that use of the term Dalit is derogatory, unless it is intended to offend. It was his contention that term Dalit rather employed with pride, is the evolution out of the lived history of generations under oppression and has been now used as a political identity.
“The term ‘Dalit’ is popularly used by Scheduled Castes to refer themselves with dignity and respect and sometimes as a matter fact of their lowly condition. That the word ‘Dalit’ is employed with pride by the Scheduled Caste community since the time of Ambedkar even during British period. The Scheduled Caste community since the days of Dr. Ambedkar have adopted two identities- ‘Scheduled Caste’ Identity-which is a state given legal identity, for gaining civil and political rights, and ‘Dalit’ identity- which is a social identity to gain self-respect and dignity. The term ‘Dalit’ as a positive identity, represents self-respect and dignity of the Scheduled Caste which is evident from its popular usage by the Scheduled Caste community across the country. Some examples are as follows:…”
After this intervention, very interestingly, the State chose not to seriously oppose the petition. It was Dr. Karunyakara alone who was defending the term and its usage tooth and nail in the court room. One fine day, court was informed that the State is likely to take positive decision on the representation of the petitioner.[v] Though Dr Karunyakara objected, court held that it cannot stop the Minister from passing suitable orders. However, it directed the Minister to hear the intervener, before the representation is decided.
He was heard, and then court came to be informed that the Minister has passed on the buck to Babasaheb Ambedkar Research and Training Institute, Pune[vi]. Intervener argued that BARTI is not an expert in the subject and therefore it should be referred to some other institution. However, keeping his contentions open, matter was adjourned, awaiting the report from said institution. There was a direction to provide copy of the report made by said BARTI to the petitioner and intervener both. However it is not clear if said report was ever made available to the intervener.
Though matter was adjourned for three months, it did not come up till summer vacation. On the first PIL, after the court reopened following its vacation, the petition was listed. The intervener not being a legal practitioner and resident of Wardha, had no reason to know this development.
In his absentia matter came to be disposed off, although his grievance and contentions were kept open, on the basis of communication issued by the Social Justice Ministry acceding to the demands of the petitioner. In the same order, the Court also directed central government to issue appropriate orders.
The Supreme Court on Monday, February 18, 2019, refused to interfere with the notifications issued in pursuance of this order of the Supreme Court dated June 6, 2018.
Also read: Supreme Court refuses to entertain plea against I&B Ministry advisory asking media not to use the term ‘Dalit’ to refer to members of Schedule Castes
The very reliance of the petitioner is a translation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings and speeches from year 1932. It is correct to say that Dr Ambedkar, had suggested term such as Exterior Castes or Excluded Castes, instead of the depressed classes; however, it does not mean Dalit in Hindi or Marathi. In fact, “depressed class”, as per literal Hindi translation, would mean “udas” in Hindi. The term Dalit, if taken literally, would mean “crushed people”. In 1946, when Dr Ambedkar contested for constituent assembly from then Bombay, he released his manifesto in Marathi which was titled: “AKHIL BHARATIYA DALIT FEDERATION CHA JAHIRNAMA”.
Even before the court ruled in the petition, there came a diktat from the Sangh headquarters. Hindustan Times, in its edition dated April 24, 2018, reported:[vii]
“The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wants its volunteers to avoid using the word Dalit, which it considers a colonial appendage with derogatory connotations, senior functionaries from the group said. A senior RSS official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the RSS brass now wants its volunteers and those associated with its many affiliates to opt for the “constitutionally approved terms Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST)” instead.”
The very act of Hindutva-ridden government of Maharashtra, in readily accepting the representation of an individual, though it was baseless, was clearly on the basis of the wishes of the RSS. In the RSS ideology, removing a word from vocabulary facilitates the prevention of the forging of unity among the suppressed classes. It is matter of fact that governments have been having nightmares of all backwards coming under the unified umbrella of Dalit identity. Recent crackdown on the human and Dalit rights activists across India, citing Bhima Koregaon, Elgar Parishad matter, is just another example of the same.
The Dalit Panther movement
The movement started by the Dalit Panther group in Maharashtra documented a very wide and justified definition of the term, Dalit. In its manifesto of year 1973, it defined Dalit as “Members of scheduled castes and tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion”.
This approach of the Dalit Panther made a huge impact on the various movements. People otherwise averse, owing to their ignorance and propaganda by RSS, to the Dalit movement started asserting and associating themselves with the organisations. A term which at earlier times only restricted itself to the identity of the formerly untouchables, though it didn’t mean the same, embraced a very vast meaning. It covered all suppressed classes and also identified its enemies and solutions. Their public meetings, debates and ideological clarity helped them gain more and more supporters.
In one such meeting, one of the office-bearers was asked: How can you say all the women are Dalit? To which, the reply came: “Are they not untouchable for five days a month? Are they not slaves for they are owned by their pati (owner)? Are they not disentitled from accumulation of wealth as per Vedas?”
The Dalit Panthers’ aggressive, self-assertive stand attracted many similarly situated people. Though the movement did not last long, its ideological articulation and expressions remain intact in the minds of people. Their dream of forming Dalitistan within India is still shared by people in the movement.
Over a period of time, many of the organisations which follow Ambedkarism started to identify themselves as Dalit, whether they belong to schedule castes or not. They found that the way of their emancipation lay under the identity that united them, which can be none other than Dalit.
Many of the nomadic denotified and semi-nomadic tribes started to assert themselves as Dalits and chanted Jai Bhim with pride. There are many scholars coming from various strata of the society who carry identity as Dalits, no matter what their caste is. There is the celebrated, strong and very critical wing of writings termed as Dalit Literature.
Many other organisations carry the Dalit badge as a matter of not only identity but also as a matter of claiming spaces — such as, Dalit Camera, Dalit Rangbhoomi, the upcoming 1st International Dalit Film Festival dated February 23-24, 2019 to be held at New York.
Can’t suppress Dalit camaraderie
There are many such examples. So, who all will the government advise not to use the term? This I&B Ministry circular is a redundant effort. People have been claiming their identity in their own ways, and they will continue to do so in the days and years to come.
At this juncture, I am reminded of Saint Tukaram. His poems (Abhang), which were literary rebellions against the caste system and many social evil practices, were commanded to be drowned in the river, by the then religious court. He had to comply to avoid persecution of his family.
But his poems did not drown with the river; people recited them and soon, they became a mass movement, keeping the legacy and wisdom of Tukaram alive. The same happened with Charvaka, and many more whom the then ruling dispensations tried to give a living burial to.
The term Dalit cannot die with one circular. It is an evolution of identity out of years of sufferance. No matter how hard the government tries to snap the associations of all suppressed classes, it will only emerge out louder, stronger and clearer.
[i] Lata vs state 2006SCC475
Arumgan vs Tamilandu
Swaran Singh vs State 2008SCC(8) 435
[iii] Dr Lela Karunyakara Dean of School of Culture, Director of Centre for Dalit and Tribal Studies in Mahatma Gandhi
Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya at Wardha,
[iv] Glimpses of Socio-Cultural Revolts in India”, at p.68, ‘Andhra Dalit conference’
“Life and the Greatest Humanitarian Revolutionary Movement of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar- A Chronology” at page no. 404, mentions that ‘All India Scheduled Caste Federation’ hailed Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the ‘King of Dalits’.
Vol. 17, Part Two, p.511, of the book titled “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings And Speeches”, that Ambedkar’s own organization ‘All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF)’ used the term “Dalitsthan”
Dalit Visions by Gail Omvedt
Late kashiram founded ‘Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti’ (DS4).
Construction of Dalit Prerna Sthal by BSP Supremo Bahen Mayawati
Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) recognised institution namely The Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), New Delhi
[v] Order dated 29.11.2017, PIL 114/2016