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Need to redefine Dalit identity, index vulnerability across social groups

Reproduced below are minutes of a meeting on Annihilation of Caste in Ahmedabad on September 12-13, 2014, where participants* — senior academics, activists, scholars and scribes — expressed concern over dilution of Dalit identity because of overt stress on entitlement-based policies. The meeting advocated for alternative strategy based on vulnerability index, in which manual scavengers, especially women, are the chief focus of attention:
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The one and half day meeting on moving from caste based discrimination to annihilation of caste, taking cue from the famous treatise of Dr BR Ambedkar, began with a note of concern that Dalit identity is getting diluted because of overt concentration of entitlements based on reservation to those who have been identified officially as scheduled castes (SCs). While not denying the importance of reservation as a means to empower certain sections of Dalits who are above than other Dalit sub-castes, the meeting believed that there is a need to go beyond reservation, violence and discrimination, towards an approach that takes into account the aim of complete demolition of the caste system, as it exists in India as also in other South Asian countries. A well-planned strategy should be worked out by identifying important factors that keep the caste system alive, keeping in mind both short-term and long-term goals.
In her introductory remarks, Manjula Pradeep, who initiated the process of consultation shared about the origination of the idea to initiate the process of moving from caste -based discrimination to annihilation of caste. She further raised the need to look at the caste with the lenses of intersectionality focusing attention on the aspects relating to caste i.e. gender and sub castes within Dalits.
Gagan Sethi, who facilitated the deliberations, added that one noticed how, often, untouchability has been a matter of convenience for the dominant castes. Untouchability does not come in the way of the dominant castemen molesting and raping Dalit women and girls. There is a need to analyse the extent to which untouchability exists in urban and rural areas. The only Dalit sub-caste which suffers the most because of untouchability, and for which the age-old practice has still not changed a bit, is Valmiki community known by different names in other parts of India. As for the rest of Dalit sub castes, it has undergone change to some degree, more so among urban than rural areas. One cannot ignore that there is discrimination and hierarchy among Dalit sub-castes. The starting point of all discussion should be: Untouchability is not negotiable. Therefore, efforts to further strengthening of assault using media and law to expose this must continue. The atrocity act which has been a game changer in power relations (wherever civil society has intervened) has however not been used by the tribal communities as the atrocity is viewed only in the untouchability and not discrimination framework.
Ghanshyam Shah, who provided a framework for discussion at the meeting, pointed towards a veritable dilemma. The untouchability census, carried out by the Navsarjan Trust in 2010, pointed towards the fact that the practice is comparatively low in urban areas but persists in rural areas, including in public space. Capitalist development has opened up avenues for those have assets, including Dalits. However, as for those who do not have assets, their condition remains vulnerable, which is again truer for Dalits. Given this framework, can one say that capitalism has an answer? Ambedkar stressed on the need to get out of this dilemma in “Annihilation of Caste” by translating the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity into reality. Buddha first enunciated these thoughts centuries ago.
As of today, reservation, for all practical purposes, exists for those who have got assets. Government or semi-government reservation jobs are available for those Dalits who can ensure that their children study up to 10th or 12th standard. However, 90 per cent Dalits do not have assets, are simply left out of the reservation policy. They are forced to migrate in search of jobs, they work in the informal sector, have no holidays, no health facilities, their children are forced to drop out of schools, and they are uncertain about their future.
While a section of Dalits may have gained from reservation, the tribals have suffered more under the capitalist system. They have lost all their natural resources. Hence, the fight against annihilation of caste cannot be delinked from the fight for equality. The time has come to introspect as to what has gone wrong. While the Dalit movement has achieved a lot, it has reached an impasse. Why is it that there is lot of advocacy but little mobilization on issues like minimum wages, untouchablity, universal healthcare, or pollution free industrialization? Why is it that Dalits who become Buddhists are more rational than others but fail to capture the larger political dimension to fight for equality? The answer to all this can be found on the need to take up common issues of liberty, equality and fraternity involving Dalits and other oppressed sections.
Providing framework from another angle, Daniel Edwin pointed towards how lack of scholarship among Dalitshas affected proper analysis of the current situation. When the Constituent Assembly was formed, Ambedkar, its chairman, was the only double PhD, and law ministers of both India and Pakistan were Dalit. Even Jawaharlal Nehru was a mere graduate. At that time, literature was at the core of the Dalit movement. Ambedkar’s erudite scholarship countered those who provided a particular version of Ramayana and Mahabharata as an ideal to be followed by Indian society. He wrote about alternative Dalit economics, too.But now the Dalit movement does not have that type of rigorous scholarship. While education has gone up in some sections of sub-castes among the Dalits it is largely a route for jobs at primary education, this education in some cases is alienating and not the “scholarship” that Ambedkar meant by “educate”, added Gagan Sethi.
We all know about Jyotiba Phule’s great intellectual contribution, but little is known about several other Dalit scholars and litterateurs who spoke about the issues that Ambedkar took up later. Several political parties espouse the cause of Dalits, but they are all inward looking. Most Dalit political leaders are caged parrots. Manual scavenging continues in Sushil Kuman Shinde’s constituency. In Karnataka, the Dalits form 19 per cent of the electorate, higher than all other caste groups, yet it has not been able to throw up a Dalit chief minister. This is because of divisions and fragmentation within, How to come out of this is a key issue.

Discussion on Dalit situation

In the discussion that ensued, participants agree that in public sphere, especially in urban areas, the extent of untouchability has gone down, but there is no change so far as manual scavengers are concerned. It is here that the issue of internal sub-castes among Dalits acquires significance. In fact, it is difficult to say that all sections of Dalits are interested in the annihilation of caste. While sub-caste differences among non-Dalits have declined, as far as the Dalits are concerned, these differences have still not blurred. In rural areas, particularly, the situation remains intact. A Dalit boy would always be scared to announce good marks in examinations and celebrate, fearing he may become a target of prejudicial attack.
Things have got further complicated as different Dalit communities have internalized caste stratification. There are issues of purity and impurity even among them. Hence, there is a need to move towards the ideology of equality, wages, land, health rights, etc., even as ensuring that benefits reach the most vulnerable sections. Those who need more should be given priority. And, there should be an enlightened leadership to ensure this. Promotion of leadership among Dalits, adivasi , minorities, OBCs, and women to play a critical role for social transformation through ideological discourses based on principles of liberty ,equality and fraternity, said Manas Jena.
In this, context, there is a need to address the issue of reservation. Already, there is a huge competition among the Dalit sub-castes to get the benefits of entitlement. This often leads to tension. In order to go beyond reservation, one should address issues of land, water, distribution of state resources, including budgetary allocations, wages, and so on. There are good laws and schemes to implement rehabilitation of manual scavengers, but there is a need to find out why they are not being implemented. Manual scavengers, especially women, are forced to do the most hazardous jobs. They are the only ones who do hardcore caste based work. Thus, it may be important to relook at reservation from the vulnerability framework which will automatically include the schedule caste but will be more inclusive to others, therby at least setting the stage for “annihilation of caste”, added Gagan Sethi.
Broad social mobilization is necessary to ensure that these schemes are implemented. For this, internal initiatives from within the community are needed. Socio-cultural and economic mobilization for change is needed. Value systems to end sub-castes among Dalits need to change. The existing ghettoisation among Dalits sub-castes would need to be addressed. Here also, the Valmikis suffer the most, as they are forced to live in isolated, segregated corners in urban and rural areas.
No doubt, there is no crunch of resources to rehabilitate manual scavengers. There are a large number of government schemes for this. Even the World Bank is willing to pay resources for changing the present system and end manual scavenging by helping build modern sanitation facilities. While there is lack of political will to do implement this, there is also a tendency among Valmikis to consider the hazardous jobs they do as their hereditary domain. This hampers their rehabilitation.
To further analyse the issue, the meeting was divided into sub-groups to discuss three main issues:
  • Manual scavengers
  • Women’s issues
  • Dalit sub-castes
The sub-groups meetings agreed that Dalit women’s issues need to be addressed separately, as they are more vulnerable than males. This is also true of Valmikis. The question of violence against women needs to be addressed consciously. They are stuck into identity issue. Also, there is a need to map leadership among Dalit women, who can take up different issues bothering the Dalit community. In order to broadbase the struggle and involve other sections of the poor, there is a simultaneous need to take up general issues of equality such as minimum wages, allocation of land, right to food, education and health, allocation of resources, and so on.
No doubt, sections of Dalits have gained considerably in terms of schemes and allocations. Human rights awareness has increased, and so has the level of education. In fact, Dalits’ education levels are better than tribals and other backward classes (OBCs). There is considerable awareness about the anti-atrocities law. It has helped develop a Dalit middle class, which is more aware, educated, and participates actively in politics. The visibility of Dalits in national and international forums has increased. The United Nations and the European Union have begun to take note of untouchability as a major human rights issue. At the same time, one should be wary of possible backlash, as seen from a litigation pending in the Madras High Court challenging the anti-atrocities law.

The way forward

There is a need to advocate for a vulnerability index in order to identify which sections or individuals require the fruits of reservation more than others. This vulnerability index, said GaganSethi, alone would ensure that manual scavengers require reservation in higher proportion than others in order to rehabilitate them. Among manual scavengers, women are more vulnerable, and their requirement for reservation would be even higher. Correspondingly, Dalit IAS or IPS officers’ share in reservation would not be as high as others. The vulnerability index would also bring out the plight of the nomadic tribes, adivasis, poor Muslims, migrants, victims of forced displacement because of internal violence. It would help bridge the gap that exists in the provision of entitlements between different sections. The more vulnerable sections should be provided with better education, for instance, in the form of hostel facilities. There is a need to have a vulnerability index to identify families/ groups/ communities for strategic intervention to change their socio-economic condition, said Manas Jena.
With a particular focus on women, ways should be worked out to rehabilitate manual scavengers. Here, even corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding should be welcome, said Daniel Edwin. There is a need to train Valmikis in professions other than their traditional caste job. For instance, in urban areas, they could be trained in taxi driving, taught to work in malls, and so on. Those wanting to start small enterprises by setting up sheds should be trained in a particular way. Efforts by Navsarjan Trust suggest that training manual scavengers, especially women, into jobs other than what they were condemned to do, has helped them rehabilitate, said Manjula Pradeep. Eradication of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of manual scavengers in alternative occupation should be time bound and most priority agenda of Dalit movement, added Manas Jena.
Ways should be worked out to bring Dalit castes together. Drawing a map of a typical Odisha village, Manas Jena suggested how dominant caste helmets, living in one part of the village, do not have any untouchability. They cooperate among each other on most occasions. But this is not true of Dalit sub-castes. There is untouchability practice among Dalits, particularly towards manual scavengers. There is therefore a need for cultural shift. The mindset needs to change that once there are individual toilets, manual scavenging would end.
For all this, there should also be better ground level mobilization. Currently, more funds are available than ever before under different schemes for Dalits. However, decisions about this need to taken at the local, district and taluka, level. For this, district-level advocacy is needed by activising local groups. Different forms of advocacy are happening at the highest level, but at the districts, which get most of the funds, there is very little of it. Dalit women should be particularly mobilized to advocate on how to utilize funds meant for the vulnerable sections. All this, of course, would require an enlightened leadership, particularly at the grassroots level.
Manas Jena stressed, civil rights movements should be strengthened at grassroots level (panchyat/block/district level) by expanding its scope and interpretations in the present context relating to untouchability, caste based discrimination and gender issues. International and national understandings should reach to the leaders in district/panchyat level. Also, rights and entitlement advocacy and mobilization work should be strengthened at the district level with women’s leadership. Also, political parties need to be sensitized on issues of civil rights from the perspective of Dalits andother marginalized communities. Various monitoring bodies represented by Dalits should be capacitated for its effectiveness. All sub-caste/communities of Dalits, Dalit including Christian and Muslim Dalits, should be mobilized at district level on common issues affecting them such as untouchability, caste based discrimination, land, education, health and livelihood. There should be efforts to motivate/ involve emerging micro-scoping Dalit middle class/youth /students to play a role in social transformation along with their own development.
Last but not the least, there is a need to develop a resource centre which should document all that has been done so far for Dalit empowerment, and all that needs to be done. It would help trigger intellectual activities, cultural events, set up museums and exhibitions on issues nagging Dalits, particularly manual scavenging and untouchability, development of alternative media to campaign for Dalits, and so on. Its ultimate aim should be to work as a link between top-level advocacy at the national level and grassroots advocacy, collecting useful inputs and disseminating them in the way people understand. The resource centre should help critically examine affirmative action /policy /Acts /programmes in India by both the centre and states, and make a comparison with other countries to these a global prospective in line with international principles, said Manas Jena, adding, it should collect literature of ideological legacy based on the historical roots represented by Buddha, Phule, Ambedker, Peiyar, and others in different states who have been advocating equality and human dignity.

*Participants included Daniel Edwin, Gagan Sethi, Ghanshyam Shah, Manas Jena, Manjula Pradeep, Meenakshi Ganguly, Meera Velayudhan, Prasad Chacko, Priyadarshi Telang and Rajiv Shah. Lawyers for Change fellows of the Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad took part as active observers

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