Ambedkar Jayanti: Let’s have White Paper on Dalit issues

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Ambedkar Jayanti: Let’s have White Paper on Dalit issues

As we remember the chief architect of our Constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, on his birth anniversary today, we are confronted with questions emerging from the fault lines of our society. What are the aspirations of the Dalit community today?

Though the preferential treatment in education and employment by the means of constitutionally mandated affirmative action has lifted many families from the scourge of exclusion, representation in key decision-making bodies in relevant sectors, social equality and dignity broadly form the essence of Dalit aspiration today.   

Growing up in a lower-middle class Dalit family in the slow 90s of Patna, I was unusually surprised at the dismal presence of subaltern voices in the print and electronic media both at national and provincial levels.

Kenneth J Cooper from Washington Post first attracted the national attention around this issue in 1996 when he found that there was not a single Dalit journalist in India. This prompted another senior journalist BK Uniyal from The Pioneer to do a similar research. Out of 700 accredited journalists not a single Dalit was to be found. To this day, it is impossible to locate a reasonable representation of subaltern voices in the newsrooms.

As a community one has to be vigilant if the situation is changing. I agree that a process of social churning has started that is redefining the ever-dynamic Dalit discourse today. The nature of Dalit struggle and movement is constantly being shaped by evolving aspirations of the community. With the changing time, the nature of exclusion has also changed. It has become more subtle obviously not to ignore the embarrassing public assaults, acts of violence, academic marginalisation and lack of effective political representation.

National Crime Records Bureau mentions that there is a 66 per cent increase in the cases of atrocities on Dalits and Tribal communities from 2007 to 2017. Every 6 minute an atrocity is reportedly committed on a person from the SC/ST community. The statistics are discouraging.

Assertion and Aspiration

As the nation witnessed the Bharat Bandh called by various organisations and Dalit groups on April 2, time is appropriate for us to examine how far we have travelled in terms of achieving social justice in the real sense. To me the bandh was representative of a social churning that is taking place in the Dalit samaj. Caste-based conversations have always formed the cornerstone of our society. We can only befool ourselves by saying that caste is not a reality when it has become stronger in the institution of marriage and other social interactions.

Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra witnessed demonstrations seeking the review of the apex court order towards dilution of the  Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Accusations targeting a single political party or ideology for increase in the cases of atrocities is unambiguously misleading. There is a simple exercise through which one can actually gauge the magnitude of atrocities in an independent manner. Make a Google alert called Dalit and you would be surprised with the number of rapes, murder, assaults that are mounted upon Dalits on account of multiple factors on an everyday basis.

Debate on atrocities act is not new. Like adultery, dowry prohibition, domestic violence and sexual harassment at workplace, the Dalit act is also a highly misused one.

The question we must confront ourselves with is if there is an independent enquiry on the efficacy of these provisions like the conviction rates and the follow-up. There are cases where a Dalit is merely used as a pawn by upper castes in their disputes. Whether the act has actually served its purpose and is not disproportionately being misused is a ponderable point.

The Government on its part has already filed a comprehensive review petition in  the apex court. We must remember that it was the same Government that actually strengthened this Act in 2015 by expanding the definition and nature of atrocities and making it more lethal.

Adding political tone and tenor to the Dalit debate is a great disservice to the discourse that we want today. It is much beyond politics.

Dalit samaj has been unimaginably oppressed. Rebel is an inherent characteristic of a Dalit. Although dissent is the essence of democracy, it must be manifested in a reasonable manner. Let us take a moment today while we remember Bharat Ratna Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar on his birth anniversary.

We must use this opportunity in a constructive manner. Maybe a debate around reservations can also be explored as an idea.

I advocate for a White Paper on Dalit issues that would encapsulate the scale, magnitude of atrocities, impact of welfare and punitive legislations and how distributive the policies of affirmative action have been for the deprived segment of our society.

As a second generation beneficiary of reservations, I have had greater opportunities compared to my father and grandfather and faced complexities of much different nature. Why should not the conversation around caste evolve?

(The writer is Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation, New Delhi)

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