Children of god?
When an Australian editor posed a question to the Indian press on why it never had a dalit, the untouchable, at a top position in journalism, I felt embarrassed. I considered it an omission which should have been rectified long ago and felt confident that it would happen before long.
But after noticing that no attention was paid a few days ago to the 121st anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Gandhi for the dalits, I have come to believe that the discrimination against the dalits is a prejudice which would take many decades to wear off. They are at the lowest rung of the Hindu society which develops a bias against them at an early age and has no shame in perpetuating it.
The only thing to remind Dr. Ambedkar was a full-page advertisement sponsored by the central government in leading newspapers. There was also a small function around his portrait in the central hall of parliament which is out of bounds for an ordinary citizen. I did not see television channels showing any programme on Dr. Ambedkar, nor did I find any edit or article in any newspaper to recall his services.
Dr. Ambedkar is the framer of India's constitution and we owe the parliamentary system to him. This is enshrined in the constitution. I recall how boldly he stood in parliament to have a provision against untouchability, the bane of Hindu society, and how he expressed hope that the prejudice would disappear. Yet the upper caste has proved him wrong.
Reservations given to the Scheduled Castes, namely the dalits, are laid down in the constitution. But this was despite his opposition. He was against reservations which he compared with crutches by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and other Congress leaders prevailed upon him to accept the provision for 10 years.
Little did Dr. Ambedkar realise at that time that political parties on the one hand and the vested interests among dalits, particularly the creamy layer, on the other would go on prolonging reservations for electoral advantage. So demanding is this consideration that reservations are given extensions decade after decade without a debate in parliament.
The Hindu society should be grateful to Dr. Ambedkar that he and his followers embraced Buddhism. He had threatened to convert to Islam along with his dalit followers to escape discrimination. Mahatma Gandhi beseeched him and even threatened to go on fast unto death. Dr. Ambedkar bowed before the wishes of Gandhi but refused to return to the fold of Hinduism.
Even conversion has not helped the dalits. They are more or less treated in Islam, Christianity or Sikhism in the same way as in the Hindus society. The dalits carry the tag of discrimination and helplessness wherever they go, although the three religions claim equality for the followers. Therefore, the dalits have not escaped the rigours of caste system even outside Hinduism. The Sachar committee has pointed out the inhuman treatment meted out to them even when they have embraced Islam.
Gandhiji christened the dalit as Harijan, Son of god. But it reflected a patronizing attitude which the dailit scornfully rejected. Why the dalits, who constitute some 17% of India's population, have continued to stay in the Hindu society despite all the insults heaped on them is beyond me. They have never revolted nor have they taken any step to harm the Hindu society which still does not give them even a modicum of individuality.
A few years ago some dalits, led by Kanshi Ram, constituted a political party of their own, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It has won them political recognition but not social status. Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, despite corruption and her authoritarian trait, has given dalits the feeling that they can go to the police station and register complaints. They are offered even chairs as is the case with members of other communities. Home Minister P. Chidambaram's advice to dalits to join major parties to enjoy power does not mean much. They followed the Congress faithfully for 45 years. but their lot has remained the same as it was.
Even now the dalits carry night soil on their head. The government proposes to prohibit the practice which was contemplated 50 years ago. The home ministry issued instructions even at that time. Apparently, very little has happened since because the government is enacting a law to stop the practice. The dalits would do well if they were to refuse to carry night soil on their head. Yet they are economically so poor that they cannot afford to risk the livelihood.
At the same time, crimes against the dalits have not lessened. There is a proposal to give arms to them in what are called "atrocity prone areas." Obviously, the government has failed to protect the dalits and their property. Unfortunately, the police force is also on the side of the landlords and other vested interests who treat the dalits as their subject like the maharaja used to do.
Official figures reveal that there is a huge backlog of cases relating to the atrocities committed against the dalits. Had the centre been serious about preventing atrocities against them it would have taken measures like special courts, fast track prosecution and steps to dispose of cases quickly. Strangely, the Patna High Court has acquitted all the 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre of 21 dalits at Bathani Tola in Bhojpur.
It should have been clear by now that no law or no government action can do away with the evil of untouchability. You cannot succeed if the mindset does not change. What the children have grown up with in the name of tradition or religion is prejudiced and cannot be effaced until the society is forced to give up bias which has got entrenched.
The country needs a social revolution. Alas, I do not find any meaningful movement to bring it about. Take, for example, the belief that girls are a burden. How many of them are killed either in womb or after birth is not possible to count. That it happens mostly in north India, particularly Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and UP is no solace.
A sustained effort to change the mindset and remove the clogs of superstition can make a dent into this widely prevailing evil. But no political party is interested in doing so. Nor are the activists because they are aiming at economic changes. Social problems are begging for attention.