"The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker section of the people, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation."
-Article 46 of the Indian Constitution.
Today, 68 years after Independence, as Dalits continue to bear the brunt of violence and discrimination-highlighted in recent weeks by the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D student in the Hyderabad Central University who hanged himself, blaming his birth as a "fatal accident" in a chilling final note-we could not be any further away from what the Constitution had demanded from a free and fair India.
Rohith's is not the lone tragedy. A spectre of suicide deaths by several Dalit students is haunting India. Out of 25 students who committed suicide only in north India and Hyderabad since 2007, 23 were Dalits. This included two in the prestigious All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, and 11 in Hyderabad city alone. Systematic data does not exist for such suicides, but the problem runs far deeper than a few students deciding to end their own lives after being defeated by the system.
Dalit dilemma in India reads like an entire data sheet of tragedies. According to a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. Every day, on average, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits murdered, and two Dalit houses burnt. According to the NHRC statistics put together by K.B. Saxena, a former additional chief secretary of Bihar, 37 per cent Dalits live below the poverty line, 54 per cent are undernourished, 83 per 1,000 children born in a Dalit household die before their first birthday, 12 per cent before their fifth birthday, and 45 per cent remain illiterate. The data also shows that Dalits are prevented from entering the police station in 28 per cent of Indian villages. Dalit children have been made to sit separately while eating in 39 per cent government schools. Dalits do not get mail delivered to their homes in 24 per cent of villages. And they are denied access to water sources in 48 per cent of our villages because untouchability remains a stark reality even though it was abolished in 1955.
We may be a democratic republic, but justice, equality, liberty and fraternity-the four basic tenets promised in the Preamble of our Constitution-are clearly not available to all. Dalits continue to be oppressed and discriminated against in villages, in educational institutions, in the job market, and on the political battlefront, leaving them with little respite in any sphere or at any juncture of their lives.
All this even while there has been no dearth of political rhetoric, or creation of laws, to pronounce that Dalits must not get a raw deal. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, prescribe punishments from crimes against Dalits that are much more stringent than corresponding offences under the IPC. Special courts have been established in major states for speedy trial of cases registered exclusively under these Acts. In 2006, former prime minister Manmohan Singh even equated the practice of "untouchability" to that of "apartheid" and racial segregation in South Africa.
In December 2015, the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, passed by Parliament, made several critical changes. New activities were added to the list of offences. Among them were preventing SCs/STs from using common property resources, from entering any places of public worship, and from entering an education or health institution. In case of any violation, the new law said that the courts would presume unless proved otherwise that the accused non-SC/ST person was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim.
So why have violent incidents against Dalits increased, rather than decreased over the years, in spite of Constitutional protection and legal safeguards? "Caste is not simply a law and order problem but a social problem. Caste violence can only be eradicated with the birth of a new social order," says Chandra Bhan Prasad, co-author of Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs. He argues that the upward mobility of some Dalits caused by market reforms post-1991, ironically leads to higher incidence of atrocities in the form of a backlash.
Education, the hotbed
Protest is starting to brew in institutions of higher education. At Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, hundreds of students gathered at the Ganga dhaba on the eve of Vemula's 27th birthday on January 29 to organise a candlelight vigil. Slogans sliced the silence of the winter night: "Tum kitne Rohithon ko maroge? Har ghar se Rohith niklega (How many Rohiths will you murder? A Rohith will rise from every household)", and "Jaativaad pe halla bol, Brahminvaad pe halla bol, Hindutva pe halla bol, Manuvaad pe halla bol (Raise you voice against casteism, Brahminism, Hindutva, and discrimination)!" Next afternoon, the students held a protest rally at the city's RSS headquarters in Jhandewalan to celebrate Rohith's birthday. The police retaliated with batons.
Organised under the aegis of Joint Action Committee (JAC), the students were led by the Birsa Munda, Phule and Ambedkar Student's Association (BAPSA), a body formed on November 14, 2014. Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar have replaced Marx, Lenin and Mao in JNU as icons of "identity", and "caste" replaces "class" as the main issue.
Who are the new student leaders? Sanghapalli Aruna Lohitakshi, a linguistics Ph.D student from Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, is one of the founding members of BAPSA, which is akin to poet Namdeo Dhasal's Dalit Panthers of the 1970s. She speaks of "ghettoisation by upper-caste students," and "Dalit faculty seats being converted into general seats on the pretext that no suitable Dalit candidates were found". Though BAPSA and groups such as the Ambedkar Students' Association spew venom and spit fire, their struggle highlights a form of subversive protest that fights suppression with suicide. To borrow from JNU Professor Gopal Guru, it showcases the "clash between the life of the mind versus the life of the caste".
The primary reason for educational institutions emerging as pulpits of protest lies in the fractured social structure in universities, where the elite of the Dalits are competing with general students. Not only are they more aware of Constitutional provisions, they feel they are treated unfairly by university authorities and student bodies such as the ABVP by virtue of their selection in the reserved category. This is what Rohith had articulated in his suicide note, and was seemingly corroborated by the circumstances behind his suspension from the university after a skirmish with the ABVP.
In villages and urban slums, however, where segregation is rampant to this day, voices are stifled even before they can be raised. A stark example of this is a dusty little hamlet called Sunpedh-meaning empty trees-in Ballabhgarh, Haryana, barely 40 kilometres from Delhi. The tension is palpable, the stillness stifling, as the centre of the village feels like a fortress with 65 Haryana police personnel posted to prevent inter-caste clashes. No one greets anyone, no one is smiling.
Untouchability is practised widely in Sunpedh. Ask about Ram Prasad, a local grocery shop-owner, and the instant response from a young man on a motorbike is: "Chamaron ke ilake mein jayiye (Go where the Dalits live). The upper-caste areas are separated from the low-lying Dalit quarters with mud puddles all around.
The entire hamlet comprises approximately 2,700 bighas of land, of which 2,000 bighas is owned by 300 families of Thakurs. The rest is owned by Dalit communities, including 150 Ravidas families, and smaller numbers of Valmikis, Garerias, and Dhimars. Most of the Dalits survive as daily-wage labourers in the farms of the Thakurs.
Here, on the night of October 21, 2015, four members of a Dalit family were set ablaze inside their house: Jitender, his wife Rekha, and their children Vaivhav, 2, and Divya, nly 10 months old. The village erupted in grief and indignation the next day when the bodies of the infants, wrapped in white shrouds, arrived for cremation. Jitender escaped while Rekha suffered serious burn injuries. Their gutted home is officially sealed, guarded by the police.
Jitender's mother Santa Devi, his 85-year old grandmother Buddhan Devi, his aunt Kanta (all three are widows) and his married sister Gita, sleep in the open in the severe winter cold since the house is officially sealed. "There seems no flame of justice, no place to live, no one to earn, no money for lawyers, no one to care for us three widows," says Buddhan. "My brother Jitender threatens to commit suicide every day. Suicide, like the Rohith Vemula case, seems like the only option for a Dalit," laments Gita. A majority of the heinous crimes against Dalits, as documented by the NHRC, are perpetrated in villages in which they are treated as second-class citizens.
But discrimination isn't a rural problem alone. Joblessness among Dalits runs through the urban landscape as well. According to 2011 Census data, the unemployment rate for SCs between 15 and 59 years of age was 18 per cent, including marginal workers seeking work, as compared to 14 per cent for the general population. Among STs, the unemployment rate was even higher at over 19 per cent.
Government data suggests that the usual suspect in terms of incidence of crime committed against SCs is the Hindi heartland. Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan top the list with 8,075 and 8,028 cases respectively in 2014. Bihar is the third-worst with 7,893 incidents. Neither the political regime, nor the ideology of the ruling political party, nor the presence of major Dalit parties within the states makes a difference. Rajasthan and MP are ruled by BJP governments, Uttar Pradesh by the SP and Bihar by the JD (U). All the parties are equally guilty of sins of omission and commission.
"The absence of social reform movements in the heartland states in contrast to the southern states has contributed to the presence of brutal caste wars in the north," says P.S. Krishnan, a former welfare secretary. In the south, the undivided Andhra Pradesh is the worst performer with 4,114 atrocities recorded in 2014.
Part of the reason for this is the backlash by privileged groups against a new form of assertion of rights and display of aspirations by Dalit youth. The emergence of Dalit parties such as Mayawati's BSP, and the rise of Maoists in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, explains the rise of violent incidents in these states. An assertion of Dalit rights, whether in terms of identity politics (in Uttar Pradesh), or class politics (Bihar and Andhra Pradesh), leads to a backlash. All through the 1990s, Bihar was wracked by caste wars-most notably Ranvir Sena versus Lal Sena-in parts of Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Gaya and Bhojpur.
Dalit politics typically takes two forms: militant movements and electoral coalitions. The democratic electoral route is ironically poised on the cusp of a cruel paradox in which Dalit groups must either ally with mainstream political parties and risk compromising with the Dalit agenda; or fight it out alone and risk getting pushed to the margins. It is a Hobson's Choice.
The reason is that the spread of Dalit population throughout India is such that by themselves they are always in a minority. In any electoral battle, they can only benefit if they form an alliance either with other dominant caste groups, or mainstream political parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, for example, Mayawati allied initially with mainstream parties-Congress, BJP and the Samajwadi Party-but ended up quitting the alliance each time in a huff. Later, she changed her strategy by forming alliances "directly with upper-caste groups and minorities", says BSP's Sudhindra Bhadoria. "The Brahmins and Thakurs form an alliance with BSP not because they have an ideological affinity but because they want to defeat the Yadav-led SP," adds another BSP leader. In spite of such alliances, however, the BSP faced defeats in the 2012 Assembly polls and 2014 Lok Sabha elections in UP because its math was trumped by the Yadav-Muslim combine and the consolidation of the Hindu vote.
The way out
The obvious ways to ensure that the lot of the Dalits is improved are education, rise in economic status, market reforms transforming the lives of millions of Dalits living in impecunious conditions. But not many experts are convinced of this path to empowerment. "Market reforms can touch the life of a few thousands of Dalits but it simply creates an island of prosperity amongst a sea of penury," says Guru, arguing that social movements are the only solution.
Krishnan, on the other hand, believes that constitutional safeguards and protective legal clauses can play a great enabling role. But, more than any of this, a change of attitude is needed among the ruling classes to stem the tide. Perhaps the best solution was provided by B.R. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly. "We are entering an era of political equality. But economically and socially we remain a deeply unequal society. Unless we resolve this contradiction, inequality will destroy our democracy," he had warned.
But nothing learnt; little progress made. The Dalit dilemma, ironically, is the dilemma of India. Some hard questions remain: How long must the discrimination continue? How many dreams must be shattered? How many flames of justice must be extinguished? How many Vaibhavs and Divyas must be burnt alive? How many Rohiths must die to change India, once and for all?
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