Casteism is as abominable as communalism. And yet, why is it that casteism, prevalent since last three millennia, has not been evoking the kind of repulsion and condemnation that “communalism” stirs up? There have been countless heinous crimes against the Dalits before and after independence but the nation has not witnessed any moral revulsion as was in the case of religious intolerance underscored by the recent “award wapsi” phenomenon involving over 100 writers, artists, intellectuals and academicians.
While the Muslims, as a community, aggressively fight communalism, the miniscule Christians get international support in their fight against religious intolerance but when it comes to casteism, the Dalits, lowest in the Hindu caste pyramid, and rendered meek and mentally weak, get only lip service from politicians, media and the intellectual class. And this is despite the fact that numerically, the Dalits account for roughly 170 million, only a tad less than the 172-odd million Muslims and several millions more than the 2.3-odd crore Christians. Is it because Dalits are not an assertive and captive vote bank?
Caste discrimination drove 26-year-old Ph.D. student Rohith Vermula, a dalit, to hang himself at University of Hyderabad on January 17. And as usual, an avalanche of predictable angst erupted across the country. Some inquiry commissions will be set up to study the unfortunate incident, the VC will be replaced, and the Opposition will disrupt Parliament proceedings for a few days. And after the customary lip service, life will be as usual and Dalits will continue to face discrimination.
Way back in August 1977, former PM Indira Gandhi hit international media headlines as she rode on an elephant to reach Belchi village in Bihar where eight Dalits were massacred by upper caste men. Gandhi subsequently won the perception battle against the Janata Party government, but the lot of Dalits remained the same.
In October 2011, Rahul Gandhi grabbed media eyeballs by having dinner with a Dalit family in Mendaki village of Uttar Pradesh, a symbolic gesture by a Hindu Brahmin. The Gandhi scion did not follow up on his revolutionary act. And what followed was that, three years later, yoga guru Ramdev kicked up a storm saying that Rahul visits the houses of Dalits “for picnics and honeymoon”. The CPM and BSP demanded his prosecution under SC/ST Act for “demeaning” Dalit women while Congress activists filed an FIR against Ramdev under section 171 g (IPC). The matter ended there.
Last month, Parliament witnessed a two-day discussion on the ”Commitment to India’s Constitution” on the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, Dalit icon and architect of the Constitution. A sub text was BJP’s ploy to usurp the non-Hindutva icon to send out a message to the Dalits. But the half-hearted attempt ended up on a sour note with the ruling party and the Opposition trying to score political points.
In a heated exchange of words with BJP members, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, himself a Dalit, shouted: “Ambedkar and we are from this country. Aryans (referring to the Hindi heartland) came from outside. We are the original inhabitants of this land. Despite facing insults for 5,000 years, we have been here and we continue to live in this country”.
A few days later, Parliament passed The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill that inter alia provides for stringent action against those involved in crimes against SCs and STs.
In October last, a nine-month-old Dalit girl and her toddler brother were burnt alive by a group of upper caste men over a caste feud in Faridabad, adjoining the national capital. There was another round of outcry and shame. While politicians, including Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, made a beeline to the village to commiserate with the grieving family, former Army chief and union minister V.K. Singh made the most insensitive comment drawing an analogy to the incident with stones being thrown at a dog. The Congress, BSP, CPM, Trinamool Congress, JDU and NCP stalled Parliament demanding his resignation for a few days.
It is time that Dalits looked beyond the political class for succour. Even Dalit politicians have only been using them to further their career.
In 2001 November, SC/ST organisations in Delhi had organised mass conversion of Dalits (some 50,000 reportedly converted that day) to Buddhism to protest “casteism” in Hinduism. And a prime mover behind this campaign was Ram Raj, then chairperson of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations. He took “deeksha”, changed his name to Udit Raj.
“Quit casteism, quit Hinduism. We want to destroy casteism. We are not treated as citizens of this country by the Hindutva forces,” Raj thundered while addressing the gathering.
A year later, in an article in Outlook, while condemning the lynching of five Dalits in Haryana’s Jhajjar district, Raj said: “If you had visited Badshahpur with me on October 22 and seen what I saw, you would have decided right then and there to give a call to all the Dalits of the area to convert to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. Anything but Hinduism.” He concluded the article saying “VHP leaders in Delhi such as Giriraj Kishore have already claimed that the life of a cow was more precious than that of a human being.”
Twelve years later, Raj swallowed his words, joined the BJP and got elected to the Lok Sabha. The BJP had already co-opted another Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale of the RPI and Lok Janashakti Party chief Ramvilas Paswan. While Athawale has been made a Rajya Sabha MP, Paswan has become a union minister. Dalit leaders of the Congress, Left and regional parties also shed crocodile tears. Episodic outbursts are of little use. Laws will serve only limited purpose. Only, a change in the mindset can help, but that cannot happen without a cultural cleansing