When I see the violent eruptions across the country caused by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, I am reminded of the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.
We have been covering the plight and anger of Dalits since we carried our first cover story on them, "Wretched of the Earth", dated October 15, 1978, and much intensive coverage since. Governments change, but reality hasn’t.
The economic and social reality of Dalits remains one of deprivation. 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 an average, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits murdered and two Dalit houses burnt.
India Today cover story, Dalit Power, for April 16, 2018.
According to the NHRC statistics put together by KB 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 and 12 per cent before their fifth. The data also shows that Dalits are prevented from entering police stations in 28 per cent of Indian villages.
Dalit children are made to sit separately while eating in 39 per cent of 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. The rage we are witnessing is an outcome of this historical injustice. It is a mere symptom, not the disease.
Dalits have been seething for some time now, since the mishandling of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, in 2016. This was followed by the inhuman flogging of four Dalit youths in Una, Gujarat, by cow vigilantes - the video of the attack went viral and sparked protests, led by activist Jignesh Mevani who has since been elected an MLA from Gujarat.
Then the Yogi Adityanath government invoked and extended the stringent National Security Act against Chandrashekhar Azad, the chief of the new Dalit organisation, the Bhim Sena, soon after he was granted bail in a case of violence in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, a casteist attack on a Dalit celebration in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village led to the death of a young man.
There is some change. The Dalits have realised their power as they number over 300 million, constituting 25 per cent of the population. They are tired of the old paternalism, practised even by the various parties that claim to exclusively espouse their cause. Generations of quotas have only got them more jobs that are at lower levels and, in the countryside, they are largely labourers. Now, they are discovering new ways of assertion.
Dalit study circles have come up in several universities, creating and reinforcing a highly literate leadership - literacy among Dalits has risen from 10 per cent in 1961 to 66 per cent in 2011, though it is still lower than the national average of 74 per cent. Babasaheb Ambedkar has emerged as an icon, rescued from the obscurity he was consigned to after the drafting of the Constitution, which defines the idea of modern India.
A new language of protest is unfolding, informed by a deep sense of history as well as folklore, buttressed by a galaxy of talented writers, poets and performers, and imbued with an understanding of the community’s electoral power - 84 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha are reserved for Scheduled Castes, 40 of which went to the BJP in the 2014 general election.
But the government’s attempts to assuage Dalit resentment have been seen as nothing more than a retreading of old cliches, whether it is appointing a Dalit President, paying tribute to forgotten Dalit leaders like Kerala’s Ayyankali, launching Standup India on the birth anniversary of Babu Jagjivan Ram, or even marking the 10th anniversary of the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry by assembling more than one thousand Dalit entrepreneurs in New Delhi and proclaiming them to be stakeholders in India’s growth story.
Dalits, in fact, have emerged as the new pivotal community in the complex electoral caste matrix of India. Every party now has to work hard to court them. Although Mayawati’s BSP represents the Dalits, her losses in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha elections have created a vacuum in the Dalit leadership. The Dalit vote bank, therefore, is all the more alluring. The BJP has reached out to non-Jatav Dalit communities by propping up Dalit leaders such as Thawar Chand Gehlot and forging alliances with Dalit leaders such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athavale.
The RSS has also newly embraced Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Congress, on the other hand, is trying to combine the Muslim and Dalit votes along with the upper caste votes as an anti-BJP vote bank. However, given their minority status outside the reserved constituencies, Dalits are aware of the risks of being marginalised as they forge links with other communities and mainstream parties.
Our cover story by senior associate editor Kaushik Deka delves into the politics of the Dalit power. With general elections a year away, the jockeying for the Dalit vote is intensifying. How it plays out is an open question, but there is little doubt that whoever captures their vote will have a distinct advantage.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Dalit Power; April 16, 2018.)