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Dalit protest, identity and outcry against caste hegemony & apartheid: An overview
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Dalit protest, identity and outcry against caste hegemony & apartheid: An overview

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Grishma Manikrao Khobragade

November 2013.

Even after 65 years of Independence, the Dalits in India have to face common discrimination and cruel treatment from upper caste. It is to be noted that the caste system and a social identity based on caste are prevalent only in India and not in any part of the globe. Indian society is full of caste discrimination, a fact which many studies point out. In spite of several anti-caste discrimination laws and provisions, violation of these norms is a regular feature. Even the UN has been making efforts to combat discriminatory practices still faced by Dalits of India. It is estimated that India has even failed to uphold existing laws against caste discriminations and violations of human rights. Further, Dalits are also seen segregated in all walks of life and forced to live in deplorable conditions and there are many cases wherein they are abused on all counts by the people of upper castes. Violence against Dalits is manifested in all kinds of inhuman atrocities, rapes and murders. Hence, caste discrimination is also considered as the root cause of violence against Dalits and it acts as hidden apartheid in India.

Untouchablilty is a term closely linked with discrimination. It can be traced from ancient time in Indian society operating as a social institution. Untouchablilty also has its own socio-economic reasons behind it – causes which divide the society into different fragments having different social status. In the present time, the practice of untouchability is pervasive both in the rural and urban areas and this has affected all aspects of daily life. Dalits often reside in separate locations such as slums, with separate wells or water tanks in many villages in India. They are frequently not allowed to take out processions on public roads which pass through the settlements of higher caste. They are denied entry to temples, are made to find menial work under the most humiliating conditions and are abused by the upper classes. Although India has prohibited caste discrimination in its Constitution, in practice this is not seen enforced. The continuation of the practice of untouchability is thus contrary to constitutional provision of abolition of untouchablilty (Article 17) and different criminal laws are enacted to eradicate such a social evil as untouchability. Discriminating a person on the basis of his caste is, on record, prohibited. Along with this law, the government allows positive discrimination of the depressed classes of India, to empower them.

Equality, fraternity liberty and social justice are considered the foundations of the Indian Constitution – the Constitution which grants all citizens social justice, political visibility, equal status, equality before law, freedom of speech and thoughts, freedom of faiths, and the freedom to choose one’s profession. However it is proved in studies that though the nation has achieved political justice, it has not truly accomplished social and economical justice. The inequality between caste and class in various fields is not yet addressed and this inequality has erected many barriers to Dalit’s liberation and, by extension, to development in India.

It is also imperative to understand the meaning and implications of the term ‘Dalit’ while discussing the problems of Dalits. The word Dalit has been defined differently by different people. Normally non-Dalit writers and intellectuals have invented its root in Sanskrit and considered its meaning as ‘broken, crack, split’ and used as an adjective they have given this word the meanings of ‘burst, split, broken or torn asunder, downtrodden, scattered, crushed, destroyed’ etc. But for Dalits, the meaning of this word is qualitatively different. The word was popularised by the Dalit Panther Movement, when they adopted this term as an act of confident assertion, rejecting Mahatma Gandhi’s nomenclature of Harijan, children of God. Dalit Panthers defined this word in their 1972 manifesto as ‘a member of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, neo-Buddhist, the working-people, the land-less and poor peasants, women, and all those who are being exploited politically, economically, and in the name of religion.’ Noted Dalit Laureate Gangadhar Pantawane wrote: “Dalit is not a caste; Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of god, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, fate, and heaven because these make him a slave.” While the informed Dalit tend to agree that the ancient beliefs of Hinduism (Brahmanism) are the root cause of their sufferings, most accept a narrower view of membership than the above definitions suggest. Both Dalit and non-Dalit Indians see the term relating only to the Scheduled Castes (the untouchables of the past) and the Scheduled Tribes (the adivasis or the indigenous people of India).

Discrimination and violence against Dalits are reported even these days. The reasons cited are various, including the failure of the Indian government and authorities to take enough measures to stop such inhuman acts. It is also said in the media that such acts happen with the support of local police machinery and corrupt judiciary system or as they reject the principle of fair conduct for Dalits. One can say that the nation has failed to protect the poor Dalits against the exploitation from powerful classes. The ruling class creates false impression of democracy and social justice through institution of civil society, education policy, the media, political parties, cultural organization, and charitable groups. All these symptoms indicate the marginal position and the incapability of Dalit.

To understand the root cause of the social problem, one has to go into the 3000-year old social institution, that is, the caste system. The priests and law-makers used to be at the highest point of the social pyramid prepared of four classes, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. The untouchables or shudra were those who did not fit into this system of organization, either by birth or by the nature of their work. The caste system was perpetuated by cultural practices and religious belief in the law of karma, that the lower castes are there by virtue of them being punished for sins in a previous life. The Brahmins used to have a vested interest in getting the caste system perpetuated and they could influence laws or religion. Shudras, on the other hand, gained little support from the other backward classes as they themselves were the victims of discrimination.

However, social reformers in India realized the dangers of untouchablilty and a movement against it had started from within the larger framework of the Freedom Struggle itself. They successfully fought all the practices that legitimized untouchability. One should also keep in mind that fact that India is the first country in the world which has taken affirmative actions against discrimination as a national policy. Even then, studies now and then come up with the suggestion that a rigorous socio legal action based on economic liberation is the effective solution for the social problem of Dalit.

It is necessary to understand the structure of caste system to get sensitized to the dalit issues. Caste has always been a significant factor of Indian society. It can be considered as a part of the global feature of class dialectics. Human history has been marked with frequent struggles between the two contrasting forces; between the ruler in the form of exploiters and the subjects in the form of the exploited, making the polarities of the strong and the weak, the dominant and the weak, the oppressor and the oppressed. Exploitation of the weaker by the powerful is as old as the history of mankind itself. It is also an unavoidable part of the power dynamics functioning in any human situation. Exploitation is a process by which a strong group attempts to manage and exploit the weaker group by using its all resources in order to further and protect its own interests. In this struggle for supremacy, the strong group uses its power and all means of domination, exploitation and humiliation. The class of oppressors does not favour the independence of the exploited. Therefore, it always attempts to install a sense of inferiority among the exploited citing the legacy of their inferior culture. The constant conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the Black and the White, the low caste and the high caste is the unique feature of the modern world history. Caste system can be thus considered as a product of this class dynamics. Since the formation of the Varna or the caste system, Dalits have been segregated from the rest of the community through the inhuman and illogical practice of untouchability. Thus, one can consider untouchability as the primary tool of the caste system. Dalits have also been called as Shudras and thus labeling and language too have been agencies of oppression and discrimination.

A history of the Indian caste system shows that the hegemonic and political aspirations of the higher caste sought the marginalization, degradation and division of Dalits from the mainstream of life. They were pushed away into the margins of social, cultural, political and economic spheres of life and of the community in general. The terrible senses of depression, agony and the subsequent sense of enmity which Dalits experience have their origin in the revolt against the primitive instincts of the powerful to dominate and crush the weak and establish their hegemony of all kinds. Besides, the caste system and the cultural productions such as belief, values, and writing were completely exploited by the upper classes for naturalizing an extremely inhuman and unnatural treatment of Dalits and by labelling them as hideous subhuman, substandard and wicked. It is relevant at this stage to explore the reasons and the rationale that were used to justify the practice of untouchability. In the ancient Hindu social system that was responsible for the ageless and endless pain and sufferings of Dalits, the four Varna based on various occupations were at the centre of the social structure. This Varna system was the root cause of untouchability.

The rigid hierarchy of the Indian caste system has been severely criticized by individuals with a humanitarian vision from India and outside India. Gautam Buddha, Mahavir, Kabir, Eknath, Tukaram, Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj and all led criticisms of caste system in India in olden times. The caste system is still very much a reality in India and the effects of caste system in modern India can be seen in the form of quota systems, reservations, marriages etc.

Modernization and urbanization have had effects on caste system. Metropolitan India has started walking away from the rigidity of the Indian caste system. This is the result of cohabitation with other communities, higher education, globalization and economic growth. Though the government of India has decided to issue job quotas to the less privileged castes and the so called backward classes, caste based reservations in India have ignited the communal fire in a different way, at least in the urban spaces.

Indians of the modern era have also become more flexible in their caste system. In general the urban people in India are less regimental about the caste system than the rural ones. In Urban, area one can see people of different caste helping each other, while in some rural areas there is still discrimination based on castes and untouchability. Sometimes in villages or in the cities there are violent clashes which, are connected to caste tensions. Sometimes the high castes strike the lower castes who dare to uplift their status. Sometimes the lower castes get back on the higher castes.

It is also important to understand the meaning of the word caste in the modern context. The term, caste was used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British who wanted to rule India systematically made lists of Indian communities. They used two terms to describe Indian communities – Castes and tribes. The term caste was used for Jatis and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities that lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the mainstream population and also communities that were hard to be defined as castes, for example, communities that made a living from stealing or robbery. These lists, which the British made, were used later on by the Indian governments to create lists of communities that were entitled for positive discrimination.

The castes, which were the elite of the Indian society, were called the high castes. The other communities were classified as lower castes or lower classes. The lower classes were listed in three categories. The first category was called Scheduled Castes (S.C.). This category had in it communities that were untouchables. Until the late 1980s they were called Harijan, i.e. children of God. This name was given by Mahatma Gandhi who wanted the society to acknowledge untouchables within them. The second category is that of the Scheduled Tribes (S.T) which includes in it those communities which do not accept the caste system and choose to live in jungles, forests and mountains of India, away from the society. The Scheduled Tribes are also called Adivasis, which means aboriginals. The third category is known by the name Other Backward Classes (O.B.C.) or Backward Classes. This category includes in it castes which belong to Shudra Varna and also former untouchables who convert from Hinduism to other religions. This category also includes in it nomads and tribes that make a living from criminal acts. Together SC, ST, and OBC, low caste Minority Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists are known as Dalits. According to the central government policy, these three categories are entitled for positive discrimination. Along with the central government, the state governments of India also follow a positive discrimination policy.

Discrimination in the form of denial of opportunities and denial of promotion are some of the problems faced by those, who manage to get jobs. The education system also shows signs of maltreatment, with cases of Dalit students being issued different colored school entrance forms and exam answer scripts from non-Dalit students. Thus, in spite of the positive discrimination policy, most of the communities that were low caste in Varna system or hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. Most of the degrading jobs especially in villages are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans and caste Hindus occupy top positions.

Dalitbahujan literature is often used to encourage their culture and to proclaim their, self- respect, identity and rights. As atrocities against the Dalits continue in the society, Dalit literature continues to be protest literature. With reference to this protest ideology, Anil Chauhan rightly comments:

The ideologies of the protest movement among backward classes are characterized by relative deprivation in the religious, economic, political, civic and educational areas of social life. These are pivoted around conflict and opposition at different structural levels. Ideologies of the backward classes’ movements are double edged, expressing the feeling of dissatisfaction, dissent and protest with the existing situation and working out a positive programme for removing the malady. The former typifies protest and conflict and the latter, social transformation and change. (Chauhan: 2001:165)

Dalit writers therefore, not only bring out the problems that Dalits faced under rigid brahmanical social structure, but also make efforts to eradicate the superstitions and disparity in the Dalit community. Though all Dalit writers have not touched upon the issue of caste discrimination and hegemony very effectively, still the impact of Dalit literature amongst Dalit as well as on other community is noteworthy. Through the literature a new social consciousness is infused among the Dalit community and this impact or sensitivity may manifest itself in political action in future. Dalit literature in itself is none the less than a movement in the Indian cultural history, in which Dalits play a significant role in cultural revival and social restoration.

Dalit writings and movement in fact have been influencing each other. The writings served and still continue to serve as a moral source for Dalit movement. Hence it can be said that Dalit literature strengthened the movement and conversely, the movement made literature powerful. This process of mutual influence has been a source for an alternative ideological and philosophical movement to challenge the caste system. Dalit literature has also organized human masses and created the landscape on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position and struggle. It is also concerned with the figures of self assertion and protest and the ways of a mission and creation of an identity. Further, it is democratizing the social relations among different communities. The literary writing, symbols and expressions have played a vital role in this process.

Dalit literature basically is, thus, counter-hegemonic. The ideas which the writers develop reflect their own social consciousness determined by their structured social existence. Dalit writers hence come from a most subjugated class and caste origin. They necessary share a common critical attitude towards the hegemonic upper caste ideologies. In search of their new socio-cultural identity and difference they have developed their own writing style and skills with their own historical symbols and literary concepts.

Dalit literature gave a new identity to Dalits by projecting them as people who are seeking dignity and fighting for their rights not by indulging in violence but through literature. Some scholars were of the opinion that though the revolutionary songs and hymns of poets reflected the sufferings of the downtrodden, they lack the reformatory zeal and bitter condemnation of Brahmanism and caste system that reflect the influence of Kabir and Tukaram. Though there is a difference in tone between the poetry of Kabir and Ravidass, both convey the same message. The poetry of Dalit poets like Ravidas is known to be full of humility and revolt, but at the same time, it is equally imbibed with reformatory zeal and concern for the downtrodden. Instead of bluntly snubbing the arrogance of higher castes, he undertook to raise the dignity of his own caste and profession, so that the higher castes could come to realize the shallowness of their self-imposed superiority.

In fact, Dalit writer’s life and their literature, especially autography and poetry, provided an inspiration to the downtrodden to struggle for their human rights and social liberties. The protest approach of Dalit writers were a non-violent struggle for the emancipation and empowerment of the Dalit bahujan. Though they combined humility with protest, they elevated and purified the so-called Dalits. It is in this context that this non-violent struggle based on bloodless revolution assumed special importance for the emancipation of the Dalits. Dalit writers envisioned a democratic model of state for ensuring human rights and civil liberties for all alike.

In the Indian context, Caste system is the foundation of Brahmanism on which the entire structure of caste discrimination has been erected. Brahmanism as a doctrine of hierarchy and inequality is strengthened and consolidated in India. In other countries like South Africa, records say that, the blacks were and are suffering from social discrimination and lack and denial of equal opportunity, right to education, arms and property thus making it all the monopoly of the Whites. Under monopoly, the slaves had no option of any kind for liberty. Lack of aspiration, initiatives and incentives to the blacks helped to preserve and increase economic inequalities in Capitalist class. In slavery, the master at any rate had the liability to feed, clothe and house the slave and keep him in good condition lest the market value of the slave should decrease and the condition of blacks in olden times was no better than slaves.

It was Nelson Mandela who gathered his followers against the dominant national movement and elite class reformists. He criticized on one side the dominant nationalist leader and the movement of being interested only in perpetuating the servile and the lowly conditions of the blacks as the objective of the blacks had changed from good government to self-government. On the other hand he criticized elite class reformers for their superior attitude and not espousing the real conditions of the blacks. Nelson Mandela argued that the blacks formed a separate entity from the elite and, though they might be having same culture, it is a separate society having its separate interest and separate representation. The situation of Blacks in Africa and the situation of Dalits in India are comparable as both have been at the receiving end of discrimination in some forms. In this sense, the term apartheid can be used in Indian context to describe an organized highhandedness of one class of people over another as in racism.

Like hegemony, Apartheid is also a conspiracy of the Capitalist class. It is dreadful social virus that swallows away harmony. A Black suffers from it both physically and notionally. Though apartheid and Casteism are similar, Apartheid of Africa could attract the attention of international community but untouchability of India has not gained so much international attention. It is strange that civilized nations and even UN have not been able to resolve this problem.

The apartheid system empowered minority on the ground of being racially superior. It would be difficult to say that end of apartheid means the end of racial prejudices. There has been re-emergence of racial prejudices in its varied forms in different countries as for instance is the caste based discrimination in South Asian countries. In India, though the evil practice of casteism has no legal sanction, it has social sanction.

In general, prejudice is the cause of racial and other forms of inequality and discrimination is propelled by this prejudice and directed towards social groups such as Blacks or Dalits. As an attitude apartheid combines beliefs, values and judgments, and positive or negative emotions that White direct at blacks. It nourishes stereotyped beliefs about racial differences in such areas as intelligence, motivation, moral character and ability. Other differences are then judged according to cultural values to the detriment of people of colour. It also generates attitudes such as hostility, contempt and fear between two races. Since people of colour in Europe and the U. S. live in the dominant culture of White, racial prejudice will also to some degree affect blacks as to how they perceive, evaluate and feel about themselves. Exploitation is one of the outcomes of apartheid and casteism. Exploitation, incidentally, is a process by which a strong group attempts to control and exploit the weaker group by using its all resources in order to protect its own interests. In this supremacy dynamics, it uses its power and means for domination, exploitation and humiliation. The class of oppressors invariably discourages the independence of the exploited. Therefore, it always attempts to install a sense of inferiority complex in the exploited by forcing them to believe their culture is inferior. The constant conflicts between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the Black and the White and between the low caste Dalit and the caste Hindus in India have been the feature of the modern world history.

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Grishma Manikrao Khobragade is Assistant Professor, Dept of English, Birla College, Kalyan. email: khobragade-dot-grishma-at-yahoo-dot-com

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