In free India Dalits are still under siege. The fight against internal colonisation is yet to be won. Those who shaped Indian democracy and governed the Indian State have to address the following questions: How come the stranglehold of caste on Indian society is still impermeable? Why Dalits, women and tribes have not seen the light of freedom even today in Independent India? Why the atrocities on Dalits, including in Punjab, often make headlines in the media?
The most important reason for the continuous reinforcement of the caste segregation is the strong ideological basis that blocked all three sources of empowerment of the Dalits, namely, knowledge, political power and wealth. In contrast to the Protestant ethics, traditionally in India soiling hands was rated by the elites as demeaning whereas idlers enjoyed social status. Such happened to be the impact of Brahminical ideology that the working people constituted of peasants, artisans, servants and the like were deemed to be only half human as they were debarred from wearing the sacred thread (Janeu). Still worse, more than one-fifth of the population, what we now call the Scheduled Castes, did not have any human rights as they were dropped out of the human index.
The Brahminical ideology of exclusion is far more powerful than the Western ideologies of medieval Europe. In Europe, once the ‘king’ was beheaded, wealthy class of traders and manufacturers took over the reins of political power. The tremors of change of political balance of power were so strong that even the priestly class felt shaky and accepted subordination. However, in India the spiritual/moral order remains intertwined with the economic and political order in such a way that any radical change is aborted even before it takes off. The sporadic resistance movements did leave their imprint but they were no match to the collective dominance of the power elites and eventually were overshadowed by the dominant discourse.
The way political economy of the Brahminical ideology works is unparalleled. All hazardous jobs are declared to be polluting (impure) by ‘religious’ decree and thus to be paid for nominal wages even when those jobs are indispensable for society. Thus a disconnect introduced by the Brahminical ideology of ‘pure-impure’ between the exchange and use value of labour ensures the supply of cheap Dalit labour forced to live under inhuman conditions, akin to the medieval slavery of Europe. Our own field studies of Punjab and Haryana countryside showed that there is extensive use of bonded labour in the brick-kiln industry, and even in agriculture.
The pernicious impact of ‘pure-impure’ is not limited to the exclusion of the downtrodden; in fact, it divides the entire society into castes arranged hierarchically and reproduced continuously through endogamy.
State and Dalit empowerment
Dr B.R. Ambedkar was fully aware of the separation of castes with an iron curtain whereas the ruling elites’ interests successfully coalesced to the exclusion of the working masses. Chapter Four of the Constitution gave detailed directives to the Indian State to address social exclusion of Dalits, women, and tribes who are forced to live under inhuman conditions. In the light of the constitutional provisions separate ministries have been created to deal with caste and gender-based injustice; various commissions, directorates, institutes, foundations and even financial corporations are working to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of the Dalits, tribes, women and children. However, there is very little improvement on the ground.
Reservation was another response by the state to bring parity in the access to resources and to ensure equitable distribution of the fruits of development. However, reservation has not brought as much gains to the Dalits as it has made them an object of wrath of the general castes. For the past two and a half decades, ever since liberal economics has eclipsed state-centric development, the reservation in jobs and education are on the vain. The empowerment of Dalits, tribes and women through reservation in political institutions was a non-starter from the beginning. Unless the Dalits, tribes, and women in state Assemblies or in Parliament come together across parties they cannot serve the purpose. However, different political parties never let them come together even on Dalit issues, forfeiting the very purpose of reservation in politics.
The last-ditch effort to transfer the due share of development to the Dalits is the Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan under which their share of the budget, which is equal to their demographic proportion in the state, has to be separated and spent accordingly. However, for one reason or the other, separation of the Dalit budget has made little impact on the empowerment of Dalits.
Punjabi Dalits no different
There is a general belief that a prolonged history of humanist movements in Punjab, led by Sufis, saints and particularly founders of the Sikh religion, together has weakened the caste-based discriminations. But the facts belie the belief. The Dalits are opening parallel gurdwaras and at many places their cremation grounds are also separate. Forty per cent of the villages in Punjab have more than 40 per cent Dalit population and yet they cultivate only 3.2 per cent of the operational holdings. The Green Revolution has further pushed rural Dalits to the margin. Consequently, they constitute more than 61 per cent of the rural poor of Punjab. Quality education is also out of reach of the Dalits. The poverty among Dalits of Punjab is so rampant that 43 per cent Dalit women and 74 Dalit children in Punjab are anaemic.
Poverty and desperation for jobs have pushed many young Dalits to the dragnet of drug lords and liquor mafia, where they are paid paltry money for the distribution of liquor or drugs. The recent brutal murder of Dalit youth is the result of teaching them a lesson in case they show any resistance to the wishes of their masters. Drug lords, many patronised by politicians, are making merry while the rural poor are used as peddlers or consumers of the drugs/liquor.
In Punjab, the Adharam movement led by Mangu Ram and much later the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Kanshi Ram were serious political efforts to break the shackles of the Dalits of Punjab. Though both these movements have left indelible imprint on the Dalit liberation movement, Punjab is ripe for another Dalit revolution. This time the hope could be from a much broader social alliance than narrowly limited to the Dalits.
The writer is Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion, Panjab
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