Caste is inlaid in a pre-determined hierarchy. It is something one cannot choose, but inherits. Caste matters a lot in everyday life, and marriages are negotiated on that basis. It plays a decisive role in elections and, as the saying goes, ‘Indians do not cast their vote but vote their caste'!
Dalits, as is known, are a bloc of castes in the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy that stand condemned as ‘untouchables'. If every sixth person in the world is an Indian, every sixth Indian is a Dalit.
In spite of the constitutional guarantee of civil rights and the special law enacted (in 1989) to prevent atrocities against them, the Dalits continue to be the victims of social discrimination and oppression across the country.
While the ‘outcast' is abhorred, there is, ironically, a craze for acquiring the ‘Scheduled Castes' tag. In fact, the demand is so high that producing fake SC certificates has become a small-scale industry of sorts. In the current era of liberalisation, governments are gradually relinquishing their role as service providers and taking on the role of facilitators or policy initiators. As a result, governments have been tightening their fists in some crucial segments of social sector. But they extend small tokens of help to the SCs, and the reasons are obvious. In a sense, the ‘lust' for SC certificates is a pernicious fallout of the spasmodic pleasantness shown by governments for their self-preservation.
In this book, Anupama Rao examines the irony of the Dalits having no security of life or dignity, despite all the legal protection they enjoy. She has based her work on a study of Mahars, a socially oppressed group of western India. Members of this community rebel against the discriminatory practices, individually as well as collectively — both as a caste group and as a constituent of the SC bloc. The strategy they adopt included the demand for recognition and separate political representation as a ‘minority', apart from embracing Buddhism. The book has two sections, besides an introduction and an epilogue. The one titled ‘emancipation' contains three papers, and the second — ‘the paradox of emancipation' — comprises four. A few of the papers have been published earlier in academic journals.
Dalit history is the “history of India's political modernity,” Rao reminds us and adds, thoughtfully, that ‘Dalit democratisation' — a term that refers to a democratic process which recognises and works for the collective rights and group emancipation of Dalits — happened not because of the expansion of liberal individualism or of any violent subaltern revolution. For the ‘liberals' — those who believe in individual autonomy and least regulation by state — separation from community will mean emancipation. For Dalits, however, individual freedom can be achieved only by removing the ‘caste stigma' that attaches to the community. Hence, unlike any liberal assertion, the movement for ‘Dalit democracy' lunged forward seeking group recognition and minority rights. Similarly, unlike subaltern militants, Dalit leaders (including B.R. Ambedkar) invoked constitutional and political rights to seek social and religious emancipation.
A question worth investigating is whether Dalits are more vulnerable to violence after Independence than they were earlier? And if ‘yes' — as indeed it seems — is it because they have become more assertive now? Previously, religion and tradition could be blamed for Dalits' vulnerability and discriminatory treatment. But now, for all the help they are getting from government, Dalits seem to have become more vulnerable and much less self-reliant than earlier. Instead of enhancing the level of self-confidence in them, affirmative action by the state would appear to have rendered them unwilling to resist domination by the upper castes. The terms of Dalit enfranchisement and forms of governmental help have increased “conjunctural violence” against Dalits, says Rao. If the literature of Dalit Panthers is replete with ‘warnings' and ‘threats', it is because Dalits as a class meet with so much of violence in their lives these days.
Anupama Rao, who has made a mark in Historical Anthropology, is known for her untiring effort in ferreting out data across disciplines and widening the theoretical expanse of her research. Sadly, some of the passages, especially where she tries to make a theoretical assertion or a philosophical reflection, are difficult to read. Also, she could do with a good copy editor.