‘Stage set to win negotiating ability’

As Dalits across Gujarat refuse to dispose of carcasses, the groundswell of anger is rising. We ask activist Martin Macwan if this can be channelled into a nationwide protest

Updated - July 30, 2016 05:18 pm IST

Published - July 30, 2016 04:25 pm IST

Dalits on a protest march in Ahmedabad. Photo: PTI

Dalits on a protest march in Ahmedabad. Photo: PTI

Martin Macwan founded the Navsarjan Trust in 1988 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to fight against the social and economic exploitation of Dalits. He has been a convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Named one of the five ‘outstanding human rights defenders’ by Human Rights Watch in 2005, he also won that year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Consistently battling to get Dalit oppression recognised as a “universal concern”, he spoke over telephone and email about how the Dalit protests in Gujarat could become the tipping point for a countrywide uprising.

Is this the first time Dalits have taken to this form of protest? Telling the upper castes: if the cow is your mother, you deal with her dead body! It appears very effective to me.

During the anti-reservation riots of 1982 in Gujarat, scavengers protested the violence by stopping street cleaning until the cities were stinking. During Partition, Pakistan was so terrified at the thought of scavengers moving to India and leaving faeces on the streets for the Muslims to clean, that they gave them special status equal to the national guards to convince them to stay back. The cruelty of the Una incident, where the police played second fiddle and the State did not cross the bureaucratic line, has pushed Dalits to the wall. They have decided to test caste Hindus and their own faith in their religion. “Is the cow holy and a mother to you? Please take care of it!” The impact is already visible. Dalits are politely turning down non-Dalit requests to dispose of carcasses and the stench from the rotten flesh is already in the air. The chief secretary of Gujarat has, for the first time, accepted that gau rakshaks are nothing but hooligans. The government now has to act to be true to its own words.

There is a huge amount of anger today. Yet, atrocities against Dalits are nothing new. What was the real trigger this time?

Atrocity is not a daily affair in Dalit lives but discrimination is. The educated younger generation today is more aware and influenced by Ambedkar and Phule. The regionalisation of print media used to block information about atrocity (from reaching) other areas. But social media has proved to be mightier than print media, besides being non-discriminatory. The visuals of the Una incident, the cruel flogging of the bare backs of Dalit youth, one of them only 17, in the presence of mocking policemen and a spineless civil society, was internalised by Dalit youth as their own bodies being flogged and ridiculed. Frustration on various counts — unaffordable private education, unemployment, discrimination at workplaces — was building up for a long time and images of the Patel agitation and the Kashmir violence were present in the minds of these youth.

Can Dalits use this opportunity to channel and nationalise the anger meaningfully?

In 2000, Dalits found a unique opportunity to get together as a national force during the United Nations World Conference against Racism, when a strategic movement ensured that the issue of caste found a place on the conference agenda. The Indian government tried everything to block the discussion on caste with arguments such as “There is no longer any untouchability in India” and “Caste is an internal matter of India”, unlike Nepal which accepted caste as a human rights violation. This was even with the National Human Rights Commission supporting the Dalits. This time, the print and electronic media helped immensely to bring Dalits across States to come together. Equally, other communities too have sympathised with Dalits.

How can Dalit organisations support them nationally?

The protest this time has been more community-led than organisation-led. Organisations joined later. Their role has been to streamline the protest in a meaningful direction. They bring in research, technical expertise such as legal assistance for the trials and for articulation. The organisations nationwide become a link with people across all States.

Mass grassroots protests seem best to demand change. What are the obstructions that prevent Dalits from uniting in action?

From my experience, I would say that in any social movement, especially that of dismantling caste, fear followed by internalisation of the oppressive ideology are the major obstructions; they demand very long-term work towards organising the community. It is not that the people who are exploited do not know the law. The fact is, caste sanctioned by religion is more powerful than the Constitution, and the State too is found supporting caste rather than the Constitution.

The second major block I see is the ineffective political leadership of Dalit representatives in the house. Dr. Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate to ensure the effective political representation of Dalits but he was forced to agree to political reservations due to Gandhi’s fast unto death. Today, there are 84 Scheduled Caste members in Parliament but to date they have never stalled Parliament, whether against manual scavenging or rampant atrocities, because their primary loyalty is to their political parties. However, Dalits, who may be treated as ‘untouchables’, hold 16.5 per cent of votes, which are not ‘untouchable’ — a reason why Dalits have been able to draw attention to their situation.

Andre Beteille famously said: “Some people (the Dalits) had to do all the dirty work, so that others could continue with their notions of ritual purity.” What if Dalits across India refused to remove human waste or clean sewers? It would bring social order as we know it to a standstill.

The most poor among the below-poverty-line populace are Dalits. Pre-independence laws such as those in Punjab prohibited them from buying property as they were supposed to serve the ‘dominant castes’ according to the Manusmriti. This added to Dalit landlessness. Post-independence land reforms aimed at redistribution of land succeeded in Gujarat in favour of the Patels but miserably failed in the case of Dalits and tribals. Reservation has been ill implemented, where thousands of jobs reserved for Dalits have not been filled. Hence, for survival, many Dalits continue to do caste-based occupations, a vicious cycle of confinement to the caste structure. To be able to protest for a sustained period, economic self-sustainability is a pre-condition. After 70 years of Independence, the stage is now set for ‘negotiating ability’.

The Prime Minister has been totally silent on the issue. What are your hopes from him and from the ruling party?

He is the chief architect, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, dividing the nation into caste and religion, pushing ahead the political concept of a majority based on religious identity. However, it is important to remember that in the context of India, religion and caste are two inseparable sides of a coin. This is the reason for caste divisions in Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, though their doctrines don’t support caste and their origin is sometimes in anti-caste movements. The Prime Minister has been able to win the elections but has not been an icon of social change, although he claims identity as a member of the ‘OBC’. He has little option but to be silent.

What more can be done proactively by way of reforms?

Implementation of land reforms, the filling of job vacancies under Reservation, the introduction of Reservation in the private sector, a promise that the UPA failed intentionally to stand by, and setting up a fund for higher education for Dalits and tribals — these are the important steps to contain unrest.

How should we discuss the Gujarat ‘development model’ in the Dalit context?

Gujarat has been the model for India to showcase how inequality and development can co-exist.

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