Close to seven decades after Independence, in many villages of India the nature of certain social equations has not changed from what they have been for centuries. Such villages continue to remain what Dr. B.R. Ambedkar called “sinks of localism, dens of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”. How else could one see certain recent incidents reported from Tumakuru in Karnataka about vi >llage barber shops denying haircuts for Dalits, temple festivities >remaining out-of-bounds for Dalit families, and other forms of prevalent discrimination? By all accounts these are not isolated incidents. Discrimination against Dalits is widespread and ingrained in the psyche across India, in rural settings in particular. In some places it takes the form of violent oppression, in others it is disguised yet omnipresent. To be fair, when the incidents in Tumakuru came to notice, the administration took corrective steps immediately. This suggests responsiveness on the part of the state to issues of social justice at least in some cases. But recurring acts and persisting practices against the Dalit community beg the question whether state response and constitutionalism alone are enough to overcome longstanding social injustice and prejudices in India’s villages.
In other words, has political justice — achieved in some respects over time by means of affirmative action — managed to overcome social injustice at all? The alacrity shown by state authorities in the Tumakaru cases reflects to some extent the political power gained by Dalits in India and the efficacy of the rule of law. After all, the Constitution guarantees the right to equality of all citizens and affirmative action for Dalits. Years of following the policy of affirmative action has yielded a high degree of participation and representation of Dalits in politics and in governance. But without progressive social consciousness permeating society at large, constitutionalism, state actions and political equations simply do not suffice. It would help if the political actors who have accommodated Dalits among their party and governance structures, due to the their sheer weight of numbers as a representative section, also believed in and worked as conduits for social transformation. Perhaps if Dalits were not merely accommodated but were accorded leadership roles in parties, that could aid this process of social activism. A >recent study pointed out that barring exceptions such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, the leadership of major political parties suffered from a clear diversity deficit, with Dalits being severely under-represented in the leadership across parties. Being made part of the political leadership — one way of being among the elite in the country — will not by itself guarantee the eradication of social prejudice, but it will be a step in the right direction.