On the eve of the moving of the Draft Constitution in 1949, Dr. Ambedkar expressed his insurmountable fear over the existing inequalities in Indian society. He observed:
“On 26th Jan 1950 we are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life we shall by reason of our social and economic structure continue to deny the principle of one man, one value.”
Dr. Ambedkar was well aware of the discrimination faced by Dalits due to the institutionalised caste system. He said: “On the social plane, we have an India based on the principles of graded inequality, which means elevation of some and degradation of others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty.”
Dr. Ambedkar's observations were true, made on the basis of some of his own painful experiences, when way back in 1918 in spite of attaining high educational qualifications he was not allowed to drink water from a pot ‘reserved' for the high caste professorial staff at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai. Dr. Ambedkar realised then that education had not succeeded in bringing out the desired attitudinal change in most of the “upper” caste people towards Dalits. “Upper caste” in village or city even with the highest degrees shared the same mindset when issues of Dalits emerged.
Only recently, on 15 February 2012, at Daulatpur village in Haryana's Uklana region, a Dalit youth had to face the wrath of an upper caste when in a bid to quench his thirst he drank water from a pot located on his premises. Once his caste became known, his hand was chopped off with a sickle. Even though we are living in the 21 century and make claims of having the world's largest democracy, there is little change in the attitude of the upper caste towards Dalits, literate or illiterate.
Surveys* show that 27.6% of Dalits are still prevented from entering police stations and 25.7% from entering ration shops. Thirty-three per cent of public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes, and 23.5% of Dalits still do not get letters delivered in their homes. Segregated seating arrangements for Dalits are found in 30.8% of self-help groups and cooperatives, and 29.6% of panchayat offices. In 14.4% of villages, Dalits are not permitted even to enter the panchayat building. In 12% of villages, they are denied access to polling booths or forced to form a separate line.
In 48.4% of villages, Dalits are still denied access to common water sources. In 35.8%, they are denied entry into village shops. They are supposed to wait at some distance from the shop, the shopkeepers keep the goods they bought on the ground, and accept their money similarly without direct contact. In teashops, again in about one-third of the villages, Dalits are denied seating and are required to use separate cups. In as many as 73% of the villages, they are not permitted to enter non-Dalit homes, and in 70% of villages non-Dalits do not eat together with Dalits.
In more than 47% villages, bans operate on wedding processions on public (arrogated to upper caste) roads. In 10 to 20% of villages, Dalits are not allowed even to wear clean, bright or fashionable clothes or sunglasses. They are not allowed to ride their bicycles, unfurl their umbrellas, wear sandals on public roads, smoke or even stand without the head bowed.
Restrictions on temple entry average as high as 64%, ranging from 47% in Uttar Pradesh to 94% in Karnataka. In 48.9% of the surveyed villages, Dalits are barred from access to the cremation grounds.
In 25% of the villages, Dalits are paid lower wages than other workers. They are often subjected to much longer working hours, delayed wages, verbal and even physical abuse, not just in ‘feudal' States like Bihar but also notably in Punjab. In 37% of the villages, Dalit workers are paid wages from a distance, to avoid physical contact.
In 35% of villages, Dalit producers are still barred from selling their produce in local markets. Instead, they are forced to sell it in the anonymity of distant urban markets where caste identities somewhat blur, imposing additional burdens of costs and time, and reducing their profit margin and competitiveness.
Just because they happen to be born in the “wrong community,” Dalit families are subjected to some of the extreme forms of humiliation and degradation generation after generation. They are treated as worse than animals. So much so, now most of them have internalised discrimination as their fate and they dare not raise voice against their tormentor for fear of punishment. For, they know even if they protest they have no hope of getting justice. That is because a majority of the positions in the government set-up are occupied by the “upper castes.”
And even if with great difficulty a lower caste person tries to make it to those positions, he is kept out through shrewd manipulations. Between 1950 and 2000, 47% of Chief Justices and 40% of judges were of Brahmin origin, according to a parliamentary committee report. In order to continue their monopoly over important positions, upper caste people have fought tooth and nail using all possible means to keep Dalits from even dreaming of aspiring for those positions.
To break the domination of upper castes, it became necessary to introduce affirmative action for and positive discrimination of Dalits, as part of the policy of the government. But implementing positive discrimination has not been an easy task and many seats reserved exclusively for Dalits still remain vacant, again because of the shrewd manipulations of the dominating castes.
In spite of traditions of high educational qualifications, many feign ignorance of the constitutional laws; rather they do not want to understand them because of their vested interests. In spite of glaring atrocities against Dalits, they are reluctant to share with them positions their families have been holding for ages. Complicity of the state makes situation worse, allowing crime against Dalits continue. Equality remains on paper.
Even today, given a chance many still do not hesitate to shift all the blame on the colonial regime for most of the ills existing in Indian society, especially for dividing the country. The British government even today is being accused of making a mockery of civilisation and its principles by its hypocritical actions. But now their place is taken over by our own country brethren, the only difference being ‘hypocritical action' is directed against their own countrymen.
Some of the “upper castes,” it seems, are bent on leaving behind Britishers when it comes to the issues of oppression. Dalits are targeted most because the perpetrators are aware that they are not empowered. On July 11, 1997, sub-inspector M.Y. Kadam left General Dyer of Jallianwalabagh massacre behind, when he fired shots at his own countrymen and co-religionist Dalit protesters, above the waist, who had gathered in Ramabai colony in Mumbai in protest against desecration of Dr Ambedkar's statue.
Moral and ethical issues and democratic values get subordinated in the face of corruption perpetuated by the oppressive caste system. There is not even the remotest desire to make democracy more functional. The caste system with graded inequality remains popular amongst those whose privileges are associated with it. For the same reason, the idea of egalitarian society fails to gain currency in their quarters. Lessons like, “United we stand and divided we fall” are hard to learn and even if by mistake they are learnt, they become hard to implement. Caste is meant to divide, not unite. A nation which lost its freedom on that account should be cautious, lest its divisions drive it to a state of subservience to an alien rule again. What ‘hidden pride' lies in discriminating against and oppressing one's own countrymen and co-religionists is hard to discern.
* (The details of the surveys have been sourced from the book, Untouchability in Rural India, authored by Ghanshyam Shah, Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar published by SAGE Publications, New Delhi,2006).
(The writer is Head, Department of History, BBAU, Lucknow, Email ID is: shuradarapuri@ gmail.com)