Dalits see 'Hindutva agenda' in govt ban on 'Dalit'

Dalit activists and academics have condemned the Centre's recent ban on the word "Dalit" in official communications, saying it stemmed from fear of a word that symbolises oppression, unity and self-assertion and therefore implies the threat of rebellion.

By Basant Kumar Mohanty
  • Published 27.04.18
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New Delhi: Dalit activists and academics have condemned the Centre's recent ban on the word "Dalit" in official communications, saying it stemmed from fear of a word that symbolises oppression, unity and self-assertion and therefore implies the threat of rebellion.

"This ban is part of the Hindutva agenda; we'll resist it," said C. Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

The Gwalior Bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court had banned official use of the word in January this year since it "does not find mention in the Constitution of India or any statute".

Following this, the Union social justice and empowerment ministry directed state governments and autonomous institutions last month to use "Scheduled Caste" instead of "Dalit".

Lakshmanan said the government should have challenged the high court order.

Gurinder Azad, a Dalit activist, said the word "Dalit" suggested that a part of the population was being oppressed, thus implying that another group was the oppressor.

"The government wants to dilute this view of the social system that perpetuated inequality through caste, but we have a right to use the word," Azad said.

Dalit rights activist Paul Diwakar cited how the Khatiks were a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh but not in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka or Maharashtra. The Mahars are a Scheduled Caste in Maharashtra but not in Madhya Pradesh.

"But 'Dalit' is a common identity," he said.

Vivek Kumar, professor of sociology at the School of Social Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the government feared the word "Dalit" because it had the potential to galvanise the oppressed.

"The word 'Dalit' gives a pan-India identity to the community, making it a single homogeneous group, and carries the potential to inspire a national movement, as the Dalits' movement earlier this month showed. The government is scared of this word," Kumar said.

In 1990, too, the Centre had asked the states to use the constitutional term "Scheduled Caste" and its equivalent in other languages but not explicitly banned "Dalit". This order was reiterated in 2012.

In 1982, the Union home ministry had asked the states not to use the term "Harijan", which the Scheduled Castes found condescending or even outright offensive.

"Dalit", on the other hand, is far from derogatory, Lakshmanan asserted.

"It conveys assertion and pride."

He said the Scheduled Castes had themselves coined the term "Dalit" while words such as "depressed classes", "outcast", "Chandal", "Atisudra", "Mlechchha" and "Harijan" were devised by others to describe the untouchables.

B.R. Ambedkar had used the word "Dalit" in a pamphlet in 1936. But the label acquired popularity only after 1972 when the Dalit Panthers of India, a social organisation, mentioned it in its manifesto.

Since then, the word has received acceptance from the Scheduled Castes across the country, Lakshmanan said.

Y.S. Alone, a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU, said "Dalit" had become a unifying word for Scheduled Caste communities, whether they were Buddhist or Hindu.

"The word 'Dalit' is used as a cultural term for assertion and change," he said.

Diwakar said "Dalit" was the name the community had chosen for itself, and no law or policy could erase it.

"Is this really about the name or about erasing history?" he said.

"The official term is 'Scheduled Caste' and can by all means be used in official records but the term 'Dalit' is here to stay."