No end to discrimination against Dalits

A Dalit Delhi University professor writes to prime minister in anguish, seeking permission to use an AK-56 in self-defence. But neither Hindus nor police seem inclined to end discrimination

Representative (IANS Photo)
Representative (IANS Photo)

Ram Shiromani Shukla

A drum beater in a Haryana village warning Dalits against venturing near the well. Meghwal community members in a Chittorgarh village (Rajasthan) boycotted by upper castes for taking out a baraat with the groom riding a horse. School children in Uttarakhand allegedly refusing to eat midday meals prepared by a Dalit ‘Bhojan Mata’. Members of a housing society in Aligarh objecting to a ‘Bhandara’ arranged on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. Protesters in Andhra Pradesh torching police vehicles while agitating against renaming one part of the bifurcated East Godavari District as ‘BR Ambedkar Konaseema District’—are just a few recent examples of discrimination and acrimony directed at the Dalits.

Is it a crime to be a Dalit in India, asked the anguished relatives of a 26-year-old Dalit singer in Delhi. She was allegedly abducted and killed in Haryana by a man with whom she was allegedly in a relationship earlier. But the grouse of the relatives was that although they did the hard work and tracked the CCTV footage at an eatery on the highway which showed the woman with the man, the police did not act quickly enough. Instead, they were abused at the police station and sent back with the police saying that the woman would return the next day.

Her body was found buried a few days later. What indeed is the percentage of Dalits in the police? Would Delhi Police have been as insensitive if there were more Dalits in their ranks?

The story of Sagwan Housing Society in Aligarh is even more bizarre. While some members objected to the Bhandara organised by Ambedkarites in the housing complex, police dismantled the arrangements on the pretext that no permission was obtained. When members escalated the issue to the district administration, they were told they needed no permission for holding a bhandara.

Reacting to attempts by the Uttarakhand Government to ‘settle’ the controversy over midday meals prepared by Dalit Bhojan Matas, experts point out that practising untouchability in any form was a punishable crime. “The law would require teachers and parents who objected to be arrested and sentenced; that alone would have taught the children about the law,” said lawyer Sanjay Rawat.

While the BJP and RSS have worked overtime to claim that Hindus no longer encourage caste divides, that Dalits were equal Hindus, the reality on the ground appears vastly different. While RSS and BJP leaders ritualistically get themselves photographed having meals in houses of Dalits, videos of Hindu godmen cringing when Dalits try to touch their feet are fairly common.

A research paper published in 2018 based on block-level data to study caste-based residential segregation in India found that 30% of Delhi’s neighbourhood, 60% of Kolkata’s and 80% of Rajkot’s did not have any Dalit or Adivasi. It is in this context that the arrest of Prof Ratan Lal of Delhi University recently infuriated people. Delhi Police picked him up from the teachers’ quarters allotted to the Dalit academic by the university late at night. Days ago he had written a sarcastic post on Facebook on the claim that a ‘Shivalinga’ had been found in the Gyanvapi mosque of Varanasi. Delhi Police claimed to have acted on a complaint filed by someone who claimed that his religious sentiments had been hurt by the post.

Luckily for Prof Ratan Lal, his students, colleagues and civil society rallied to his support and gathered post-midnight at the police station to demand his release. The reaction was so severe that Delhi Police neither opposed his bail nor sought police remand. The court observed that just because one man had claimed that his sentiments had been hurt did not mean that sentiments of the majority of the Hindus had been hurt.

After being released, the anguished professor announced that he would be renouncing Hinduism and publicly embrace Buddhism at Jantar Mantar. He also wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought his help in obtaining a license for a firearm and training to wield AK-56 rifle in self-defence. As an academic he had been critical of the UPA too but he did not face abuses and did not feel any threat then, he wrote in the letter.

“I remember that you once said, ‘If you want to shoot then kill me, but don’t attack my Dalit brethren’. But it seems that your words are not being taken seriously even by those who support your politics. They continue to attack Dalits despite the fact that you have made such a momentous appeal,” wrote the anguished academic to the PM.

Even as outrage at atrocities and discrimination targeting Dalits and Muslims grows, there is a clamour among OBCs and Dalits for holding a caste census. While the BJP has been lukewarm to the idea, it has reluctantly agreed to attend the all-party meeting convened by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar on June 1. But BJP’s official statement avoided any mention of caste census. It merely confirmed that it would attend the meet.

While caste census is becoming a political hot potato, people also wonder why India is the only country unable to hold the decennial census which was due in 2021. While the government has blamed the pandemic for the delay, no country barring India has apparently defaulted on holding the census.

Journalist-academic Prof Dilip Mandal however refutes the popular impression that Dalits have been co-opted by the BJP in furthering its communal agenda. The Dalit-OBC solidarity achieved by Kanshiram and Mayawati may have weakened and the Dalit-Muslim solidarity is yet to be cemented, but Mandal is hopeful of a renewal and new leadership emerging to fill the void.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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