Herald View: We need to do more than just tokenism to empower Dalits   

File photo of Dalits protesting against a Supreme Court order related to SC/ST Act in Lucknow

Electing a Dalit as President of India, installing Dr Ambedkar’s statues or dining at a Dalit home are no longer enough. More meaningful steps are required to empower Dalits politically and socially

Too much of ‘politics’ in whatever we say or do and too much of tokenism are taking their toll. Initiatives that on the surface appear to be well intentioned turn out to be motivated by politics. People’s representatives have always spent much of their time among their constituents and often put up with the better-off among them for the night.

Therefore, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month asked party MPs and MLAs to spend at least two nights in Dalit homes in villages, it was an admission that the mostly upper caste representatives of the party needed to put their ears to the ground and learn the hard reality. The direction was widely interpreted as the PM’s ‘Dalit outreach’, an exercise to control and minimise the Government and BJP’s alienation from Dalits.

There was also another overtly political motivation. After the Government made the political blunder of telling the Supreme Court that certain ‘draconian’ provisions in the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act required modification, which rightly outraged Dalits and tribals, the PM and the Government opted to go on an overdrive to retrieve the situation and regain the trust of the Dalits.

The Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to announce a Gram Swaraj Abhiyan between April 14 and May 5, during which the Prime Minister directed party MPs, MLAs and ministers belonging to upper castes to spend at least two nights in Dalit homes and have meals with the families. The chosen homes, the Prime Minister directed, should be in villages where over half the homes belong to Dalits.

While the Prime Minister is entitled to be given the benefit of doubt as far as his intention is concerned, by all accounts the exercise in tokenism has turned into a Public Relations disaster with several MPs and MLAs photographed partaking fancy food brought from outside into Dalit homes.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath having food from shining, stainless steel plates and a Dalit family in Aligarh confessing that they were asked to just and sit and get photographed with UP minister Suresh Rana, who had arranged a lavish spread to be brought in, indicate the futility of such exercises. It is unlikely that all BJP ministers, MPs and MLAs actually have spent two nights in homes belonging to Dalits. And even if they have, it may not have helped change their mindset as the UP ministers’ adventurous forays demonstrated.

It is difficult to assess how much goodwill the BJP may have earned in the past few weeks by forcing its leaders to share meals with Dalits. What is certain though is that such optics can scarcely gloss over the PM’s statement that if Dalits have been cleaning toilets for generations, it must be a spiritual experience ordained by God.

Nor can the exercise compensate for the rising atrocities on Dalits. Even as BJP’s PR exercise was continuing, came reports of newly recruited police constables in MP belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes branded on their bare chest with SC/ST during the medical examination. As is normal in such cases that cause public outrage, the Government ordered an inquiry but the harsh reality is that every 18 minutes a crime is committed against Dalits in the country. Even more dishearteningly only six per cent of such reported cases end in conviction.

Even seventy years after independence, the issue of including Muslim and Christian Dalits in the list of Scheduled Castes’ list is yet to be resolved. While Dalits from minority communities, doing the same work as Hindu Dalits, have been kept out on the ground that Islam and Christianity do not have a ‘caste’ system, they too suffer from caste discrimination. Electing a Dalit as President of India or installing statues of Dr Ambedkar are no longer enough. It is time for the political, social and the cultural establishment to take more meaningful steps to empower Dalits.

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