By Kanika Rangray
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
-Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister’s first speech to an “independent India”
This 68th year of Independence, we celebrate the day when our country became a democratic republic. Remembering that this day is a gift to us by those martyrs who happily sacrificed themselves for a brighter and independent future of the people of India.
It is on this day that we need to contemplate, are we truly independent. Does this independence belong to all of us equally? Has this independence spread its wings to the lower strata of our society, to the Dalits of India?
The Dalits of India
When we talk about the dalits in India, it would be extremely negligent if Dr. B. R. Ambedkar is not mentioned. The first law minister of “independent India” and the principal architect of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar also belonged to a Dalit caste. This in itself is a mirror of how knowledge, talent and success do not limit itself to the boundaries of caste. Then why does mentality limit itself so, naming a particular section or community in the society as “untouchables” or dalits.
Dalits, or Scheduled Castes (SC) as they are called legally, are a mixed population, consisting of groups across South Asia. They speak a variety of languages and practice various religions. According to the 2011 census, 16.6 percent of the Indian population belong in the SC category.
According to a 2014 report to the Ministry of Minority Affairs by Amitabh Kundu, 33.8 percent of SC population in rural India and 21.8 percent in urban areas, were living below the poverty line in 2011-12.
Talking about education, a 2014 report by The IndiaGoverns Research Institute says that dalits constitute nearly half of primary school dropouts. They are given scholarships only if they are able to provide photographs of their family members working in traditional occupations.
Among state schools, 88 percent discriminated against dalit children, while 79 percent made dalit students sit at the back of the classrooms. This is not all, in 79 percent of the schools, dalit children are forbidden from touching mid-day meals; in 35 percent schools, they’re expected to sit separately at lunch, and in 28 percent they are required to eat with specially marked plates. The discrimination does not end here. In high schools, higher caste students are more than often advised to not acquaint themselves with the dalits.
The report also revealed about incidents of dalit teachers and professors being discriminated against and harassed by authorities, upper caste colleagues, and not to mention by upper caste students as well in different education institutes of India.
The discrimination against SCs has also penetrated in the health sector. Medical field workers do not visit 65 percent of dalit settlements, 47 percent are not allowed entry into ration depots, 64 percent are given less grains than non-dalits, and 52 percent are given grain from a distance.
In an atmosphere where discrimination against dalits penetrates too deep; it is not exactly surprising to note that this particular caste or community is also an easy target of crime. Every 18 minutes, a dalit becomes the target of a crime—three women raped every day, 13 murdered every week, 27 atrocities every day, six kidnapped every week.
In order to curb crime against dalits, the Indian government introduced the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA). It denoted specific crimes against dalits as “atrocities” and created reciprocal punishment for the same. The list of atrocities included humiliations such as the forced consumption of noxious substances, forced labour, denial of access to water and other public amenities, and sexual abuse among others. The Act permitted Special Courts to try POA cases; it called upon states with high level of caste violence to appoint qualified officers to monitor and maintain law and order.
But unfortunately, the implementation of this act has been very poor. Only two states created the above mentioned special courts, and there was a marked resistance and unwillingness in policemen to register offences under the act.
Prejudices against dalits have also entered in the political system of the country. There are anti-dalit groups like the extremist militia Ranvir Sena, run by upper-caste landlords in Bihar. The group is against equal treatment of dalits and has resorted to violence. Looking at it as compensation, the government of India treats this group as a terrorist organisation. Political parties look upon the dalit community as vote banks, which they need to gather to win elections, the community whose support and trust they wish to win before the opposition party is able to do so.
From above facts, it is clear that politicians have degraded the Indian citizen to vote banks, simply because they belong to that section of the society which is counted among the minorities.
In Sanskrit, the word ‘dalit’ means suppressed, smashed, broken to pieces.
This 69th Independence day, this 68th year of independence celebration, and all that a dalit can say: We are still dalit, still broken, still suppressed.
Even so, the dalit community can still light a candle of hope by remembering one of Dr. Ambedkar’s statements:
“My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle of freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality.”
The dalits can in the true sense of word celebrate Independence Day, on that eve when there would no longer be a system—legal or social—which would look down upon them or pity them because they are dalits; by all means when they are no longer dalits.