Dalit: The Word, the Sentiment, and a 200-year-old History
Members of the Dalit community raise slogans during Bharat Bandh against the alleged dilution of SC/ST Act in New Delhi, on 2 April 2018.
Members of the Dalit community raise slogans during Bharat Bandh against the alleged dilution of SC/ST Act in New Delhi, on 2 April 2018.(Photo: ANI)

Dalit: The Word, the Sentiment, and a 200-year-old History

Last week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory to the media, asking them to refrain from using the nomenclature ‘Dalit’ for people belonging to Scheduled Castes.

This directive from the Centre directly follows the legal battle waged by activist, Pankaj Meshram who, in June this year, had filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court asking to remove the word ‘Dalit’ from the public discourse and replace it instead with the more constitutional term, ‘Scheduled Caste’.

In light of these controversies, the question that should be asked is, why is the word ‘Dalit’ in the eye of the storm now? Why is it contentious for the term ‘Dalit’ to be part of the public discourse?

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Dalit, used in a similar manner as ‘Blacks’ in the US, has been used by the community as a symbolic reassertion of identity and struggle against an oppressive, caste-ridden society. The position and the history of Dalits themselves can be traced through the names used for them. This history is semantic, political, and social all at once, and has provided a unifying force to an oppressed community.

What is the Origin of the Word Dalit?

Broadly, the history of this contentious word can be traced back to the 1930s. Dr. Anand Teltumbde told The Quint that it was Maharashtrian reformer Jyotirao Phule who first used the word Dalit. At the time, it was used as a Hindi/Marathi translation for ‘depressed classes’, as academic scholar Gail Omvedt points out in her blog.

The colonial government used to use the term ‘Scheduled Caste’, which was just a reflection of the legal category they belonged to, but this was not a term which lent itself to political speech.

By the time Ambedkar entered politics, he used Dalit to refer to a large class of people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

“Ambedkar used ‘Dalit’ as a quasi-class term, included within its ambit was the downtrodden and poor. This gave character to the germinating anti-caste movement at the time.”
Dr. Anand Teltumbde

It was around this time that the Poona Pact was signed. Mahatma Gandhi had insisted that Dalits be given representation, but within the Hindu fold, while Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate. Gandhi chose to call Dalits Harijans –– or children of god –– but this was a term that did not find favour within the community.

Also Read : I&B Ministry’s Fiat on Use of ‘Dalit’: Ignorance or Hidden Agenda?

Dalit thinkers and revolutionaries, Ambedkar included, have rejected the term Harijan to describe themselves on accounts of it being condescending. Historian Ramachandra Guha says:

“In truth, Gandhi’s own earlier coinage, ‘suppressed classes’, explicitly targeted social discrimination, whereas ‘Harijan’ euphemized it.”

By the 1970s, under the backdrop of caste atrocity and lack of political representation, Dalit as a term began to acquire a political meaning. ‘Dalit’ literature began to use the term for people of all castes and communities and academics began to use it to highlight the history of those who had been historically oppressed.

At the forefront of the new assertive movement were the Dalit Panthers, a prominent activist group who played a key role in making the term a self-chosen one. Dr. Eleanor Zelliot, a pioneer of Western studies of Dr BR Ambedkar, describes the phenomenon in her paper Understanding Dr BR Ambedkar :

“Dalit became a self-chosen term in 1972 when a group of Bombay youths organised the ‘Dalit Panthers’, in an effort to encourage the militancy of the American‘black panthers’ . Like the word ‘black’ in the USA, it was used proudly.”

With an increasing awareness of a separate Dalit political identity in 1980s, groups and political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party emerged, anchoring their politics on the Dalit vote-base.

The Debate Over the Ministry’s Order

The Ministry’s directive against usage of the word Dalit in the media has come in for strong criticism. According to Teltumbde, it is both unnecessary and malicious:

“The case and the court judgement are a non-issue because in government circles the term was never used. But the directive of the ministry is malicious on many counts. First, it cannot dictate people (and media comes in that) what to use. Secondly, it smacks of politics. The politics is that the BJP does not want all oppressed people to come together with any such identity and wants to push them back to their caste identity. Dalit has never been a caste term.”

Social scientist, Satish Deshpande, talking to The Quint, agreed that it is a non-issue, and questions the need for such a move.

“It does not make sense for the government to issue a directive to the media to not use the term Dalit. It is already a fact that the official terminology (for the purposes of the state) is Scheduled Caste, and there is nothing wrong with this. Why should public use of the word Dalit be prohibited or discouraged? What purpose would that serve?”

In his opinion, the history behind the word is what’s at play.

“To prohibit or even ban insulting terms etc. is understandable, but why do this for a self-chosen word/name? The only reason I can think of is that word brings to mind the antagonistic relationship between caste Hindu society and the so called “out-castes”, the discrimination and oppression still practiced by the dominant sections of society.”

Gail Omvedt also looks at how the substitution of Dalit with ‘Scheduled Caste’ neutralises everything it has come to mean over the years. ‘Scheduled Caste’ is a legal term, and is hence ideologically neutral. However, for those who suffer the realities of caste oppression, a stronger and assertive identity is required –– something the neutral legal terminology cannot provide.  On the other hand, ‘Dalit’, with its historic connotations of resistance, can provide that, according to her.

A term pregnant with meaning and history stands at risk of erasure thanks to the new directive, a term which should only be more important today, in light of the wider protests against the Supreme Court’s modification of the SC/ST Act. Surely the social and political self-identification of Dalits should be worth more than some overreaching subservience to legal nomenclature.

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