India has proudly entered its 75th year of independence. But millions of historically marginalised Dalits still await a sense of belongingness amid the discrimination they face on a daily basis. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government celebrated Independence Day with ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’. Meanwhile, Dalits mourned the death of a schoolboy who suffered a gruesome assault by his upper-caste Hindu teacher, all for touching a water pot. The heart-wrenching incident has not only revived the unpleasant memories of the practice of untouchability but has also posed questions for India’s ethical-legal contract through the Constitution, which had abolished untouchability under Article 17 of the right to equality.
'Life of Contradictions': Ambedkar's Warning Rings True
Despite independent India’s promise of a dignified future for ‘ex-untouchables’, issues such as caste-based deprivation, humiliation and exploitation of Dalits seldom figure in upper-caste-dominated socio-political, cultural and economic narratives. Ambedkar’s prophetic warning rings true today, after 75 years:
“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.”
Beyond Democracy and Nationalism
Over eight decades ago, in an undelivered speech for caste Hindu social reformers, Ambedkar wrote the most essential prescription for the making of a successful democracy, wherein he suggested social reforms for India’s upper-caste nationalist movement. But the movement, unfortunately, and carefully, was organised only around the agenda of the transfer of power from the British.
Gandhian politics of national mobilisation failed to break the shackles of the caste-based, graded Hindu social order. This particular moment in the Indian nationalist movement was well observed by Prof G Aloysius in his remarkable work on Indian nationalism: “This was clearly not a situation of nationalism inventing the nation and the nation failed to emerge.”
Prof. Rajeev Bhargava’s observation on nationalism is also important to note here:
“Democracy came to India as nationalism, and therefore, arguments for nationalism were coterminous with arguments for democracy. The character of this democracy had to be liberal not only because of its commitment to civil liberties but also because of its vision of equality and social justice.”
Asserting a Third Reality
The basic aspirations of Dalits in such a notional liberal democratic set-up were thus shattered in the desperate making of political democracy. Far from achieving basic dignity in the subsequent decades, Dalits have been victims of endless caste-based atrocities. Their identity remains ignored in elitist political discourses.
On Independence Day, while Modi started the massive ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign, Congress leaders changed their social media profile displays to a picture of Nehru holding the Indian tricolour. Amid these two binaries, Dalit Ambedkarites had to assert a third reality, and they did that by talking about ‘Azaadi ka mrit mahotsav’, to seek equality and justice for the dead Inder Meghwal, the nine-year-old Dalit Boy from Jalore.
Mainstream political parties of India are dominated by savarna upper-castes, much like how the Indian nationalist movement is historically detached from the ground realities of Indian society.
The political discourse of the right-wing and the counter-discourse of centrists, liberals and the Left have never felt the collective rage over the increasing violence against Dalits.
The government’s own data submitted to Parliament reveal that over 1.3 lakh cases of crimes against Dalits have been registered in different states between 2018 and 2020, with 50,291 such crimes reported in 2020 alone. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has said that nine states accounted for 84% of all crimes against Dalits in 2019, though the combined population of Dalits in those states is only 54%. The highest numbers of anti-Dalit crimes were reported in Uttar Pradesh (36,467), followed by Bihar (20,973), Rajasthan (18,418) and Madhya Pradesh (16,952). Both the BJP and the Congress cannot escape these harsh unchanging social realities under their regimes.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic also did not spare Dalits and the marginalised castes, which faced an upturn in violence – a scheduled caste person faced crime every 10 minutes in 2020, amounting to a 9.4% increase from the previous year, according to NCRB data.
When Even Mourning Isn't Easy
As I write this article, the family of the Dalit boy from Rajasthan is unable to even mourn their son’s death amid accusations and counter-accusations. But this denial of mourning isn’t new to Dalits. Two years back, the family of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, who was gang-raped and murdered, met with the same fate. Most outrageously, under the watch of the Congress-led government in Rajasthan, a massive gathering was reportedly organised to .
The ceaseless violence perpetuated by upper castes on Dalits has failed to stir the conscience of most political parties for years now. In most caste-based atrocities cases against Dalits, mainstream media resists itself from talking about the caste of the accused, which automatically stems the opportunity for public interrogation of upper castes; it also patronises the traumatic experience of Dalits. This is how Dalits’ quest for justice is thwarted, by invisibilising the identity of upper castes.
There are endless attempts being made, subtly and otherwise, to dissolve Dalit questions under the right-wing idea of a Hindu monolith and upper caste liberals’ binary of Hinduism vs Hindutva.
This highlights the lopsidedness of the system when historically oppressed Dalits try to assert their identity vis-à-vis upper castes, and casteist reductions end up depriving Dalits of their social and moral worth in a democratic setting. Therefore, assertive ‘Dalitness’ is perceived as a threat rather than a step towards emancipatory politics.
Independent India Needs to Respect All Indians
The existence of a caste society rejects Dalits’ anger and guards ‘upper-casteness’, which has prevented India for years from instilling the principles of liberalism in its democratic institutions. Ambedkar had presciently spoken about this in the Constituent Assembly, “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
To conclude, any celebration of India’s independence will be real only when emancipatory politics is able to secure the self-esteem, dignity and identity of all Indians, including Dalits and other marginalised castes.
(Subhajit Naskar is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)