Caste and Discrimination Remains a Reality of Indian Society – Neha Dabhade


The caste system and the ensuing discrimination is a grim reality in India. After 70 odd years of independence from the colonial masters, for around 16% of the Indian population, oppression still persists in the form of caste discrimination.

NEHA DABHADE | Caravan Daily

JAYESH SOLANKI from Bhadraniya, Gujarat was killed by members of the upper caste in early October because Solanki wanted to witness garba, organized by the upper caste. His head was brutally banged against a wall (The Hindu, 2017). Jayesh Solanki was a Dalit. He is not the only youth who met such ghastly fate accruing to his caste. Three Dalit youth were attacked in a week in Gandhinagar for sporting a moustache. There was no statement issued by the government to condemn such vicious targeting of Dalits (Das, 2017).  Atrocities reported against SCs in Gujarat increased 31%–from 1,009 cases in 2015 to 1,321 in 2016, the data showed.

However, Gujarat is by no means an isolated state faring badly in its records of atrocities against Dalits. Atrocities reported against Scheduled Castes in 2016 across the country increased 6%–from 38,564 in 2015 to 41,014 in 2016. Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 10,457 cases, followed by Bihar (5,701), Rajasthan (5,134), Madhya Pradesh (5,123) and Andhra Pradesh (2,343). The top five states accounted for 70% of all atrocities reported against SCs (Boomlive, 2017).

The caste system and the ensuing discrimination is a grim reality in India. After 70 odd years of independence from the colonial masters, for around 16% of the Indian population, oppression still persists in the form of caste discrimination. While there are claims that the Indian economy is growing and India is the largest democracy in the world, it is worth questioning what these terms like ‘development’ and ‘democracy’ mean to Dalits, if they are killed and attacked with such impunity. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution seeks to abolish the practice of untouchability, the worst form of caste-based discrimination. This also means that the state is duty bound to ensure that the scourge of caste system is eradicated from the Indian society.

Political parties in India have largely ignored the interests of Dalits and used them for electoral benefits. But, it is important we understand the position taken by the Hindutva organizations and the ruling regime which is driven by the Hindutva ideology. The Hindutva organizations have taken to celebrating Ambedkar Jayantis with great zeal and are high on symbolism to make a common cause with Dalits and aggressively mobilizing them. But, on what and whose terms? This article will attempt to spell out the position of Hindutva vis a vis the caste system.

To begin with, the relationship between caste and Hindu religion should be firmly established. Caste is part of the Hindu religion conceptually. Caste is peculiar to Hindu religion, in a way, that in no other religion is such hierarchy integral to the religion and its structure. Caste, through the system of graded hierarchies and resulting inequalities, has created disunity. Ambedkar said, “To put the matter in general terms, Hinduism and social union are incompatible. By its very genius, Hinduism believes in social separation, which is another name for social disunity and even creates social separation. If Hindus wish to be one, they will have to discard Hinduism. They cannot be one without violating Hinduism. Hinduism is the greatest obstacle to Hindu Unity. Hinduism cannot create that longing to belong which is the basis of all social unity. On the contrary, Hinduism creates an eagerness to separate” (Huffpost, 2017).

It is clear that Hinduism and caste can’t be harmoniously reconciled. The approach of the Hindutva organizations towards caste system and Dalits is defined by their strategy of ‘Samajik Samrasta’- social harmony. In order to consolidate Hindu identity, it is imperative to have social integration of Dalits in the Hindu fold which would translate into expanding the support base of Hindutva organizations. If the terms Samajik Samrasta are deconstructed, it becomes evident that this approach is devoid of questioning caste system itself and doesn’t seek to eliminate hierarchies, which lie at the heart of caste system, a far cry from the annihilation of caste sought by Ambedkar. But the Hindutva organizations uphold caste and don’t challenge it.

It is not surprising when UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath declared, “Castes play the same role in Hindu society that furrows play in farms, and help in keeping it organised and orderly”. He goes on further to order shuddhikaran (purification) of the CM’s office in Lucknow before entering it. He distributed soap and shampoo to Musahar Dalit families of Kushinagar to clean them before attending one of his meetings (Jaffrelot, 2017).

While the Hindutva organizations want to glorify Hindu religion and seek to establish a Hindu Rashtra, it becomes rather a dilemma to reconcile a glorious Hindu Rashtra and caste. Ambedkar located the caste system in Hindu religion and, thus embraced Buddhism while denouncing Hinduism.

The Hindutva organizations then indulge in tokenism like celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti, Ravidas Jayanti and other Dalit icons to exhibit their sincerity to draw Dalits in the Hindu fold. The Hindutva organizations, time and again, notwithstanding their promises of sincerity towards Dalits have betrayed their caste prejudices and interest in the favour of upper castes by taking positions opposing the measures for social justice.

Ambedkar viewed education and livelihood opportunities crucial to real economic democracy and emancipation for Dalits. Thus, reservations were introduced as an equalizer to ensure access to opportunities. But there is a persistent demand from the Hindutva ideologues to do away with reservations. “The caste-based reservation should end at some point. Dr Ambedkar said that such a reservation policy is not good for any country if it continues perpetually. This should end and a time must come when everyone should get more job opportunities,” said Vaidya while speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival (Wadhawan, 2017). RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, similarly, expressed the need for a review of the reservation policy contending that reservations are used for political ends (Times of India, 2015).

The Hindutva organizations are paying a mere lip service to Dalits becomes clear when it comes to the matters that would mean real democracy and equality for them. One such aspect is the economic democracy which can be promoted by the state by allocating proportionate resources for the welfare and development of Dalits. But, the trend of budgetary allocation is disappointing again. For the year 2017-18, the SC Sub-plan comprised only 2.5% of the total allocated budget, whereas it should have been 4.25% according to guidelines. At the same time, the total schemes for Scheduled Castes have been reduced from 294 to 256 (Divakar, 2017).

While discussing the response of Hindutva organizations to the caste system in India, it is worthwhile if we understand how widespread untouchability still prevails in the society, though it is touted that due to various social and political interventions caste is only a phenomenon of the past. Here the author is reproducing some excerpts from a paper titled “Why Untouchability and Atrocities Persist Despite Laws: What Government should do to Reduce Untouchability and Atrocities in the Villages in Maharashtra?” written by prominent scholar Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat. Though the findings are restricted to the state of Maharashtra, it nonetheless gives a glimpse into forms and magnitude of the prevalence of untouchability. Below are some of the findings of the surveys mentioned by Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat.

Wai Taluka Survey 1958

This survey studied the discrimination faced by Mahars in Wai. The survey found that Mahars faced restrictions even in accessing water. Temple entry for the Mahars was banned; the community faced  market discrimination, whereby the access to hotels was regulated (entry to hotels only in one village out of the five villages where the hotels were situated, they were allowed entry into markets only in one village and in the other villages their entry was regulated); inter-caste festivities were also regulated (in all the villages surveyed, it was found that inter-caste community meals were not allowed and there were only a few villages wherein the high castes joined the Mahars for an occasional cup of tea, that too on important occasions); and in 16 villages of the 17 villages, the Mahars did not have access to common services of barber.

Nasik and Buldhana Untouchability Survey, 1962

This survey was undertaken by the Gokhale Institute of Political Science and Economics in 1962, in 25 villages. The study reported practice of untouchability on a wide scale. It was found that in 85% villages, Dalits were residentially segregated; in 80% villages they were not allowed to draw water from common sources; in 65% villages they were denied entry into religious institutions or temples; in 90% villages inter-caste community meals were not allowed; they also faced restriction on the stay in hotels. Further, in 80% of the villages, Dalits were denied access to common services such as washermen and barbers etc.

Harijan Sevak Sangh Survey, 1970

It covered 192 villages from the north, south and eastern Maharashtra. In 84% of the villages, Dalits were residentially segregated; 75% of Dalits were not allowed access to common water wells and in some villages, they had to fetch water from a distance increasing drudgery; in 73% of the villages they could not partake in village feasts; in 33% of the villages, Dalits could not enter hotels, while in another 13% of the villages separate and segregated arrangements were made for them; and in 66% of the villages, public services like those of the washermen and the barbers were unavailable to them.

Harijan Sevak Sangh and Gokhale Institute Survey

It covered approximately 206 villages (4,476 families) and included about eight districts of Maharashtra. If we take the results of two studies conducted in 1970’s, we get the situation in the early 1970s. In about 85-90% villages, Dalit settlements were outside the main dwellings and residential segregation was a customary and conventional form of exclusion. Further, both the surveys indicated that 70-75% of the villages practised untouchability in drawing water from common resources, entry into temples and community feasts or social gatherings. The surveys pointed towards less discrimination in case of tapped water. Again, in some villages, though Dalits were allowed entry into village temples, they were not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum or touch the deity in such temples. Similar was the case with village feasts wherein Dalits were either not allowed or they had to stand in separate queues with separate dining arrangements being made for them.

In 60-65% of the villages, the village washermen and the barbers did not provide services to Dalits. Dalits could avail such public services only in 40 villages which were demographically and geographically large. This could probably be due to the size of the villages. Untouchability was found in 30-35% of the government institutions like the Panchayat, and Village Cooperative Societies.

Marathwada Survey by –University, 1991, 95 villages

This survey was conducted in 95 villages of the Marathwada region of Beed, Osmanabad, Nanded and Latur (three villages from Jamkhed Taluka in Ahamadnagar district and Ashti Taluka from Beed District each). The study was conducted mainly among the Mahars, Mangs and Dhors.

The findings indicate that Dalits were discriminated in the village panchayats in terms of the seating arrangements and at times not been invited to meetings. There was a stark discrimination in access to drinking water where Dalits were not allowed to draw water from sources used by the higher castes. Temple entry was banned in about 77 villages, which approximately comes to about 81% of the total 95 villages surveyed. In more than 50% of the villages surveyed, it was found that the practice of certain caste-based occupations was still prevalent. Mahars were found to be sweeping roads, collecting cow dung, guarding the villages by night and clearing the streets of the carcasses of dead animals. Dalits who refuse to work in high-caste fields are beaten up and are refused employment in the village.

During social functions like marriages, though Dalits were invited along with the entire village, in 70 of the total 95 villages surveyed they were made to sit separately and were served food after the high castes had finished their meals. Dalits were made to sit either in the stables or on the road and were served food from a height so that the high caste vessels do not get impure form the touch of Dalits and their plates. On the contrary, while inviting high castes for Dalit weddings, Dalits had to employ the services of a high caste cook who could cook and serve the high caste invitees separately.

Untouchability and Caste Discrimination: Based on 52 Cases, 2013-2016

The spheres where Dalits faced opposition by high caste, include personal freedom to enter into relationship, or relationship with coercion with Dalit women, restrictions on freedom to celebrate social and cultural events and/or use public space like public road for celebration, freedom to own agricultural land, or other occupation, equal access to government schemes and equal and non-discriminatory treatment to Dalit members of village Panchayat.

Economic Discrimination: Sample Survey, 2015

The study based on the sample of 1713 SC persons from 425 households in 2015 from two taluks, namely Georai and Parali of Beed district revealed the nature of economic discrimination faced by SC farm and non-farm wage labourers, regular salaried employees, farmers and those engaged in business.

Farm wage labourers faced discrimination in employment and wage earning. About 41% are denied work by the high castes due to caste background. About 17% reported fewer wages compared to the high caste for similar work. About 56% reported work for more than eight hours for which they are not paid. In terms of business, about 38% grocery owners said that the high caste refused to buy from their shop, and 21% said high caste not buying specific goods, particularly open consumer items. Similarly, there is a discrimination faced by Dalits in farming and agriculture leading to impoverishment.

The findings elaborate that in spite of tokenism like inter-dining with Dalits, supporting a Dalit president or having a Dalit lay the first brick at the shilanyas for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Hindutva organizations have never agitated for challenging the caste system itself which is central to discrimination against Dalits. Thus, Dalits are mercilessly attacked if they assert their rights or deviate from the norms laid by the upper castes. They are still excluded from temples, denied access to water, livelihood opportunities, and healthcare, suffer from residential segregation. Samajik Samarasta is a mere strategy to co-opt Dalits for a Hindu Rashtra – a society which will continue to perpetuate inequalities, discrimination and violence against Dalits.

Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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