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Dalits & Human Rights : The Battles Ahead --- I

By P. Sainath There are more dalits in India than there are people in Pakistan. The Scheduled Castes account for nearly 16.48 per cent of India's people. That is, over 160 million human beings. Their contribution to society in terms of labour, art and culture is enormous. Their share of the country's resources and riches is, however, disproportionately lower. They account for a sixth of India's population, but not of its land. At best, they hold a tiny fraction of a sixth of land owned by Indians. Indeed, most states in this country cannot provide minimally reliable date on lands owned by or distributed to dalits. What is not disputed by anyone, is that they are mainly landless and where they own land at all, it is marginal and usually of low quality. Secondly, irrigation of India has a clear caste geography. Upper castes cultivate at the headwaters; intermediate castes at the middle and dalits cultivate near the tail waters. The importance of their position in relation to is enormous. As much as 77 per cent of the dalit workforce is in the primary or agricultural sector of the economy. But very, very few of them own land. They form, instead, the bulk of agricultural labourers in this country. (Historically, they've been major victims of land grab). Land has a great deal to do with both economic and social status. Let's look at who are the poor in India. Of the Indian poor, 40 per cent are landless agricultural labourers; 45 per cent are small or marginal farmers. (60 per cent of Indian farmers own less than an acre of land). This means that 85 per cent of the poor are either landless or marginal farmers. It's in the first category that you will find dalits in large numbers. Of the remaining 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent are rural artisans and those who labour in other non-farm occupations. Again you will find dalits in this group, particularly those who work on leather. Lastly, all remaining categories of poor, including diverse segments of urban poor, constitute "Others" who live in poverty. Here, too, you will find dalits; in construction labour, in road laying crews and very prominently in scavenging and other sanitation work. All dalits in these 15 per cent are again, landless people. The importance of land to the problems we're talking about was recognised right at the time of drawing up the Constitution. A significant point of view was expressed in those discussions but S. Nagappa. He said: "I am prepared for the abolition of reservations, provided very Harijan (dalit) family get ten acres of wet land, twenty acres of dry land and all the children of Harijans are educated, free of cost, up to the university course, and give one-fifth of the key posts either in civilian or in military departments". The demand for so many acres of land was not excessive. Families had as many as ten to twelve members at the time, sometimes more. So that actual holding per family, if this had been implemented, would still have been very modest. While poverty affects many communities across the spectrum, it would be correct to say that the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are amongst its worst victims. Those millions and millions of dalits working as agricultural labourers earn between Rs.12 to Rs.30 in many parts of the country. This is usually in violation of laws relating to minimum wages for agricultural labourers. In the period of liberalisation, the pressure on these groups has become unbearable. Remember, while prices are revised every now and then, sometimes rising every few weeks, agricultural wages are revised once every so many years. The last minimum wage in a rich state like Maharashtra (before the present wage) stayed put for around eight years. In the first four years of Mr. Narasimha Rao's government controlled prices on the Public Distribution System went up 85 per cent and subsequently the rise has crossed well over 100 per cent if we take 1991 as the base.

In the same period, the per capita availability of foodgrain has actually fallen: from 510 grams in 1991 to 461 in 1996. Imagine the pressure on the millions of landless families, who produce this country's food but have an ever-declining share in it. A very significant proportion of these people are dalits. For the last 25 years, we've been pleased to congratulate ourselves on being a "self sufficient nation" in food production. We've even had food surpluses. This self-sufficiency, however, is very fragile. It is based on the reality that 400 million people go to bed hungry every night. If they got their minimum calorie requirements, our great surpluses would vanish and our level of production seem very inadequate. I'm not even looking here at unequal distribution. Only 16 per cent of dalits live in urban areas. The remaining 84 per cent, in rural India. The over 450 SC groups in the country represent an important and incredibility complex phenomenon. A people confronted by seemingly intractable problems brought on by millennia of exploitation, enforced poverty and deprivation. Decades after the abolition of untouchability, the actual extent of its prevalence would surprise many Indians who believe it belongs to the past. Whether it is in private employment, school dropout rates, literacy and health indicators, access to higher education, or even government jobs, they are at the wrong end of the spectrum. The actual gap between dalit literacy levels and those of the non-dalit population grew worse between 1961 and 1981. In Rajasthan, literacy rates for SC women are about one-fifth the national literacy rate for women. Indeed, one third the national SC female rate! Half a century after independence, dalits still live in segregated section of the overwhelming majority of Indian villages. To this day, in several parts of the country, it is risky for them to even walk through the upper caste bastis. They have no access to the burial grounds/burning ghats in many villages in this country. The official programmes of the government of India practise their own forms of exclusion. The Indira Awas Yojana, for instance, reinforces the pattern of building homes for dalits away from the rest of the village. Historically, in many places, dalit colonies were settled to the south of the village, on the outskirts. This is apparently based on a principle of 'Vastu' which says that Lord Yama Dwells in the south. So the elites of the Hindu social hierarchy were advised not to even sleep with their heads facing South. In Rajasthan, apparently, dalit colonies are kept on the east and south of village settlements. Why? Because they have been condemned to work in traditionally so-called "polluted" professions; scavenging, skinning of carcasses, disposal of the dead, curing of hides and so on. So in this state, they've been positioned in a direction away from the winds that blow across Rajasthan. This way, the smell of their labour may not disturb the sacred nostrils of the upper castes. Across this country, in most of the major states, dalits are not allowed to draw water from common wells and, in some places, even from handpumps. This state is no exception. It is in fact a fine example of the rule. In some villages where a dalit woman has tried to defy this ban, she has invariably paid a terrible price for it. And apart from the price she pays, you will find people washing that handpump she has touched seven or eight times to 'purify' it. But it happens in the cities, too, though obviously in lesser degree. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena once 'purified' the Hutatma (Martyrs) Chowk with 'Ganga Jai' to clean it after a dalit rally had been held there. The major newspapers of the city did not even condemn this in their editorials. Indeed, they didn't even know enough to point out that a huge number of the martyrs for whom that Chowk was named were in fact dalits. Even naming a public institution or a public corporation after a dalit is very difficult in this country. Everyone knows how many years the controversy over the renaming of Marathwada after Dr. Ambedkar lasted and how much violence it generated. In Tamil Nadu, the entire south of the state was rocked by - still continuing - violence after a transport corporation was named after a dalit general who had fought the British relentlessly. Upper castes just could not tolerate it. Finally, all names of districts and corporation that were after individuals were dropped. Now, this was never a problem so long as corporations and districts were named after upper caste heroes. In schools in many parts of this country. Dalit children are made to sit separately. They cannot drink water from the same pitcher. Often, they're not allowed to sit on the same pattis that other children sit

on. I have come across several cases, where the little girls take their own sacks to school and sit on those. When the teacher asks someone to fetch him or her water, you can be surest won't be a dalit. In this state you can find examples where, when a Balmiki girl enters the room, the other children who've absorbed the prejudices of their parents, their teachers and the social order, start singing: bhangi aayee hai! Is it surprising then, that drop out rates in dalits are much higher than for other communities? In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu there have been cases of successful dalit students being punished for their achievement by conservative elements in society. In one case, a girl who was the first in her particular community to complete her education with a first class had her face destroyed by acid, thrown not in a fit of rage during the altercation, but in cold deliberation. In many villages, barbers refuse to cut the hair of scheduled caste people; dalit grooms are not permitted to ride a horse in the baraat. And dalits are required to stand up when members of the upper castes pass by. In an astonishingly large number of villages in this country, separate glasses continue to be used for serving dalits and non dalits in teashops. This is prevalent right here in this state. I was saddened to find it in many parts of Telangana in AP, with its radical traditions. In Rajasthan you'll find places which keep sakoras meant for dalits and glasses meant for non-Dalits. You can see this today in Nathadwara town, let alone the villages, in Rajasamund district. One issue that was prominent between the 1920s and 50s but which is rarely talked about today is temple entry. Again, across a surprisingly large part of India, dalits are still banned entry into temples. Indeed, this practice has been one of the issues in some of the conversion controversies that erupt from time to time. Still, we prefer to keep silent about this. In several villages here in Rajasthan, as a dalit, you'd be taking a huge risk to even think of entering the village temple. I don't mean remote villages. Try doing it in Viraatnagar in Jaipur district, you'll know. A huge section of bonded labourers in this country are dalits. It follows that they are amongst the most debt affected people in India, along with adivasis. Dalit women and children pay a huge price for this. It is these children who labour from a very early age, "paying off" a debt that will never end because it is so patently fraudulent in the first place. There are girls forced into the sex trade in Kamatipura in Mumbai because their grandparents took a loan of Rs.10 or 12 decades ago in some distant village in the countryside of Kalahandi, Orissa. No other groups are so systematically criminalised by the police as dalits and advasis are. The ruling classes have simply found this the best way of dealing with these sections - to criminalise them. Almost any single action of a dalit or adivasi can lead to their being charged with some crime. Their own legal access is the worst for any sections in this country. This is Rajasthan, where the High Court has a statue of Manu 'The Law Giver' in its compound, while the statue of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar languishes at the street corner as if its been out there to conduct the traffic. In East UP, say, in Gazipur, when the officer heading Ghazipur jail needs to clean his establishment, he simply sends out a jeep load of police. They arrest the first 10 Musharas they can find and charge them with "planning a dacoity". These people are then thrown into the jail to clean up the human waste, the rubbish, mop up the place; then they're allowed to go. It happened after the jail bharo of one of the political parties. The jail held eight times its capacity for three days and was therefore filthy. So after this, the jeep went out and arrested several Musharas and the jail was cleaned up. We're not talking about twenty years ago but about as late as 1996-97. The police stations there practise begar. At Janmashtami time, the Musahars have to do menial work for days on end to keep the station happy. Framing them in various false cases is one way of ensuring this relationship continues. After learning how this works, I couldn't help wondering: what will happen if we actually adopt the election commission's dream: bar all those with criminal records from contesting elections? You could end up preventing countless numbers of innocent people from participating in the democratic process. In urban areas, you'll find discrimination in posting, portfolios and housing even in public sector companies, in banks, in universities, in a medical college in the national capital, a battle is still raging. SC students have been subjected to torture, violence and humiliation. They've all along been hurdled

up onto two floors and no non SC student is ever allotted a room there. This is common in some other cities, too. In banks rural and urban for instance, you'll find that dalits usually the bad postings. You'll rarely find them in charge of loans and advances in banks in the countryside. In Tamil Nadu, one of the biggest unions in the country, the BHEL union, split on caste lines in 1996. The dalits from all unions complained of discrimination. It was found that barring one national union, none of the eleven unions on campus had a dalit office bearer. That there was clear discrimination in housing allotment. In Rajasthan, there are 70,000 posts in government lying vacant. You can guess who are the main sufferers. There's been only 7 per cent fulfillment of a 28 per cent quota. There are 450 PHCs in areas that have more than 20 per cent SC population in Rajasthan. Almost 80 per cent of nursing posts in these are lying vacant. Also, nearly 30 per cent of medical officers posts. Remember that disease, death and infant mortality rates are much higher in these sections. Malnutrition is also much worse among these sections, compared to others. Atrocities against dalits have been rising. Between 1981 and 91, crimes against scheduled castes went up by 23.24 per cent. Dalit Women, hemmed in by factors on caste, class and gender, have probably borne the worst of it. Rape, murder arson and grievous hurt are very common - yet even the figures that shown them to be so are very poor. There is a huge amount of under reporting. Rajasthan must be one of the worst states in this regard. Sexual abuse and tyranny against dalit women is widespread. I won't tell you what you already know about the devdasi and jogin systems. While the legal system works against them the most, their access to it is the least. Under representation in the legal fraternity is very marked. Of some 1200 advocates in the high court in this city, some eight or nine are dalits. Among judges, the figure is nil. The maze of the legal system is extremely hard for dalits and adivasis to negotiate. The expenses, too high. Look at the major atrocities in this state in the early 1990s and you'll find that in many cases, charges are yet to be framed, years after the incidents. Even in the panchayats, dalit and adivasi sarpanches are routinely deposed by fraudulent means. Often, at the end of their first year in office, they are removed by rigged votes of 'no confidence' which then leave the upper caste upa sarpanch in de facto powers for years. The illiterate ones are often made to put their thumbprints on some documents - and then charged with embezzlement by the very persons guilty of it. Dalit women members are precluded from attending crucial panchayat meetings simply by holding these late at night in the upper caste basti. So half of them won't date enter that basti and the ruling elite in such a meeting can pass almost any vote. I've come across cases of sarpanches and members being kidnapped on the eve of a crucial vote in Bundelkhand. Now having gone through all this, try one exercise. On the one hand, the practice of untouchability is so widespread. ON the other look at your newspapers and TV channels. Sure, they have stories on dalits. Usually on massacres in Bihar (in a way that creates the impression that caste is only about massacres). But how often can you find them using the word untouchability? The privileged educated elite has a virtual, silent ban on that word. Though it exists everywhere, it is seldom spoken of in those terms. How often do we hear it in public discourse? Its use is in inverse proportion to its spread. The moment we start using that word more often, a lot of things change. We have to start facing its implications. We have to see the kind of society we are. We have to face how many of our privileges rest on someone else's misery. However, there has been an upsurge among the dalits everywhere. And this has found reflection in the changing national political scene during this past decade. In this limited time we've had, I've tried to look at: What are the challenges and hurdles facing dalits? Why are they unable to exercise the rights that others do? What are the real problems as perceived by those at the receiving end? What is it to be a dalit in India today? What are the coping mechanisms of such communities in different parts of the country? How far do they succeed and what are the factors that hold them back? What are the living conditions of millions of ordinary dalits?

'We can't even begin to go through all those aspects in detail in the time before us. But the very nature of the problems outlined suggests certain broad direction. Those committed to a just, equitable and democratic order can ask themselves: what can we do to fight the situation? What can we do to help a sixth of humanity in this country gain what might seem privileges to the ruling elites, but which the rest of us see as legitimate human rights? What can political parties and groups do? What can we as individuals and professionals or activists do? What can human rights groups do? We can: Under that battles for dalit rights are already on. The idea is neither new nor unique to us. Millions are already fighting in their own way. Those are largely the dalits themselves. The question here is how non-SC/ST people - and the more privileged class amongst the SC-STs - can relate to, support and further these struggles. Study, analyse, highlight the nature of land relations and land rights in your district or region or state. Support dalit struggles for land reform, for land rights. Try forcing your state government to prepare a White Paper on the subject of land distribution and reform that covers the past few decades. Outside of government, study and understand the livelihood patterns of these sections and how they are affected by state policy. This will become even more important in coming days. Where land grab is identified, fight for return of those lands to dalits. Mobilise and fight against economic policies that further hurt these already disadvantaged sections. You can't divorce this from their other problems. We have to fight to see that the state does not withdraw from its obligations and duties towards its poorest, weakest citizens. If you seriously want to fight this, you're going to have to take a stand on the gutting or privatisation of the public sector. And further, work towards having affirmative action in the private sector as well. At the same time, you'd have to fight 'traditional' relationships like bonded labour. Don't just act when there are major atrocities. And don't forget to follow up long after the media has forgotten them. While the big atrocities are important, caste oppression and the practise of untouchability on a day to day basis are no less important. This is the process by which a human being is ground down, his or her spirit crushed. You have to act and act radically on issues like the separate glass system. Go out there and break those glasses if you must. But don't allow this system to continue. I must say that it was heartening to know of what happened in Sikar in Rajasthan. This is the only instance I have come across in the entire north where a dalit groom was enabled to ride a horse in the face of vicious upper caste opposition. This happened because a few political people, including the local MLA, got together and saw to it this could be done. Whether it is the baraat, or temple entry or the two-glass system, we must try to emulate that example. Fighting on these issues is to recognise that Dignity is a very important human right. Many urban middle class people can't understand why, for instance, a huge fight over chairs is raging in Tamil Nadu's dalitlet panchayats. But fighting for human dignity also implies fighting against degrading practices like the carrying of nightsoil. This still affects lakhs of people in this country. There is a model central law against it that many states are yet to adopt, including Rajasthan. Fight for it - and for the livelihood of the former scavengers as well. Lobby, fight for and insist on a state level report on the conditions of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe citizens being prepared every year. And this report must be compulsorily placed in the legislature in the session closest to its release. Not delayed for want of a so called "Action Taken Report (ATR)". The National report has been reduced to a mockery in this fashion. So Parliament is now debating the 1989 report when there have been three reports since! Fight for this principle at the national levels, too. Parliament must allot two days in its nearest session to discuss the Report of the National Commission for SC & STs. And keep up the pressure to see that those guilty of atrocities are brought to justice. Often the media and the human rights groups neglect a case after it has lost its high profile. Sadly, this contributes to the guilty getting away. So you need to monitor these and keep pushing the state to adopt tougher measures on atrocities. One start would be : demanding full and stringent enforcement of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. We could start by educating ourselves about this law and its provisions. Also fight for special measures to protect the rights of dalit women and children. The needs of women are special because of their multiple burdens. They suffer as poor people, often as landless agricultural labourers; they

face discrimination as women and as dalit women by caste society; and within their own households as women. Consider fighting for the setting up of a state level SC/ST Commission, not just a branch of the national one. And perhaps different bodies for SC and ST citizens. (Rajasthan office HQ is in Gujarat!) Demand recognition of dalits as dalits regardless of which religion they belong to. Every religion in this country is suffused with caste. Use the law to form vigilance committees at the district and other levels to look into atrocities - and also into other violations of rights. Try not to be sectarian, try linking up the broadest possible alliance for this purpose. Reach out to democratic elements in all formations, political parties, human rights groups, others. Because you're going to be up against a very powerful social order if your really choose to fight these issues. The importance of building alliances can't be stressed too hard. Its simply a case of hanging together or being separately. Too many protests in this area have lost their way to sectarianism, an unwillingness to work with anyone else. And by narrowing down the issues to just a few affecting the more privileged sections. Make a study of dalit-police relations in your area of work. This could be crucial. The building of independent national data on this is essential and the results of such studies could be explosive. This includes looking at the entire process by which, say, a dalit seeks legal redress - or the process by which the law goes after dalits. Try matching crimes against dalits with the conviction rates that follow. The conviction rates are woefully low even in non-SC/ST cases. In the cases of dalits and adivasis, they're abysmal in the extreme. Here's one contribution we could begin making soon: take a few "closed" cases of the police. Ones that have had FRs filed. Then investigate and see how genuine the decision to close the case was. The chief minister of Rajasthan has said his government would consider such an exercise. If this were done for, say, the Naksoda nose-cutting incident, the results would be startling. If the police know such surveys will be conducted, there is at least some disincentive when they think of sweeping a case under the carpet with no action. Likewise, have a survey in your state on the unseating of dalit and adivasi sarpanches. I assure you, the figure will be startling. If we can build a nation-wide picture on this, it could be most valuable in the battle for dalit rights. Push for restructuring Legal Aid rules. Some of these are outdated, bureaucratic and sometimes plain stupid. Some of these have detailed forms seeking "monthly or annual income", a query that leaves seasonal and daily wageworkers stumped. Groups that have the capability must conduct rights awareness campaigns among dalits, especially those who have been victims of violence or fraud. Collect data on reservation in the institutions around you. (Take the example of Rajasthan University, whose practices in this regard are a crying shame and reek come across many instances where even courts' orders are simply flouted in these matters. Fight for the filling up of vacancies, for the enforcement of Constitutional and other rights for dalits. This side of the battle is important, too. For instance, dalit representation in teaching at the university level is dismal almost anywhere across the country. Fight for amendments to the panchayat laws in your state, rights are as safe as the political process they unfold in, yes. But these are ways we can reduce some of the mischief in the panchayats. For instance, a deposed dalit sarpanch must replaced only by another dalit. That will reduce the incentive for the ruling elite to depose a dalit. Some states have already brought in this rule. Some states have already brought in this rule. So why can't we fight for their adoption in all states? There are several such amendments worth considering. Launch a sustained national campaign against untouchability in all its forms and at all levels. This would have to address the problem of untouchability within the scheduled castes as well, which in some places is extensive. You cannot say that the rights of some within these groups are more

important than the right of others. The only way to end untouchability is to simply destroy at it every level, in every form that it exists. Educate people in your locality on this. Hold meeting to put the end to untouchability back on the agenda, back in public discourse. Try developing campaigns to force the issue back on to media's agenda as well. (For instance, if we could put together all the incidents of disrupted baraats in Rajasthan - that could be far more effective in highlighting the problem than going on a case to case basis). Groups that have the capability must generate educational material on caste tyranny and untouchability. Try taking this to the schools where students are often exposed to the prejudices of society through their teachers. Fight to bring untouchability and its eradication back into the public and national discourse. Indian society could do with some reality therapy. There was a Chinese general who well over 2,000 years ago said: "Know thy enemy, know yourself. A hundred battles, a hundred victories". I would distort this to say. Know they enemy - a hundred battles a hundred victories. Know thyself - a thousand battles, a thousand victories. Concluded Home | Index