Jan- Feb 2002 
Dalit Drishti

Dateline Bhopal

The MP government joins hands with Dalit intellectuals and activists in 
what promises to be a unique social engagement


Remember Durban, the venue of the UN’s World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and
Other Forms of Related Intolerances
(WCAR), last August-September? A conference in preparation for which Dalit activists and intellectuals had worked very hard in the previous two years. In the legitimate hope that once caste discrimination is globally recognised as a form of racism, India’s 250 million ‘Broken People’ could also invoke international norms and conventions in their continuing struggle for dignity and against oppression and exploitation.

Also remember that during the entire run-up to the conference and in Durban itself, representatives of the Indian state acted as hostile adversaries of the agenda Dalits had set for themselves.

Readers of CC might also recall the interviews given in Durban by Omer Abdullah, leader of the Indian official delegation at the WCAR and Henry Tiphagne from the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR).

"They have used every trick in the book to contain our campaign, to malign activists and to resist caste-based discrimination, violence and intolerance from receiving world attention," said Tiphagne, echoing the sentiments of Dalits assembled at Durban and the rest back home (‘A date with Durban’, September 2001).

"I would like to invite the 600-odd NGOs who have expended time, energy and resources in raising caste at the WCAR to come back and help us eradicate the evil of caste," Farooq had then told CC.

To the best of our knowledge, that’s the last time anyone heard of Omer Farooq or his government’s "invitation" to Dalits. And only the BJP-led NDA government knows what it has done since to "eradicate the evil of caste".

Seen in this backdrop, the assembly of several hundred Dalit intellectuals, academics and activists, from all parts of the country and representing different shades of opinion, in Bhopal on January 12 and 13 at the invitation of the government of Madhya Pradesh, stands out in sharp and splendid relief.

If a dogged determination to deny the gravity of the problem epitomised the mindset of those who spoke for the Indian State at Durban, the demeanour of the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, and several of his ministers who remained present for a large part of the Bhopal conference, suggested grace, humility and sincerity of purpose.

The MP government did not invite Dalits to "help us eradicate the evil of caste". Rather, most of the time, the chief minister himself, his ministers and officials sat in the audience, listening to Dalit intellectuals and activists analyse and pin-point the problems faced by India’s SCs and STs and spell out the measures and mechanisms that could help in ‘Charting a New Course for Dalits for the 21st century’.

The ‘Bhopal Declaration’ with its 21-point action agenda unanimously adopted at the conference, reproduced alongside, reiterates demands that have been raised repeatedly since Independence and spelt out some fresh ones. The Dalits’ rightful share in agricultural land, legislation and enforcement of living wages for agricultural labour, restoration of the alienated land of tribals, strict enforcement of the Bonded labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, honest implementation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Rules, 1985, elimination of the humiliating practice of manual scavenging belong to the former.

But what constitute a radical new departure are demands such as:

"Democratise Capital so as to ensure proportionate share for SCs and STs…" (Point 5 of action agenda

"Ensure diversity of SC/STs’ due representation in all public institutions of India…" (Point 13),

"Every government and private organisation must implement supplier diversity from socially disadvantaged businesses…" (Point 15).

The new demands are an obvious indicator of the Dalit response to the fast-changing Indian reality in the era of privatisation, disinvestments and globalisation where jobs in the government and public sector are going to be increasingly scarce.

Room for doubt, and scepticism? Yes, there is.

A number of propositions contained in ‘The Bhopal Document’, circulated before the conference as the reference point for deliberations, are contentious.

For example, the demand, "Every walk of life in India should be subjected to rigid State control till society attains civility and social democracy matures," conjures up the idea of a highly authoritarian State. If the benignness and benevolence of the State is taken for granted, the document dismisses out of court the entire spectrum of ‘civil society actors’. "The ‘rusticated’ sections, instead of joining struggles of the out-castes/lower castes, prefer to take shelter in other movements, i.e., environment, animal welfare, feminism, secularism… Contrary to universal logic, in India this set of people is siding, albeit in a subtle manner, with the ruling varnas. Taking into account the varna/caste dynamics of the society, we cannot expect this section to side with SC/STs, but what all we can expect is to neutralise this section".

Equally well, some would point to the naivete implicit in the enthusiasm with which the document embraces the ‘crumbs’ offered by the diversity model of the capitalist West, specially its corporate sector, currently in the ‘globalisation’ mode.

Legitimate as these criticisms might in themselves be, to confine oneself to them is to miss out completely the dynamics of the social process that the Bhopal conference contains. To appreciate the potential significance of Bhopal, it’s worth bearing a few things in mind:

One, the Bhopal Document was by no means a perspective collectively evolved or collectively adopted at the conference. The fact that individuals and groups, representing a large variety of perspectives, were consciously invited for the meet speaks well of the openness of the organisers to discussion and debate in future.

Two, it is worth reverting back to Durban. If Durban signified the virtual denial of Dalit reality by one arm of the Indian state – the BJP-led Indian government – Bhopal signifies its acknowledgement by another. Post-Durban it was very necessary for Dalit intellectuals, academics and activists to reassemble, take stock and plan the next steps forward. And it is to the credit of chief minister Digvijay Singh that his government acted as gracious host and provided a platform.

Three, is Digvijay Singh playing politics, wooing Dalits merely to cultivate a vote-bank? But if politics is not about wooing people, what else is the name of the game? Should one not be looking instead at the Digvijay-Dalit ‘terms of engagement’?

For three hours on the concluding day of the conference, the chief minister voluntarily placed himself before a ‘presidium’ of 18 academics, intellectuals and activists, who fired searching questions at him, made suggestions and asked what mechanisms he intended to put in place to ensure that his bureaucracy will deliver as per his promise.

"Dum chahiye, auqat chahiye, is tarah aamne saamne baithne ke liye ("You need both guts and mettle to place yourself in such a situation"). This man is my candidate for the PM’s post", was the enthusiastic response of one academic from Delhi immediately after what to him was Singh’s trial by fire.

Is the MP CM willing to ‘walk the talk’? In his response to the Bhopal Declaration, Singh made two important announcements on the spot: One, from the current year itself, 30 per cent of all the purchase orders of the MP government for Ashram schools in the state meant for SC/STs will go to Dalit entrepreneurs; and that’s only the beginning. ("That means Rs. 300 crore worth of business to Dalits", enthused one quick-with-the-calculator activist). Two, a special task force (STF) will be constituted to monitor implementation of the 21-point action agenda in the state of MP.

"But who will be members of this special task force?" Professor Kancha Ilaiah asked Dr Amar Singh, the CM’s personal secretary, later that evening. "You are obviously one of them", he replied, without a moment’s hesitation. "And others like you — Dalit intellectuals, academics and activists."

Judging by the mood at the dinner the MP government hosted that night, the vast majority of Dalit delegates present were happy with what had happened in Bhopal. And, "How to get our own state governments to take a similar step?" was the sentiment expressed by many as they bid goodbye to Bhopal.     


The Bhopal declaration

Adopted unanimously by the Bhopal Conference: Charting A New Course For Dalits For The 21st Century Held at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, 12-13 January 2002

intellectuals and activists assembled at the Bhopal Conference, 12-13 January 2002, to deliberate the issues concerning the welfare of and justice to the 250 million and,

Declaring our belief in Babasaheb Dr. BR Ambedkar’s ideal of social democracy and his prophecy that, "A democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of society. The formal framework of democracy is of no value and would indeed be a misfit if there was no social democracy",

Endorsing the ideals of civil society enshrined in the constitution of India, particularly its preamble that declares the Indian State’s commitment to Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,

Recognising that the tenets established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various other charters of the United Nations which our nation has acceded to also emphasise the same principles,

Recognising also the tribals’ legitimate and historical rights over forest and forest-produce,

Acknowledging the role of tribal communities, particularly tribal women, to the protection and conservation of the country’s rich biodiversity and natural resources as well as its culture and civilization,

Acknowledging also the need to ensure that SCs and STs are given due representation in all bodies of decision-making,

Recalling the struggles that Babasaheb had waged for the emancipation of his people and the historic rights he had won for them,

Mindful of the fact that even after 54 years of Independence, the Dalit community is denied of its basic human rights and is also at the receiving end of the most brutal and oppressive forms of discrimination and exclusion,

Reaffirming that concerted action by society as a whole – especially coordination among the political leadership, officials and grassroots activists – is necessary for the over-all development of the most oppressed of India,

Bearing in mind the responsibility to take forward our struggle at this critical juncture in spite of the fact that most political formations are reluctant to pursue any policy favourable to the Dalits,

Recognising that the social consensus over the Dalit cause – reluctantly agreed upon at the time of Independence – has by and large broken down,

Convinced that informed and democratic discourse at all levels is essential to re-negotiate a new consensus over redeeming the pledges of the founding fathers of the Republic to do justice to Dalits,

Convinced also that the national psyche and public discourse in the country accepts uncritically the rigid hierarchy and discrimination caused by caste and thereby denies that caste is a major source of prejudice and brutal violence,

Emphasizing that Babasaheb’s stress on struggle through democratic and constitutional means is relevant today,

Regretting that the post-Ambedkar Dalit intelligentsia has failed both in carrying forward his emancipatory movement as well as making a dent in the country’s intellectual life,

Recognizing the need for Dalits to make common cause with other liberation and human rights movements in and outside the country,

Conscious of the hurdles that caste-Hindu society – and its tentacles in government, media, voluntary sector, etc., - is likely to hurl at any serious movement that challenges the entrenched system of discrimination and exclusion,

Noting that women – especially Dalit women – represent the most oppressed sections of our society, and that they face multiple forms of discrimination, including caste-based, religious and patriarchal ideology and practices,

Welcoming the winds of change the world over that are conducive to inclusion, equal opportunity, diversity, democratisation and civil society, and against discrimination, stereotype, stigma, exclusion and caste society,

Hoping that this country will no longer remain an exception to the global norm of progress, equality, justice, peace and social harmony, and

We hereby solemnly proclaim that while we rededicate ourselves to work in unison to achieve basic rights of Dalits, we are convinced that unless the following issues are resolved no amount of activism on our part and pro-active measures from the State can liberate the community from the scourges of untouchability and exploitation.

We therefore demand…



1. Ensure that each Dalit family will own enough cultivable land for socio-economic well-being. The government should pursue all possible measures including the distribution of surplus land, government revenue lands and temple lands within a specific timeframe. If the need be, the government should purchase cultivable land and distribute it among Dalits.

2. Enact legislation and enforce it stringently to enable Dalits have an equitable share in the appropriation and use of the rural and urban common property resources. The law must be amended to ensure that lengthy litigation, with the ulterior motive of denying Dalits of legal redressal, is not resorted to.

3. Enact legislation and enforce the right of Dalit agricultural labourers to living wages, to gender parity in wages, to job security, to better working conditions and welfare measures, and ensure punitive measures against offenders.

4. Appoint statutory committees at the national and state level to identify within specified time-frame all the Dalit lands occupied by non-Dalits, to assess the quantum of compensation to be paid by non-Dalits for their illegal utilization of lands, to identify the original owners and their nearest kith and kin for restoring these lands back to them, to expedite legal proceedings in courts specially appointed for this purpose against the illegal occupants and to ensure punitive measures against them.

5. Ensure the restoration of the alienated lands to the tribals, restore their rights over forest and forest-produce, provide them with compensation and rehabilitation measures, extend resources and capacity building measures for gainful utilization of their lands and forests and make those Dalits displaced due to construction of dams/ developmental projects and mining as shareholders of such enterprises.

6. Democratise Capital so as to ensure proportionate share for SCs and STs. Make budgetary allocation for SCs and STs to enable them enter the market economy with adequate investment resources, and develop their capacities and skills for such market enterprises.

7. Enforce with stringent measures the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and abolish forthwith child labour to ensure freedom with dignity for all Dalits, and accordingly make suitable amendments in the appropriate legislations.

8. Amend Art. 21 of the Constitution of India so as to include the following rights for all citizens, with special emphasis on SCs and STs, and on the basis of two criteria: namely, low-economic income and without religious discrimination: the rights to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of women and men equally, including food, safe drinking water, clothing, housing, public health and medical care, social security and social services; the right to living-wage and the right to own 5 acres of cultivable land or to gainful employment.

9. Implement compulsory, free and high quality education for all Dalits immediately, make allocation of funds proportionate to the number and level of the illiterates, ensure compensation to those families which forfeit income from child-labour, increase the number and amount of scholarships, and provide better infrastructural facilities in SC and ST schools and offer market-oriented vocational and technical education.

10. Make the reservation quota applicable in all the public and private educational institutions from primary to technical and professional levels. Every SC/ST child with low income-base must be given quality free-education at the State’s expense. And every English medium school must implement diversity in admissions.

11. Recognize SC and ST women as a distinct category among women, and accordingly make segregated data on Dalit women available in census reports, action taken reports and progress reports, evolve national-and state-level perspective plans for mainstreaming SC and ST women in developmental programmes, market enterprises, financial allocation, reservation facilities in education, employment and health facilities, and mandate the national and state commissions for SCs and STs and for women to study and report specifically the status of SC and ST women in their annual reports.

12. Implement effectively in letter and spirit the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 & Rules, 1995, especially with regard to atrocities against Dalit women, and accordingly prosecute the dominant caste leaders and their minions who stoke the fire of caste clashes and the police officials acting in connivance with them. In cases of atrocities against SC/STs, a system of collective punishment has to be evolved as oppressors enjoy community’s support and protection and escape the law.

13. Ensure diversity or SC/STs’ due representation in all public institutions of India, whether universities or academic or autonomous or registered bodies. Those institutions which do not abide by the principle of affirmative action must lose recognition and state funding. All private industry/corporate houses must accept and implement diversity in workforce immediately.

14. Ensure that in all state and national budgets allocations are made as per the proportion of SC and ST population and penal action taken against non-utilisation or diversion of funds meant for these sections.

15. Every government and private organization must implement supplier diversity from socially disadvantaged business and dealership diversity in all goods and services.

16. The State must assume sole responsibility in protecting the SCs and STs. The State must identify atrocity-prone areas and deploy forces. In addition, provide arms licences to the SCs & STs as stipulated in the Atrocities Act for self-defence purposes, make the setting up of Dalit self-defence groups from village onwards mandatory, and specially train Dalit women to handle weapons in self-defence against the perpetrators of crimes and atrocities.

17. Eliminate the humiliating practice of manual scavenging on an urgent footing through effective rehabilitation, alternative and sustainable employment measures and developmental programmes, and prosecute violators of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, especially the gross violators – railways, defence, urban local bodies and others.

18. Make it statutory for Parliament and state assemblies to debate on the annual reports of the national-and state-level commissions for SC/STs and safai karamcharis within the following year, and ensure that these annual reports and the action-taken reports are made public. And ensure that the action is taken under clear statutory stipulations.

19. Make affirmative action mandatory in all private institutions, including industries and corporate sector, which receive State patronage in any form – from land at concessional rate to tax benefits etc. and also develop the capacities and skills of Dalits to help them meet the demands of these different sectors.

20. Implement the policy of reservation to SC/STs at all levels of judiciary and defence forces. And make transparent appointment process in judiciary by doing away with the nomination system.

21. Bring out a ‘Truth Paper’ in two years on the status of reservation during the past 25 years and place it before Parliament and state assemblies for debate, and on a war-footing fill immediately all the backlog posts meant for Dalits and that, too, only with Dalit candidates. 


The President’s pitch

Shri KR Narayanan, President of India made a special mention about the Bhopal Conference and the Bhopal
Declaration today in his Republic Day Speech, 2002. He invited the private industry to adopt diversity and emphasised on the socio-economic agenda. Excerpts from his speech:

Even today it is amazing that we have not become an inclusive society in spite of the political triumph of our democracy. The discrimination being suffered by women, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes is a crying denial of the democracy that is enshrined in our Constitution. Recently a conference was held in Bhopal of Dalit and tribal intellectuals and activists. They issued a Declaration called the Bhopal Declaration charting out a new course for Dalits and the tribal people for the 21st century.

After calling for the implementation of the policies enshrined in our Constitution for their development, the Declaration emphasizes the importance, in this present era of privatisation, of providing for representation for these deprived classes, not only in government and public institutions but in private corporations and enterprises which benefit from government funds and facilities. Indeed in the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilized human beings.

This is not to ask the private enterprise accept socialism, but to do something like what the Diversity Bill and the affirmative action that a capitalist country like the United States of America has adopted and is implementing.

My fellow citizens, I have talked to you about these social questions because if our great democracy is to remain great and relevant to the problems of the masses, we will have to pay heed to these crying socio- economic issues". 


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