A call for political will
Nearly sixty years after Independence, 20 per cent of India’s population, our Dalits, continue to be denied equal access to education, employment and representation and dignity
BY UDIT RAJ
Ever since Independence, the interests of Dalits have rarely been articulated, barring a few occasions. If we go back prior to Independence, we find that they were herded like animals. Dr. BR Ambedkar did manage to sensitise the British government to the pathetic saga of the ‘untouchables’ and for the first time their problems were addressed. Though himself a victim of the caste system, a westernised education helped to arm him to fight the injustices inflicted over millennia.
No political party fails to address the grievances of Dalits but these remain, essentially, farce and rhetoric. So far, the Congress party has remained the preferred political choice of Dalits and even today a majority of them support it. After the 1980s, other political parties also started taking up their issue but the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has discouraged this particular tendency. (Reasons for this will be discussed later in the article). The problems that Dalits face should not be seen as merely their own but that of the nation as a whole. Political parties have not addressed the grievances of Dalits in this sense. They should tackle the grievances of Dalits as a national problem. What they should do, however, is the real question.
Compulsory and equal education
The most important thing to be done for Dalits is to give them compulsory and equal education. This will help not only Dalits but also the whole country. Educated people are equipped to fight for their rights and dignity. And Dalits are ready to give up reservation and other lollipops in lieu of equal education. At present, the sharp increase in the privatisation of education simply denies Dalits this equality and opportunity. Hence, they are not in a position to cope with others. Any gains that were achieved are being done away with.
Privatisation is denial of equal
Every political party should realise that so far, whatever progress has been made by Dalits is due to reservation in government services and politics. The economic policy initiated by the Congress government under Narasimha Rao started diluting these privileges. The NDA government is hell-bent on putting an end to reservation in government jobs by way of judicial activism, globalisation and privatisation. Even profit making organisations and companies are being sold out for a meagre consideration to shut the gate of opportunity and progress for Dalits.
Choice and preferences are given to those Dalit leaders who barely articulate the interests of the community. When such Dalits enter the political system, it is not productive either for the community or for society in general. Political bosses adopt such policies in general with all groups but more so in the case of Dalits and Tribals because of the inherent feudal mindset. Dalits have also failed to throw up articulate, honest and learned representatives from among them. Since a political forum is the most important weapon to ameliorate the lot of Dalits, this aspect just cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Dalit political bosses also do not encourage talented, honest and knowledgeable leadership in order to keep feudal structures flourishing.
Need for land redistribution
Except for West Bengal and Kerala, no other states have carried out land reform. As a result, the majority of Dalits are still landless. This is a key deterrent to their progress. Today, hardly any importance is given to it but the land issue is one that cannot be ignored. Of course, Dr. BR Ambedkar advocated the nationalisation of land, but this has remained only a dream. The judiciary has become the biggest stumbling block in implementing land reforms by allowing litigation to obstruct this.
Today, millions of acres of land are not cultivated or properly used and if this were distributed to them, the plight of Dalits would undergo a fundamental change.
Affirmative action and diversity
Indian businessmen are full of love and praise for the research, production and quality of life in developed countries but not for the social responsibilities borne by American corporate houses. In America too, certain communities like Afro-Americans, American Indians and others are behind as compared to others and corporate houses give them representation and participation in their establishments and workplaces. In the USA, this phenomenon is called affirmative action or diversity. In India, employment opportunities and participation should be extended to Dalits in the same manner.
Employment and representation
Governments undertake many transactions through the awarding of contracts and other jobs to private concerns. Dalits should be given participation in proportion to the their population. In addition, the government buys lots of articles from private parties and companies. In this too, Dalits can be given their due participation. The principle of diversity, as prevalent in the USA, needs to be implemented in India. No political parties are serious about addressing this critical aspect.
Globalisation and Dalits
Some NGOs and progressive organisations and individuals have addressed the menace of globalisation but through a narrow, western approach. If globalisation and privatisation were welcomed in Argentina and Brazil, it was purely for economic interests. A study of the subject of globalisation in the Indian context needs a different approach. Recently, both the World Social Forum and MR-2004 met in Mumbai where most of the participants were obsessed with the stereotyped approach that had evolved and been considered in Brazil. I participated in one session on behalf of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations and persuaded the organisers that it was not economic interest alone that was responsible for the rapid globalisation of the Indian economy but social forces, too, were equally responsible.
To continue to deny Dalits both dignity and economic empowerment, globalisation is being welcomed. Dalits and Tribals have no noticeable presence in trade or industry, the media, higher education, the judiciary, para-banking and financial organisations, art and film, or several other areas. With the rate at which globalisation in India is currently progressing, the trend will also keep Dalits away from job opportunities and hence any gains that were consolidated by Dalits through reservations in past decades will be undone.
Historically, our social system cannot be denied or negated. If the motive behind globalisation were purely economic, only a few corporate houses and individuals would have become richer. But the social motive is just as strong – to keep Dalits away from both employment and opportunity. Therefore, the globalisation of the Indian economy is more dangerous than the process in Brazil, Argentina and other countries. Hence, under these circumstances, it is a question of life and death for Dalits to get reservations in the private sector.
Radical change in education syllabi
The syllabi followed by our schooling system cannot take our country forward. It does not contain the necessary subjects and values to educate citizens about humanity, dignity, self-employment and entrepreneurship, freedom, secularism, scientific temperament, etc. This does not harm Dalits alone but damages the entire nation. Political parties should address this issue and make it part of their political agenda. Instead, efforts are being made to saffronise and fundamentalise it.
Today, several posts in various government departments are lying vacant on account of the prejudiced mindset within the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. So far, not a single Dalit has become a member of important boards like the Railway Board or the Central Board of Direct and Indirect Taxes. No banks have seen a single Dalit as CMD or managing director. The situation is no better elsewhere. In 1997, the department of Personnel and Training issued five anti-reservation orders that were challenged by the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations. As a result, three anti-reservation orders were withdrawn but the remaining two are still in force. They need to be withdrawn with immediate effect to implement reservation or whatever is left of it.
The higher judiciary has failed to give justice to Dalits, therefore reservation is a must in the judiciary too. Or else, any basic rights that Dalits obtain from Parliament – because their votes matter – will be snatched away by the higher judiciary where they have no representation. To secure these constitutional rights, we must have the Reservation Act enacted, so that those who do not implement it are punished. It should also be included in the 9th Schedule of the Constitution with a view to avoid unnecessary judicial interference. The National Commission for SC/ST is a farcical body and the administration in the country frequently flouts guidelines and instructions given by it. Political parties sympathetic to the cause of Dalits should ask for its empowerment, according it judicial powers.
Various reports of Commissions of Inquiry are lying before Parliament but they are barely discussed or taken seriously. Their various recommendations are gathering dust.
Reservations in the private sector
The All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations held a massive rally at the Ram Leela Ground, New Delhi, on December 14, 2003, to oppose globalisation and seek reservations in the private sector. After that, the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that reservation for Dalits should be extended to the private sector. Here is the cue for political parties to make this an important agenda of their action plans. Unfortunately, no Dalit leaders and political organisations are serious about it.
To date, this issue has been addressed by the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations but it has proved ineffective given the limitations of existing social and cultural organisations. This has forced us to float the Indian Justice Party recently.
The pathetic conditions and problems faced by the Safai Karmacharies have not been addressed till today. Safai Karmacharies join the services as Safai Walas and get retired from the same post. Privatisation and contract systems are killing the limited interests that had been protected so far. Privatisation is therefore affecting their dignity and basic fundamental rights. They live in abominable conditions. The immediate need is to give them better education and job opportunities and mechanise the cleaning system in India.
High-tech institutes for Dalits
High-tech business management and Internet based institutions and schools must be set up by the government so that Dalits can also benefit from the fruits of globalisation and modern jobs. High-tech and other useful and better job oriented educational organisations exist and are growing in the private sector and hence such special institutes of excellence need to be set up for Dalits. Dalits cannot afford the high fees that the existing institutions demand.
At present, no political party is interested in addressing the problems of Dalits and the main reason for this is the rise of the BSP. Other political parties think that if Dalits are going to vote for the BSP, why should they bother about them! The BSP is a unique political party, not only in India but also in other democratic systems, in the fact that the party does not address the problems related to Dalits, its followers. As per the definition of any political party, it is an organisation that aims to capture political power by addressing the agenda of the people. This political party is the by-product of a unique social system prevalent in the country. It has exploited the sentiments of Dalits and nurtured itself on negative propaganda alone.
(Udit Raj is chairperson, All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations and president, Indian Justice Party).
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