On November 16, the Delhi High Court heard a plea seeking a direction to restrain media houses from using the word ‘Dalit’ in news articles. The public interest litigation, or PIL, was filed by one Prem Kumar Singh, who in his petition claims that the word creates “inequality” in society. The court asked the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to check whether there is any law that prohibits the use of the word ‘Dalit’.
According to a report in The Hindu, aggrieved by excessive use of words ‘Dalit’ and ‘upper caste’, the plea alleged that despite a law and guidelines in place, media houses keep raising the issue of ‘Dalit’ atrocities unnecessarily. “Crime is crime and can be committed against or by any community and thus cannot be treated on a different footing compared to crime committed by or against the people of the general community, especially when people from the Scheduled Caste are involved,” the plea said.
The tone of this petition is similar to the comments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 2 at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards. Talking about how media reports news, Modi said, “How would the BMW driver know if the one he’s running over is a Dalit?”
While it is true that the BMW driver may not know the caste of the person he is running over, crimes like murder and rape are not car accidents. For centuries, “upper” castes have committed atrocities against Dalits just because they were Dalits.
Both Singh and Modi agree that the media should not mention the caste location of either the victim or the perpetrator because it is not a relevant factor in crimes. But a person’s caste plays an important role in two contrasting ways.
One, “upper” castes feel a sense of impunity owing to their higher social and economic status. They know that their friends and relatives in the police and positions of power will shield them or local political leaders will come to their help. And if both these options fail, they can always settle the matter out of court, by paying the victim/s or bribing the police.
Dalits feel crippled to pursue police cases against “upper” caste perpetrators owing to lack of resources and access to power. There have been many instances in which the cases went to court and got media attention, but justice was still denied. Laxmanpur Bathe and Bathani Tola massacres are the most vivid examples in recent memory of the systemic casteism that Dalits have had to face.
The media, then, is duty-bound to highlight the caste angle in incidents where caste is an important factor. How else does one talk about the suicide of Rohith Vemula — which anti-caste activists have termed an institutional murder — without mentioning the fact that Vemula was a Dalit? Similarly, one cannot discuss the issue of beef ban without accounting for its impact on Dalit families. It is not possible to discuss the Una incident and subsequent protests without talking about how for caste Hindus, the cow may be a religious issue, but for Dalits, it is an issue grounded in material reality. The ritual hierarchy of caste is the primary reason behind most honour killings. That’s why the media usually mentions the castes of victims and perpetrators, like in this report of the recent case in Sonepat, Haryana.
We still hear the charge that naming a person’s caste location somehow “creates” inequality or divides society. Hindu nationalists stridently oppose the practice of naming caste because, for one, it shows Hinduism in poor light by putting its oppressive caste system at the forefront. And, two, it punctures the idea of a “unified” Hindu society. But there is no merit in the argument that Singh makes in his petition. Hindu society is already divided in hundreds of castes. It is highly unequal and hierarchical. And one cannot create an egalitarian and “unified” (whatever that means) society without addressing the issue of caste.
The solution is not to silence those who talk about caste, but rather to talk about it more. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge that the problem exists.
Who is a Dalit?
The word “Dalit” comes from the Sanskrit root ‘dal’ and means “down trodden”, “suppressed”, “crushed”, or “broken to pieces”. It was used by 19th century social reformer, Jyotiba Phule, in his writings in Marathi. But the word is not just a caste name, it is a political identity denoting a group of castes, especially former untouchable castes. According to distinguished Marathi writer Gangadhar Pantawane, “Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of God, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, faith and heaven because these have made him a slave. He represents the exploited man in his country.”
Anand Silodia on the social media site, Quora, says, “Dalit is a political identity chosen by the masses who were considered untouchable according to the caste system. When someone wants to denigrate them, no one really says they are Dalit. Instead, they either call them by their caste-names like Bhangi, Chamar, Chooda or they call them Achhoot (untouchable) or SC/ST or ‘reserved category’. So clearly, Dalit is not a derogatory word. After all, Dalit literally means someone who has been oppressed or broken. It’s because it gives name to a problem which exists. Every other word denies this reality.”
Though renowned Ambedkarite scholar K Jamanadas disagrees that the word Dalit means broken. He says, “The word Dalit does not mean ‘broken’, as is suggested. It means ‘depressed’ or ‘oppressed’ or ‘pushed down’. It does not show bad quality of the ‘depressed’, it shows the bad quality of the ‘depressor’. After being depressed or pushed down, the depressed could tolerate meekly or oppose the depression. Those who tolerate meekly by the Gandhi’s advice are ‘Harijans’. Those who jump back to oppose are Ambedkaerite ‘Dalits’.”
M K Gandhi often used the term Harijan, which literally means the man of God. He had started a newspaper called Harijan in English, Harijan Bandhu in Gujarati, and Harijan Sevak in Hindi. But many Dalit scholars and activists, including B R Ambedkar, found this term condescending. Therefore, its usage was gradually dropped and hardly anybody uses it in literary and academic discourse now.
The term Dalit gained currency in 1960s as more and more Marathi literary writers of Ambedkarite persuasion started using it in their essays, poems, dramas, autobiographies, novels and short stories. It gained further legitimacy with the foundation of Dalit Panthers in 1972. Dalit Panthers gave a much broader definition of the word Dalit. According to its manifesto, Dalits are “members of scheduled castes and tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”
But there is a section, like the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF, which rejects this identity. According to them, the word Dalit has negative connotations and it stigmatises the community. They instead prefer to call themselves Mulnivasi (indigenous people or original inhabitants). But this nomenclature is also problematic as it falls back on the race theory, which has been discredited by B R Ambedkar himself. In his book Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar writes:
“Caste system came into being long after the different races of India had commingled in blood and culture. To hold that distinctions of castes are really distinctions of race, and to treat different castes as though they were so many different races, is a gross perversion of facts. What racial affinity is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Brahmin of Madras? What racial affinity is there between the untouchable of Bengal and the untouchable of Madras? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Chamar of the Punjab? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of Madras and the Pariah of Madras? The Brahmin of the Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of the Punjab, and the Brahmin of Madras is of the same race as the Pariah of Madras.”
The constitutional term Scheduled Castes is also not a good replacement as it lacks the political potency of the word Dalit. Sumit Baudh in a piece in The Indian Express said:
“The status of SC is nothing more than legal nomenclature and it decides whether or not we avail reservations, and whether or not we avail protection under legislation like the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This nomenclature is neither perfect nor complete, in fact it is riddled with contradictions — for example, the non-availability of SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. On the other hand, Dalit status is more than a SC status. I am Dalit and I choose not to avail SC reservations. My nephew has chosen to avail these reservations and made it to the IIT. Yes, we are both Dalit and casteism acts upon both of us, perhaps differently.”
Considering the history of the word Dalit and its organic acceptance by the people within the community (Dalit Panthers, Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dalit History Month, Dalit Camera, Dalit Diva, etc), it is surprising that the Delhi High Court did not quash Singh’s petition in the first hearing itself.
Language is not a static entity. Every epoch has its own terminologies. The word ‘crippled’ was okay at one point of time. But it gradually fell into disuse as the word ‘disabled’ gained currency. But now even that word is going out of fashion and ‘differently abled’ is taking its place. It’s possible that people may stop using the word Dalit too at some point in future. But that process has to happen by social consensus. Asking for a ban just because the word doesn’t suit one’s ideology isn’t the right approach. It will be interesting to see what the court has to say when the petition comes back to hearing on January 13, 2017.