By Manjula Pradeep*
“Freedom of mind is the real freedom.
A person, whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man. One, whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man.
One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead.
Freedom of mind is the proof of one’s existence.”
— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
The most famous quote of Dr. Ambedkar is “Educate – Unite – Agitate”, meaning that to excess the path to social justice, people who have been discriminated for past several centuries due to their social origin, have to first get educated, then Unite, and finally they have to Agitate for their rights. I, as a human rights activist, striving for human rights of one of the most discriminated communities in the world and in South Asia, see Education as the first and foremost path toward social justice.
For thousands of years, Dalits were not entitled to attain literacy. Manu’s code of Law had said that “if a Dalit listens to the Sanskrit chants, then hot lead should be poured in his/her ears.” We have come a long way from being humiliated, disregarded, oppressed, and denied of our rights as human beings. At one time we were in the category of untouchables, unseeables and unapproachables. Although majority of us have moved out of the category of unseeables and unapproachables, but we still face untouchability and discrimination in varied forms.
Education is a tool for empowerment, and that’s what Ambedkar believed in. Due to constitutional provisions laid in most of the constitutions of the countries in South Asia, Dalits and so-called socially excluded communities have been able to attain literacy despite all odds. But does becoming literate means we are educated? From my personal experiences, I say that that one has to lead oneself to the path of education, shown by Dr. Ambedkar. This path is the path towards knowledge, where knowledge becomes power.
Through the work done by Navsarjan Trust, we are trying to redefine the entire terminology of power in the caste-based society. We say that power comes from knowledge and not by being born in a particular caste, ethnicity, class or religion. But the point to think is that when I attain knowledge, I do not behave or treat others like what I have been treated in the past. Many times, the oppressed communities, when they attain power, they tend to forget their past and want to behave in a manner, where they start mistreating others.
Dalits are not homogeneous community and there is vertical inequality among Dalits as they follow the mindset of caste-based society, which Dr. Ambedkar called as graded hierarchy. India has the largest population of Dalits in South Asia, which is around 200 million or 20 crores. There are more than 6,000 castes in India, and within that there are over 1,000 sub-castes among Dalits. Due to graded hierarchy, Dalit sub-castes also differentiate among each other. Similar situation must be prevailing in other South Asian countries affected by caste-based discrimination. So on one level Dalits are getting literate and educated, but on the other, they themselves do not wish to intermingle.
A study titled “Understanding Untouchability” was conducted by Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat, where we identified 98 forms of discrimination practiced against Dalits and within Dalits. The most striking part was that 99 percent of Dalits do not believe in inter-caste marriages. So how can we say that Dalit communities are educated? Isn’t their mindset similar to the dominant castes/communities? Similarly, the patriarchal order among Dalits also poses the entire question of inequality among them based on gender.
A community, which has been historically oppressed and discriminated, how can it do the same to women and girls? Majority of the so-called literate Dalit men many times behave just like men from dominant communities. Hence, the vulnerability that a Dalit woman faces due to her identity based on caste and gender is unimaginable. She goes through all forms of caste and gender discrimination, and many times faces caste and gender violence. Due to her gender, she is forced into inhuman caste-based occupations, like manual scavenging, temple prostitution, bonded labour, child labour etc.
She also suffers from caste and gender violence, including domestic violence, unnatural death, human trafficking, mass/gang rapes, forced conversion, etc. One of the famous quotes of Dr. Ambedkar is, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”. Hence, there is a need for Dalits in caste affected countries to introspect and reflect about the situation of women in their communities, and how it can be improved to move towards the direction of social justice.
To be united and to remain united is a crucial pillar for Dalit empowerment. The question is, can Dalits forget their national, religious, biological, caste, gender and class identities and come together as a united and uniform force? The truth is that the Dalit movement is divided within the caste affected countries, hence there is no single Dalit movement, further dividing our energies and strengths. The other reality is that within the Dalit rights movement, there is no single ideology.
There is also division between the elite Dalit masses and the grassroots Dalit activists. And in India, there is a sharp divide between northern Dalits and southern Dalits, too. Although sometimes we do come on one platform within our own countries on a particular issue or aspect, it’s a big challenge within the Dalit rights movement to overcome this barrier and unite to pose as one strong front. One of the best examples of Dalit assertion was during the preparation of United Nations World Conference on racism, xenophobia and related intolerances, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in the year 2001.
Many Dalit rights organizations led by Dalit leaders joined in the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, with one mission, which was to ensure inclusion of caste in the UN agenda. This campaign brought in many non-political and political leaders together, and we were able to show a strong visibility at the conference, which was attended by more than 200 Dalit rights defenders, both women and men, from South Asia.
The united force ensured debate on the issue of caste-based discrimination, and now it is very much part of discussion in the Human Rights Council treaty bodies and special procedures. Despite few achievements, the issue of caste-based discrimination and annihilation of caste, as raised by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, has not got adequate space and recognition, because the term social justice has different meaning for those who are affected by caste-based discrimination. Many of us who are part of the discriminated communities are not even talking or discussing about social justice, and we are contented with reservation and few benefits being received through certain government schemes and programmes.
Countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where the population of Dalits is minuscule, their existence as part of a religious minority itself makes them vulnerable. Non-recognition of their issues and rights in their countries’ constitution does not give them adequate space to speak out against the forms of discrimination or violence they face due to their caste identities.
The entire struggle for social justice gets strengthened when we agitate, and that’s the word coined by Dr. Ambedkar to demand for one’s rights and to get the recognition as human beings in the South Asian society. To agitate means to assemble peacefully, to voice one’s views, to show physical strength, but ensuring that the principle of respect and non-violence is adhered to. One can very well see the form of agitations having taken place in each of the caste-affected countries, where India is much ahead, followed by Nepal and Bangladesh. Agitation is almost not present in Pakistan and Sri Lanka on the issue of caste-based discrimination because of the typical conditions prevailing in these countries.
The message of Dr. Ambedkar, to Educate – Unite – Agitate is also not much popular in other caste affected countries in South Asia, except India. Hence following needs to be done to spread Ambedkar’s philosophy, which is the path to access social justice in South Asia:
- Organizing seminars and workshops on Dr. Ambedkar’s life and mission with Universities, colleges, NGOs, Institutions in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
- Dissemination of educational material (printed, audio and visual) relating to Ambedkar’s philosophy and work and to be translated in national languages, i.e. Urdu, Nepali, Sinhalese, Bangla.
- Organizing exposure, exchange, internship programmes for youth from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka to learn from the work done in India by civil society organizations, universities and colleges.
- Setting up Ambedkar libraries and resource centres on books and volumes written by Dr. Ambedkar and other social reformers like Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Ramasamy Periyar, Narayana Guru, etc.
*Executive director, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad. This paper was presented on 15th December 2016 at the 9th International Seminar held at the University of Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan