A voice for the voiceless who attempted to revive Self-Respect Movement

By P Arun Pandian*

India cheers Dalits riding donkeys, but fears Dalits riding horses” – A sad reality that the privileged often reject, ignore or pretend to ignore

Unlike other leaders, why is Ambedkar’s statue caged? Is a question that needs to be answered before starting any debate about Dalits and the policies being framed for them. India’s social division is based on “caste” and not “class”. Sadly, the privileged lot always tries to confine the topic of “Caste discrimination & Dalits” to “Class discrimination & Reservation policies” alone. But it is not as simple an issue to be fabricated as a mere “class conflict”. The interaction with MR. Chandra Bhan Prasad reinforced my line of thought that, “If discrimination was/is on the lines of caste, why should the affirmative action to compensate the injustice be on the lines of class (Economic backwardness)? Shouldn’t social acceptance be the right scale to measure?”

Among the most frequent modern attacks on Dalits or the stereotyped “Quota guys” are:

Reservation destroys “merit” and hinders development of the nation – What is the credibility of “merit” when different people are at different start points for the same race? What is the use of “development” without inclusion? If reservation destroys merit, why are we not told about the story of Tamil Brahmins (And Kayasthas) pleading to the British Governor general for a “Third class” in the Madras presidency college? Perfect meritocracy banishes the capacity of people to see themselves as sharing a common fate.

Reservation perpetuates caste – If compensating the fellow humans whom the “upper castes” have oppressed for centuries by committing the heinous crime of systemically depriving them of their rights, is going to aggravate the stigma, it is the mindset of the people that should be changed by educating them and not the affirmative action. What perpetuates caste is the violent social division and not the affirmative action which gives hope to Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasis to shatter the walls of discrimination.

Why should people (“upper castes”) today be forced to live with the burden of past injustice, just because of the lottery of birth? – It is because they are still benefiting from their past crimes and their accumulated social capital (Just an upper caste surname gets you opportunities) but the Dalits today are forced to live with the aftereffects of the injustice done to them for generations. Distributive justice is all about providing advantage to the most disadvantaged in a Zero-sum game. It is essential to be able to digest and draw lines between the one who got opportunities and still remained poor and the one who was denied those opportunities and forced to remain poor.

Apart from these thought-provoking insights, one major reflection from the examples of Mr. Prasad (Dalit man in Bhilwara, Rajasthan killed for riding his own horse, Dalit brothers in Pratapgarh who cleared JEE were stoned, Separate settlements of Dalits in villages especially towards the south, hundreds of honour killings every year) was that any discussion with an immoral upper-caste is not worthy. How can one justify the stance against these affirmative actions (by fabricating the issue as a class conflict) while wanting to stick on to the caste discrimination directly or indirectly? While speeches by Swami Vivekananda and others paint a beautiful picture of India, why were Breast tax and moustache tax not discussed? Primarily because, deep inside every caste Hindu holds the wit of Vivekananda.

Caste or Nation- What comes first? While they “upper castes” carry the caste pride even to the Silicon Valley and butcher Dalits (fellow Indians) as an act of “Honour killing”, it is essential for policy makers too to put caste first, bridge the widening social gap, and then the idea of “Nation” would follow automatically. How good is a Nation that shows progress by exploiting a chunk of its own population in the name of caste? [Reservation of seats in education is an agreement in the Poona Pact. “Article 9: In every province out of the educational grant, an adequate sum shall be earmarked for providing educational facilities to the members of Depressed Classes”. If there was no Poona Pact there would have been no agreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar. If there had been no agreement, there would have been no India]

Mr. Prasad’s approach towards Dalit rights activism was different and fascinating. While most Dalit movements were focussed on Anti-atrocities protests and campaigns, he wanted to do something different. It was the time when Dalit voices were not even heard in the media space. J Cooper, an American Black journalist, wanted to interview a Dalit journalist. But Mr. BN Uniyal was not able to find a single Dalit journalist after 70 years of Journalism. Then the “Dalit diaries” in the Indian daily, The Pioneer, happened. The column “Dalit Diaries” was a product of a small movement called “End Apartheid” from Indian Media to democratize opinions in Indian media. And Mr. Prasad was the only Dalit journalist to have a dedicated column in the English daily. While American media (Including American corporates and Hollywood) does a regular audit to take a note of how many black people are included to ensure workforce diversity, why don’t Indian public institutions implement something of this sort?

Mr. Prasad was then noticed by Mr. Digvijaya Singh, the then CM of MP. He used this opportunity to raise an important point. He proposed, “While the Government of Madhya Pradesh is spending millions on 4500 Dalit and Adivasi hostels in MP for free food, bed sheet, soaps, etc., Why don’t you give the market of the supplies to Dalits?” Mr. Digvijaya gave 30% Cess for SC/ST entrepreneurs and roughly 80 crores were saved eventually. Hence, it became clear that for India to move in the right direction, Dalits and Adivasis should be seen everywhere.

With regards to the increase in hate crimes against Dalits according to the NCRB data, this trend has aggravated primarily after the Dalits had started to liberate from the chains of fear and slavery. These crimes are not always planned or intentional and do not take place because of personal rivalry. But completely psychological in nature. As long as they remained as slaves or properties of Landlords and the “upper castes”, there was no problem. But once they started to grow, free themselves and challenge the social order, they became the victims of Caste violence. It is unfair on the part of society and intellectuals to camouflage such caste discrimination with class conflicts.

Of the most impressive ideas of Mr. Prasad was “Dalit capitalism”, which he sees as a part of a modern Self-respect movement. In 1947, it was not easy for a Dalit to see a 10 rupee note in a Dalit hamlet. They were paid in kind and not in cash and hence did not have access to currency. Systemically they were prohibited from accumulating wealth and not allowed to even dress well. This is where it becomes essential to understand the nuances and politics involved in Ambedkar wearing a suit and Gandhi wearing a Dhoti. Hence, to challenge this structure, one possible approach could be Dalits becoming employers of other castes. The immediate obvious question would be, “How?”

Within 25 years of their freedom, Blacks made their own banks and brands. But in India, Dalits are civil servants, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. but there is no Dalit brand. There are top class Dalit manufacturers in the country but they don’t have a brand of their own. Initially there was cash constraint to open showrooms. But today, the online showroom- e commerce is flourishing. If the product is good and the price is competitive, people would be forced to buy. Mr. Prasad’s chat with a professor from IIM Lucknow made it clear that “Access to market’” was the critical link in this approach. So, he strongly felt that his initiatives: “bydalits.com” will fill up this historic gap and “Dalit foods” will change the perception of impurity forcibly associated with Dalits. Food and inter-caste marriages are ultimate symbols of caste supremacy. By becoming food sellers, this stigma can be gradually changed by letting the society decide if they want hygienic good food or stick on to caste symbols. Also, Dalits are bound to practise ethics for at least two or three more generations. But others have been there for generations and enjoyed corruption. Towards promoting such a common good, the government should give markets to Dalits (Army canteens, School contacts, Govt dept. contracts) to get them into the wealth sharing space and change the social order.

Empirical data shows that if given an opportunity Dalits grow. People need to empathize with the fact that Dalits have to cry and compete & compete and cry. So, let us move towards an egalitarian society and achieve an inclusive growth by appreciating and encouraging Dalit representation in all institutions and their participation in the policy making & implementation.


*IIM Ahmedabad (Second year, PGP student)

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