Why Dalits Can Rely Only On Themselves To End The Cycle Of Oppression

01/08/2016 11:06 AM IST | Updated 02/08/2016 12:54 PM IST
Amit Dave / Reuters

Laxmanpur Bathe, Khairlanji, Bathani Tola. The lack of context in our news media is striking. It's the same with our education system. At this rate, these three places, which should be etched in the memory of every student trying to understand Indian history and society, will be forgotten. A nation which was supposed to eliminate discrimination has grown indifferent to the voices of Dalits. The memory of these places will survive only as part of Dalit consciousness, as three bloody marks in a history marked by violence and oppression.

In the past few weeks, there have been few "newsworthy" incidents of violence against Dalits. But for those familiar with the systematic oppression of Dalits all across the country, these instances might not be as "shocking" as they might seem to the consumers of mainstream media.

The political class, which have proclaimed their love for Ambedkar's Constitution and politics, are too occupied with their own ego (i.e. UP elections) to care about Dalit lives.

Mainstream media, often dominated by upper caste voices, picks up cases which seem interesting to them, while ignoring the everyday instances of violence against Dalits. They also shy away from giving any historical or social context to such cases while reporting them, thus obscuring the bigger picture of systematic oppression that is part of Indian society.

What's different is that these recent incidents have sparked outrage and started a new wave of protests across the country, especially in Gujarat. In a number of instances, members of so-called Gau Raksha Samitis (cow protection committees) have targeted Dalits in a number of states including Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. In one instance (Una district of Gujarat), the perpetrators even made a video where some of the 'gau rakshaks' (cow protectors) are seen beating members of a Dalit family. Dalits are traditionally responsible for skinning dead cows -- owing to the discriminatory caste system where the kind of work you do becomes a form of oppression, a dictate imposed on the lower castes by high caste men. These vulnerable young men became easy targets for a group of gau rakshaks who claimed that these Dalits had killed the cows before skinning them. An agenda of the Hindu right, saving cows in the name of Hinduism has become a popular vocation all across India and has taken its toll on humanity, decency and democracy. Incidentally, in Gujarat, while the gau rakshaks were inflicting this barbaric violence and boasting about it, the police sat and remained mute spectators. It could be an allegory for the Indian state, which has been a mute spectator of violence against Dalits for decades.

The other instance was from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, where a Dalit couple was hacked to death by an upper caste shopkeeper because they had not been able to repay the ₹15 that they owed the shopkeeper. This incident got some international coverage owing to the absurdly meagre sum of money for which two lives were taken. The couple belonged to a caste of traditional performers, rope walkers and jugglers, who out of poverty had been forced to work as agricultural labourers but were still struggling to make ends meet. If one digs deeper, this brutal killing looks like more than just another act of violence. It's a symbolic representation of systematic oppression where Dalits are trapped in the vicious circle of economic deprivation and further exploited by the dominant castes.

Upper caste/class intellectuals appropriate Dalit issues and push Dalit voices to the background. Their own privileged position in the mainstream media often becomes the source of suppression...

Following the spate of incidences that started with the death of Rohith Vemula, there is immense anger amongst Dalit and civil rights groups accompanied by a sense of sadness. It's not new; everything that has been happening recently has been going on for centuries. Despite decades of struggle and the recent celebration of Ambedkar as a leading figure in Indian history, not much has changed for Dalits. The political class, which have unanimously proclaimed their love for Ambedkar's Constitution and politics, are too occupied with their own ego (i.e. Uttar Pradesh state elections) to really care about Dalit lives. In the arithmetic of politics, Dalits, like any other caste group are merely a number and their influence and power, despite years of progress counts for very little when it comes to systematic change. For the most part, most of the national and regional parties are so complicit in perpetuating this oppressive system, that's it's impossible to see them working towards destroying it.

The upper caste dominance of the political, social and economic systems ensures that they are working towards protecting the system that has benefitted them for long. Even more problematic is the fact that due to the lack of historical context, any discourse on caste is so tied up with the issue of reservation that a majority of educated upper caste Indians fail to recognize the position of privilege that they come from. Upper caste/class intellectuals, in the meantime, do not hesitate in appropriating Dalit issues and pushing Dalit voices to the background. Their own privileged position in the mainstream media often becomes the source of suppression for the brave and powerful Dalit voices which seek to speak up against an unjust system.

In the end, it's a fight that Dalits are fighting alone. "Educate, Agitate, Organize" -- these three words of Ambedkar are driving protests by Dalit students in universities across the country. Two weeks ago, thousands of people gathered in Mumbai's CST against the Maharashtra's government's decision to demolish Ambedkar Bhawan. A few days ago, Dalits in Una refused to pick up carcasses of dead cattle and left them at the collectorate as a sign of protest. One hopes that this is just a start of a movement -- a movement that will change Indian society and polity for the better, one that India desperately needs.

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