Today is Ambedkar Jayanti and to observe it, the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has arranged for a 'mass meal' where party workers of all communities will eat together. All top leaders of the party will attend the mass meal.
The president of the Delhi state unit, Vijay Goel, has promised that party will also do all of the following:
• organise medical camps for Dalits
• provide books to Dalit students from “Class 1 to IAS-level”
• tell every party worker to employ at least one Dalit
• ensure that Dalit auto rickshaw drivers who have not been issued badges get one so that they can have their own auto rickshaws
• Goel will go to Dalit colonies “on foot” to understand the problems they face.
It’s silly season in Delhi, with assembly elections due towards the end of the year, and the BJP has been out of power for 15 years, so that explains why it has suddenly realised, as Goel puts it, the low literacy and graduation rates of Dalits and the lack of medical facilities for the community in the Capital. Make no mistake, if the roles had been reversed and the Congress had been in the BJP’s place, it would have done much the same thing.
But it’s not just poll-bound Delhi. Across the country, there will be similar examples of tokenism. None of them will make any difference to the lives of the Dalits. Worse, all of them smack of a patronising attitude towards Dalits and reinforce the perception that their upliftment is dependent on the munificence of the upper castes.
What is both laughable and extremely unfortunate is that this betrays a complete misreading of how much the target group has moved away from such handout-driven progress. Does Goel really expect Dalits to feel honoured that every BJP worker in Delhi (there are a couple of lakhs of them) will employ one person from their community? Doesn’t this only reinforce the jajmani system of yore, where Dalits served the upper castes and were, in turn, taken care of by them? Doesn’t this send out a message that Dalits are only meant to serve others?
And this at a time when there’s a growing sentiment that Dalits should not just be job-seekers, but job-givers as well. The Dalit entrepreneurship movement has been gaining ground slowly but steadily, buoyed by first-generation entrepreneurs who may have studied with the help of reservations but want to shape their future without that prop. There is a significant Dalit middle class that is taking its place in the world with a self-confidence that does not come from job quotas. The bechara image of Dalits is also being challenged – aggressively in Punjab and quietly elsewhere.
In Punjab, rap and pop albums celebrating the Dalit identity are all the rage and people are proudly sporting the chamar tag. A research study, Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era by Devesh Kapur, Chandrabhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett, D Shyam Babu shows how, in two districts of Uttar Pradesh, between 1990 and 2007 there has been a very significant change in the eating, grooming and consumption habits of Dalits. More importantly, the relationship between Dalits and non-Dalits is also changing. Dalit attendance at non-Dalit weddings had decreased as had instances of separate seating for Dalits. As the study notes: “Poverty and dependence might explain why more dalits attended nondalit weddings in 1990, even though separate seating was more a norm then. By 2007, though such humiliation had become rare, fewer dalits were keen on attending non-dalit weddings. It is a mark of dalits' new-found independence – both from upper castes and the food in their feasts. (emphasis mine)”
Given this, are Dalits supposed to feel honoured that upper caste people will break bread with them at a mass meal on Ambedkar Jayanti? And is it not more a reflection of those who come up with such ideas that they do not normally interact with Dalits socially?
Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad often makes the point that the nature of violence against Dalits is changing. Earlier, he says, the violence was one-sided with Dalits being the passive victims. Now, it is more in the nature of clashes because Dalits are challenging social, economic and political equations in the village and the upper castes are not able to deal with that. Whether it is in Gohana in Haryana or Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, the target of attacks, Prasad points out, were two-wheelers, television sets and books of Dalits. It is the upper castes that are feeling insecure in the face of Dalit advancement.
This is not in any way meant to advance a mitigating argument for Khairlanji, Dharmapuri, Gohana and umpteen other incidents of caste-based violence. Nor am I suggesting that Dalits are now living in a discrimination-free paradise. Search for Dalit music or chamar music on Youtube and see the kind of filthy abuses that the videos invite. Caste prejudice lurks beneath the surface of the most suave and sophisticated veneers. The heartening findings in two districts of Uttar Pradesh are not indicative of even the entire state, let alone the country. Remember, below poverty line school-children refuse to eat the free mid-day meals cooked by Dalit women. In our villages, poverty and hunger take second place to caste.
In a 2010 study, Dalits in Business: Self-employed Scheduled Castes in North-West India by Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, SS Jodhka, had 42 percent respondents admitting that they faced discrimination in business and 63 percent saying they faced it in their personal lives. In blue-collar jobs, there is a perceptible discrimination against Dalits.
A few hundred Dalit entrepreneurs do not indicate that Dalits are now an economically strong community. In villages, they are perhaps the most wretched of families. The fact that Dalit entrepreneurs had to set up a separate chamber of commerce – the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Dicci) – itself testifies to the fact that they are not part of the mainstream. Dicci, its founder-chairman had told this writer once, was formed because mainstream chambers could not understand the problems Dalits faced.
There are Dalit intellectuals, activists, politicians and others who insist that this mind-numbing oppression is the only Dalit narrative and dismiss the strides the community has made. But the Dalit story is a far more complex and multi-layered one. And, on Ambedkar Jayanti, it would be best for our tokenism-loving politicians across parties to keep that in mind. Or else, far from wooing the Dalits, they may well end up alienating them.
Seetha is a senior journalist and author.