Short history of word 'Dalit': Move to scrap use of term has roots in history; all ruling parties have applied labels to community

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 4 September. It has been republished in light of the Press Council of India's ruling against a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting advisory seeking to stop the use of the word 'Dalit' in the media. The PCI decided against the advisory saying "a blanket ban was neither advisable nor feasible".

The Information and Broadcasting ministry's advisory urging media to refrain from using the nomenclature 'Dalit' for people belonging to Scheduled Castes is seemingly benign at the surface. But at its roots is a rather longstanding aversion of those in power to let the word Dalit take root as a distinct identity of the millions of lower-caste Indians, oppressed through the centuries.

History shows that the ideological bent of the party or the alliance in power does not really matter. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress (in pre and post-Independence India) have flinched at the sound of the word when it raised its head. The effort always has been to come up with an alternative name to strip the narrative of the word Dalit.

And yet, every time the community has fought back and re-asserted their rights in a dominant upper-caste society, they have managed to reunite under the canopy of the term 'Dalit' rather than any other nomenclature that the non-Dalits may have tried to ascribe to the society.

Then the timing of the government's advisory in the backdrop of the pushback from the Dalits' rights activists, the massive protests against the various atrocities on the members of the community, and the recent agitation over the demand to upturn the Supreme Court judgment 'diluting' the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act raises questions.

 Short history of word Dalit: Move to scrap use of term has roots in history; all ruling parties have applied labels to community

A member of the Dalit community shouts slogans during a protest in Mumbai, India, 3 January. Reuters

'Dalit' and 'Scheduled Caste'

The word Dalit comes from the Hindi word dalan, meaning oppressed or broken. Alternatively, or legally, or as the Government of India may now have them called, Dalit is basically a caste defined in Constitution under Article 341, listed as the Scheduled Castes.

The term Scheduled Castes was first used by British in the Government of India Act, 1935, which first categorised the lower castes under 'Depressed Classes'.

However, the problem with the government's decision to replace the word 'Dalit' with Scheduled Caste is that certain members of the community don't like to identify with the term. Some members argue that they like to identify as a Dalit, but they have actively opted out of the benefits of reservation offered by the State. Hence, they don't feel it is right to club them under the listed 'Scheduled classes'.

Then there is the thorny issue of reservation. The argument stands that the increased emphasis on the word Scheduled Caste will give rise to a sense of alienation and in turn trudge deeper the animosity between the upper and the lower caste.

Gangadhar Pantawane, a Dalit writer from Maharashtra defines Dalit as a notion of change and revolution. The Dalits belief was humanism instead of sacred books, heaven, and hell as it made them a slave to other castes. "What is Dalit. To me, Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change an revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism."  ".. Dalitness is a matter of appreciating the potential of one's total being.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

It is because the term takes on an emancipating, unabashed acceptance of a troubled past that the community has preferred to take on this term, rather than being called Harijans.

Even Ambedkar, early on in his writings in English, espoused the use of the terms "depressed classes" and "broken men", which could translate into Dalit. But later he assertively stuck to the usage of 'Dalit' when Mahatma Gandhi tried to replace the term with a more generic Harijan (or children of God).

From Dalits to Harijans to Dalits

The term Harijan is said to have first figured in the hymn Vaishnava jana by Narsinh Mehta. Many believe that Gandhi's attempt to promote the usage of word was to avoid the stigma associated to other terms like bhangi and chamar, directly relegating the members of the community to the menial jobs they were forced to do over centuries.

However, the usage of Harijan led to an argument between Gandhi and Ambedkar as the latter wanted to represent Dalit as a separate community, while Gandhi was in favour of granting them equality but keeping them within the bounds of Hinduism. Gandhi asked Non-Dalits to use Harijan instead of Antyaja in 1932.

The term fell out of use as many Dalit intellectuals argued that it was a farcical euphemism that stands to weed out the use of a derogatory term, without righting the wrongs of centuries and criticising the basic tenets of Hinduism, which promoted caste system since the Vedic age. Ambedkar himself opposed the use of the word and many Dalit rights' activists till date view the term with derision. They argue that the word 'Harijan' still singles out the members of the community rather than integrate them, and if singling out was the effect then the nomenclature should also reflect the years of oppression faced by the community.

However, Gandhi's insistence on the usage of the term Harijan perhaps stemmed from a will to keep the Dalits tethered to the Hindu religion amid increasing anti-Hindu voices within the community

As historian Ramchandra Guha points out in his article for The Telegraph, Gandhi did not start using the term Harijan until 1932, when Ambedkar was made to yield on his demand for a separate electorate for Dalits and sign the Poona Pact. Gandhi insisted that the Dalits can be given larger representation in the legislature but they must remain part of the larger Hindu electorate. However, it was not until the 1970s that the term singularly and indistinctly came to be attached with the oppressed class' identity and their political aspirations.

The Dalit Panther Movement

After the death of Ambedkar, the first Dalit movement to create a stir was the Dalit Panthers Party founded in the 1970s in Maharashtra's then Bombay. Its method of fixing instant accountability with the upper caste, in ways that were sometimes undemocratic, caught the imagination of Dalits in Maharashtra who were facing atrocities despite the Constitution outlawing inequality and caste-based discrimination.

The Panthers published the organisation’s manifesto in 1973 and given a new definition to the term ‘Dalit’: " Dalits are members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, landless and poor peasants, women, and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion."

JV Pawar, one of the founders of the organisation, in an interview with The Wiresaid "No violence ever took place. No one was beaten up, killed. Once we asked the headman to drink water from the Dalit well, but just when he was about to, we stopped him, because he had learned his lesson."

He described the methods implied at the time as something that ensured immediate grievance redressal, rather than a long drawn process and wait for the authorities to act against the dominant upper caste. The Panthers were also associated with the 1974 riots of the BDD chawl, when Pawar and his associates were arrested for asking the Dalit community to boycott elections. However, a sporadic violence broke out and continued for three days, with the Shiv Sena (then Naik Sena) joining in the rioting.

The group was later disbanded as it disintegrated due to infighting and individual ambitions, but the movement heightened the sense of pride in the Dalit identity,

Many Dalit writers of the time started using the word Dalit instead of previously used Achchuta, or oppressed in their poems, essay and stories expressing their aggression and aspirations. Ambedkar himself had chosen “depressed classes” and “broken men” in his writings, even when the term Dalit existed and was sometimes used in social discourse.

Updated Date: Nov 16, 2018 12:54:54 IST