When Dalits are beaten up mercilessly with an iron rod in broad daylight, it shakes but doesn't break us. When an 11-year-old Dalit girl is gang raped repeatedly by the same men, it doesn't question our morale; it disturbs us, but doesn't leave us sleepless at night.
What do we do? And how do we progress from here? The benchmark for quality of life, especially for Dalits is often lower than worse. These are tough questions, so please do not rely on me to answer them for you. I am no pundit and definitely do not possess tailor-made, quick fix solutions. I want to talk to you and express my restlessness, anxiety, and troubled state of mind about thenever-ending atrocities towards Dalits. And the gruesome treatment that is meted out to them, which continues at this very moment, today, now!
Our prime minister is hopping from country to country, charming his way into the international political scene. He is gathering massive recognition and support from people - upper-caste Hindus around the world. It does not make me a proud Indian; instead I'm deeply saddened. As citizens of this country, some of us continue to wonder how this country- Hindustan- perpetuates, tolerates and digests severe forms of injustice and apathy towards a huge section of society i.e. the Dalits.
Many would say this very argument resonates with several issues surfacing in India today. From the state of Muslims in this country to the political mess our politicians have brought upon us, like severing the lives of thousands in Kashmir. Millions that have gone through generations of cruelty and violence by the state, all this should put us to shame for we are all part of the problem.
Dalits on the other hand are used as scapegoats for filling up vote banks, 'cleaning' the country that doesn't regard them as humans. Women from this community are physically and mentally tortured, raped, publicly humiliated, as a horrific lesson for the community to remember, to never retaliate against the normalised, assumed authority of upper-caste Hindus and the impunity that they so enjoy.
What do Dalits have for them to call it their own in this country? Historically, everything! Land sowed with the sweat and blood of marginalised communities, which have no claim, ownership on its produce. Resources, that were either taken away by force or they were made to give up. By causing fear and using violent methods, upper caste Hindus have pushed Dalits into deeper rungs of poverty, debt, ill health and hunger. Many generations of Dalit lives have dissolved in brick kilns. Brick by brick, they made homes for others, without having a roof for themselves.
Do I see Dalits and upper caste Hindus as homogeneous categories? Am I blaming all upper castes for the present state of Dalits? Are all Dalits facing chronic poverty, voiceless and powerless? No, absolutely not! Please allow yourself to listen.
Dalits are far from being homogeneous; the overarching category includes women, children, men of various cultures, backgrounds, geographical and political locations and above all experiences that have divided them into privileged/middle class Dalits vs. the poorest. Dalit Diaspora spread across the world brings different perspectives, issues due to differential treatment they receive in foreign lands.
The game of blame is tricky, it blurs the lines between allies/sympathisers and perpetrators. For me that's a real problem. Though Ambedkar welcomed support from people he strongly reserved the leadership of the community for Dalits. But where is Dalit leadership? The criticism of Dalit Movement for excluding women in ideas and praxis is dead and gone. In Politics, we have Mayawati. I see a lot of hope in her although people may disagree. With all the reservations one may have with her, she has managed to achieve a political space and ideological regard, a space other women continue to struggle for: in their homes, village and the country.
Now, if we look at the issue of privilege, we will understand how there are slippery slopes which complicate any discussion on Caste. There are the usual tiring, lame arguments against reservation, pointing fingers at middle-upper middle class Dalits. Then there are arguments of Dalits discriminating against other Dalits, extreme hatred/attitudes of Dalits towards upper-castes etc.
However, not accepting or discussing one's own upper caste privilege is convenient and highly problematic. Comparing merit with those who still have first generation learners in the family is ultra convenient. 'Let us create one scale to measure progress of everyone, no matter where they start from. Let us also judge from same perspective, because everyone's journey and struggle are the same.' Well, not really!
'Gujarat!' Illustration by Nidhin Shobhana
No, Dalits are not passive, they have never been! Growing incidents of structural violence against them, resistance to move away from caste-based occupations, as recently surfacing in Gujarat, retaliating against Hindu caste forces indicates hope, a silver lining that things are changing rapidly. The worrying aspect is the reaction of the state, its unwillingness to safeguard interests of its citizens, joining hands with perpetrators and opportunistic individuals who are patriotic and nationalistic to further their own class interests. And those who do not mirror their thoughts are branded as anti-nationals; it's both hilarious and nauseating at the same time!
Dalits make this country slightly more livable for the rest of the population, but have their own life and security under constant threat. Is it because they do all kinds of work that no upper caste Hindu would ever lay his hands on? Obviously, because caste based occupations are considered as filthy, inhuman. It dilutes the 'sanctity' of upper caste privilege that must be guarded at the cost of Dalit lives, which is considered cheap and thus dispensable. Caste system wears inequality and breathes coercion, contributes to the creation of a painful, troublesome and dark reality for Dalits.
However, change is stirring! Ambedkar's thoughts are beginning to see light. It gives me a moment of peace. When Dalits in Gujarat refused to dispose the dead animals, Ambedkar comes alive. Not as a divine presence but as a forceful, guiding force hinting towards a powerful beginning, restoring massive courage and ensuring that from this moment, there is no going back! A powerful beginning is in the making.
I wish millions of such ideas spread like fire and set our hearts and minds ablaze. And that we educate, agitate, and organise, be prepared to fight an ideological war. Through our intellect, historical memory of assertions and collective struggle, we are determined to challenge the established order of caste. I feel blue, but I am content because blue is the new colour of ideas, struggle and resistance!
Jyotsna Siddharth recently completed her second masters in Social Anthropology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London. At present she is working in food and her interests include writing, reading, poetry and food.