PUCL Bulletin, August 1999

Dalits & Human Rights : The Battles Ahead - III
By P. Sainath

(Contnued from PUCL Bulletin July 1999)

Even in the panchayats, dalit and adivasi sarpanches are routinely deposed by fraudulent means. Often, at the end of their first year in office, they are removed by rigged votes of 'no confidence' which then leave the upper caste upa sarpanch in de facto powers for years. The illiterate ones are often made to put their thumbprints on some documents - and then charged with embezzlement by the very persons guilty of it. Dalit women members are precluded from attending crucial panchayat meetings simply by holding these late at night in the upper caste basti. So half of them won't date enter that basti and the ruling elite in such a meeting can pass almost any vote. I've come across cases of sarpanches and members being kidnapped on the eve of a crucial vote in Bundelkhand.

Now having gone through all this, try one exercise. On the one hand, the practice of untouchability is so widespread. ON the other look at your newspapers and TV channels. Sure, they have stories on dalits. Usually on massacres in Bihar (in a way that creates the impression that caste is only about massacres). But how often can you find them using the word untouchability? The privileged educated elite has a virtual, silent ban on that word. Though it exists everywhere, it is seldom spoken of in those terms. How often do we hear it in public discourse? Its use is in inverse proportion to its spread. The moment we start using that word more often, a lot of things change. We have to start facing its implications. We have to see the kind of society we are. We have to face how many of our privileges rest on someone else's misery.

However, there has been an upsurge among the dalits everywhere. And this has found reflection in the changing national political scene during this past decade.

In this limited time we've had, I've tried to look at: What are the challenges and hurdles facing dalits? Why are they unable to exercise the rights that others do?

What are the real problems as perceived by those at the receiving end? What is it to be a dalit in India today? What are the coping mechanisms of such communities in different parts of the country? How far do they succeed and what are the factors that hold them back? What are the living conditions of millions of ordinary dalits?

'We can't even begin to go through all those aspects in detail in the time before us. But the very nature of the problems outlined suggests certain broad direction. Those committed to a just, equitable and democratic order can ask themselves: what can we do to fight the situation? What can we do to help a sixth of humanity in this country gain what might seem privileges to the ruling elites, but which the rest of us see as legitimate human rights? What can political parties and groups do? What can we as individuals and professionals or activists do? What can human rights groups do? We can:

Under that battles for dalit rights are already on. The idea is neither new nor unique to us. Millions are already fighting in their own way. Those are largely the dalits themselves. The question here is how non-SC/ST people - and the more privileged class amongst the SC-STs - can relate to, support and further these struggles.

Study, analyse, highlight the nature of land relations and land rights in your district or region or state. Support dalit struggles for land reform, for land rights. Try forcing your state government to prepare a White Paper on the subject of land distribution and reform that covers the past few decades. Outside of government, study and understand the livelihood patterns of these sections and how they are affected by state policy. This will become even more important in coming days. Where land grab is identified, fight for return of those lands to dalits.

Mobilise and fight against economic policies that further hurt these already disadvantaged sections. You can't divorce this from their other problems. We have to fight to see that the state does not withdraw from its obligations and duties towards its poorest, weakest citizens. If you seriously want to fight this, you're going to have to take a stand on the gutting or privatisation of the public sector. And further, work towards having affirmative action in the private sector as well. At the same time, you'd have to fight 'traditional' relationships like bonded labour.

Don't just act when there are major atrocities. And don't forget to follow up long after the media has forgotten them. While the big atrocities are important, caste oppression and the practise of untouchability on a day to day basis are no less important. This is the process by which a human being is ground down, his or her spirit crushed. You have to act and act radically on issues like the separate glass system. Go out there and break those glasses if you must. But don't allow this system to continue. I must say that it was heartening to know of what happened in Sikar in Rajasthan. This is the only instance I have come across in the entire north where a dalit groom was enabled to ride a horse in the face of vicious upper caste opposition. This happened because a few political people, including the local MLA, got together and saw to it this could be done. Whether it is the baraat, or temple entry or the two-glass system, we must try to emulate that example.

Fighting on these issues is to recognise that Dignity is a very important human right. Many urban middle class people can't understand why, for instance, a huge fight over chairs is raging in Tamil Nadu's dalitlet panchayats. But fighting for human dignity also implies fighting against degrading practices like the carrying of nightsoil. This still affects lakhs of people in this country. There is a model central law against it that many states are yet to adopt, including Rajasthan. Fight for it - and for the livelihood of the former scavengers as well.

Lobby, fight for and insist on a state level report on the conditions of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe citizens being prepared every year. And this report must be compulsorily placed in the legislature in the session closest to its release. Not delayed for want of a so called "Action Taken Report (ATR)". The National report has been reduced to a mockery in this fashion. So Parliament is now debating the 1989 report when there have been three reports since! Fight for this principle at the national levels, too. Parliament must allot two days in its nearest session to discuss the Report of the National Commission for SC & STs. And keep up the pressure to see that those guilty of atrocities are brought to justice. Often the media and the human rights groups neglect a case after it has lost its high profile. Sadly, this contributes to the guilty getting away. So you need to monitor these and keep pushing the state to adopt tougher measures on atrocities. One start would be : demanding full and stringent enforcement of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. We could start by educating ourselves about this law and its provisions. Also fight for special measures to protect the rights of dalit women and children. The needs of women are special because of their multiple burdens. They suffer as poor people, often as landless agricultural labourers; they face discrimination as women and as dalit women by caste society; and within their own households as women.

Consider fighting for the setting up of a state level SC/ST Commission, not just a branch of the national one. And perhaps different bodies for SC and ST citizens. (Rajasthan office HQ is in Gujarat!) Demand recognition of dalits as dalits regardless of which religion they belong to. Every religion in this country is suffused with caste.

Use the law to form vigilance committees at the district and other levels to look into atrocities - and also into other violations of rights. Try not to be sectarian, try linking up the broadest possible alliance for this purpose. Reach out to democratic elements in all formations, political parties, human rights groups, others. Because you're going to be up against a very powerful social order if your really choose to fight these issues. The importance of building alliances can't be stressed too hard. Its simply a case of hanging together or being separately. Too many protests in this area have lost their way to sectarianism, an unwillingness to work with anyone else. And by narrowing down the issues to just a few affecting the more privileged sections.

Make a study of dalit-police relations in your area of work. This could be crucial. The building of independent national data on this is essential and the results of such studies could be explosive. This includes looking at the entire process by which, say, a dalit seeks legal redress - or the process by which the law goes after dalits. Try matching crimes against dalits with the conviction rates that follow. The conviction rates are woefully low even in non-SC/ST cases. In the cases of dalits and adivasis, they're abysmal in the extreme.

Here's one contribution we could begin making soon: take a few "closed" cases of the police. Ones that have had FRs filed. Then investigate and see how genuine the decision to close the case was. The chief minister of Rajasthan has said his government would consider such an exercise. If this were done for, say, the Naksoda nose-cutting incident, the results would be startling. If the police know such surveys will be conducted, there is at least some disincentive when they think of sweeping a case under the carpet with no action.

Likewise, have a survey in your state on the unseating of dalit and adivasi sarpanches. I assure you, the figure will be startling. If we can build a nation-wide picture on this, it could be most valuable in the battle for dalit rights.

Push for restructuring Legal Aid rules. Some of these are outdated, bureaucratic and sometimes plain stupid. Some of these have detailed forms seeking "monthly or annual income", a query that leaves seasonal and daily wageworkers stumped. Groups that have the capability must conduct rights awareness campaigns among dalits, especially those who have been victims of violence or fraud.

Collect data on reservation in the institutions around you. (Take the example of Rajasthan University, whose practices in this regard are a crying shame and reek come across many instances where even courts' orders are simply flouted in these matters. Fight for the filling up of vacancies, for the enforcement of Constitutional and other rights for dalits. This side of the battle is important, too. For instance, dalit representation in teaching at the university level is dismal almost anywhere across the country.

Fight for amendments to the panchayat laws in your state, rights are as safe as the political process they unfold in, yes. But these are ways we can reduce some of the mischief in the panchayats. For instance, a deposed dalit sarpanch must replaced only by another dalit. That will reduce the incentive for the ruling elite to depose a dalit. Some states have already brought in this rule. Some states have already brought in this rule. So why can't we fight for their adoption in all states? There are several such amendments worth considering.

Launch a sustained national campaign against untouchability in all its forms and at all levels. This would have to address the problem of untouchability within the scheduled castes as well, which in some places is extensive. You cannot say that the rights of some within these groups are more important than the right of others. The only way to end untouchability is to simply destroy at it every level, in every form that it exists.

Educate people in your locality on this. Hold meeting to put the end to untouchability back on the agenda, back in public discourse. Try developing campaigns to force the issue back on to media's agenda as well. (For instance, if we could put together all the incidents of disrupted baraats in Rajasthan - that could be far more effective in highlighting the problem than going on a case to case basis). Groups that have the capability must generate educational material on caste tyranny and untouchability. Try taking this to the schools where students are often exposed to the prejudices of society through their teachers.

Fight to bring untouchability and its eradication back into the public and national discourse. Indian society could do with some reality therapy. There was a Chinese general who well over 2,000 years ago said: "Know thy enemy, know yourself. A hundred battles, a hundred victories". I would distort this to say. Know they enemy - a hundred battles a hundred victories. Know thyself - a thousand battles, a thousand victories.


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