Latasinha's Weblog

Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Empowerment of untouchables?


In recent past, starting with reformatory efforts to seeking state intervention and generating the idea of paying special attention to untouchables, Dalits’ (untouchables) awakening has traveled a long way. Untouchables have been described as “The oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low”, who have not been benefited from the opening up of modern economic, social, political and cultural opportunities.

The story of their journey started around the beginning of twentieth century, when untouchables tried to enter into the political arena separately. In 1909 for the first time, the lowest strata of non-Brahmin Community or the service class, earlier known as Shudras, was conceptualized under the name of untouchables in political circles.

The emergence of Dr. Ambedkar on the political scene provided the leadership and stimulus to untouchable movement. He gave untouchables a distinct identity during late twenties and early thirties. The whole of 20th century, especially the last two decades have been quite important for political empowerment of Untouchables/Dalits.

The suggestion of Census Commissioner, for forthcoming 1911 Census, to exclude untouchables (comprising of about 24% of the Hindu Population and 16% of the total population at that time) from Hindu fold made numbers important in taking political decisions. Continuous decline of the number of Hindus immediately increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too.

The suggestion to exclude untouchables from Hindu population was not acceptable to Hindu leaders at any cost. The continuously falling down number of Hindu population had already been a matter of concern for them. Granting special electorate to Muslims disturbed prominent National leaders a lot, as they thought that the move was made to divide Indians and weaken the National movement of Independence.

In order to prevent alienation of untouchables from Hindu community, the national leaders and reformers drew the attention of forward communities towards inhuman condition of lower strata of society and tried to create compassion in their hearts for downtrodden.

They gave top most priority to the abolition of untouchability. They tried to clarify and make everybody understand that Untouchability was neither an integral part of Hinduism nor an outcome of Varna/caste system, nor have any religious sanctity, but an external impurity and sinful blot on Hinduism. Segregation of lower castes in Hindu Society was not based on economic status or their incapability to do any intellectual work, but on cultural grounds – unclean habits, indisciplined life style, speaking foul and abusive language etc. They laid emphasis on education, moral regeneration and philanthropic uplift. They also appealed to untouchables to observe cleaner habits, so that they could mix up with other sections freely and become proud and independent human beings, that they were. They tried to improve the status of untouchables through Sanskritization.

However, Dalit leaders desired to find the solution of their problems through political power, not through acceptance by Hindus, who according to them were treated as lesser human beings, meek and helpless persons, at the mercy and benevolence of upper castes. They The leaders of the downtrodden like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh vehemently criticized Hindu hierarchical structure, and regarded untouchability as an inevitable concomitant of Varna/caste system. Therefore, they taught the lower castes to get united and make eradication of caste system their major plank as it engaged them to forced labor or unsavory jobs, imposed many restrictions on them and prevented them from joining the mainstream of the society.

They also insisted on their separate identity. They sought special legal protection and share in politics and administration on the basis of caste. By 1920’s, numerous caste organizations, specially in the South and West, organized themselves into larger collectiveness by keeping contacts and alliances with their counterparts at other places; formed associations and federations at local and regional levels and emerged as a powerful political force.

Their demands were readily accepted by British rulers through Communal Award of 1932. Gandhiji along with other National leaders regarded it as the Unkindest cut of all”, which would create a permanent split in Hindu Society, perpetuate casteism and make impossible the assimilation of untouchables in mainstream. Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, The principle of dividing population into communal groups, which had been adopted in the Minto Morely Reforms, had been considerably extended, even beyond what had been done by Montagu Chelmsford Reforms….The electorate in 1919 was broken up into ten parts, now it is fragmented into seventeen unequal bits… Giving separate representations to Schedule Castes further weakened Hindu community… The British introduced every possible cross-division.i

The new phase of untouchables/Dalit assertion during last two decades under the leadership of Kansiram and Mayawati’s became most prominent in the most populous state of UP. BSP under the leadership of Ms Mayawati has taken the destiny of UP in their hand now. Earlier in 1994-95, BSP formed the government first in alliance with SP and later on with BJP. Again, in 1997, it came to power in alliance with BJP. Now on its own strength, BSP is ruling in UP.

Despite all the political empowerment, special attention and preferential treatment, dalit leaders and intellectuals have failed to improve the socio-economic condition of the masses of Dalit community, to give them proper education, enough employment opportunities and a vision of a prosperous society or to change their lot. They are still victims of discrimination, untouchability, poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and consequential disabilities. Majority of them still lives in precarious condition because of low wages, bondage, non-payment of fair share of agricultural produce to the SC share-cropper, forced harvesting of crops, forced eviction from their land and house sites, dispute over non-payment of minimum wages prescribed by authorities and land disputes. Caste rivalries are increasing everyday. Over and above, their sufferings have multiplied due to increasing number of crimes and incidents of violence. The deterioration of law and order position all over India is continuously increasing their miseries.

Whatever might be the condition of Dalit masses, but the political power and arrogance of Dalit leaders and intellectuals are at rise. They are aware of their growing influence and crucial role as a kink-maker in today’s highly competitive and unstable political atmosphere. All the three major national political formations – Congress’s UPA BJP’s NDA and National Front – are wooing frantically Dalit leaders and competing with each other to have a pre or post poll alliance with them. But now Dalit leaders are in no mood to play a second fiddle to other national political parties and wish to make its own place in national politics.

The solution of the problem of empowering the whole Dalit community does not lie in letting down the upper castes, who are not interested in direct confrontation, either with intermediate castes or with Dalits. Liberalization and Globalization has opened up many new opportunities in job-market for all. What is required for an individual’s or the whole nation’s prosperity is learning, acquiring required knowledge, hard-work, intelligence, confidence and will power to face the challenges and move forward.

i Prasad Rajendra, India Divided, p 136, and Mehta and Patwardhan,

The Communal Triangle, p 72.

December 31, 2009 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |

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