Dalits progressing against all odds

Free market economics is liberating Dalits—and this has caused the resentment we see in Maharashtra


People of Dalit community gathered from all over Gujarat for the Convention to protest against the attack on Dalit men in Una, in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, on 31 July. Photo: Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times
People of Dalit community gathered from all over Gujarat for the Convention to protest against the attack on Dalit men in Una, in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, on 31 July. Photo: Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times

The Maratha, a ruling caste for centuries, is marching on the streets of Maharashtra, asking the Union government to repeal a law that protects the lives and dignity of India’s Dalits—the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Dalits have suffered brutality for millennia—but in a perverse sense, this Maratha movement is proof that Dalits are sensing freedom from India’s dreadful caste order.

All of a sudden, from being an object of pity, Dalits have turned into an object of envy.

As democracy put down roots with the evolution of India into a republic in 1950—with the Constitution unrelenting in its pursuit of rooting out the caste order—and Adam Smith stepped into Manu’s territory with economic reforms in 1991, a new dawn seemed to be on the horizon for Dalits.

But they have paid a heavy price for it. Over just the past five years (2010-14), nearly two Dalits have been lynched per day.

According to National Crime Records Bureau figures, about 3,314 Dalits have fallen to the wrath of the caste order—an average of 663 Dalits murdered annually. And during 1994-99, a total of 2,649 Dalits were murdered—an average of 530 annually.

Compare this with the oppression of African-Americans in the US. A recorded 3,446 of them were lynched between 1882 and 1968—an average of 40 murders annually. What a remarkable comparison it makes. They were legally freed in 1863, but the lynchings continued for more than half a century as they paid the price for their freedom. Are Dalits on the same course, paying the price for their freedom today?

That freedom, its foundations laid by the Constitution, truly took off post-1990 due to an explosion in wealth and urban expansion. With millions of low-level job opportunities opening up in towns, Dalits found alternative areas of non-farm employment.

For the first time in our recorded history, they began getting currency as wages, replacing the old grains-for-wages practice. Freedom was now a marketplace commodity.

The rising violence against Dalits thus isn’t a mystery any more. Indeed, some people tell me during my village visits that—outrageous as it may appear—modern Dalits are inviting violence upon themselves. The following instances might increase our understanding of this:

In May, Bhusthala village in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district witnessed violence as the marriage party of a Dalit bridegroom was stoned. When the police were called, they too were stoned. The Dalit groom was stoned because he rode a horse.

Similar incidents of stoning of marriage processions occurred in Samsia village in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district and Adpodra village in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district around the same time.

What is common to all three is the caste order—the exclusion of Dalits and the denial of human rights to the very community the Marathas in Maharashtra are targeting.

The question being asked across these districts, in villages like Bhusthala, Samsia and Adpodra, is—why this insistence by the new generation of Dalit grooms on riding horses at their weddings when their parents didn’t even think of it in the past? The Dalits themselves have a simple answer—why not ride a horse when they can pay for it?

Post-1990, India is on a new course of transformation that has allowed Dalits to enter caste-neutral lifestyles. A study that I co-authored with Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett and D. Shyam Babu, Rethinking Inequality: Dalits In Uttar Pradesh In The Market Reform Era, published in EPW (goo.gl/C7FXWc), showed a massive shift in the lives of Dalits.

They are steadily gaining freedom from their landlords, allowing new generations to defy prohibitions that the caste society imposes on them. In north-west India, for instance, riding a horse is an upper-caste privilege that Dalits are smashing.

Contemporary India plays host to multiple kinds of contradictory social moods and trends. More often than not, these result in conflict. Caste, which makes up one of the primary vectors of such trends, is no longer a stationary object. In capitalism, it now has a formidable challenger. The two can coexist no more than Manu and B.R. Ambedkar could have been friends. Manu’s men have a problem with Dalit bridegrooms riding horses—but Ambedkar’s adherents are not prepared to ride donkeys any more. And with each passing day, as Manu’s village and farm economy weakens, Ambedkar’s cities and industries progress.

In the consequent market-aligned order, Dalits will rise, but not without paying a price. The violence against Dalits that we are seeing and have seen over the decades might deepen with their rise as equal stakeholders in the new India.

At the height of the lynching culture in the US, it wasn’t just blacks who were lynched. Hundreds of whites too were lynched by white mobs for protecting blacks.

Unfortunately, we are yet to see an enlightened Maratha group, for instance, standing up to challenge the Maratha protests currently unfolding in Maharashtra.

Chandra Bhan Prasad is the founder of www.dalitfoods.com.

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