The Importance of the Term ‘Dalit’

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    It started as a column published in a news daily and ended up being a deep dive into the lives and work of the “incredible Indians” who made Dalit history. Most importantly, the Making of Modern Dalit History (2021), co-authored by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan, aims to right a historical wrong – the witting or unwitting redacting of the work of Dalit social reformers from the mainstream historical discourse.

    Distinctly optimistic and wonderfully nuanced, the book devotes a chapter each to the men and women who refused to let caste and social mores decide their destinies. Its sweep is immense and goes from Valmiki and Ved Vyasa; to Ayyankali, Dakshayani Velayudhan and Dr B R Ambedkar; to Kanshi Ram, Babu Jagjivan Ram and K R Narayanan; and, refreshingly, to inspiring young Dalit heroes of today such as Milind Kamble, Tina Dabi and Kalpana Saroj, among others.

    In the Introduction to their book, the authors discuss subjects such as the relevance of the book today, modern Dalit literature, and the many labels, including the term ‘Dalit’, that have contributed to the identity of the community. An excerpt:

    The term ‘Dalit’ has had a chequered past. Prior to the adoption of the term as an identity, its people were addressed by different names such as Chandalas, Hinajatians, Avarnas, Antyajas, Acchuts, Pariahs, Namasudras, Untouchables, Unapproachables, Outcastes and Panchamas. It must be noted that the term ‘depressed classes’ was used for these castes predominantly by social reformers. However, the root of this term’s first usage and context is unknown. Ambedkar, too, used this term often in his writings and discourses, in addition to using the word ‘untouchables’. Some other terms that also began to gain traction were ‘suppressed classes’ and ‘oppressed Hindus’. Another important term by which the Dalits began to be identified was ‘Harijan’.

    'Harijan' was first used by Narsinh Mehta, a Gujarati poet-saint of the Bhakti tradition.

    It is in Marathi that the frequent use of the term ‘Dalit’ is also recorded. The Marathi version of the term ‘Dalit’ was first used in the 1831 edition of Molesworth’s Marathi–English Dictionary, which was later reprinted in 1975. The founding of the Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra in 1972 by J.V. Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale also led to the term ‘Dalit’ being commonly used not just in Maharashtra but all over India.

    The Government of British India carved a new identity called the ‘Scheduled Castes’ for the untouchable castes, as they were put in a schedule (list) for providing constitutional safeguards to them under the new constitution of the British Government in India, 1937.

    Though this term has been used in the present Constitution of the Republic of India, it does not contain any specific definition. Article 341 of the Constitution enjoins:

    -The President of India may with respect to any state or union territory, and where it is a state, after consultation with the Governor thereof, by public notification, specify the castes, races or tribes, which shall for the purposes of this constitution be deemed to be scheduled castes in relation to that State or Union Territory, as the case may be.

    -Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of scheduled castes specified in a notification issued under clause (1) any caste, race or tribe or part of group within any caste, race or tribe, but save as aforesaid a notification issued under the said clause shall not be varied by any subsequent notification.

    Thus, the term ‘scheduled caste’ has become the constitutional identity for Dalits today.

    Interestingly, the word ‘Dalit’ was first used in the context of caste oppression by Jyotiba Phule in the nineteenth century.

    Then, of course, Ambedkar used it extensively as well. Later, the Mahar community began to be known as Dalits, and soon after, the scheduled castes communities were referred to as Dalits—the credit for which is due to the Dalit Panthers movement.

    Anand Teltumbde, an eminent Dalit academic, has explained the import of the term ‘Dalit’ and how it began to resonate all over India, like in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, as Dalits realised the need to form a constituency of their own. This was integral to the overall goal of assertion. As the book Dalit Literature and Criticism says:

    Dalit, thus, is a political term, a quasi-class identity, devised during the Ambedkarite movement, distinct from meaning ‘Untouchable’ and from the inert administrative labels ‘Depressed Classes’, ‘Scheduled Castes’ and certainly from Gandhi’s patronizing ‘Harijans’. The terms ‘Dalit’ reflected Ambedkar’s aspiration that all the Untouchable castes would wear this new identity and form a formidable ‘Dalit’ constituency. Therefore it was adopted by All Ambedkarite Dalits, initially the Mahars in Maharashtra and slowly thereafter by the most populous and dominant Dalit castes in other states like Punjab, UP, Tamil Nadu.

    Under the leadership of Kanshiram, the Backward and Minority Community Employees Federation (BAMCEF) propagated the term ‘Bahujan’ as a class identity. Bahujan includes the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and minorities such as Sikhs, Christians and Muslims. BAMCEF has also started propagating Moolnivasi as an alternative identity to Dalits and other backward castes.

    When the Constitution came into force on 26 January 1950, it was the beginning of a wonderful chapter in the history of India. The Constitution, in effect, is a product of our ethos, aspirations and political outlook combined. One of its most heartening aspects was the public accepting the Constitution in full, especially with respect to the affirmative measures incorporated for the Dalits. The blacks in America had to relentlessly fight for years even after the promulgation of the American constitution. But in India, it is because of the vision of the founding members of the Constituent Assembly, such as Babasaheb Ambedkar and Dakshayani Velayudhan, that the principles of one man, one vote and same value were accepted without any differences.

    In the 1990s, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was set up under the constitutional provisions, especially to look into their grievances and suggest measures to offer them statutory protection from exploitation and atrocities. Later, this body was bifurcated into the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. Article 17 abolished untouchability, and its practice in any form was forbidden.

    As per the 2011 Census,19 the Dalit population comprises 16.6 per cent of the country’s population. Punjab has the largest Dalit population, close to 30 per cent of its population. States such as Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh constitute around 60 per cent of the total population of scheduled castes in the country.

    Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India in 2021.

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