India’s New ‘Dalits’

Written By: Anmol Gupta

It is generally believed that the first mention of the Varna or the caste system in the Indian society is in the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda which speaks about the origin of the four broad castes. The laws were further codified over time and by the Gupta era (AD 400) the caste system was a firmly entrenched part of the Indian Society. Although the original system had envisaged the caste of a person based on his deeds, the caste system soon became a rigid and oppressive system where birth decided caste and the people born in the lower castes were made to bear the worst form of treatment and the resultant discrimination. Sadly, caste remains an integral part of the Indian society even after seven decades of independence notwithstanding the reform measures initiated by the government. The seeds of mistrust sown by this caste system remain an impediment in India’s growth.

mistrust caste india
The Basor weaving bamboo baskets in a 1916 book. The Basor are a Scheduled caste found in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

As part of the affirmative action to improve the status of the so called lower castes, caste based reservations in Educational institutions and Government jobs were introduced for the oppressed or the ‘Dalits’. Introduced as a temporary measure, this caste based reservation system for all practical considerations has today become an integral part of the Constitution of the country with the 1st Constitutional Amendment in 1951. With the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in August 1990, caste based reservations were introduced even for the intermediate castes which were henceforth classified as the ‘Other Backward Castes’. With 27% reservation to OBCs in educational institutions and government jobs, the total reservation was thus increased to 49.5%. The subsequent intervention by the Supreme Court of India has ensured that caste based reservations have not exceeded 50% of the total seats or vacancies (except for the state of Tamil Nadu where it is 69%) notwithstanding the demands from many states of the union. (The Telangana Rashtra Samiti MPs are currently stalling parliament on this issue).

Seventy years is a fair timeframe for any kind of affirmative action to bear results but from the experience of our country it can be deduced that this caste based reservation model has met with limited or moderate success as far as the socio economic condition of the target segment is concerned. The fact that the benefits of this system have remained confined to a few privileged families/communities or the creamy layer of these castes is seconded by Govt data which shows that 45% of the SC families in the country are landless to this day with 62% of the SC population (working group) engaged as agricultural labour. The child of a landless labourer belonging to the SC community will rarely succeed while competing against the children of a SC IAS Officer is a fact known to everyone but still the bare mention of the introduction of a system of ‘Creamy Layer’ in the reservation system (or a reservation system based on economic status) is considered a direct attack on the Constitution.

drafting committee constituent india
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Chairman, Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution with other members on Aug. 29, 1947

Owing to this system of caste based reservations, the level of mistrust and the division among the communities has only increased as the communities classified under the General Category feel ignored and discriminated against. There is a feeling among this segment classified as the Upper Castes or the General Category that just like the ancient system, the current system also discriminates on the basis of caste. After all poverty in our country is not confined to a single community but affects every single community with varying degree. Rather than the economic and social status of an individual determining the affirmative action of the government, ‘birth’ like in the ancient times is today the only criteria of the privileges that an individual is entitled to receive.

bizarre event reservation jammu mufti
In a bizarre set of events, Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti was forced to cut short her address to gathering on the occasion of Guru Ravi Dass Jayanti after an employee of State Government, belonging to Scheduled Caste community raised slogans demanding reservation of SC/ST employees in service promotions.

The fact that oppressive laws like the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 wherein any person can be arrested without any investigation and only on the basis of a complaint by a person belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Tribes is presented as progressive legislation and the subsequent relief granted by the Supreme Court on such legislation is met by apathy of the political class owing to vote bank politics and the one sided violence by the so called oppressed communities point to the follies of the system.

Read also: Govt approves reservations for under privileged unreserved castes, Paharis

In the 21st century where modern technology and new ideas rule roost, India is surely a unique example among all nations where several communities are fighting to be classified as backward. The violent agitations by the Patels in Gujarat, the Jats in Haryana and the Gurjars in Rajasthan all point to this disturbing trend. Even the minorities in the country are relatively more privileged and privy to benefits which can be derived from the fact that Hindu communities like the ‘Lingayats’ are today seeking a separate religion for themselves fearing intervention and lack of independence in the mutts operated by them.

dalit protestThe term ‘Dalit’ can be loosely translated in English to a person who is oppressed. If the actions of the Government in our country are to be considered then the real Dalits would be the lower to middle class people born in a Hindu Upper Caste (so called) family who are totally on their own with little or no support from the government. It is well documented that how successive Muslim Sultans imposed taxes like the Jaziya and other discriminatory practices on non Muslims, but can the government today discriminate against the Muslim population based on the actions of their forefathers or can it discriminate against Anglo Indians or Christians based on the conduct of the British a hundred years back. If not, then why is the government discriminating against a large section of the population based on the actions of their forefathers in the name of affirmative action? The actions of the Government backed by constitutional provisions are a constant reminder that the real Dalits in the country today are those who have been placed in the General category. And, it seems that at least for the time being these new Dalits will be made to pay for the sins of their great great grandfather.

[The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Any omissions or errors are the author’s and does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.]

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