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Nomenclature Dalit: NAME DOES MATTER, By Dr S.Saraswathi, 13 September 2018 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 13 September 2018

Nomenclature Dalit


By Dr S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Following a Bombay High Court order, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry has issued an advisory to all private satellite channels asking them to refrain from using the term “Dalit”. It is follow up of an advisory from the Union Ministry of Social Justice to all State governments in March this year that they should use the term “Scheduled Castes” in official communication, and not “Dalit”, which is not a Constitutionally accepted name.


Opinion even within the government seems to be divided on this sensitive issue. “What is in a name?” -- is a meaningless query. Everything is in a name and that is why we are keen on changing names and some States even set up a separate department to handle name changing activity.


The leader of the Republican Party of India and Union Minister Ramdas Athawale, as per press reports, may be approaching the Supreme Court against the directive of the Bombay High Court. He has the backing of a number of activists and civil society organisations, who are opposed to any change in the usage of the name “Dalit”.


To them, ‘Dalit’ connotes much more than a group of castes, and indicates a community that is fighting for equal status. It symbolises a long struggle going on for social elevation, which cannot be conveyed in the term “Scheduled Castes”, which denotes nothing more than an official list of castes eligible for preferential treatment for certain purposes under the Constitution.


It all started after the Gwalior Bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court on 23rd January this year banned the usage of the term “Dalit” especially in official communications of governments. In dealing with a PIL, the court held that only Constitutionally accepted terminologies should be used and “Dalit” is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.


Politicians and the general public obviously never bothered to define the name “Dalit” -- the former perhaps deliberately to keep room for politics by keeping terms vague and undefined and the latter by sheer ignorance and indifference. The name has come into common use after the 1970s.


The name is Samskrit in origin meaning divided, split, broken, scattered, crushed connotes a state of weakness, poverty, and humiliation. Significantly, the term is being used not only to refer to some castes, but also applied in various fields like Dalit Litrature, Dalit poets, Dalit Scholars, Dalit Parties, Dalit Culture and so on to make confusion most confounded.


Since 1900, several names have come into use in the census operations to denote classes considered as “untouchables” in the old order collectively. Adi Dravidas, Adi Andhras, and Adi Karnataka – names showing their antiquity in the land – were coined in southern India where the Non-Brahmin Movement took firm roots. Officially, the term Depressed Classes, was used as a collective name and continued in official use between 1920 and 1935, without specific definition of the term, but broadly on the criterion of “untouchability”.

Enumeration of population under this category was done in 1921 and 1931. The list of castes classified as “depressed” in the Census of 1931 was renamed as “Scheduled Classes” for purposes of franchise in 1935 for whom seats were reserved in the Legislative Councils and the Assembly.


While census included only “untouchables” as depressed classes, official welfare programmes were extended to several deprived communities not officially recognized as “depressed”. After the Government of India Act of 1935 that listed “Scheduled Classes”, the turn under Reservation Policy, then called “Communal GO” in the then Madras Presidency was restricted to them, while ameliorative schemes were given to bigger group of Depressed Classes. Blurring of the line between the two categories was deliberately created.


Gandhiji, in the thick of Constitutional Reforms forced in the 1930s, when the question of caste divisions assumed vigor, christened those considered as “untouchables” in the old social order as “Harijans” (meaning “children of God”). The term received instantaneous rejection by Ambedkar and several other political leaders from these communities as giving an impression that they were lowly and helpless. One of the arguments was that it was the right of the castes concerned to choose their name and others had no right to give them a label. 


At that time, Ambedkar explained their state as “dalithood” which was defined as “a kind of life conditions which characterize the exploitation, suppression, and marginalization by the social, economic, cultural, and political domination of the upper castes’ Brahmanical ideology”.   Dalitism is a derivative from this.


Twenty-five years after Independence, a more radical movement was started by two activists in Maharashtra – Namdev Dasal and J.V.Pawar – who formed the Dalit Panthers in 1972. Taking the example of Black Panthers of America, they led a fight for their rights to equality and equal status. They proclaimed that their goal was not simply “a little place in a Brahmin alley, but the rule of the whole country”.


Dalit Panthers issued a manifesto in 1973 in which the nomenclature “Dalit” was defined as  “members of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, neo-Buddhists, the working people, landless and poor peasants, women and all those who have been exploited politically, economically, and in the name of religion”.


Thus, the coverage under the name “Dalit” expanded to include besides the former “untouchable” castes, many other castes and classes backward by social, economic,   educational, occupational, and ritual status, thus ignoring caste distinction and inequality between them and helping emergence of a “majority” bound by a sense of deprivation. Caste and class were intertwined but not fully.


In 1977, Dalit Panthers were disbanded, but by that time the movement had spread and became the patron of the concept of “social justice”. The enlarged “Dalit” category by then became a useful political group.


Bahujan  Samaj Party was formed in this context by Kanshi Ram (1934-2006) in 1978. Pertinent is the claim of being “bahujan” (meaning majority) – a numerical status important in democracy.  It is politically advantageous for Dalits to claim majority by number so that their minority status in power and positions will look all the more striking and unjust.


Hence, the trend has always been to expand the coverage under the term “Dalit”. The BSP  claims to represent Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and Religious Minorities like Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists with focus on uplifting the “downtrodden”. As a political party, its interests lie in expanding its clientele to enlarge its social base.


In this historical background, critics are prone to read in the advisory to replace the name “Dalit” by “Schedule Castes” an attempt to reverse the movement for empowerment of these marginalised groups overlooking the reality that usage of the term “Dalit’ can be and has been stretched or contracted as convenient.


If officially recognised Scheduled Castes wish to adopt the label “Dalit”, it has to be done officially by an amendment of the Constitution. It should exclude “Scheduled Tribes” and all other Backward Classes. Loose application of the name for political and social advantages or even in the media to refer generally to backward classes must end once official definition is adopted. Only then, misuse of the term “Dalit” like “weaker sections” in the 1960s will vanish.---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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