Special Articles / T.K. Nair / Social Work Foot Prints, Vol.VI, Issue.1
This brief article is intended to give a link to the articles on Women’s Rights and on Dr.Ruth Manorama. It includes birth-based caste system, atrocities against Dalits from a Dalit poet’s angle, the Prevention of Atrocities (against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) Act, and continuing violations of the law.
Birth-based Caste System
Dalit means “oppressed”. It is derived from the Sanskrit adjective meaning divided, split, broken or scattered. The term was first used by Jyotirao Phule in the nineteenth century, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile “untouchables”. Later, the term Dalit has become a political identity. The fourfold division of castes or Varnas —Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Shudra — excluded the Dalits as Panchama or the fifth group. In the Hindu caste system, the position of Dalit is associated with occupations considered ritually impure such as removal of garbage, animal carcass and human excreta, or leatherwork or butchering. Being regarded as impure, the Dalits were banned from full participation in social life, specific social distances were observed between them and the higher castes, and were forced to live away from the habitations of the higher castes. The Hindu society following the Varna system has been divided into the four castes, namely, the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (traders), and the Shudras (workers) based on their occupations. Thus Shudras were the working class and were subject to discrimination and oppression in the fourfold caste system, B.R.Ambedkar (1949) in his scholarly book on “Who were the Shudras ?” claimed that the Shudras were the original inhabitants of India. Based on a thorough review of the Hindu scriptures, Ambedkar came to the conclusion that the discrimination based on the birth-based caste system was interpolated into the texts later. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that he created the four castes based on Gunas (attribute) and Karma and birth was not mentioned. Shudras had distinguished rulers and scholars. Ramayana and Mahabharatha, the two greatest epics, were authored by non-Brahmins. Rishi Valmiki was a Shudra by birth and he wrote the Ramayana. Sage Ved Vyas (also known as Krishna Dwapayana), who composed Mahabharatha, was born to a fisher woman. The famous Jabali Upanishad was authored by Satyakam Jabali, who was born to an unwed Shudra mother. The occupation-based castes had the Shudras as workers and they were subjected to oppressive practices by the higher castes till the fifth Panchama category came into vogue to do jobs which the Shudras avoided because of the impurity attached to these jobs. The present birth-based caste system which is a combination of jati (one’s community of birth) and Varna is estimated to have emerged roughly between 1,600 to 2,000 years ago. The Bhakti movement, which originated in South India in the seventh century and spread all over the country, was a theist devotional movement. It was considered an influential social transformation in Hinduism and provided an individual-focussed alternative path to spirituality irrespective of one’s gender or caste of birth. It reached its zenith between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries CE. The movement was led by many scholars who did not belong to the upper castes.
Atrocities Against Dalits
Millions and millions of words have been written on the atrocities against Dalits. What the former Member of Parliament Rajbhoj said in 1973 on the macro scene of Indian Dalits still remains almost unchanged.
"Today in India the position (of Scheduled Castes) is such that not a single day passes when atrocious behaviour of caste Hindus, especially in rural areas, is not reported in the newspapers from one part of the country or another. From barber's shop to burning ghat, from the tea shop to the temple, there are innumerable ways of slighting, segregating, and shunning an untouchable. Newspapers are replete with the burning of Harijans' huts, their killings and persecutions,organised boycotts, rapes, stripping and parading Harijan girls naked, refusing them daily necessities like drinking water. It was hoped that after the advent of freedom, untouchability would gradually disappear along with all other forms of social inequality and injustices. The Constitution abolished untouchability and pledged to win justice for all.....They are (still) entirely at the mercy of the dominant castes in their respective villages. They are refused "permission" to draw drinking water from common wells. Where schools are housed in village temples, their children are denied admission to them. They are expected to vote in all elections --from village panchayat to the Lok Sabha-- as the village "leaders" want them. If they ever try to assert their rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, and vote for the candidate or the party of their choice, the leaders "subject them to atrocities and indignities and ultimately impose a boycott on the entire community".
The famous Marathi poet Jyoti Lanjewar's poem "Caves" succinctly portrays the pain experienced by the Dalit victims of atrocities.
Their inhuman atrocities have carved caves
In the rock of my heart
I must tread this forest with wary steps
Eyes fixed on the changing times
The tables have turned now
I have been silent all these days
Listening to the voice of right and wrong
But now I will fan the flames
For human rights
How did we ever get to this place
This land which was never mother to us ?
Which never gave us even
The life of cats and dogs ?
I hold their unpardonable sins as witness
And turn, here and now,
Prevention of Atrocities Law
Neither the Constitutional guarantees nor the successive governments could prevent the atrocities against the Dalits. Hence the government of India enacted The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989, popularly known as the POA Act. The near total implementation failure of the POA Act by the state governments and the pressure of Dalit activists compelled the government of India to amend the Act. As the amendment Act could not be passed in the Parliament, the government of India promulgated The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Ordinance, 2014. In November 2015, the Act was passed by the Parliament and it was notified on January 26, 2016 (Republic Day). The amendment Ordinance and the Act include all conceivable atrocities. Section 3 of the Act lists these atrocities.
(1) Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe-
The POA Act has always been a paper legislation. Despite including more crimes against Dalits in the statutes, atrocities against the Dalits continue, perhaps with more intensity and frequency. Police is most often indifferent. Many cases are ignored without even filing an FIR. Even when FIRs are filed investigation is shoddy. Even the victims are not spared from police brutality in many police stations.
The POA Act mandates creation of exclusive special courts and appointment of exclusive Public Prosecutors to complete cases under the Act within two months with a time frame of three months for disposal of appeals in high courts. But the track record of state governments has been dismal. For instance, in Tamilnadu, one of the states with a large number of violences against the Dalits, the successive governments have been unwilling to set up special courts in vulnerable districts despite a directive from the Madras High Court. The state government has listed 28 of the 32 districts in the state as "identified areas" or "atrocity prone areas". But only 6 special courts are in existence in the state. The government has not established special courts in many northern and western districts, which are hotbeds of atrocities against the Dalits. The June, 2015 order of the Madras High Court on special courts has not been complied with even after sending two reminders (Times of India, 21 January, 2016). Continuance of manual scavenging despite the ban orders of the Supreme Court and the state government is a glaring example. The Madras High Court ordered in June, 2015 that it would monitor implementation of manual scavenging abolition law in the state in the light of the many deaths due to manual scavenging. Yet the menace continues unabated.
Even in death, the bodies of the Dalits are denied the dignity of a decent burial or cremation by the caste Hindus in many villages. In Tirunalkondachery hamlet situated in Nagapattinam district, Dalits have been fighting unsuccessfully with the caste Hindus and the unhelpful administration for four decades to get a burial ground. Recently, the body of an 85-year old man was held for five days without burial in January. Finally, the Police and Revenue officials forcibly buried the body (The Hindu, 17 January, 2015 ).
Will this situation ever change? Will the annihilation of caste ever take place as B.R.Ambedkar wanted ? Meanwhile, the Dalits may follow the words of advice of Ambedkar :
My final words of advice to you are
Educate, Agitate and Organize,
Have faith in yourself.
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