Abigail Shannon Kellogg
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address at the United Nations recently told a packed hall of delegates that India’s philosophy was “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or that the “world is one family” and this has guided the nation since Vedic times.
However, the continuing oppression of the Dalits in Modi’s home state, Gujarat presents a different story all together. This year, the state saw a 31% rise in the reported cases of atrocities against Dalits. Gujarat ranks amongst the top five states with the highest rate of atrocities against Dalits despite the fact that the Dalit population in Gujarat is far lower than the national population Dalits at 7 %. The national population of Dalits is 17% but the number of cases of atrocities against Dalits stands at 20.4% nationally.
Study on discrimination
A study done by the Navsarjan trust on the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Gujarat, conducted in 1,589 villages of the state found 99 types of oppression and discrimination faced by Dalits in the state. Theses varied from participation in religious activities to access to public facilities, from access to food and water to social sanctions.
Recently, a Dalit youth Jayesh Solanki was beaten to death for watching Garba during Navratri festival in Bhadraniya village in Anand district in Gujarat. In another district, Dalit youth were beaten up for sporting moustaches and the Dalits retaliated by starting a moustache campaign on social media in protest.
There are instances of Dalits being beaten up for even writing “Bapu” (“Bapu” is a title used for the Rajput community) on their vehicles. Though there are over 16,000 cases of atrocities in Gujarat, the conviction rate is a mere 4.87%. Also, over 13,000 cases are still pending in the courts.
Dalits and Manusmriti
A look into Manusmriti helps us get a clearer picture for this. Dalits or the outcastes were never part of the Varna system. According to the Manusmriti, the child of a woman of higher caste and a Shudra man is an outcaste or an Ati-Shudra (the outcastes or untouchables). The works which none of the four castes could do without getting polluted were done by Dalits, like disposing of the dead – both human and animal, making products from the skin of dead animals, tanning, disposing of human excreta, etc.
Manu the Hindu law-giver engineered society in such fragments, that the entire benefit was always enjoyed by the ruling upper castes especially the Brahmins. The system is so entrenched that it continues even today despite a ban on untouchability since 1950s. India’s psyche has not yet been redeemed from the clutches of caste system.
Upcoming Dalit leader and convenor of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch Jignesh Mevani, explains, “Gujarat is a feudal and caste-based society, where the upper castes feel that they can do anything and get away with it. This can be seen in the dismal conviction rates in the state’s atrocities’ cases. Gujarat’s unwavering focus on economic and industrial development has left it intellectually and culturally bankrupt. With little to no investment on caste reconciliation by the state and the civil society,
Gujarat is now mangled with caste-based discrimination and oppression erupting violently”.
If one would look at what the Manusmriti says about rules that apply to Dalits it is easy to see why caste-based discrimination still exists in society. In 10-51 in Manusmriti, it says, ‘Dalits should live outside of the village, they must use discarded bowls and dogs and donkeys should be their wealth.’ Dalits were not allowed to own property.
Further it says in 10-52, ‘Moreover, their clothing should be the clothes of the dead and their ornaments should be made of black iron and they should wander constantly.’ Connecting this to Dalit activist Bhanu Parmar’s observation that when
Dalits display wealth and relative prosperity it angers the upper caste, it is easy to see that Manusmruti is still ingrained in the psyche of Indians despite the denials.
“Nowadays, Dalits own bikes and cars. They wear good clothes and have a style statement. These acts are seen as insults by the upper castes and the Shudras (OBCs)”, says Bhanuben Parmar, who works in Kheda area. Dalits were also historically barred from education as stated in Manusmriti. This is still evident in Gujarat where education amongst Dalits is significantly lower than Dalits in other states.
Eminent writer, political theorist and Dalit rights activist Kancha Illaiah, says, “Dalits in Gujarat are very backward compared to their southern counterparts, since they were not given modern English education as the South-Indian states got because of the efforts of Christian missionaries. Dalits can find liberation only by learning English!”
Double Disadvantage of being a Dalit Woman
Women in these situations often face double disadvantage, caste and gender both play a role in their oppression. Over 950 cases of rape have been filed under the atrocities act. Although rape is a common way to suppress Dalit women, but most cases do not get reported out of fear from the dominant community.
Bhanuben Parmar says, “There have been incidents where a village strongman freely enters the house of a Dalit woman, rapes her while her family dares not enter the house if his footwear is seen outside the Dalit family’s door. The entire family will wait outside for the rapist to finish before they can enter their own house. This is the kind of pressure that the Dalits live with everyday in Gujarat. With little to no help available to them by the state machinery, they have simply no option but to suffer in
Psychologists worldover agree that an individual or community, when oppressed by one entity needs to oppress another entity as an outlet of their pent up frustration. The OBCs, oppressed by the upper castes have been historically conditioned to oppress the Dalits even as they get oppressed by the upper castes themselves.
But it needn’t be like that. While the OBCs account for around 50% of the population, the Dalits are 17%. Nothing prevents them from harnessing their joint electoral strength to fight caste- based discrimination. But what seems to have kept these two vulnerable and oppressed groups at each other throats is just the clever social engineering by Manu several centuries ago.
The country might have woken up to independence and an equal Constitution, but the hangover of the religious code of conduct which was followed for 2000 years is still being felt today.
Commenting on the current status of caste-based violence, Martin Macwan, the founder of Navsarjan Trust and the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, says “Caste-based discrimination and economic disparity has made it clear to me that we are a country with no nation”.
This is evident in Gujarat were Dalits can even get a haircut. “More than 50% of the villages in Gujarat do not allow Dalits to get a haircut from the village barber, who cuts the hair of everyone else in the village including the upper castes. Dalits have to travel about 8-10 kms from their villages to get a haircut. Every time a Dalit stands up for his rights, he is instantly beaten up or oppressed in some way or the other. The situation remains the same, feudal in nature, though the forms have changed. Earlier they wouldn’t touch us, now they are beating us”, says Kaushik Parmar, a Dalit rights activist in North Gujarat.
Though untouchability is banned in India, there are newer ways to discriminate and oppress, making sure that the Dalits dare not place themselves in the same level as the upper castes. The upper castes communities are forcing Dalits to be unkempt and shabby in appearance to keep this distinction alive.
* Abigail Shannon Kellogg, an alumnus of St. Stephen’s College, has been a student of Philosophy. Having worked in the social sector for a few years, she understands the social- political climate of India. Her core focus is on discrimination, exclusion, sexuality, identity and gender concerns. She could be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .