Dalits in South Asia: What’s next for them?

by SAHF Team

Discussions about minority groups in the global context often hover around the condition of Dalits in South Asia. While it is accepted that Hindu society in India has failed to integrate the Dalits after independence in 1947, the complete story of this marginalized community is rarely given adequate attention.

Recently, in September 2019, two boys belonging to the Valmiki caste, one of the Dalit subgroupings, were beaten to death by villagers in India for defecating in the open. We can find many such examples of discrimination against the marginalized Dalits. Interestingly, the Valmiki group gets its name from sage Valmiki who is the author of Ramayana, an ancient and one of the most sacred scripture for all Hindus worldwide. Likewise, the epic Mahabharata, another sacred scripture known to all Hindus, which contains the Bhagavada Gita, was written by sage Veda Vyasa, who would today be classified as a Dalit.

So how did the social standing fate of Dalits change from the Valmiki and Veda Vyasa of yesteryear, whom over a billion Hindus continue to revere, to the Valmiki boys beaten to death in 2019? To understand this gradual decay from a fair and progressive societal structure to the current discriminatory hierarchical structure, we will need to go back a few centuries, when the greater India (including current-day Pakistan and Bangladesh) had not yet been colonized by the British.

When the British arrived in India in the 18th century, the ancestors of today’s Dalits were the pioneers of the manufacturing industry of India. Being the master craftsmen who produced handicrafts, shoes and textiles for domestic consumption as well as export, they were respectfully employed and integrated within the Hindu society. Many of the Dalit castes today can be recognized from the work that their ancestors used to do such as pottery (Kumhars), carpentry (Badhai), smiths (Lohar), and leather work (Chamars) during the pre-British days. In order to capture the Indian market, the British imposed exorbitant duties on made-in-India products, and flooded the market with British products, thereby destroying the livelihood of the Dalits. This took a toll on their social standing, forcing them into unemployment and making them non-essential members of society.

The British didn’t just stop there. They studied the Indian society with great interest with a view towards findings chinks in the armor of a people who had resisted hundreds of years of foreign invasion, and post 1857 revolt, they further pushed the already disempowered Dalits into abyss by throwing them under the mercy of newly created tyrant zamindar class, whose sole purpose was to deliver a fixed tax collection money to the British. To further cement this discriminatory hierarchy, British came up with the Criminal Tribe Act in 1871, that criminalized a lots of communities, particularly the Dalit castes, merely for existing. While such fault-lines were primarily created as an instrument of the divide-and-rule strategy of the British rule, these fault-lines also became a tool within the hands of the expansionist monolithic religions, Christianity and Islam to further their religious agenda, and weaken the political relevance of the indigenous Hindu society.

In the run up to India’s partition and independence in 1947, the theory of Dalit-Muslim unity was floated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League to garner support from the Dalit community to push for the creation of Islamic republic of Pakistan. In return, the Dalits were promised an egalitarian utopia in the Islamic country that was to be created, where they would be finally free from the alleged ‘tyranny of Hindu upper castes’. As a result, Jogendra Nath Mandal, one of the two prominent Dalit leaders in the undivided India joined the Muslim League, and ended up supporting Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s demand for the creation of Pakistan. He became the first law minister of Pakistan. The other prominent Dalit leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar also became the law minister of India, and went on to become the chief architect of India’s constitution. The farce of Dalit-Muslim unity was exposed in 1950 itself, when Mandal resigned as the law minister of Pakistan and returned to India. He felt betrayed that the Dalits were used for political gains, and realized that the alliance was never meant for the upliftment of the Dalits who had to face abduction, rapes and forceful conversions to Islam in the newly created Pakistan. From the British to the Muslim League, the Dalit fault-line has been effectively used to destabilize the unity of India and weaken the civilizational roots of the Hindu society.

The exploitation of Dalits, in the promise of an egalitarian utopia continued in the independent India as well. While the Hindu society could certainly have done more to heal the Dalit fault-line created by the British, the Christian missionaries and the Dalit-Muslim unity theorists have continued to aggressively victimize the marginalized Dalit community further. Missionaries used the money power to induce the impoverished Dalits to convert to Christianity, again with the promise of equal status in the ostensibly egalitarian Christian society. But again, post-conversion, Dalit Christians (as they are referred after conversion) realized that they were never going to be equal to the elite Catholics or Syrian Christians. In many locations, Dalit Christians’ burial places are separated from the burial places of elite Christians.

Source: BBC

Similarly, in July 2018, some in the Kerala Christian community refused to share the space with Dalits or eat the food prepared by them in a relief camp with the Dalit community members. Some, within the converted Dalit community believe that they have been worse off post-conversion, as they continued to be discriminated against by elite Christians, while also getting alienated from the larger indigenous Hindu society where their roots lie.

While missionaries lured with money and false promises of equality, the Islamists promoted the promise of political supremacy over the ‘tyrannical’ upper caste Hindus. In spite of the early red flags of the Jogendra Mandal saga, there have been recent attempts to revive the Dalit-Muslim unity theory, by floating the ‘Bheem Meem’ campaign to further alienate the Dalits from the Hindu mainstream. In some cases, this unnatural alliance did end up paying political dividends in India, but at ground level the political posturing of ‘Bheem Meem’ never translated to the promise of Dalit Muslim brotherhood, be it in India or in Pakistan. A Dalit man, Khetram Bhim was savagely murdered in Rajasthan’s Barmer in July 2018 allegedly for an affair with a Muslim woman  Similarly, in January 2020, another Dalit man Dhaniram Ahirwar was burnt alive by his Muslim neighbors in Madhya Pradesh in India. These are just two of the many such examples in India that expose the farce of Dalit-Muslim unity. In Pakistan, the condition of Dalits is even worse. 80% of the Hindus left in Pakistan today belong to the Dalit community who stayed back in 1947 in the hope of an egalitarian utopia, only to be met with brutal, systemic discrimination. In some parts of Pakistan, the land owned by people from Dalit community has also been taken over by their government organizations, and Dalits are only eligible for menial jobs.

Post-independence in 1947, the Hindu society in India has made significant progress by introducing affirmative action to provide the Dalits with reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, by abolishing the Zamindari practice and by ensuring that there are powerful, stringently enforced laws in place that not only ensure justice but make the offenses against the Dalits as non-bailable. Beyond the laws, many Hindu organizations such as Gayatri Pariwar and the Swaminarayan sect have done significant social work for ending the social discrimination of the Dalits, including encouraging inter-caste marriages. While there have been genuine positive efforts by the Hindu society, the opportunistic and predatory designs of the Dalit-Muslim theorists and the Christian missionaries have only been aimed at using the Dalit fault-line as a tool to advance their own political agenda, and further weaken the indigenous Hindu society of South Asia. To ward off the opportunistic politics of external forces, which will only lead the Dalits to become another Jogendra Nath Mandal, the Hindu society must expedite the progress that they have made post independence. To preserve the civilizational glory of India, the Dalits must be enabled to go back to being proud members of the Hindu society, the descendants of Valmikis, Ravidas and Ved Vyas who India reveres.

Picture Credits: Original Creator/Photographer

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