We all know who Dalits are. Daily wage workers, our domestic help, the voter bank that all politicians have to appeal to to get elected, and very casually, the ones who are at the brunt of jokes. Dalits have been suppressed since time immemorial, so much so that for Indians, social distancing is easy. In a pandemic, social distancing becomes caste-distancing and the upper caste uses this time to justify untouchability. But really, do we know Dalits? Do we understand their concerns and do we care about them?
The word dalit means broken/shattered in the Sanskrit language. This term is said to be used (in the way we know now) first by Jyotibai Phule and then was popularized by Babasaheb and then was invigorated by the Dalit Panther Group.
According to Hindu tradition, the origin of caste system generally comes from the four original ‘Varna’s’ namely ‘Brahman’, ‘Kshatriya’, ‘Vaishya’ and ‘Shudra’. It has been maintained in the Purusa Sukta of the Rig-Veda that the caste system was created by the creator Brahma himself. According to the Rig-Veda, the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, the Shudras have come from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, the feet of the Lord respectively.
The society was formed within this caste system and the Shudra caste has been subjected to more hate and discrimination and that translates well into today’s society. There have been many Dalit movements in the Modern Indian History that actively fought for equal rights (that include even going to the temples.) And with the rise of Hindutva in the past six years, Dalits have been subjected to much worse. Manual Scavenging is a lower caste job…something only the dalits should do. There have been more Dalit arrests, and more Dalit killings. Especially since the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed, minorities have been at the burning end of it. The passionate need for the Hindutva country has destroyed the social fabric of our nation. And minorities are paying the price for it.
The death of Rohit Vemula, a PhD scholar from the Hyderabad Central University, sparked an outrage from the Dalit community. It showed glaringly to the caste Hindus and the upper and middle class folk the discrimination that always existed within the education sector. Reservations for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes still spark a controversy and accuse these groups of stealing their seats or not working hard enough to get where Upper-caste people are. After his death, Rohit Vemula’s real cause of death was not discussed by the media until there was an uproar from the students of the university.
HOW THE PANDEMIC AFFECTS THE LIVES OF DALITS
Dalits are more susceptible to the disease, one of the main reasons for it is poverty. They live together in small houses (like Dharavi, Mumbai) and have common washrooms. Social distancing is nearly impossible. Coupled with this is the fact that they are chiefly daily wage workers, so skipping work means that they don’t get paid, hence have no food. This leaves them no choice. And even if they fall sick, they don’t have access to healthcare.
The pandemic and its byproduct; the lock-down, has shown us in broad daylight, how much we care about Dalits and how much we take into consideration national decisions are made. When the lock-down was announce, it only gave the citizens four hours to prepare for it, leaving behind the migrant workers, who suddenly found themselves without jobs, and food and shelter.
The divide in the education sector was clearly highlighted when a Kerala student, Devika, took her own life because she didn’t have access to the online classes. When resources like the internet and education aren’t available to everyone, it strengthens the divisions of society and tells everyone that some lives matter more than others.
In this article written by Dhrubo Jyoti in 2016, he says,
“The erasure of Dalit and Bahujan icons starts right from the primary and middle class textbooks that are replete with references to upper caste leaders and reformers — think Gandhi, Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Tilak — but omits anyone else.That caste privilege has transformed itself into modern capital today, but the original structure still stands”Dhrubo Jyoti for Hindustan Times. Death as a Dalit, What Rohith Vemula’s suicide tells about India. January 18, 2016.
But you see, history has a way of remembering the atrocities committed by the society on the lower caste. Dalit History Month was started very recently as a way of reinforcing and re-remembering what the Dalits have been through for centuries. As a way of reaffirming and reclaiming their identity.
IN THE NEWSROOM
One of the ways Dalit Erasure takes place is in the newsroom. Really, think about how everyday we see a story about a Dalit being killed? But think of this: Who is telling these stories? In a survey, Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of marginalized caste groups in Indian Newsrooms’, it was found that:
– For over 70% of their primetime debate shows, news channels draw the majority of the panellists from the upper castes
– No more than 5% of all articles in English newspapers are written by Dalits and Adivasis. Hindi newspapers fare slightly better at around 10%
– Around 72% of bylined articles on news websites are written by people from the upper castes
If Dalits can’t tell their own stories, then why should uppercaste individuals take up that space and act as a savior? If they hold the narrative, then we can be sure that the news that comes to us is not authentic. It’s been spun by UC folks, and there’s absolutely no way we can see how it affects the victims. Like Chinua Achebe said,
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
IN THE CINEMA
Dalit Erasure takes place in the way Dalits are represented in movies. Bollywood is filled with the elite, star children right now and regional cinema is no less. With upper castes ruling the cinema, there is no representation for Dalit stories.
Somanth Waghmare, writes for News18 and puts across his point beautifully, “An overwhelming number of Indian films, at their core, portray urban and savarna sensibilities, which then leads to the glorification of Brahmanical culture and values through the medium of films. The same attempt is made in Marathi films – the perfect examples are the films made by Umesh Kulkarni and Subodh Bhave. The upper class and upper caste Indian film-makers have been unsuccessful to expand their cinematic imagination beyond their own privileged social realities. That is one major reason why Indian Cinema is not considered amongst the world’s best.”
When directors only glorify Brahmanical stories, then this creates an issue where the caste divide is broadened. The realities are different for people from different castes. Cinema is needed and is essential to enforce or shape public opinions and create social awareness. When the representation isn’t there, then there’s no way people can benefit from these stories.
Author of the book, Coming out as Dalit, Yashica Dutt writes about how there’s no dalit representation and the complete dehumanizing portrayal of Dalits.
Films play an important role in shaping our ideas about an evolving society. If you look at important movies over the decades, they’ve been able to successfully create some kind of social change. What we see around us, with regard to popular culture, which to a large extent are movies, they only show upper caste characters and don’t show Dalit characters. This creates an idea, it creates a narrative in popular imagination that Dalits either don’t exist or if they do, then they are just like everybody else. The real stories are not shown. It leads to erasing of Dalit identity. As I have mentioned in the book, in Lagaan (2001), it is the most unfortunate thing that they had a Dalit character and they thought that they’re doing a great job. But my objection was that they named him, ‘kachra’. While other people in the movie are clearly upper caste, they have normal names. You’ve demeaned him right from the beginning. In order for us to feel sympathetic to him, he had to be handicapped too. Om Puri played a Dalit in a film called Sadgati (1981), but his character was named Dukhi. They’ve been used as a prop and what that does is to create an impression that Dalits are not fully realized human beings.
This is some of the ways Dalit erasure works. The Gandhian view of caste system can no longer work. Gandhiji said that Dalits are the Harijan, the people of God. Rather we should hold on to the Periyar-Ambedkar view of anti-caste. The problem with portraying one group as superior to another doesn’t imply that they’re equal. It cements the divide as though they’re two different groups. But being anti-caste demands equality and equity in true sense.
MENTAL HEALTH OF DALITS
Inter-generational Trauma is when trauma is passed from one generation to the other. The new generations will be born with feelings of anxiety, without knowing where it is originating from.
In this report, Dalits’ Physical and Mental Health, Some of the consequences of the birth ascribed low social status are: low self-esteem, confusion of self identity, self hate, perception of the world as a hostile place, hypertension and neuroticism.
Mariwala’s Health Intiative wrote a report, PSYCHO-SOCIAL WELL-BEING OF MIGRANTS IN SHELTERS, wherein they discussed the reasons for psychosocial distress migrant workers are experiencing. From the report, it shows that psychosocial distress that migrant laborers might be experiencing on account of the current crisis include:
- Fear of losing their livelihood, not being able to work during
- isolation, and of being dismissed from work.
- Fear of being socially excluded/placed in quarantine.
- Feeling powerless to protect loved ones and fear of losing loved ones to the virus.
- Frustration on account of being separated from loved ones and caregivers.
Another study shows that about 16% of total intra-state migrations in India belong to Dalits. They move and migrate at the cost of losing any accommodations in their states and live within the margins of cities. While a move towards equality is growing in order to minimize the impact of caste in migration in times such as this the migrant labor as a whole and Dalit and adivasi labor have been relegated deep erasures.
In our Articles, Mental Health is Political and Kindness is Political, we discussed the mental health of dalits and how the caste system stops us from being kind. Do read those for more understanding.
Dalit Identities have always been erased. It starts in our houses, it is in our curriculum when we don’t learn much about Dalit movements. As we look into intersectionality and identity, it’s important to remember and to pass the mic to the most oppressed community in our Country. Like they say, it’s not enough to be non-casteist, we all have to be anti-caste.
Pause for Perspective