Dalits Political Representation

‘Dalit Representation In Politics Will Bring Social Change’

Swarn Singh, 47, a Ramdasia Sikh farmer in Ropar, Punjab, says the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister will help alleviate discrimination faced by lower castes in the state

Punjab has the highest Dalit population among all the states in the country. Therefore, the fact that Charanjit Singh Channi was chosen as the Chief Minister means so much more than a symbolic appointment. Even though it came as a surprise, I feel Channi’s appointment will bring about major changes to the mindscape of Punjab.

It was a Dalit, Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who gave us the Constitution, and it is sad that Dalits have remained at the bottom of the pyramid, because they have little political representation. We are Ramdasia Sikhs and wanted to share that one of the biggest Dalit leaders Kanshi Ram Ji was a clean-shaven Ramdasia Sikh and he gave a strong voice to the Dalit identity.

Over the years Dalits have also begun to understand the importance of being interested in politics. We keep an eye on the news and ensure that we are not caught unawares. When the SC/ST Atrocities Act was amended in 2018, it felt like a watering down, a dilution of the overt and covert discriminations against Dalits.

However, later it was reversed the same year, and again in 2020 some changes were made. In a 2020 judgement, a three-judge bench observed that all insults or intimidations to a person will not be an offence under the Act unless such insult or intimidation is on account of victim belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe.

Swarn Singh says appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi (right) as Punjab CM brings hope to Dalits in the state

Channi Ji is a very educated man and I believe his ways will be different than many other leaders. And I believe his appointment will make Dalits more assertive over issues such as laws or directives that concern us. I would call it a strategic step in these times, as farmers everywhere and particularly in Punjab are restless and hopeful for their voices to be heard. You must realise that one’s caste matters when it comes to how much land one holds. Thus, the current CM’s appointment might bring major changes into people’s lives. I hope he will uphold the values and principles laid down by Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

Even though Gurudwaras are considered open to all, because the Gurus talked about everyone being equal in Sikhism, there is a subtle discrimination which prevails at the holy places too. One doesn’t feel fully accepted when a devotee is seen through the lens of caste. I myself haven’t faced overt discrimination, but I have seen others face it. Sikhism says: Sab Manas ek jaat, but people still discriminate because of deep-rooted, subconscious social prejudices. I hope that will change too.

ALSO READ: ‘Dalits Face Caste Bigotry Early In Life’

I am a farmer and live in a joint family of 25 members. So far we have been holding out fine with the land we own and the business my brother runs. But with the new farm laws we don’t know what the future holds for us. At such a time we are hopeful that Channi Ji’s appointment will safeguard our social and financial interests.

The pandemic has done a lot to remove discrimination, I would say. People have begun seeing other people as humans and not just as someone belonging to a particular caste or religion. It is a good change that has happened, the coming together of people’s hearts and the falling away of prejudices, even if only a little. However, it is sad that many people lost their lives to the virus. But I hope Channi Ji will ensure that love and brotherhood gets strengthened in these times and will work hard towards social equality.

‘Dalits Face Caste Bigotry Early; Then Live With It’

Kapil Kumar, 29, an engineer by education and social activist by vocation, discloses what it means to be a Dalit in India. “You see it coming when someone asks you: What is your full name?” he tells LokMarg

Till about 2019, I used to feel outraged at any injustice, especially against Dalits – given that I am one – but now I have given up. I only feel sad every time a case like the Hathras rape-murder happens. The Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018, brought in by the current government showed which way the wind is blowing for the marginalised.

Dalits in Uttar Pradesh rural belt, or for that matter anywhere in the country, are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. Their women even more so. And they learn about their social status early in life. My first experience of being treated differently came when I was in Class 6. A Jat boy asked me a question, which I would continue to face in the years to come: Tumhara poora naam kya hai? (What is your complete name?) It was a subtle way of asking which caste I belonged to.

My great great grandfather was a farmer, great grandfather a labourer, my grandfather a successful construction businessman and both my parents are employed well. Yet, people want to go back to figure out my genealogy so they know whether to treat me as an equal. My honesty, integrity, passion, communication skills don’t matter. The upper castes demean others and carry with them a sense of entitlement.

ALSO READ: ‘Caste Is A Dormant Volcano’

I faced taunts such as: Arre tum to Behenji ko hi vote karte hoge (Oh! You will vote for Mayawati only). As if Dalits don’t have a mind of their own and will only vote on caste lines.

In Class 8 I had a physical fight with a classmate who said: Tumhare jaise log to hamare ghar me naukar hote hain (People like you are treated as servants at our house). Thankfully, better sense prevailed as he apologised a year later and we are friends now. So there are people who defy their conditioning and support Dalits as well.

Kapil Kumar works in social sector, promoting environment causes & child education

I had thought school would be the end of it because we all grow up, but it wasn’t meant to be. College years were loaded with conversations about reservation on caste basis. We carried our castes on our sleeves. After college, when I found employment and was sent for training to Pune, I faced the same issue. I was an engineer but I was still asked about my poora naam.

Later, when I decided to give up my job and work in the social sector, I thought people would be more aware. Not quite. I am a politically aware person now but still on Ambedkar Jayanti every year (April 14), I am trolled on social media.

ALSO READ: ‘The Dalit Life Sentence’

I have counselled a lot of people in my team as well as others not to be embarrassed or ashamed of anything when it comes to caste. The only thing we should be ashamed of is having hurt an innocent. My friends and I had at one point informally started a library so that Dalits could understand the world was a large and beautiful place. It was open to anyone and everyone and not just Dalits too.

Many migrant labourers have returned from big cities post pandemic and I hope they will bring about a major social change in UP and Bihar, where casteism is predominant. Now that they have been exposed to a wider world, I am counting on them to teach others to open their minds and hearts too.

In these times of Covid-19 many people are waking up to understand what it truly means to be stigmatised for something which one has no control over. When every cough, or sniffle, is seen with suspicion and people don’t even want to touch the shadow of a Covid-19 patient, perhaps a large section of society may begin to feel how Dalits have felt for ages: as untouchables.

Constitutionally, I have given up but I feel social sensitisation is still possible and we will see the end of casteism and Covid soon.

Discrimi-Nation III

Discrimi-Nation III: ‘Caste Is A Dormant Volcano’

For Devashish Jarariya, getting to grips with his caste was a life-changing development. He became a student activist and then joined the Bahujan Samaj Party to fight the caste discrimination he experienced during his school days. His perspective:

I was born in a middle-class family. My father was a government employee. We moved to the city when I was about six years old. I didn’t face any comment on my caste until I came to Class 9, though it’s not like I didn’t know what my caste is. In primary classes, I used only my name without my surname.

My father used the surname Jatav so my teachers added it to my name. It was in Class 8 that I used my family name for the first time. Some people still ask me why I don’t use the surname my father did.

The first instance of discrimination I remember is from Class 9 when a classmate refused to eat with me, saying I was a “low caste” and that his parents would thrash him if they got to know. Some classmates supported me, and I faced that situation. Later on, that classmate became one of my best friends. As one grows older, caste becomes like the air you breathe day in and out. I got by, however, because most of my friends were from the general category both in school and college. We did talk about caste, but it was peaceful: it seems caste has its boundaries, and if nobody crosses them coexistence is pretty much easier.

In my village, every caste has its own cluster of homes. I rarely visited other caste neighbourhoods in my childhood, something I don’t do even now as a matter of fact. I don’t remember going to any wedding in village that was between people outside my caste.

We never questioned this because it was the existing system. I didn’t have the intelligence to understand it then or I didn’t try to. The caste system works in different ways in rural and urban settings. Caste is a dormant volcano; if you work within the limits of the system, it is peaceful but things change rapidly if you start exploring and questioning it.

Caste differences for me were tied in with the issue of reservation; it was the flashpoint. I knew how to defend my position on it but also understood that contrary views on this cannot be harmonised. You can support reservation or you can hate it. The reservation policy doesn’t hurt relationships with people from the unreserved categories because a certain level of acceptance has been reached.

But things changed for me when I started taking a stand on issues as my public life commenced. I start writing about what’s happening in society which the middle class doesn’t bother to look at, or at least as I presumed.

I realised my growing understanding was at odds with the balance of system; the dormant volcano inside began to rumble. The more I wrote on caste atrocities, the more real my own caste identity became. It was like my whole life in the system was made up, and that the foundations of society were rotten.

With my Dalit identity coming to the fore, all those who knew me for years saw and felt the change in my outlook. For them, I am a changed person now. There were no caste problems in their world but I had injected harsh reality into it. When a Dalit was killed in Gujarat for twirling his moustache, I started a campaign #MrDalit #DalitWithMoustache.

My friends asked me what had happened to turn me to caste politics. I have tried to question the system. For instance, during the recent Dalit agitation on the dilution of the SC/ST Act, I confronted media houses to tell them that no Dalits were responsible for the violence. Now, being Dalit is my only identity for my friends and acquaintances; that’s how powerful the embed of caste in our society is. Even writing this piece will only add to my caste identification.

More From Discrimi-Nation 
Part II: The Dalit Life Sentence
Part I: Northeastern Distress

—With editorial assistance from Lokmarg