Friday, August 23, 2002

A misnomer for Dalit raaj

Deepak Verma

Darulshafa in Lucknow provides a politically fertile ground for various organisations who want to make their as yet unrequited voices wave through the corridors of the majestic Vidhan Bhawan across the street. But it is not often that the numerous sit-ins, fasts-unto-death, etc., which dot these grounds send any ripples; their sporadic speeches gets pathetically muzzled in the traffic noise on the Mahatma Gandhi Marg. However, on the August 19, the presence of several battalions of PAC and the supervising police personnel clearly signified both the strength of numbers and of the issue that the Dalit Panthers of Uttar Pradesh had brought forth. The rally was attended by over two and a half thousand activists from Lucknow, Kanpur, Kanpur Dehat, Oraiyya, Itawa, Jalaun, Banda, Fatehpur, Allahabad, Azamgarh & Hamirpur and included Dalits, OBCs as well as members of minority communities.

The issue in focus was the recent government directive in respect of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, circulated under the signatures of the chief secretary DS Bagga and special secretary Anil Kumar at the behest of Chief Minister Mayawati. The directive, which is addressed to the entire administrative machinery, apparently derives its motivation from alleged 'misuse' of the Act and therefore directs the state's penal and executive bodies to be 'extra careful' about registering the cases under the Act.

Blundering on the side of caution, the directive 'carefully' suggests that cases of murder and rape (alone) should be seen as attracting the provisions of the Act and the FIRs in rape cases should be allowed to be filed only after they have been authenticated by medical examination.

It would appear that in doing so not only does the ruling BJP-BSP combine seem to be oblivious of the nature of oppression in the everyday lives of Dalits, but it also transgresses its own constitutional limits. It may be recalled that the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which is also popularly known as 'Dalit Act', was put into effect by the Indian Parliament during the Janata Dal government in 1989. It defined a comprehensive set of circumstances, within which the quotidian Dalit life may possibly be debased, as falling under the category of cognizable offence. As such it is outside the powers of the state government to make insinuations, express or otherwise, that may cause modifications in the Act or in its administration.

The GO, indeed, has grave implications since it is precisely the administering of the Act in which the upper caste laxity with regards to the Dalits may find unwarranted justification. The Act had been a significantly powerful instrument in duly recognising and restoring a sense of self and dignity to Dalits amidst the otherwise battered conditions of social and cultural existence. There already exists a definite blurring of distinction between personal names and opprobrious epithets - part of a systematic governmentality that social semantics imposes upon a vast majority of Dalits even today. Phrases such as chor-chandal, chor-chamar, or maarte maarte bhangi bana denge, as Dhani Ram Panther reminds, or names like Domrau, Kangalua, Chamrau are platitudinous ingredients of our everyday cultural vocabulary. While a Dalit sitting with upper caste is 'normal' to be frowned at, even my sitting with Vakil in Sherpur village of district Ghazipur, evoked a horrified look in consternation from an upper caste boy, as he blurted 'Dom ka khatiya par baithal baada? Ihavan tohara na baithe ke chaahi' [Sitting on a Dom's cot? It does not befit you to be sitting here].

As the Dalit consciousness registered an upsurge in the past two decades or more, the upper caste backlash smothering the Dalits had grown more violent. However, the Act worked as a strong deterrent. Still, the cases of police not filing FIRs or acting in concert with the powerful have not been uncommon. When it comes to the Dalit subalterns, the official response in general is nonchalant and often, at the sight of Dalits demanding their share of rights, cast in churlish ill humour, albeit concealed in incomprehensible bureaucratic warps. You have got to be a nobody to experience the almost colonial aura of power that the official Dom of Independent Indian state guardedly nurtures and unabashedly exhibits. A Prem Prakash Bharti of Bhangi Samaj doesn't feel empowered merely with an articulate draft of application, voicing his plight as 'colonies (provision of housing under government schemes) come and go and he remains without one', for he knows the orderlies - the chief instruments of power - would not let him near the magisterial precincts.

While you might need an English speaking, preferably English looking person to break the class IV barrier of power, the 'sahab', used to a culture of servility, is most likely to take in obsequious plain speaking amiss.

One would imagine that administration under a Dalit government would be proactive in securing the Dalit longstanding promises of socio-economic sustainability that Indian constitution and different political parties have made at opportune times. The iterability of Mayawati government's widely publicised commitment to granting the 'patta' to the landless gives these landless the sense of their rights, if negatively, in terms of its absence on the ground.

Thus, a group of such Dalits from Ghazipur district recently made a desperate visit to the chief minister's party office (thanks to the sookha that gave them the time from their otherwise busy preoccupations with rozi-roti) and the ensuing official orders bring to light the existence of such orders ever since 1994.

The subsequent visit of the district magistrate puts a final seal to the grant of 'pattas', though on papers, which the allottees are yet to receive. The local 'dabangs' would not, however, let Dalits call it their own, let alone use it. My own academic research on Dalit issues was categorically disallowed by a district magistrate in one eastern UP district, as he, in his wisdom, decided within 5 minutes of the audience I was granted that it was likely to cause 'disturbance to peace and tranquility' in his area.

Given such state of affairs, it is anyone's guess how the GO is going to impact on the lives of Dalits. While murder and rape are not part of the everyday reality in all Dalit communities, smaller though no less significant instances of debasement are. It is far from clear why the incidence of 'misuse' could not be handled within the parameters of the Act itself.

The UP Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission is of the opinion that 80-85 per cent of the cases brought before it are indeed genuine and only about 10 per cent are fabricated while rest of the 5 per cent remain somewhat hazy. While high-powered political figures enjoy the Z-plus protection and yet may feel threatened by odd individuals inside their fortified environs, the Act in the shape it was enacted by the Central Government was the only Black Cat Commando available to the Dalits, as Dhani Ram Panther urges Behanji.

(The writer is a professor in Johns Hopkins University and is doing research on Dalits in UP)

Source: The Times of India, August 23, 2002

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