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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016

Dalits Emancipation Possible Only when they Leave Humiliating Vocations

Monday 5 September 2016, by Sandeep Pandey

A Dalit Asmita Yatra was taken out in Gujarat between July 31 and August 15, 2016 by the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti from Ahmedabad to Una, where the obnoxious incident took place on July 8 when some Dalits were beaten up for skinning dead cows. Symbolically, on Indepen-dence Day the Dalits demanded that they must be freed from the task of disposal of cattle carcasses and instead they should be given land so that they may survive by engaging in agriculture, a more respectable vocation than what they have been traditionally doing. Any landless Dalit is in any case entitled to receive land from the panchayat. Essentially the demand was to implement the provision in law for the Dalits. Even in cases from around the country where Dalits have been given land titles by panchayats, they are not able to take control of their land sometimes. Encroachment over Dalit land is a fairly common problem. The police and administration tend to favour the powerful upper-caste people who encroach upon the land of the Dalits, just like they did in the Una incident.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar was for nationalisation of land. As land reforms have not taken place in spite of the implementation of the land ceiling law and the people fear that any surplus land will be given to private corporations rather than landless labourers, it may not be a bad idea to revive the call for nationalisation of land given by Dr Ambedkar. There should be a way of more equitable use of land. This will give Dalits the opportunity to give up vocations which are inhuman.

The young convenor of the Samiti, Jignesh Mevani, says that he doesn’t want it to just remain a Dalit movement. He would like to invite other progressive forces to join this movement for emancipation of the Dalits. He invokes Shaheed Bhagat Singh also in his speeches. There is an appeal for promoting inter-caste and interfaith marriages and also to strengthen Dalit-Muslim unity as Muslims too have been at the receiving end of the cow protection campaign. In fact, as long as it was only the Muslims getting killed or attacked by cow vigilante groups, the Prime Minister kept quiet. It was only when the Una incident received bad publicity and threatened the electoral prospects of the BJP in the forthcoming elections in Punjab and UP, that Narendra Modi in quite an unexpected about-turn came down heavily upon these groups.

However, the PM’s outburst doesn’t seem to have had any affect on the cow vigilante groups. The Hindu Jagarana Vedike has killed Praveen Poojary, interestingly a BJP worker, who was accused of carrying cattle in a vehicle for the slaughter house. So, it appears that the PM’s apparent anger was more for public consumption than actually intended to stop such incidents. In any case the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindutva groups have condemned the PM’s accusation that 80 per cent of the cow vigilantes are anti-social elements by the night. It certianly cannot be denied that they take law into their own hands. The faith seems to be given more importance than our Constitution.

The Dalit Asmita Yatra received a good response in Gujarat and gave a platform to the Dalits for assertion of their rights. The method of protest they have chosen, of abandoning the cattle carcasses, reflects the agony of their profession. Earlier Dalits were known to have given up this task in 19 villages of Mehsana district of Gujarat. Unless they give up these menial jobs, their children will not be able to go to schools and generation after generation they’ll remain in the same tradition.

Now it is up to the class, which is the consumer of leather items, to worry about how they would remove the skin of dead cattle so that it may be used by the leather industry. The cow vigilante groups have also protested against the use of cow leather for making various items. With the Dalits in Gujarat having resolved on a big scale not to skin dead animals, it has already become a problem for the government there. It is thinking of employing machines to perform the task and dispose of the dead cows. The leather industry may be under serious threat because of the misplaced enthusiam of the cow vigilantes and a Right-wing government not too keen to suppress the ‘Hindu’ sentiment.

In any case, a number of humiliating tasks, including getting down into sewer lines to clean them, which are performed by Dalits, should have been mechanised long back. Just as this Yatra was to end in Una, news came in of four people having died in Madhapur in Hyderabad because of suffocation when they had entered a manhole to clean it. It is really shameful that in the era of modernisation when most inhuman tasks involving drudgery are being mechanised, we still make live human beings enter the hell which is the sewer line. This is another task that the Dalits must be freed from.

It is only when the Dalits are freed from the inhuman tasks that it will give a chance to the Dalit children to think about a more respectable future for themselves by adopting alternative careers after getting educated. Wherever Dalit families have got a chance, they have left such humiliating professions. But the problem is that most Dalits, engaged in menial tasks, live in conditions of poverty which don’t allow them to unshackle themselves from their situation. Even a Free and Compulsory Right to Education Act, which got implemented in the country in 2009, is not able to pull all their children out and get them admitted in schools. When 23 Valmiki (a community which is traditionally involved in sanitation work) children were to be admitted along with another eight Muslim children to the prestigious City Montessori School in Lucknow last year under the RTE, the school opposed their entry tooth and nail. Only by a Court order 13 Valmiki children got admitted to the school in 2015. The school again wanted them out in the current academic year. The Supreme Court has reprimanded it for this. The elite class has made the life of children of sanitation workers miserable, humiliating them at every step.

Noted social activist and Magsaysay awardee Dr Sandeep Pandey was recently sacked this year from the IIT-BHU where he was a Visiting Professor on the charge of being a “Naxalite” engaging in “anti-national” activities. He was elected along with Prof Keshav Jadhav the Vice-President of the Socialist Party (India) at its founding conference at Hyderabad on May 28-29, 2011.