The tell-tale signs on the backs of the four Dalit youths may have faded with the passage of time. After all, more than two months have passed. But the scars remain, and the wounds fester from time to time. Only the names of the victims, the places where they are subjected to such atrocities, and the nature of the ghastly acts change.
Must Dalits be prosecuted for being born into the Hindu fold and ordained to serve the privileged groups of the caste hierarchy indefinitely? Had not we heard that the Constitution, drafted over three long years under the able chairmanship of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the foremost Dalit leader of our times, prescribes guarantees against discrimination in its numerous articles?
The Una incident proved two things categorically. One, that the Dalits have finally found a voice and can unite around a cause. And two, that they will no longer brook any nonsense, and protest to assert their rights.
Much water has flown down the Sabarmati on whose banks the father of the nation weaved his dream of national unity, to gain freedom for his countrymen through ethical protest, even fighting a hugely superior colonial power.
After the Una incident, the rather self-flagellatory remarks of the Prime Minister of ‘beat me, but spare them’, had touched a national chord. However, his contention that 80 per cent of the gau rakshaks were ‘anti-social elements’ did not really set the Ganga on fire. Instead, it brought opprobrium from a fellow organisational colleague, who had also worked as a ‘humble pracharak’. The gau rakshak cartels have resumed business as usual.
The Prime Minister’s remarks were probably meant to douse tempers in view of the upcoming elections one after the other, starting with the biggest of them all, Uttar Pradesh. Una has shown that the Dalits have learnt not to be deceived again by self-serving social reformers or political leaders. Somewhat curiously similar is the rousing of Muslim consciousness in country, and the refusal to accept demagoguery or skulduggery from their leaders.
And thus, perhaps for the first time in independent India, the Dalits and Muslims, suffering from the same immediate cause (read the ‘holy cow’), have discovered a common destiny.
Ambedkar had actually prophesied this phenomenon .Hence his common cause with a man called Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had manipulated the partitioning of the sub-continent on the basis of a dubious ‘Two-Nation theory’.
Ambedkar’s support for Partition, brought about through a cruel and misjudged play of circumstances, is well documented. India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh, which was yet to be born) are still grappling unsuccesssfully with the fallout of that gory Partition. Coming back to the Dalit story, we are again witnessing atrocities committed in the name of social purge.
Barring Dalits from temples, festivals and ceremonies is just one perverse detail of such inhuman behaviour. And this is played out not only in the South but across India, bridging the north-south cultural divide. No matter the language, culture, region or religion, Dalits are being pushed further into their ghettoized existence.
And this is despite the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill passed in December last year, which adds to the list of cognisable offences, like preventing SCs/STs from using common property resources, entering any places of public worship, and entering an education or health institution.
Remember Ambedkar’s Mahad Satyagraha of 1927 to fight for Dalit rights to access public wells and temples?
No doubt, certain sections of Dalits are getting socially and economically empowered by virtue of the ‘affirmative action’ policy enshrined in the Constitution. They are getting placements in educational and professional institutions, becoming doctors, engineers, academics, business persons, or even running institutions and heading social organizations.
But these empowered Dalit elites are yet to find common ground with their miserable brethren rotting in the lower rungs of the same caste grouping, to which they have been flung for centuries.
Just dumping cow carcasses before the Collector’s office, refusing to take up their traditional duties or leading an ‘ Asmita March’ from Ahmedabad to Una, which, in any case, got very little visibility in the national consciousness, are not enough.
What we need is a new social paradigm, in which all oppressed communities join hands, irrespective of the cause for which they stand discriminated.
Which reminds me of the final scene in Shyam Bengal’s classic, ‘Ankur’, where a small child, witness to the angst of a deaf and dumb husband of a Dalit woman sexually oppressed by the high-caste landlord, throws a stone, shattering the glass window of his village house.
Let not this moment of reckoning be wasted, the moment when both Ambedkar and Gandhi have been invoked for national regeneration and unity. Let the Centre and States work together in putting together a coherent long-term policy, within the framework of the Constitution, for a comprehensive empowerment scheme for all endangered minorities, excluding none.
Because in the final count all minorities need to stand up as Indians, adhering to the spirit of nationalism without any particular social group abrogating the honour all to itself, and then finding ways and means of working for national development in their own capacities.
We can neglect our minorities and continue to oppress them in the name of social discrimination and exclusion,only at the cost of grave national peril.
Malay Mishra is an academic researcher and former ambassador