South Asian Dalit scholars and activists express solidarity against systemic exploitation
Distinct and considered political representation of Dalits in South Asian countries is a prerequisite for their socio-economic uplift.
This was the unanimous viewpoint of social scientists and scholars from Pakistan, India and the UK, mostly representing the Dalit or scheduled classes of the Subcontinent, who were speaking at a webinar organized by Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
The first-of-its-kind dialogue, titled ‘South Asia, Neo-Communal Settings and Implications for Social Democracy’ connected Dalit scholars across political boundaries to understand and discuss the conditions, deprivations and reservations of the scheduled castes in South Asia, especially Pakistan and India, while trying to identify a way forward for their elevation.
The panellists included Prof Meena Dhanda from the University of Wolverhampton; Prof Dr Sumeet Mhaskar from Jindal Global University; Prof Amit Thorat from Jawaharlal Nehru University; Dr Abhay Kumar, Indian scholar and journalist; Asif Aqeel, a journalist and researcher from Pakistan’s Christian-Dalit community; Faqir Shiva Kachhi, president, Darawat Ittehad; Sarwan Kumar Bheel Advocate, a social activist from Tharparkar; Heba Ahmed, research scholar, Centre for Political Studies, JNU; Dr Sunaina Arya, JNU research fellow and editor of Dalit Feminist Theory: A Reader.
From IPS’ research faculty Dr Shahzad Iqbal Sham, Sufi Ghulam Hussain, Nadeem Farhat Gilani, and Agha Noor Muhammad Pathan participated in the discussion, while the session was chaired by Khalid Rahman, the Institute’s executive president.
Dalit speakers from Pakistan said the upper caste Hindus were a small minority and they cannot represent the Dalits who were in a majority. They said the upper castes continue to ignore the issues of the scheduled castes and hence should not be seen as their representatives. The situation in India was no different where Lok Sabha too hardly featured any representatives from the scheduled castes although they constituted a major share of the population.
The speakers were unanimous that scheduled caste Dalits did not enjoy their due share of representation at any level. They said the Dalits were constantly being deprived of education, employment and socio-economic opportunities whereas their rights were being violated.
Aqeel was of the view that the Dalit Christians in Pakistan have been linked with menial jobs as part of their caste, which was hampering them in pursuing socio-economic uplift.
Mhaskar pointed out that things were not very different in India, as the structures of exclusion generated from the Brahminism and spread across South Asia. He said caste was a big concern that permeated into every domain and created many issues. He said there was a long list of exclusionist areas including education, jobs, scholarships and representations that need to be analyzed. The Prevention of Atrocities Act was enacted in India in 1989 however it has not been able to fully address these issues.
He added that there were provisions to compensate for the deprivation of scheduled castes in Indian constitution but firstly they are not well-implemented, secondly they are applicable only for civil services which constitute just 4-6 percent of the jobs in India. On the other hand, these deprivations are still largely prevalent in the private sector. He also drew some parallels between the conditions and issues faced by Muslims and Dalits in India.
Abhay Kumar reflected as how caste-based discrimination is labelled as inter-religious issues under a politically-motivated campaign of Islamophobia. He said under this trend the term Islamophobia was not only directed at the Muslim religion but also the society.
Heba stressed that the burden of being an exclusionist minority had increased manifold in India with the introduction of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. She said the Indian government had a poor track record of dealing with its minorities, and CAA was just another example manifesting the fact. She said Muslims in India face mass state discrimination every day of their lives. Heba was of the opinion that persecution of minorities in India or Pakistan had a domino effect in the other country.
Arya said societies in South Asia were historically divided on the basis of privileges and deprivations. Extending the feminist view of Dalits in India, she presented an example of a case where a Dalit woman was gang-raped but the court ruled out the possibility of her being raped as the identification of rape was done on the basis of a person’s consent or its absence. In this case the victim was Dalit and hence did not have the ‘agency’ to refuse or reject. The judgement, according to the speaker, institutionalized the scheduled caste deprivation in a new way. She said it was necessary that lower caste people should attain positions of authority so that their voice could be heard.
Thorat viewed that the caste system in South Asia was prevalent for thousands of years and the mindset cannot change in a mere 70 years after the adoption of the Indian constitution. He said there were provisions in the constitution to address these issues and if they were implemented in letter and spirit, the Dalits and other scheduled castes, which should rather be seen as free slaves, would not have been in the position they were in now. The historic wrong of the society must be corrected, he added.
Dhanda opined that there were some common communal problems on both sides of the border because of which the scheduled castes and underprivileged people had to face a lot of difficulties. The first step towards the resolution of these issues, according to her, was the acceptance of truth, so we need to create conditions where the truth gets heard. If we could resolve problems of minorities locally, she added, we would be giving less space to the people who resist it, and this was where the change will start to take shape. Leadership should always lie in the hands of those who have experienced discrimination themselves in order to bring about meaningful change in society, she added.
Rahman, while concluding the session, said there were many aspects associated with the issue such as religious, economic, political and societal. He said Hindutva had received official support in India and as a result had proliferated into every domain of life. He said the solution lies in educating and uplifting the scheduled castes and supporting them to have a strong voice and legislative support