A textbook case of exclusion

To replace ‘Dalit’ with ‘SC’, as the Thorat panel recommends, is to be inaccurate
A commission led by S.K. Thorat, and charged with reviewing NCERT political science textbooks in the wake of the cartoon controversy, has singled out a specific word in the text for removal. All instances of the word “Dalit”, it is recommended, should be replaced with “Scheduled Caste” (SC). The blogosphere is rife with speculation on the motivation for this move, and with heated debate on the politics of naming that attend the terms to identify these members of Indian society: from untouchable to Harijan to Dalit. But there is a more prosaic matter that should first concern us here: accuracy.
“SC” and “Dalit” simply refer to different sets of people. Where “Dalit” refers to all those Indians, past and present, traditionally regarded as outcasts and untouchable, “SC” is a modern governmental category that explicitly excludes Christian and Muslim Dalits. For the current version of the President’s Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, which tells us who will count as SC for the purposes of constitutional and legal protections, is entirely unambiguous: “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
This was not always the case. The SC category was first created in 1931 to specify a subcategory of the “depressed classes” — a portmanteau term that referred to “untouchables” most often, but in British colonial usage also included those who were then called “hill tribes” and “criminal tribes”— who were to be listed, or “scheduled” as the beneficiaries of more comprehensive state provisions. The British made welfare provisions for all castes traditionally treated as untouchable, irrespective of whether those castes chose to call themselves Hindu or to follow Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. It was only under Congress rule, in 1950, that the President’s Order redefined SC on the basis of religious criteria. From that point onwards, Dalits who had converted out of Hinduism lost not only reservations, but also, after 1989, protection under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Later, SC was expanded to include Sikh and Buddhist Dalits, but official discrimination against Muslim and Christian Dalits remains.
As students of colonial history know, Dalit mobilisation in the pre-Independence decades caused considerable anxiety among India’s upper-caste nationalist establishment. Were Dalits a distinct group? Were caste Hindus their natural leaders? The response to these questions, embraced by elites of every political stripe, and best exemplified by the Gandhian programme, was to insist on the Dalits’ Hindu identity — even as Dalits from across the country denied just that. The adoption of the term “Harijan” epitomises this political move by seeking to represent Dalits as a disadvantaged population within the Hindu fold, and not the victims of systematic and society-wide discrimination. The President’s Order of 1950 completes this political project administratively by limiting welfare and reservations programmes to those who have remained faithful to what Indian personal law defines as their default religion, Hinduism.
After half a century of struggle against this injustice, a major moral victory was achieved by Dalit activists when the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report (2007) officially admitted — in light of overwhelming social scientific evidence and testimony — that Christian and Muslim Dalits suffer the same forms of discrimination as their Hindu counterparts. Recognising that Dalits do not cease to be Dalits when they convert to another religion, the committee recommended that the official discrimination against Christian and Muslims Dalits be ended by restoring to them, without delay, their SC status. However, this moral victory remains a dead letter. Half a decade has passed and the commission’s recommendation continues to be ignored by the Congress leadership, and by politicians across the spectrum.
Until the Mishra Commission is implemented, the equation of Dalit and SC is false. In the Class X textbook, students are informed that “In our country Dalits tend to be poor and landless.” Rewriting “Dalit” as “SC” in this case, as the Thorat committee recommends, would imply that Dalit converts have escaped deprivation, and literally erases Christian and Muslim Dalits from the pages of history.
Of course, it matters that some prefer the connotations of Dalit to SC, that Dalit is the only name to have originated from members of these groups, and so on. And yet Dalits can be found who will agree or disagree with any term one can think of, including “Dalit”. The fact remains, however, that “Dalit” is the only term currently available that can refer accurately to what the textbook itself defines as “those that were previously regarded as ‘outcaste’ and subjected to exclusion and untouchability”. Discrimination against Dalits spans all religious communities. It is not a Hindu problem, it is an Indian problem. By adopting language that excludes Christian and Muslim Dalits, the proposed textbook whitewashes this reality.
The writer is director, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany


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