The Indian Analyst
 

Dalits In India: History, Issues, and Solutions

 

Aravind Sitaraman

April 21, 2005

 Author is Editor-at-Large of www.whatisindia.com a web-based Infobase on India. He can be reached at editor@whatisindia.com

India is a complex nation with more languages and ethnic groups that the United States, European Union, Russia, and China put together. Its ancient and living civilization spans millenniums and has survived many political, social, geographical, military, and economic upheavals. This ancient system is what we now call “Hinduism” and those who follow this way of life are called “Hindus.”

According to Swami Vivekananda, acknowledged as one of the most advanced thinkers of modern India, the word ‘Hindu’ is the Persian pronunciation of the word ‘Sindhu’ — ‘S’ getting pronounced as ‘H’. The Greeks pronounced ‘Sindhu’ as Indus. Thus, the land surrounding ‘Sindhu’ river where the invaders came first was called India from Indus and Hindustan from Hindu. The confusion arises when this word ‘Hindu’, which has no mention in any of our scriptures from the Vedas to the Upanishads and Gita, or even in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, is used to describe the Vedic or Sanatana Dharma[1].

One of the primary reasons for the continued survival and success of “Hinduism” is the far-reaching structures and deep foundations by savants of India. The Varna system of classification of society into four distinct groups is one of the foundations of this civilization. The Brahmins (Teachers, priests, savants, social workers), Kshathriyas (rulers, warriors, and administrators), Vaisyas (traders, merchants, artisans, and farmers), and Sudras (servants) made up the four broad groups. The origin of this Varna system can be traced back to the Purusha Suktham in the Rig Veda. In this poem, these four groups are associated with organs of a Cosmic Man (Purusha) who is one manifestation of the Supreme Diety (Purusha). The Brahmin is associated with the mouth, Khastriyas the arms, Vaisyas the thighs, and Sudras the feet [2].

Originally this Varna system was not hereditary and was rather conferred on the basis of the individual's intrinsic nature and aptitude. The Rig Veda says: "I am a composer of hymns, my father is a physician, my mother grinds corn on a stone. We are all engaged in different occupations." In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira clearly states that a Brahmin is one who is truthful, forgiving, and kind, and that being born in a Brahmin or Shudra family does not make one a Brahmin or a Shudra. Much later, Adi Shankaracharya proclaimed that every human being was by birth a Shudra, and only education made one 'twice born' (Dwija). The Upanishads clearly state that the soul, whether of a Brahmin or a Chandal, is divine. What then is the basis of considering its outer covering (body) as pure in one case and impure in another? [3].

Apart from philosophy, there are concrete examples too. The great sage Vyasa, who organized the Vedas, was the son of a fisher woman. The noble Vidura in the Mahabhratha was the son of a servant woman. Of the 63 Shaiva revered devotees only 5 were born Brahmins—notably the famous Nandanar was born a butcher. Vishwamithra was a King. They became Brahmins because of their wisdom and knowledge. There are innumerable such instances of reverence of saints of low caste origins, just as there are examples of low caste entrepreneurs who became mighty kings and elevated the status of their entire caste groups. Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are considered avatars of Vishnu but were not Brahmins by birth [3].

Similarly, there were Brahmins who were considered Asura (lowest type of individual) because of their behavior. The Asura King Ravana is one such example of a grandson of Brahma, although an ardent devotee of Shiva, is downgraded because he kidnapped Sita who was another man’s (Rama) wife. Ashwathama, the son of warrior guru Drona, of Mahabharatha was devalued because of undharmic (unacceptable behavior of a warrior or Brahmana) activity of killing warriors who were asleep.

Although the Varna system was not created to be hereditary, large scale invasion of people of monotheistic and narrow orientation caused more confusion. Just as the way of life in the South Asia was called “Hinduism,” invaders could not understand how a son of a priest could not be a priest and how the son of a servant could be a priest. Hence, they confused occupation (Jati) with their classification (Varna) and created what we know today as the “Hindu caste system.” Historian AL Basham writes that "A strong king was always a check on brahmanic pretensions, just as the Brahmans were a check on the pretensions of the king." Similarly, Romila Thapar says: "The gradual politicization of the office of purohita can also be seen in the purohita becoming a check on the monarch." The classification of Jatis into four Varna set them up as a check on each other. It was this check that, despite its weaknesses, led to better governance in our history. Indian civilization survived while most other civilizations, along with their Dalits, perished [4].

This structural damage to the ancient civilization had massive repercussions. Over the centuries, those who were born to Brahmins, however undeserving, became Brahmins. Those who were born Sudras, however deserving, became Sudras. Worse, Jatis within the non-Brahmin classes vied with each other for domination and relegated those who are economically susceptible to a new class that was so low that they could not be “touched.” These untouchables called “Harijans” or children of God by Mahatma Gandhi are now called Dalits.

India has an ancient tradition of concern for the lower castes. As seen from the Bhakthi movement in India, the saints have worked assiduously to raise the status and lifestyle of lower caste groups. In modern times, Sri Aurobindo and others argued passionately against the exclusion of one-sixth of the nation from social equality and fraternity. Mahatma Gandhi sought to invest the Untouchables with dignity by making upper caste inmates of his ashrams clear night soil. Throughout the freedom struggle, the Congress was sensitive to the problem of the lower castes [3].

The twentieth century witnessed a very powerful anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and in other parts of India with a view to liberate Dalits from perceived and experiential oppression and provide a separate identity to Dalits. Because of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkars’ efforts, the social agenda of Dalit movements is now fully integrated with the political agenda of democratic governance of India. The issue of Dalits in India has moved away from Hindu religious scriptures to the Constitution of India and from the domain of priestly class to Parliament and political parties [5].

Keeping in mind that the ancient Indian ethos is people- oriented, the Indian constitutional trust is to abolish the appalling poverty and social suppression of the masses. Its egalitarian emphasis and religious pluralism, with unity in diversity and federal centrifugalism are anchored on socialistic-democratic, swadeshi-based sustainable development. A casteless, classless social order is expressly spelt out in Parts III, IV and IVA of the Constitution [6].

Hence, the Indian Constitution includes equality provisions and human rights (Articles 15 and 16), the abolition of untouchability (Article 17), the temple entry provision (Article 25), special provisions for an SC and ST Commission (Articles 330-342 and 46), and in the scheme of Indian federalism (Articles 164 (1), 371 A-G, Vth and VIth Schedules). Thus, the Indian Constitution has a priority constitutional commitment to fight a descent and birth based struggle against casteism and tribalism. The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955-1976 and the SC and ST (Atrocities) Act 1989 underlie this commitment [7]. The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, faith, and worship [8]. Under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, untouchability was “abolished” and its practice made punishable under the law, 57 long years ago [9].

Fifty years ago, at the time of the framing the Constitution, there was genuine shame among the upper castes at the way the Scheduled Castes had been treated for thousands of years. For that reason, special privileges were enshrined for them in the Constitution [10] . Unlike the apartheid that was in vogue in South Africa the Indian Constitution is categorically inclusive. It does not exclude any social group from the institutions of governance. Instead, there are provisions in the Constitution for positive discrimination towards these social groups and affirmative action in this regard has effected a set of changes in the socio-political discourse [11]. The Constitution created a list of Dalits, grouped them as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), and even provided for a Commissioner for them [12].

Marc Galanter wrote in his book, “Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India”, “India's system of preferential treatment for historically disadvantaged sections of the population is unprecedented in scope and extent.” In contrast to the gradual dismantling of Affirmative Action in the U.S., and weakening of Black politics, over the years India's reservation policies and caste politics have been gaining in strength and popular support [13].

It is true that the Indian Constitution is the most progressive in the world. True also that it contains a plethora of special laws and commitments to alleviate the lot of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But it is equally true that after more than half a century, Dalits continued to be brutalized and illegally segregated. Though the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989 exists, the lack of awareness, education, and prejudice in the law enforcement machinery have kept Dalits, by and large, outside progress—landless, illiterate, and economically feeble [14]. Over 30,000 cases of crimes against Dalits are recorded annually; of which one third is from UP, the state that has given the largest number of Prime Ministers to the nation [9].

This lack of progress is not due to the lack of political representation, denial of education, or a wanton denial of opportunities to Dalits. India has had a President (highest Constitutional office), two Chief Ministers, several Federal and State-level cabinet ministers, members of Federal and State-level elected representatives, local bodies called Panchayats, researchers, scholars, journalists, scientists, professors, artists, writers, etc who are Dalits. There are several political parties (such as the Bahujan Samaj Party) that claim to be Dalit owned, operated, and whose raison d’etre is to espouse the Dalit cause. There are several political parties which claim to be ideologically aligned to Dalits and geared towards social reengineering (such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Communist parties, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Part, etc) [15] . Parties that are viewed as serving the “upper castes” such as Bharatiya Janata Party have accommodated Dalits as its party presidents [16]. The oldest part of India, Congress, has had several Dalit leaders like Jagjivan Ram in prominent Cabinet positions. The country even ignored 30 pending criminal cases against a Dalit born “Bandit Queen” as a Member of Parliament [17]. To fast track Dalit development, the Indian Constitution over-ruled Dr. Ambedkar’s (the unchallenged Dalit leader who framed the Constitution) opposition to reservation by agreeing to reserve Government jobs, seats in educational institutions, and positions in Government owned companies for Dalits [18].

As with all entitlements, came shrewd politicians who twisted rules to ensure their political success. For example, in 1994 the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, insisted that the recommendations of the Mandal commission (which investigated the state of Dalits in India and made sweeping recommendations that was opposed by the vast majority of the people). He wanted to include Kumaun and Garhwal, although in these districts only two per cent of the population comes from the backward castes. These areas have a fairly high proportion of Dalits, who already enjoy the benefit of reservation. However, about 70 per cent of the hill population is composed of Brahmins and Rajputs. Notably, in Uttarakhand these high castes are often poor and economically insecure, smallholder peasants who plough and cultivate the land themselves. Mulayam Singh’s proposals which, if implemented, would deny local people jobs and also lead to an influx of state employees from the plains, evoked strong protests [19]. Hence, what started out as a good thing in the Constitution became a tool of power and success in the hands of politicians who increasingly view Dalits as a vote-bank [20].

Contrary to expectations, States oriented towards ideologically- based social reengineering (such as the Dravidian South and the Communist states fared much worse). In communist states, inequality within West Bengal between Dalits and non-Dalits, it is wider than what exists at all India level between Dalits and non-Dalits. Dalit’s share in occupation declined after the Communists took control of West Bengal [21]. This only proves that the Left Front Government s Operation Barga has negatively impacted Dalits in West Bengal [22].

In Tamil Nadu, where the Dravidian movement with the professed anti-Brahmanism movement to de-Brahminised Tamil society and create a a casteless society, has only created new Brahmins. The Dravidian rhetoric rule has seen increasing caste conflicts and a steep decline in the status of oppressed Dalits [23]. The mobilization of non-Brahmin castes in present-day Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh has brought similar results as was witnessed in Tamil Nadu. Brahmins in these states too are politically marginalized. At several points in time, Governments in all the four southern states were headed by non-Brahmins, clearly demonstrating the success of anti-Brahmin movements in the region. In fact, Bihar is the only State where Dalits lag behind those of south, but here too, Andhra Dalits are quite close to Dalits of Bihar in several respects. Therefore, the elimination of Brahmins from power has not resulted in Dalit emancipation. On the contrary, state and society under non-Brahmin dispensation have turned more hostile to Dalits in South than elsewhere in India! [24].

In other parts of the country including North, Brahmins are not only numerically higher, but they also regulate cultural/ideological value systems and dominate political power structures. But, barring South, nowhere else restaurants are known to maintain the `two-glass system'. While untouchability continues to have pan-India characteristics, its cruellest form in South is without any parallel and requires explanations. The Dravidian movement never questioned the Chatur-varna order, or Brahminism; but neither did it raise an eyebrow over the dominance of non-Brahmin vargas/castes over agrarian wealth. Most upper Shudra castes in South, after establishing dominance over society and political power structure, claim Kshatriyahood. In other words, after eliminating the perceived Brahminical control and power structure, the non-Brahmins in control and power demonstrate the same behavior as the ones they accuse the Brahmins of [25].

A report titled “Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes” that was released recently by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) states that despite the Indian Constitution providing protection to Dalits, they remain vulnerable to discrimination and atrocities. Despite programmes to improve their socio-economic status, Dalits remain marginalized. Crimes against Dalits grew 33% between 2000 and 2001 but what is shocking is that only at most 19% of them are cleared [26]. The silver lining is that more and more atrocities against Dalits are getting highlighted and many a time successfully resisted [27]. By some reports, crimes against Dalits have grown by 99%-- but this number is due to improved recording and reporting structures being recently incorporated [28]. However, the reverse is also true. There are increasing cases of crimes committed with impunity by certain Dalit groups. In UP and Bihar, the Dalits enjoy state protection. They are not touched even if there is evidence of their involvement in acts of crime [29].

Even the rulers of Bihar and UP have not been able to check caste wars irrespective of that the governmental power is exercised by the Messiahs of Dalits [27]. In many cases, when heinous crimes are committed against Dalits, representatives who are Dalits rarely visit and determine the root cause [19]. Dalit communities have attacked each other over grazing rights and other perceived infringement of privileges [30]

. Indeed, the worst crimes are committed by Dalit leaders themselves against innocent Dalit populations—Lalit Yadav tortures a truck driver, Sadhu Yadhav threatens to murder a Government official, and Rajaram Paswan kills an innocent pedestrian, Rajauli beats a partially deaf beedi-seller for not stepping aside; all Dalit political Government functionaries in “Dalit-supporting” Governments operating with impunity. Hence, the caste issue is exploited as a cover to commit crimes [31]. There is a general feeling among Dalits that the Dalit bureaucrats are anti-Dalit in their behavior [32]. There are villages in India where people belonging to a particular Scheduled Caste which is considered the lowest of the lowly can take water from a well in the Brahmin part of the town but dare not go anywhere near the well of another SC caste, which is a notch above them in social standing [33]!

Rival naxal (criminal communist groups operating to destroy society and order in the name of freedom and retribution) kill innocent Dalits as retribution [34]. Some 29 per cent of civilians whose lives have been claimed by Naxalite terror in Andhra Pradesh since 1990 were Dalit [35]. The higher education minister was carried out by a gang aged between 12 to 16. Most of these teenagers, indoctrinated into Maoism as toddlers, are recruited from the Dalit villages of Palamau and Gumla controlled by the MCC. The outfits intimidate the villagers into “donating” the children to the cause of revolution and any act of defiance is punished with death [36]. The so-called Maoists have also caught the disease of casteism. They compound it by insensate massacres which are provoked or countered by better-equipped and organized massacres by the so-called forward castes. They are unable to defend the oppressed precisely because they refuse to accept the democratic system [37].

The other area of crimes against Dalit is inter-party rivalry. In a barbaric incident a Dalit activist was hacked to death near Hoskote in Bangalore Rural District is related to political feud between the Congress(I) and the Janata Dal (U) leaders. The revelation made by Karnata Social Welfare Minister Kagodu Thimmappa on the Government`s move to request the State High Court for constituting special courts to hasten the clearance of the backlog of atrocity cases against Scheduled Caste and Tribe people is at best be deemed a notional measure towards establishing social harmony between the socially challenged segments and the dominant communities [38].

In a bid to obliterate casteism from India’s social structure, the Chairman of the All-India Federation of SC/ST Organisations, Mr Ram Raj, has launched a special drive urging people to ‘embrace’ Buddhism as the religion does not conform to a caste driven society. Strangely, however, Mr Ram Raj advocates people, especially Dalits to ‘embrace’ Buddhism which he says is not conversion even though he vehemently denies that Buddhism is a part of a larger Hindu religious philosophy. One wonders, how embracing Buddhism would not entail conversion if it is separate to Hinduism. Moreover, Mr Ram Raj has no coherent answer to whether Buddhism, and consequently a caste-less society, would bring about economic upliftment for the downtrodden [39]. Mass conversions and mass re-conversions rarely result from inner spiritual transformation, which is the only legitimate need for converting. Conversion that falls short of this is spiritually bogus. Such conversions are a greater loss to the religion to which people convert than it is to the religion that they abandon [40].

A few years ago, a demand for reservation of "Dalit Christians" was fought back with the logic that you cannot have the cake and eat it too. People who converted to Christianity to get over their Dalit stigma cannot claim its benefit without reconverting to their original faith. "Dalit Christians" ('Deceived Christians') surely face discrimination from the church and upper caste Christians, who dominate it. Under the banner of "Poor Christian Liberation Movement" they are now calling the bluff of the elite and discriminatory church leadership. They have realized that conversion had done little to elevate their social, economic, or spiritual standing. The Dalit-Muslim unity sham is only directed against the inherent unity of Hindu society and meant to weaken nationalism. It never meant empowerment of underprivileged sections of Muslims against privileged Muslims. In India neither Islam, nor Christianity, and neither Buddhism nor Sikhism has been able to end casteism fully. Ambedkar had identified the presence of caste-system amongst Muslims [41].

The Dalit Christians too have expressed their resentment at being discriminated by other Christians in being denied facilities like common church and common burial grounds. Violation of the Human Rights of the Dalits is perpetrated not only by the State but also by dominant castes. More disturbingly, they found that in Kerala, the CPI and the CPI(M) workers were threatened by Dalits who had left their party to join the Dalit Movement and also instances of forbidding temple entry to Dalits by the upper castes [42]. Even in the Christian community, many are getting disillusioned about the manner in which Dalit activists have been fighting their cause. However, these activists, instead of being concerned at this erosion of goodwill, are revelling in the notoriety they have acquired [10].

According to Swami Agnivesh of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, "Though caste and racism are technically different, both are forms of discrimination. And, discrimination exists not only among Hindus, but also among Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists” [43].

Traditionally, the politician only understood one tool to create opportunities for Dalits—reservation. In reality, most of the benefits of reservation are garnered by the rich and famous and conditions of the really deserving members of the reserved category have remained unchanged for 40 years. The Mandal case made it mandatory for the Central and State Governments to identify the creamy layer and exclude these persons from the benefit of reservation. In fact, eight out of nine judges in the Mandal case called for exclusion of the creamy layer while five of them required such a layer to be specifically identified. The Supreme Court indicated that the creamy layer would refer to persons who had reached a higher level of social advancement and economic status like IAS/IPS and other All India Services. The Kerala Government went a step further and notified that there was no creamy layer at all in their State! The Supreme Court struck down this ridiculous assertion [44]. Political leaders including the Dalit leaders of all parties reduce reservation to a ridiculous level by incorporating such social group which enjoy dominance and have not experienced social discrimination in the recent past. This tactic makes reservation redundant and also generates conflict among the oppressed [45]. To ensure that economically and socially challenged Dalits may benefit from reservation measures, it vital to exclude the “creamy layer” from [46].

However, reservation is not the end but only one step to alleviate the Dalit population. It was not reservation but facilities for higher education that enabled Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar to become what he eventually became — one of the tallest leaders of India [47]. Not willing to take the hard steps required to ensure success for Dalits, some politicians are pushing for reservation in private companies. As was observed in the Bhopal document from the first ever Dalit conclave, “even if reservations are extended to the private sector, the process will benefit an aggregate of 1 crore (10 million) Dalits only — leaving 17 crore (170 million) of them outside the scope of any enabling provision. While the Dalit movement must strive to achieve complete fulfillment of the quota, we at the same time must understand the limited role reservation has in SC-ST’s progress and emancipation.” [5].

Reservation as a tool of empowerment has not been very effective. But because of narrow vested interests, nobody calls for a reappraisal, let alone advocate doing away with it. Side-effects of this have been more pronounced than relief. One, it has spawned ghetto mentality among those who have been given various economic benefits without the privilege of social integration. Two, it has led to the emergence of a creamy layer which refuses to step aside and let the rest of the people come up. Three, it has generated disillusionment among the upper-caste people who happen to be as poor, if not poorer, than their low-caste brethren and yet cannot get a job or admission in a professional college despite scoring higher marks. Class tension that this denial has caused should not be wished away because it is standing in the way of genuine eradication of the pernicious caste system [33].

However, in a quasi-libertarian model, mere reservation, which has in the past done great service to the cause of Dalit empowerment, cannot be the panacea for Dalit problems. Only their integration into the new economic forces, and the market through which they are manifested, can [48]. What the Dalits need are education and opportunities to bring the best out of them. It was a fellowship from the House of Tatas that enabled the first Scheduled Caste youth from Kerala to enter the portals of London School of Economics and do well in life. It was education, not reservation that helped Dr Ambedkar to excel in his chosen field. Yes, the underprivileged sections need preference but not at the cost of quality. That is what affirmative action in the US that the President cites is all about [49].

While it is true that the Dalits have for centuries been oppressed and exploited because they happened to be born into a particular category, Indian society has made notable advance in trying to undo such cultural and historical wrongs; certainly not enough advance, yes. But to deny that anything of that kind has taken place is both myopic and ridiculous [50].

It hardly needs to be repeated that gender and caste prejudices are widespread in Indian society. But it does not follow from this that denial of advancement to women or to Dalits is always due to social prejudice and never due to poor performance. In a Central Government office, in a public hospital or in an engineering college it is now often difficult to deny advancement to individuals from the weaker sections even when their performance is consistently below the average. Legitimate discrimination on the basis of ability and performance is obstructed by the pervasive suspicion that all discrimination, at least in India, is at bottom and by its nature invidious [51].

Justice in the sense indicated by The Preamble of the Constitution has been achieved to some extent if the emergence of Dalits, Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) into social, economic and political salience in many parts of the country is any indication. They have come a long way compared to where they stood when the Republic came into being on January 26, 1950 [8].

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has come out boldly on the side of the weak and the oppressed many a time [12]. For example, the NHRC asked the Tamil Nadu Government to compensate scores of Dalits because of a police assault — two years ago — in November, 1998

[52]. In Madhya Pradesh, one of the finest examples of this new endeavor is our recent decision to reduce the percentage of grazing land/common land from 7.5 per cent to two per cent and thus allotting more than two-third of the total grazing land to SC/ST landless agricultural laborers. As a result, about four lakh acres of agricultural land is now available to landless SC/ST agricultural labourers. It must be noted here that this land-mass was under the ownership of village panchayats, which consented to the Government's decision [15]. In many parts of India, the transformation of panchayats has paved the way. With local decisions increasingly more transparent, women and Dalits are able to participate more effectively than ever in these arenas [53]. There are also areas where Dalits are leading the nation in constructive work. For example, Dalit women prepared this plan after organizing mobile biodiversity festivals across 70 villages so the livelihoods of poor tribals and villagers in India are guaranteed [54].  The Dalit leadership has laid maximum emphasis on education and there are several schools throughout the country so education is brought to their doorstep [55].

The two brief Mayavati governments spent considerable amounts on Dalit-oriented programs such as financial aid to Dalit students; for marriage and sickness in Dalit families; increase in the funds earmarked for welfare programs such as the Indira Housing Yojana and the Ambedkar Village program; and cultural programs such as Periyar melas and Ambedkar parks. While some of these programs helped Dalits, they emptied the coffers of the state, leaving scarce funds for investment in industry, education, infrastructure and health, which in the long run would be most harmful for the poorest sections consisting mainly of Dalits unable to afford facilities provided by the private sector. As a result, UP is the first state in the country to get a program loan through the World Bank for fiscal management. Despite intense international pressure on its fiscal policy, the Vajpayee Government was willing to accept financial consequences for this experiment to improve the status of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh [56].

Higher political representation, greater visibility, the applicability of rule of law (other than in Bihar), and progress made by Dalits in areas other than states run by those who claim to be Dalit supporters. These have brought large changes to Dalits. The Dalits and the Adivasis have achieved remarkable progress in the realms of education and employment. Admittedly, the record on their representation has by no means been even in the arenas of state, public sector and autonomous institutions, where reservation is operative [57]. Mobile Dalits who were first to take to education and politics have gained at the cost of other totally marginalized castes

[58]. The Chamars are more illiterate as compared to other Dalits. The condition of Dusadh in respect of literacy is slightly better than other Dalits [59]. Some castes (Jatis) among the OBCs have registered noticeable advance in education and are a powerful voice in politics. The Lingayats and Vokkaligas in Karnataka belong to this group [60]. The emergence of an educated class among Dalits — Pallars in the south and Parayars in central Tamil Nadu — has led to caste consolidation in these areas [61].

Over the past 50 years, relative incomes of the Scheduled Castes have increased, and so have their opportunities for social advancement. However, those benefits have gone only to a few. So, though the Scheduled Castes have enjoyed upward social mobility at the caste level, and that upward movement has also been relatively faster than for other castes, at the individual/family level, and in absolute terms, that improvement has been unsatisfactory. Existing mechanism of Scheduled Caste welfare, that aristocracy will perpetuate itself; benefits will not percolate to those who are still languishing. A feeling has developed, even among those who are sympathetic to the Scheduled Caste cause, that some among the Scheduled Castes are getting a double privilege - the privilege of lower standards on top of the privilege of high social/economic status [10].

But Tamil Nadu's most impressive achievement is clearly in health and nutrition. Melavalavu, a Dalit village and the scene of a caste riot in 1999, is backward by all accounts. And yet, at noon children emerge from their mud and thatch huts. Plates in hand, they head for the Balwadi, where an ayah gives them their lunch. Pregnant women also avail this facility. Tamil Nadu led the country with its famous noon-meal scheme for school-going children in the 80s. However, this program now covers nutrition project for even pre-school children [62].

“Hindu” religious leaders, like The Kanchi Shankaracharya, frequently visit slums and backward areas. They meet Dalits, tribals, and other backward communities with a view to help them come up socially, educationally and economically. The Kanchi mutt and other Hindu organizations have started several schools, colleges, and vocational institutions for Dalits, women, and the socially and financially challenged in several parts of the country [63].

Increasingly, atrocities against Dalit and its assertion against such activities is supported by state machinery. The Dalits have been able to assert themselves not because of protection from panchayats but due to that provided by the police controlled by the State governments and the courts controlled by the Supreme Court of India [64]. The appointment of two Dalits, Mr Ajit Jogi and Mr Babu Lal Marandi as the chief ministers of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand respectively amply proves the point that self-assertion of the Dalits in Indian society is a socio-political reality. This has occurred at a faster speed within the last decade or so. Never before in the history of independent India have Dalits occupied so many public positions as they do now [65].

Dalit-oriented Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) such as The Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha managed to chart out a vision of a `new Chattisgarh for a new India' in and through struggle against savagely oppressive industrialists, labor and liquor contractors, and an insensitive state. Increasingly, the movement was to negotiate significant issues such as environment, the evolution of a mechanization program that would balance technology and human energy, and the setting up of a school, a hospital, and a garage. It concentrated on the empowerment of women, the release of bonded labor, the rehabilitation of slum dwellers, and the dismemberment of exploitative work conditions. In time, lakhs (100,000) of people joined the movement, which was meant to ameliorate the conditions of the Dalits and the Adivasis and raise their consciousness about local, national, and international problems. The rise in the daily wage and the banning of liquor has resulted in higher levels of nutrition, and higher standards of life. Workers now live in pucca houses and they can afford green vegetables and fruit. Households are able to provide clothing and cleanliness, because they have access to funds that were earlier frittered away on drinking [66].

As part of the ongoing campaign against violence and poverty, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) had recently organized a jeep jatha through eight districts in Bihar holding on an average five meetings a day. The participants were almost all rural women workers, mostly Dalit, with little or no land [67].

Progress in India has been large and visible especially since the past was so bleak. To take Dalit development to the next level, a minimum land reform program is required to break the back of the semi-feudal grip of the upper castes, which results in the dehumanisation of the Dalit landless [68]. There is an urgent need to enforce the laws, by the enforcing agencies, without fear or favor. Otherwise, how could the local police not arrest two Bihar Ministers, despite the court declaring them as absconders? One of the now ex-ministers was guilty of committing atrocities on a Dalit truck driver and his helper and the other had recognized an institution, which was selling fake B.Ed. degrees. Only clear procedures, simplified rules and curbing of discretion can end malpractices [69].

The Dalit movement in the country never had an agenda after the demise of Dr Ambedkar. The program of action can be broadly divided into short term and long term strategies. The short-term program should concentrate on the organizational issues and the mobilization of resources for self-development and community involvement. The long-term strategy should always aim to capture political power and economic development [70].  As Dr. Ambedkar once said “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave” [6]?