In what is turning out to be a contentious decision, the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has asked the government to consider replacing the word “Dalit” with “scheduled caste” in all official documents.

The move was apparently prompted by a scheduled caste student’s complaint that Dalit was a derogatory term.

The commission’s chairman, retired Justice PN Vijayakumar, pointed out that the National Commission for Scheduled Castes had already “banned the use of the words Dalit, Harijan and Girijan for official purposes in 2008”, so they were essentially only asking for that directive to be strictly enforced.

Harijan and Girijian, in fact, are no longer used in government records after the 2008 order, but the word Dalit continues to feature.

Not everyone is in favour of dropping the term, least of all Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes AK Balan. He does not find Dalit to be a derogatory term. “It is a popular term and I do not support any move to omit it from administrative language,” the minister declared.

In any case, he added, because the term Dalit does not feature in the Indian Constitution, “we are using scheduled caste and scheduled tribe in most of the government’s communications”.

Balan’s predecessor at the ministry, though, is all for dropping the term. “We got rid of using Harijan and Girijan,” AP Anil Kumar of the Congress said. “Now we should remove the term Dalit from official records. It is derogatory,” he said.

The exact nature of the complaint by the student, named RS Jithin, is also being contested. While Vijayakumar insisted Jithin found the term Dalit derogatory, Balan said the student had only wanted the commission to not use Dalit as an equivalent word for scheduled caste.

Jithin wouldn’t clear the air. “My complaint is under consideration by the commission and I will respond only after it takes a final decision,” he said, declining to comment further.

Activists angry

The commission’s move has also left Dalit activists fuming, and many of them are planning to organise protests.

VB Ajay Kumar, director of the Dalit academic research initiative Rights, felt the actions of the commission as well as the government were suspect. “I am wondering why the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is worried about the use of a popular term such as Dalit that unites all oppressed castes,” he said. “The government too seems to be in a hurry to get rid of a term that disturbs it. It never showed urgency when the commission sent recommendations to improve the conditions of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities in the past. I am wondering why it is showing urgency on this particular issue.”

MB Manoj, author and Dalit rights activist, argued that Dalit describes a diverse group of people who are marginalised, annihilated, scattered, suppressed and sidelined in the Indian context. “It has a wider meaning and it does not just include scheduled castes and tribes,” he added.

Kumar noted that Dalit identity is acquired and does not have any religious connotations. “The commission should try to understand the socio-political importance of the term Dalit,” he said. “Otherwise, Dalits are going to be the biggest losers.”

Getting started

While this debate rages, the Information and Public Relations Department, taking a cue from the commission, has told its staff not to use the terms Dalit, Harijan and Girijan in the department’s publicity material.

“We have issued a circular to remind all our staff about the commission’s notice,” said P Vinod, an additional director in the department. “I think all departments will issue such internal circulars in the coming days.”

The commission, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold it next sitting in Thiruvananthapuram on October 30.