When Twitter rolled out its new 280-character limit in November, many hoped that misunderstandings caused by the old, forced brevity would be a thing of the past. But even the doubled word length proved woefully inadequate for the New York Times when it tried to sum up an article on Dalit resistance in India.
The New York Times World account on Friday tweeted an article analysing the significance of the recent Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups to protest the Supreme Court’s recent order on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which was perceived as a dilution of the legislation that facilitates redressal for these marginalised communities when their identities become the cause of crimes against them.
The article examined the position of Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s oppressive caste hierarchy and have had a long history of discrimination and abuse, in modern Indian society. It pointed to the dichotomies that exist in the country today, where decades of affirmative action have benefitted a few members of the so-called lower castes, even though social fissures and economic disadvantages remain widespread.
The tweet about the article, however, chose to highlight only a small part of the picture: that in recent years, a tiny percentage of the Dalit population has managed to grow prosperous. “Today there are Dalit millionaires,” the tweet read. “So why are they protesting?” This reflected a flawed understanding of India’s social realities and seemed to echo the claim of many upper-caste status quoists: that Dalits are prospering today, that affirmative action is unnecessary and caste-based oppression is a thing of the past.
Unsurprisingly, there was prompt outrage on Twitter. Users drew parallels to the discrimination faced by African Americans in the United States despite improvements in key markers such as education and per-capita income over the years.
The article itself was a little more well-rounded, offering perspective on the increasing violence against Dalits by Hindutva supporters in recent years and pointing to a 2016 survey about how the long-outlawed practice of untouchability remains widespread even today, including in urban India.
It also specifically mentioned that oppression is not a thing of the past.
“Dalit discrimination is not gently entombed in the past. In many parts of India, people still follow caste taboos, and often violently. Just last week, a mob of upper caste men in Gujarat hacked a young Dalit to death for riding a horse — lower caste people aren’t supposed to.
One website that writes about Dalit issues lists 116 forms of caste segregation still practiced. In many places, Dalit school children are forced to sit separately during lunchtime. And when it rains, Dalits are not supposed to use an umbrella in upper caste neighborhoods.
‘Being a Dalit in India is like being on the battlefield,’ said Dr. B. Karthik Navayan, a Dalit human rights activist. ‘Everyday and every minute you will be reminded of your lower caste position by language and actions and attacks.’”
As several critics of the New York Times’ tweet pointed out, the few examples of prosperous Dalits are by no means representative of the condition of scheduled castes in India. Multiple statistics and surveys over the years have shown that Dalits and Adivasis continue to lag behind higher castes in education levels, employment rates and per-capita income.
According to Planning Commission data from 2014, in 2011-’12, 31.5% of the members of scheduled castes in rural areas were below the poverty line. In comparison, the overall level of rural poverty was 25.7%. In urban areas, 21% of members of the scheduled castes were below the poverty line, compared to 13.7% of the overall urban population. These numbers were a significant improvement from the statistics for 2004-’05, when more than half the scheduled caste rural population were marked below the poverty line.
Several other studies have also shown that poverty levels among Dalits and Adivasis in India are disproportionately high. On other social parameters too, the communities fare poorly. According to the 2016 India Exclusion Report, compiled by the Centre for Equity Studies, found that Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims continue to be the most excluded groups in society. The study looked at access to land, pensions, legal justice and digital services. The same report also pointed out that in rural India, poverty rates for Adivasis are 14% higher compared to other groups and 9% for Dalits. In cities, poverty rates among Dalits and Muslims are 14% higher than other communities.