Activists, politicians and even a member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party have come out against the Centre’s directive to the media to refrain from using the term “Dalit”. The government has asked the media to instead use the constitutional term “Scheduled Caste” in English and appropriate translations in other languages. The government advisory was issued on August 7, but came to the attention of many in the press after the Mumbai Press Club tweeted about it on Monday.

“This word has been in our life, our literature, and our writings globally,” said Udit Raj, the BJP Lok Sabha MP who also heads the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations. Raj called the step a “dilution of Dalit assertion movements” and said the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s directive would not change the “social position” of Dalits. “It gives meaning to why this community has been suffering since the past and needs more care,” he said. They [the ministry] can make it an advisory but not mandatory.”

The ministry’s directive came after the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court heard a public interest litigation in June seeking removal of the word “Dalit” from all government communication and from the media. Since the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare had already issued a circular in March saying the term “Scheduled Caste” was the only one recognised in the Constitution and so should be used across government documents, the High Court asked the government to issue an advisory to the media as well.

According to a report in The Indian Express, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s order stated:

“It is accordingly advised that media may refrain from using the nomenclature ‘Dalit’ while referring to members belonging to Scheduled Castes, in compliance with the directions of the Hon’ble Bombay High Court, and the Constitutional term ‘Scheduled Caste’ in English and its appropriate translation in other national languages should alone be used for all official transaction.”

‘They want to divide us’

Activists see the ministry’s move as yet another way to clamp down on Dalit movements, coming as it does in the wake of the April 2 Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups to protest the alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the arrest of several human rights lawyers and activists since June in connection with Dalit-Maratha caste violence in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1.

“This is the government’s response to Dalit assertion,” said Bhalchandra Mungekar, an economist and former member of the Rajya Sabha. “As we show more unity, there will be more attacks by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh. Rather than taking concrete steps for the welfare of Dalits in the country, the government is interested in creating division and sub-division.”

According to Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of BR Ambedkar, the government’s intention is to divert attention from some of its policies and actions that have drawn flak. “At present Dalits and other non-governmental organisations are at the forefront of opposing government policies,” he explained. “Religious colour has blurred the vision of upper castes. The intention of this issue is nothing but to create a diversion from addressing real issues like the Rafale [aircraft] deal and demonetisation, which is really pinching the government.”

Others said the term “Scheduled Caste” was not as meaningful as it would not foster greater unity among sub-castes. “The ministry has no right to issue this [directive],” said D Ravikumar, general secretary of the political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and an anti-caste activist. “If they issued a directive to stop using the word ‘feminist’… how ridiculous would that be? ‘Dalit’ is not an abusive word. The BJP is trying to break the Dalit alliance and brotherhood.”

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, said many terms that are in use are not part of the Constitution and that marginalised communities should have the freedom to choose how they want to identify.

“This is an undemocratic way to push their idea on others,” he said. “Whether it is the victory of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon or this, they don’t want us to celebrate. What is wrong in the word? I feel proud of being Dalit… under this umbrella, we all feel one. They want to divide us.”

What the term ‘Dalit’ denotes

According to Mungekar, the term “Dalit” has broad economic, social and cultural connotations. “It means depressed, exploited and marginalised,” he said. “It is a conglomeration of identities.”

Ravikumar held that using the term “Dalit” is not wrong. “If the media uses ‘harijan’, we protest because it is illegal. Using ‘Dalit’ consciously asserts an anti-caste position.”

Prakash Ambedkar pointed out that BR Ambedkar, India’s first law minister and head of the drafting committee of the Constitution, did not use a single nomenclature continuously. “The nomenclature developed over time,” he said. “The terms ‘Dalit’ and ‘Scheduled Caste’ are not derogatory in any sense. They denote a sense of a depressed class. He [Ambedkar] kept on changing the word and ‘depressed class’ was the last term he used to describe.”

Prakash Ambedkar also said that a schedule of castes prepared in 1935 for electoral reservations by the British government as they passed the Government of India Act cannot be used to identify those against whom atrocities are committed. “Instead of using individual caste names, one term [Dalit] was used to denote people who are socially and economically marginalised,” he said. “This issue should be left to the people to decide, not to the courts or ministries. Terminologies and words keep changing.”