The controversy created by the June 6 judgement of the Bombay High Court’s Nagpur bench, banning the use of the term “Dalit” in government communication, while sterile on the face of it, is pregnant with meaning.

The petitioner, Pankaj Meshram, is said to be a member of the Bhim Shakti – founded by Chandrakant Handore, who used the outfit to extract his political rent from the Congress to become a minister. The outfit’s name comes from the conjoint term Shiv Shakti-Bhim Shakti, symbolising the unholy alliance Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India formed with the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra in 2011. The alliance was the harbinger of Athawale’s political flirtations with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance that got him a berth in the Modi cabinet. He is currently a minister of state for social justice and empowerment.

Despite the long history of opportunism of Dalit leaders in the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement, this development still stunned many observers. Dalit leaders had also cohabited with the Congress when it was in power in the name of serving Dalit interests, citing the example of BR Ambedkar accepting a berth in the first Nehru cabinet. They knew Dalits would not point out that Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet was an all-party cabinet. But the case of Athawale was a qualitative leap in opportunism as Dalits saw the BJP as a Brahminic Hindutva party and the Shiv Sena as openly disrespectful to them and their icon Ambedkar. The alliance with them was purely because the Congress could not accommodate Athawale’s demands. Shiv Shakti-Bhim Shakti and its offspring, Bhim Shakti, are thus imbued with opportunism and, hence, one could be reasonably suspicious about Meshram’s real motive in making a demand that prima facie appeared to be a non-issue.

Before he approached the High Court, the petitioner is said to have struggled for a decade pleading with various government departments not to use the word “Dalit”. His contention was that the term was derogatory as it identified the community with its oppressed reality, and was not in any way empowering. He, perhaps, meant that the community was no more oppressed and its empowerment would come through a mere change in name. He invoked articles of the Constitution to say government bodies must not use the term. He argued that it was not a legal nomenclature and that only terms like “Scheduled Caste” and “Scheduled Tribe” should be used. He also asked the court to intervene on the media’s use of the term “Dalit”. The High Court agreed to his prayers.

Is ‘Dalit’ derogatory?

The dictionary meaning of the word Dalit is “broken/scattered” and has its roots in Sanskrit. It was used for the Depressed Classes in translation in census classification prior to 1935. It appears to have been in vogue in Marathi, but social reformer and writer Jyotiba Phule was the first to use it in its now familiar social context. Thereafter, Ambedkar popularised it. When Ambedkar dissolved the Independent Labour Party and founded the Scheduled Caste Federation, it came to be known as “Dalit Federation” among Marathi Dalits. Janata, Ambedkar’s paper during this period, is replete with use of the word. With the advent of Dalit literature in the mid-1960s, it became a household name and with the foundation of the Dalit Panthers, it entered international discourse.

These salient milestones in the history of the word indicate its evolution from a mere Marathi term for the English “Depressed Classes” to the self-identity of these people and finally to its radical conception as a quasi class of “all those who are exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion” – as was defined in the Dalit Panthers manifesto. “Dalit”, thus, is not merely a word but the preferred political identity of the people themselves, which potentially embraces the entire lower strata of society.

It reflects the collective emancipatory aspirations of Dalits. It has brought various communities of former untouchables together across states, irrespective of language and cultural differences. It has given them a pan-Indian identity, which has been adopted by global academia. It clearly represents Dalit assertion against oppression and exploitation and has been the basis for mobilising Dalits across India. Therefore, to say that it is derogatory or disempowering to Dalits is just not true.

It is true that the term has been confined to the untouchable castes and to that extent, it remains stigmatised, but this is because of the identitarian obsession of Dalits that ghettoises them. If they really embraced the radical meaning of the term and worked for the broader unity of all oppressed and exploited people, this stigma would have by now been diluted and even disappeared. In contrast to “Dalit”, the proposed substitute “Scheduled Caste” connotes concession-seeking people and is, hence, more humiliating and disempowering. Being just an administrative identity of people associated with affirmative action, it has no history of assertion or struggle for emancipation.

Reflective of the state of Dalits

The controversy is in a way reflective of the state of Ambedkarite Dalits today. After Ambedkar’s death, Dalits lost their ideological coherence. When alive, Ambedkar embodied this coherence and there were no questions asked. But when he was gone, people began interpreting his legacy in their own ways, mostly motivated by self-interest. With no leader who could fill Ambedkar’s shoes, claims and counterclaims on his ideological legacy became proxy for opportunism.

The Republican Party of India, formed in deference to Ambedkar’s wishes, was the first victim. A section contended that to speak about struggles against the material deprivation of Dalits was the method of communists and inimical to Ambedkar’s ideology. They said the Constitution represented Ambedkar’s ideology and Ambedkarites ought to follow constitutional methods. The party split on this issue, giving opportunist elements an excuse to join the Congress. This was repeated in the Dalit Panthers’ split. A section contended that the organisation was going the communist way. Ambedkar’s ideology – Buddhism in this case – thus became a useful tool for opportunists to openly pursue their ambitions and extract political rent from the ruling classes.

Today, with the emergence of a sizeable educated middle class among Dalits, articulation of Ambedkarite ideology is manifested in numerous ways. A section that takes “give back to society” as the sole Ambedkarite dictum may try to spread Ambedkarism of their own conception. It ranges from distributing food at Dalit congregations to organising international conferences. Some would reflect a vague Left leaning and lament at the plight of the majority of Dalits, while others would refuse to see this reality and brandish their “Dalit capitalism”. Some would take to Buddhism, ranging from its scientific conception to mind-centric vipassana. Some would support politics as the master key, ranging from social democracy to Hindutva. The numerous variants they entail have their own concepts of Ambedkarite ideology. They all have one thing in common: their identity obsession. Therefore, some naturally quibble over identity, whether they should be called Dalits, Ambedkarites, Buddhists or Dalit-Bahujan, or even by their sub-castes, such as Mahars, Malas, Chamars and so on. The current controversy has precisely this context.

The identity debate swirls around whether they should be called Dalits, Ambedkarites, Buddhists or Dalit-Bahujan, or even by their sub-castes – Mahars, Malas, Chamars. (Credit: Akshita Nagpal)

Boon to Hindutva politics

The High Court judgement and the controversy that followed have come in handy for the politics of Hindutva forces. To their homogenising project, an inert, administrative category like “Scheduled Caste” is certainly preferable to a rebellious one like “Dalit”. For instance, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh thinker Rakesh Sinha said earlier this year that Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe is the “most legitimate term that does not show any radical posturing to a particular community, unlike the term Dalit”. The Sangh, therefore, instructed its volunteers and those associated with its many affiliates to use the terms Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe instead. Like “Dalit”, the self-worn identity “Adivasi” of members of various tribes carries the implicit claim that they are the original inhabitants of this landmass and hence its legitimate owners. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has for long used the term “vanavasi” for these communities but even after accomplishing their Hinduisation, it has not succeeded in imposing this identity on them.

Insofar as the directive to the government to stop using “Dalit” in its communication was legitimate, the petitioner sought a directive to the media that it too stop using the word. Granting this prayer, the High Court asked the Centre “to consider the question of issuing such direction to the media and take a suitable decision upon it within next six weeks”. Following this, when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an order to the media on August 7 to “refrain from using the nomenclature Dalit” and stick to the constitutional term “Scheduled Caste”, the question of propriety – whether the government should dictate what words the media and, in turn, people can use – was naturally raised. Ramdas Athawale, feigning ignorance of his own ministry’s circular of March 15 asking state governments to use “Scheduled Caste” instead of “Dalit”, declared that he would appeal against the Bombay High Court’s judgement.