ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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‘Dalit’ Cannot be Reduced to ‘Scheduled Caste’

The term “Scheduled Caste” is at once protective, and morally coercive and socially corroding.

The recent advice by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) to the media to refrain from using the word “Dalit” by implication introduces a moral hierarchy in the use of words. Following the petition submitted by some Buddhists from Nagpur, the government argued that the word Dalit has to be avoided because it is morally offensive and humiliating and the term “Scheduled Caste” is preferable as it has been given constitutionally. 

However, the Constitution has no control on the use of this term on account of it being misused by those belonging to the upper castes and who feel that they face competition from the Scheduled Castes (SCs). This misuse of the term was evident in caste slurs that were levelled at some SC students in a medical college in Delhi. The upper-caste students who did not like the SCs making it to the college were accused of disfiguring the constitutional term, Scheduled Caste, by fracturing it into a crooked and, hence, derogatory term, “schaddu.” This deformation of the term by the upper castes is deployed as a weapon against the SCs to morally coerce and torment both the actual and potential beneficiaries of the category. Although the term Scheduled Caste is morally coercive, its beneficiaries, in fact, hoarders, take lead to protect it from falling into misuse by upper-caste free-riders by demanding for caste authentication through verification of caste certificates via government mechanisms. The term Scheduled Caste is also morally corroding. Codified into a certificate, the term no doubt works as a gate pass to the opportunity structures, but it also tends to corrode the social solidarity of the oppressed, leading to infighting among the SCs only to prove who among them is an authentic SC. 

The word Dalit in some sense does spring from among the SCs, but is irreducible to that category. It emerges through the negation of a pacificatory term such as Scheduled Caste. The Dalit Panthers in the early 1970s sprang from the inactivism of many SC politicians who did not take a public stand on the growing atrocities against Dalits. It is in this strong political sense that Dalit is irreducible to Scheduled Caste. It is an oppo­sitional articulation, both against the forces of oppression and those SC politicians who, by and large, felt compelled to remain on the site of the dominant politics of conformity to the governing class and condemnation of SCs. 

Since the word Dalit expresses the totality of exploitation, discri­mination, and patriarchal domination, it cannot be accused of posing any danger to the solidarity of the oppressed. Dalit is also irreducible to Scheduled Caste in another and perhaps more fundamental moral sense. Unlike Scheduled Caste, it does not carry the burden of having to prove its authenticity. Such a subversive and transformative meaning of Dalit, thus, militates against the much watered-down meaning of the word that suggests that a Dalit is someone who is trampled down, oppressed, and surpassed. 

However, the word Dalit in its long career has faced many contestations, coming mainly from Buddhist literary writers from Maharashtra, leading musicians from the southern states, and now again from some self-proclaimed Buddhists in Maharashtra. For such people, the word Dalit is an embarrassment as, according to them, it is a morally offensive reminder of a humiliating past. The MIB, through its recent advice, which has been influenced by some Budhhist petitioners, expects the media to inculcate allegiance to the use of the term Scheduled Caste as one single category. 

One could, however, take subsidised satisfaction and argue that it was necessary for the Constitution to put different untouchable castes into one coherent category of Scheduled Caste. It is through this coherence of the word that the Constitution sought to ensure distribution of benefits accruing from different protective provisions and welfare policies. But, the state’s attempt to impose one single term on the symbolic and cultural universe of Dalits is both unfair and unwarranted. However, for the state, such an insistence on the use of a single term has a different purpose, which, perhaps, goes beyond the enabling dimension of this term as was visualised in the Constitution. 

In a differentiated society, the state has a design to impose and inculcate the term Scheduled Caste in a universal manner. Its support for the term by implication seeks to stigmatise the word Dalit and through this it intends to separate out from it both SCs and Buddhists. In fact, such legal moves as the present petition against the word ultimately empower the state to establish its monopoly over the symbolic order of the Dalits. This symbolic order of the Dalits includes their ideological and cultural interaction with each other as also their wider mobilisation around transformative symbols. This was evident in 1978 at the Boat Club in Delhi, where several lakhs of Dalit Panthers had gathered around the demand for renaming Marathwada University after B R Ambedkar. In more recent times, one could see the wider social mobilisation of protestors against the systemic humiliation that led to the tragic death of the scholar Rohith Vemula. 

It is in this expansive sense, therefore, that the word Dalit is irreducible to the term Scheduled Caste. 

Updated On : 17th Sep, 2018

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