The Dalit problem in India is the outcome of the caste system practiced in Hindu Society for thousands of years. The caste system categorised people according to their pursuits in life, e.g. those pursuing learning and knowledge, especially of scriptures were classed as Brahmins,those pursuing warfare were kshatriyas, thosse pursuing trade and otheer economic activities were Vaish and Dalits were those engaged in menial kind of work. The unfortunate aspect of this system was that it assigned caste on the basis of birth. Thus one born to a Dalit family was condemned to menial work for life and avenues of advancement for him were blocked. This resulted in masses of people categorised as Dalits remaining condemned to economic backwardness which further resulted in their being exploited, oppressed and deprived.
The system has last for thousands of years apparently because of the force of religious beliefs behind it. But it is inherently unjust, irrational and untenable because of applicability of the birth factor. With passage of time , spread of education and awakening, the system has been under challenge for decades and the movement against it has intensified after India’s independence in 1947. The constitution of India abolished untouchability and to accelerate the uplift of Dalits socially and economically, 15% of posts in government services were reserved for Dalits (referred to in the constitution as scheduled caste). Seats were also reserved for these castes in the Parliament, State Assemblies and in educational institutions to help accelerate advancement of these castes.
Discrimination at the hands of conservative sections of the Hindus, including the denial of entry to temples, practice of untouchability etc.have continued even after independence and Dalits tending to defy or confront upper castes have also had to face atrocities of various kinds. This process has continued until the present times side by side with the State’s efforts to end the discrimination and advance the cause of Dalits as per the Constitutional mandate.
Dalits now constitute about 30% of India’s population. In a democracy based on adult franchise, this is quite a large segment of voters and naturally every political party in India takes pains to attract as large a chunk of it as possible. This is quite understandable. One would expect that, discrimination on the basis of caste being a social evil, all parties would evolve common programmes and make joint efforts to eliminate the evil,but what actually happens is that individual events of caste based conflicts are picked up and depending on the perceived political affiliation of the upper caste group involved in the incident, the political parties opposed to the group’s perceived affiliated party organize public agitations further raising tensions and breaching peace. The leaders of such opposition parties visit the homes of aggrieved Dalits travelling long distances at huge expense making a show of their sympathy and try to extract maximum political advantage by seeking political support of the aggrieved groups. Such behaviour is open to the inference that political parties are not interested in the elimination of the evil but taking advantage of it to increase their vote bank.
The present ruling party at the Centre, viz. the BJP, is perceived to have predominant Hindu following.It came to power in 2014 with a huge majority in Parliament with the backing not only of Hindus but other sects also. Although opposition parties projected BJP as anti-Dalit due to its Hindutava base, the party won nearly 24% of Dalit votes on an over-all basis. It also won 41 of the 84 seats reserved for scheduled castes. The opposition parties have tried to fish in troubled waters after some serious incidents like suicide of a student, believed to be Dalit, in the Hyderabad University and attacks on Dalits handling cattle including Carcass of dead cattle occurred in some parts of the country after BJP came to power.
Blaming a political party in India of being anti-Dalit is like blaming it of trying to commit Harakiri. BJP, I am sure, has no such intention.
Meanwhile, the upward march of Dalits in the Hindu Society and the country, as contemplated and facilitated by the Indian constitution, aided no doubt by the awakening within the Hindu Society facilitated by advancement in awareness and education as also the active organised work of certain Hindu organisations like Arya Samaj,is a reality. Reports suggest that there has been a 90% increase in Dalit literacy since 2011. Dalits have occupied the highest positions in the Indian Republic including that of the President and the Chief Justice of India. With their demographic strength, nothing can prevent this upward march specially when more and more Hindus support their struggle for social equality.