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Dalits have suffered enough. We want a new social order now, says Ashok Bharti

Shriya Mohan @CatchNews


A revolution is in the making. On 29 August, Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis from across 25 states will gather in Junagadh, Gujarat, to take out a march christened "Dalit Chale Sangharsh Ki Aur". They will be demanding dignity and equality for all.

Organised by Dalit Samman Sangharsh Manch, a constellation of nearly 1,000 Dalit, Adivasi and minority organisations that have come together in the wake of the extraordinary Una Dalit uprising, the march is planned to pass through 25 states before ending in Delhi on 20 November, in a rally sizeable enough to "shake" the Prime Minister\'s Office.

Ashok Bharti, president of National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations, is the national organiser of the march. In this conversation with Catch, he says more than 50,000 Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are preparing to storm into the capital to demand a new social order. Edited excerpts from the conversation:


Why are you mobilising Dalits from across the country for a nation-wide protest?


At least for five years now, Dalits have been feeling very resentful. Not long ago, a Dalit mother and her baby were burnt alive in a caste war in Faridabad. One of the central ministers publicly called the Dalit a dog. That minister is still serving. Then Rohith Vemula happened, and now Gujarat. Una was the last straw.

Also Read: Sabarmati rally: why show of Dalit-Muslim solidarity bodes ill for BJP

In India, Dalits face over 50,000 atrocities each year. By the government's own records, six Dalits are raped every day; more than 25 cases of atrocities take place every day but only one is registered. Enormous indignity, atrocity and humiliation is heaped upon Dalits every single day. So, keeping quiet is no longer an option. And through this protest, we want to tell the government that enough is enough.

We are mobilising people from across the country - Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat and the Northeast .


What exactly are your demands?


Our demands are not only political in nature, they concern fundamental issues. Our first demand is for equal dignity for all through the efforts of all arms of the government and the judiciary. Second is about the developmental needs of Dalits. Adivasis and Dalits are poor and deprived because natural resources are unequally distributed. We demand equal distribution of resources - land, mining etc. - so that the developmental needs of Dalits and Adivasis are taken care of.

"Privatisation is hurting us. We want the government to invest at least 6% of its resources in education"

Dalits are demanding five acres of land for every landless family, not just Dalits but everyone.

There is a huge movement for access to land going on. It's called "Jai Bheem Paanch Acre". This is a legitimate demand as India has enough to give land to distribute among all the landless.

Our education system is being privatised. We want that the government invest at least 6% of its resources in education. Why are private players invading India's education system and making it unaffordable and inaccessible for the masses?

Finally, we are demanding reforms in the judiciary and the bureaucracy to ensure proportionate representation of women, Dalits, Adivasis and the minorities. We are yet to see one good judgment favouring Dalits and Adivasis; a neutral judiciary must represent all sections of the society.


The 1932 Poona Pact led to a compromise by Ambedkar on his demand for a separate electorate for Dalits. Gandhi feared a "double vote" would divide Hindus vertically and was protesting against it. To make him end his hunger strike, Ambedkar agreed to a reservation system. You have said the Poona Pact has outlived its utility and argued for a new social order. What exactly is this new order?


The Poona Pact was a progressive social contract among Hindus with Gandhi on one side and Dalits led by Ambedkar on the other. The pact was aimed at rectifying centuries of social discrimination. It's ineffective because it only translated into reservation for Dalits in the parliament and the assemblies. Even after seven decades of parliamentary democracy, we see that no Dalit elected from a reserved seat represents our cause because they are bound by the whips and policies of their parties.

Also Read: BJP on the backfoot: Dalit movement may harm party in poll-bound Gujarat

Unfortunately, in the past few decades, we have seen Dalits being isolated politically. Though they are emerging as a political force on their own, other parties don't raise their issues as well as they should. Only when Dalits are allowed to directly elect their leaders will true Dalit leadership emerge. Take Ram Vilas Paswan, for instance, who was "made" a Dalit leader. This is a shortcoming of our parliamentary democracy: leaders who do not have the backing of Dalits still become their leaders.

But we don't just want better representation in the parliament. We also want proportionate shareholding in the country's wealth, economy and education. A democracy can't flourish unless its most marginalised people are visible everywhere, showing their competence.

"A shortcoming of our democracy is that leaders who do not have backing of Dalits still become their leaders"

We want the natural resources to be shared. When the government gives licences for mining, they should create an environment that enables Dalits and Adivasis to apply as vendors. In the current scenario, how can the poor Dalits and Adivasis bid for a million dollar contract? So, that state has to create alternative mechanisms for Dalits and Adivasis to participate.

Look at what happened in Una. They do not allow us to carry cow carcases, how do we corporatise the leather trade then? Housekeeping and cleaning of filth is done by Dalits while wealth creation in the hospitality sector is done by the upper castes. This is what I mean when I say we need a new social contract, which guarantees dignity, establishes equality and ensures our socio-economic well being.

We want a reservation system that is proportionate to our population across opportunities. What is merit if it isn't merit for everybody? You can use whatever qualifier of merit you like but only after allowing every single community equal opportunity.


Prof Kancha Iliah once told me that when a Dalit serves the government, the caste system is only perpetuated. The Dalit becomes a servant of the Savarna people, unable to do anything for his larger community. Is this why Dalits are unable to use their positions of power for the benefit of the community?


I was a government officer for 17 years and I resigned without even taking the VRS benefit. When you go to office, your caste reaches there before you do. When your surroundings are predominantly upper caste, it makes a Dalit feel insecure. The stigmas and the caste-based interpersonal relationships are set in stone and not easy to navigate through. A political change alone is not enough to address this. It requires a social change.


For the first time, the definition of 'Dalit' is being expanded to several other castes and religious groups. What do you make of it?


There are two definitions of 'Dalit' - one is that of the Dalits themselves and the other of the Brahminical intelligentsia. If you look at the 1972 manifesto, Dalits were defined as Schedule Tribes, Schedule Castes, socially backward classes, minorities, women and anybody who was downtrodden. But these intellectuals could not grasp this definition. So, they defined Dalits as only the Scheduled Castes.

But when Mayawati came to power we saw that class and caste merged. Now Una has led to an even bigger merger. In rural areas, even a poor Brahmin will say, "I am also a Dalit!". The poor understand the definition of 'Dalit' better than anybody.

Also Read: Post poll victory: the rape reward for a Dalit woman in UP

Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.