Today, a dalit mafia manages the trade-offs between political parties and the dalit people in Karnataka.
"A proportionate representation system helps groom a dalit leadership which can aspire to bargain for power with mainstream allies" - M.C. Raj, dalit activist and writer
March 2, 1930 marked a turning point for the Indian dalit movement and B.R. Ambedkar. On that day, Ambedkar’s aide Dadasaheb Gaikwad launched a satyagraha at Kala Ram temple in Nashik, Maharashtra, demanding entry for dalits. Nearly 15,000 dalits took out a march in support of the demand. It took Gaikwad five years to gain the right to enter the temple. The matter so deeply affected Ambedkar that it was said to be one of the reasons why he chose to embrace Buddhism.
Eight decades later, dalits continue to find themselves being kept out of many temples across India, and Karnataka is among the worst offenders. Last August, a caste war broke out in Sigaranahalli village in Hassan after four dalit women entered the famous Basaveshwara temple. A penalty of Rs 1,000 was slapped on the dalits by the upper castes, mostly Vokkaligas. The dalits opposed the penalty and demanded entry into the temple. On April 24, they finally managed to enter the temple amid tight security, escorted by district administration officials. It was a small victory for the Holeya community, a scheduled caste group, which led the temple entry movement, but the upper castes and the priests have now decided to abandon the temple.
Although the Central and state governments are celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, dalits continue to face oppression. Karnataka, of late, has faltered in guaranteeing dalit rights. Despite a ban against the practice, there are as many as 15,373 manual scavengers in the state. Since 2008, 46 manual scavengers have lost their lives. In 2014, there were zero convictions in cases of atrocities against dalits in the more vulnerable districts of Bengluru, Bidar and Kolar. Karnataka stands sixth in the country in the number of crimes committed against dalits.
Even tall leaders like former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah are guilty of looking the other way when villages in their own constituencies continue to practise untouchability. Sigaranahalli is part of the parliamentary constituency represented by Deve Gowda and the assembly constituency of his son H.D. Revanna. But both have shown little intent to resolve the issue. For instance, a community hall built with the MP’s local area fund was initially named Vokkaliga Bhavan to prevent dalits from entering it. The hall has now been renamed Samudaya Bhavan.
At Varuna constituency in Mysuru represented by Siddaramaiah, the situation is not very different. After dalits entered the local temple at Kuppegala village, upper castes abandoned it. The village also saw schoolchildren belonging to upper castes boycotting midday meals after a dalit woman was hired as assistant cook. In many schools, dalit students not only sit separately, but are even made to clean toilets. Dalits say they are refused haircuts in salons and are served food on paper plates in hotels. Political leaders are unwilling to intervene because of political compulsions, which force them to appease upper castes and influential communities. The discrimination is felt even by those belonging to the creamy layer among dalits.
Leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, who is a dalit from Karnataka, recently said untouchability still existed in the state. “Narendra Modi came up by selling tea. But if I set up a tea stall, I am afraid no customer will turn up,” he said, referring to his caste and caste-based discrimination. It is a fact that economic survival of dalits still depends on the upper castes, especially in the rural areas.
Dinesh Amin Mattu, media adviser to Siddaramaiah, said the death of the dalit movement in Karnataka was behind the sorry state of affairs. “In the mid 1980s, then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde invited dalit activists to be part of the system and they agreed to be part of development, rather than waste their energy sitting on dharnas,” he said. “But, the dalit movement faded and dalit organisations increased in number. Protests became reactionary and social reforms took the back seat.”
Today, a dalit mafia manages the trade-offs between political parties and the dalit people in Karnataka. Leaders seeking individual benefits, elite culture among the dalit intelligentsia and the absence of a torchbearer have weakened the community despite its numerical strength. Moreover, the prevailing social order has prevented the rise of dalit leaders, according to experts. M.C. Raj and Jyothi, the authors of the book Dalitocracy, noted that the economic and political integration of the dalits had stopped with “reservation”. A skewed reservation outreach and political manipulation have resulted in the creamy layer cornering the benefits. Political compulsions have led to the inclusion of many forward communities in the scheduled castes list. Of the 101 scheduled castes in Karnataka, a handful of dominant sub-sects enjoy most of the reservation benefits. For instance, although Adi Karnataka, Madiga, Banjara, Bhovi and Holeya are the numerically superior castes, most benefits are cornered by Bhovis, Lambanis and Korachas, who are “touchables”.
It was this trend that prompted the Justice A.J. Sadashiva Commission (2012) to propose internal reservation among dalits depending on the backwardness of the subcastes. After conducting a door-to-door survey of 96 lakh scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households, the commission recommended the regrouping of the subcastes into four: left wing (Maadigas and followers of Jagjivan Ram), right wing (Holeya or followers of Ambedkar), other SCs (Lambanis, Bhovi) and touchables. However, such a reordering would require amending Article 341 of the Constitution.
Unfortunately for dalits, political parties tend to choose winnability over social democracy, opting for candidates from dominating subcastes during elections. Politics has led to further division within the dalit ranks into Congress and BJP camps. Such division was possibly the reason why Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate for dalits. But Mahatma Gandhi opposed it, citing harm to Hindus. Ambedkar, however, was of the view that “there never was solidarity between Hindus and dalits, but only subservience and bondage”.
Raj, who spearheaded the dalit panchayat movement in the state to create awareness and fight inequalities, said the proportionate representation system could be an equaliser. “Often, the political parties field dalit candidates who are from dominant subcastes or who obey the diktats of the party and its ideology. A proportionate representation system helps groom a dalit leadership which can aspire to bargain for power with mainstream allies, rather than yield to their whims,” he said.
A ray of hope for the 1.04 crore dalits in Karnataka is the Karnataka Scheduled Castes Sub Plan and Tribal Sub Plan (Planning, Allocation and Utilisation of Financial Resources) Act 2013, said Mattu. “The Act has made it mandatory for all departments to allocate funds in proportion to the SC/ST population (24.1 per cent) and spells out punitive action against officials guilty of non-utilisation or underutilisation of funds. The provision to carry forward the unspent money will ensure empowerment,” he said.
Dalit activists, however, said the government had no clarity on how to spend the sub-plan funds. A standing committee has been set up to scrutinise the programmes implemented under the Act, the money spent and the assets created. Dalit organisations are demanding that the fund be spent on education, hostels, student scholarships, self-employment schemes and skill development rather than asphalting village roads.
“Mahatmas have come and gone. But the untouchables have remained as untouchables,” said Ambedkar. More than erecting memorials for dalit icons, a strict implementation of existing laws to curb atrocities against dalits and providing equal opportunities and political representation for them would be a fitting tribute to Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary.