By Jyotsna Morris
As India celebrates its 71st Independence Day, it is a good time to remember the power we hold to fight for justice and the right to self-determination. These ideas need to be revisited year after year so that everyone can enjoy independence equally. Thanks to increased media coverage it has become evident that there are certain sections of Indian citizens who are not really free. Numerous articles have addressed the issue of marginalised groups not having access to equal rights, justice, power and education. And one such group that continues to have limited freedoms is the Dalits.
The term ‘Dalit’ comes from Sanskrit and means broken. Yet it is a term the community chooses to call themselves, thereby keeping alive the history of oppression by members of the upper castes. As part of the varna system, those who belonged to the lowest caste were forced to, and continue to, perform the most menial tasks of society, essentially those tasks that the others did not (and do not) wish to do—manual scavenging, the disposal of dead animals and people, sweeping the roads.
Despite the caste system being done away with decades ago, the oppression of Dalits continues to date. Our conduct towards Dalits ranges from the ludicrous—not allowing them to wear clean or new clothes—to dangerously xenophobic—what happens in Sairat happens in real life too. Even children are not spared from this rabid behaviour. Children belonging to the lower castes are segregated in schools and made to sit at the back of classrooms and queue up separately for their midday meals. This kind of bullying can scar children for a long time to come.
Babasaheb Ambedkar fought for the cause of the untouchables during the freedom movement. In fact, a separate electorate was to be granted to them, a logical move considering they had no political representation whatsoever. However, he came under huge political pressure to withdraw this demand, and Ambedkar eventually relented and signed the Poona Pact in 1932 that granted the lower castes new rights but did not grant them separate electorates. Eighty-six years since the pact was signed, and 71 years since independence, the Dalit community remains oppressed, with many freedoms denied. It is time we—you and me—do something about it.
The time has come to acknowledge the caste privilege many of us are born with, as well as the privilege denied to many others. If we did not face physical or emotional violence, any form of discrimination based on our surnames or families we are born into, we are privileged. Our access to good education, the opportunities available to us would mean that our families have enjoyed the privilege of not being discriminated against.
And it is also important to remember that caste-based oppression is not just a Hindu problem; caste has percolated into Islamic and Christian communities as well.
By being aware of our privilege, we can recognise the oppression of the Dalit community and attempt to raise our voices against it. After all, our silence makes us complicit with the violence of our ancestors.
We must use our voices to talk about caste; to call out the casteist attitudes within our families, amongst our friends, on social media and everywhere else. We must rage against the violence and injustice we see around us, only then will our freedom mean something, or August 15 will be just another public holiday.
Jyotsna Morris is a writing analyst at Qrius
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