Saturday, May 29, 2010

Panel Discussion "Atrocities on Dalits: Law, customs and Silence of Civil Society"

Panel Discussion: Atrocities on Dalits: Law, Customs and Silence of Civil Society

Speakers: Anand Teltumbde (Mumbai based Dalit Intellectual), Jagmati Sangwan (Haryana State President AIDWA)

Date & Venue: 27th May, 2010, Gandhi Peace Foundation, Deen Dayal Upadhaya Road, Delhi

Background Note: Question of atrocities on dalits - who constitute around a sixth of the nation's population - and the consequent denial of justice in majority of the cases is a fact which is rarely contested. Reports after reports by the National level commissions or Conferences held under the aegis of the government or review of judgements passed by different courts in the country keep underlining the pathetic situation of dalit human rights and the hiatus which exists between constitutional pronouncements to 'abolish untouchability in all its forms' and the actual practice on the ground. 

It is a different matter that despite the attention it deserves this issue does not remain always on top of the nation's agenda. There are short periods when the issue gets highlighted, there are meetings, conventions and resolutions to do away with this vestige of our barbaric past. And there ends the matter. A nation which yearns to become a super power in this century, supposedly moves on to tackle other urgent problems/challenges. 

Few years back when Khairlanji happened, when four members of a dalit family in Maharashtra were brutally murdered, one witnessed spontaneous outburst of militant dalit anger, which was followed by similar spurt in attention around the issue of dalit atrocities. Of course, the momentum was short lived. Looking back one could say that the spontaniety of the protest itself marred any chances of serious contemplation and reflection on the whole issue. 

Today we are passing through a similar phase when nation's eyes are once again focussed on this issue. May it be the issue of Mirchpur ( District Hissar, Haryana where a basti of Balmikis came under attack by the dominant castes followed by deaths of two dalits), Banthal ( Viramgam, Gujarat where dalits were compelled to leave the village en masse by the upper castes), Jait ( Sihore, M.P. Chief Ministers village where dalits were not allowed entry into the temple), Madurai ( Tamil Nadu where land belonging to dalits was taken over by the government) or Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe ( Bihar, which witnessed massacres of dalits by Ranveer Sena, private army of landlords, more than a decade ago but the judiciary did not punish the real mastermind), more conscious sections of the population are talking about this seemingly intractable problem. 

We feel that it is an opportune time to discuss and deliberate on some of the important dimensions of the whole problem and strategise accordingly. 

The first one concerns a critical review of the steps taken by the state to control, eradicate atrocities on dalits in any form. It has been more than two decades that SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was notified which had some special features to control/eradicate the menace. What has been the experience on the ground ? Do we need another law with more stringent provisions (as has been the demand raised by few groups) or critical assessment of the fact that the unholy alliance between the police, administration and the (un)civil society has landed us into a situation where legal intervention is becoming infructuous. . 

Another important aspect which needs further probing and contemplation, concerns the role of that amorphous section called 'civil society'. It is very common to see urban upper classes and castes, which pass all kinds of aspersions against Dalits admitted to educational institutions and govt jobs on reservation. Print as well as electronic media, which today plays an important role in formation of public opinion, also seems engaged in strengthening similar regressive understanding. It is evident that a very instrumental understanding about modernity persists even among the more knowledgeable sections. 

Any close watcher of the societal dynamics knows very well that there is wider community sanction to the continued humiliation and discrimination against dalits. Few of the recent cases of atrocities in Haryana bear witness to the fact that the gathering of the caste councils ( Khap Panchayat) literally planned and executed these attacks. And they were the first to mobilise support to save the actual murderers and arsonists from the clutches of the law. The police and administrative personnel (including judicial officers) are also found to cater to the interests of the dominant castes. Question naturally arises unless and until there is radical change in the societal mindset - which can be acclerated by new types of social reform and cultural movements - will it be possible for us to make a qualitative impact on the ground situation. 

A disturbing feature of the unfolding scenario is that the existence of broad based social reform movements - as the Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu experience shows - is not a guarantee that dalit human rights can be guaranteed forever. This brings to the fore the limitations of hitherto existing movements of dalit emancipation. How can one address this piquant situation ? Is not there then a need to broaden/widen such movements so that either they make a strategic alliance with other movements opposed to identity based oppressions say patriarchy, race etc. and movements opposed to rule of capital based on exploitation of labour power or all such streams coalesce/integrate themselves to emerge as a strong current of revolutionary social transformation. 

The proposed panel discussion is an attempt to flag of discussion on some of the important dimensions of the problem. Jagmati Sangwan, leader of AIDWA, Anand Teltumbde, eminent writer and human rights activist and few other thinking minds of our times have agreed to share their ideas in this programme. Participant of a fact finding team which visited Mirchpur immediately after the incident would also be sharing his experience.  


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