What’s unconstitutional is telling the media not to use the word ‘Dalit’.
The word Dalit means ‘broken’. The Constitution called them Scheduled Castes. Pankaj Meshram of Maharashtra’s Amravati district, who is a member of the Mahar Dalit/Scheduled Caste community in Maharashtra, felt the word is derogatory. He appealed to the Bombay High Court, which agreed with him.
In January this year, the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court wanted the government to stop using the word Dalit. In 2008, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes held the same view. Both these directives were limited to official government work. They didn’t seek to impose the view on the media.
The Bombay High Court, however, went a step further and advised the information and broadcasting ministry to consider advising the media to stop using the word Dalit. The I&B ministry has unthinkingly complied. And, somebody there will now face the political music.
What is ridiculous about telling the media to not use the word Dalit is that the community itself doesn’t find it objectionable. It is a word that has come from the community. It is a word that embraces and owns the identity of being oppressed, and is thus empowering. A community calls itself broken to remind everyone else who has broken them – a strong statement against a casteist society. It is a word that the community uses to rebuild itself in the face of continuing oppression, untouchability, humiliation, poverty, violence and discrimination.
Regardless of its antecedents, how can the word Dalit be considered insulting when the community itself prefers it to all other terms? The usage of the word Dalit has been the subject of a minor debate within the community, especially since Ambedkar in his writings mostly used the word ‘untouchables’, which was outlawed by the Constitution.
Pankaj Meshram versus the Dalit community
If Mr Meshram doesn’t like the word Dalit, he should join the debate within the community. He should motivate the community itself to stop using it. The media calls Dalits Dalits because that’s what the community calls itself.
In the face of wide, pan-India acceptance of the word, telling the media to not use it is unconstitutional. It is also frivolous, a waste of everyone’s time, and an unnecessary diversion from serious issues the community faces.
The word ‘Scheduled Castes’ came from the British. It is a politically neutral term. In fact, it has no meaning at all. Introduced in 1936 by the British colonial government, it simply refers to a schedule, or a list.
The Modi government is now bringing an amendment to nullify the Supreme Court’s perceived dilution of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. So bad is the perception of the ruling BJP among Dalits that the BJP’s Dalit ally, Ramdas Athawale, has been forced to defend the BJP on the issue of Dalit atrocities. Athawale, incidentally, started his political career as an activist with the Dalit Panthers, which mainstreamed the word Dalit.
The I&B ministry’s circular to the media is only going to add to the Modi government’s problems with the Dalit community. This ‘advisory’ to the media is no doubt going to be seen as yet another attempt to deny the Dalit community its own voice, its own identity, its right to define itself and speak for itself.
That a Dalit activist in Maharashtra got up and went to the courts is not a good excuse. The Modi government is also expected to apply its own mind to such sensitive issues.
There may still be some logic in asking the government to stick to the constitutional word. Yet, the courts or the government have no right to tell anyone what to call themselves. If Dalits call themselves Dalits, so will the media.