Ever since the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked the media to refrain from using the term ‘Dalit’, many people have taken to the internet to search for the etymology of the word. What is really needed, however, is an understanding of history and society.
Pankaj Meshram, a Maharashtra-based social activist, felt the term was not constitutionally valid. He went to the Bombay high court demanding a ban on the word since it was ‘derogatory and in no sense defines [the community’s] journey for dignity.’ Following this, the court asked the Central government to issue an advisory to the media through the Press Council of India. Neither the court nor the government attempted to examine whether ‘Dalit’ was indeed a term that was ‘derogatory in nature’.
Earlier, in 2007, the SC/ST commission asked state governments not to use the term Dalit in government documents. However, it is one thing for the state to press for uniform or ‘official’ nomenclature in official documents and another for the Central government to act so quickly to banish the term Dalit from public discourse. This keenness to ‘uphold the honour of Dalits’ is not only unprecedented, it is also phoney.
The fact is that no one – petitioner, court or government – has the right to force an identity on oppressed communities. The community will find its identity on its own. It is in keeping with this that the term Dalit was introduced 200 years ago, and used by Phule and Ambedkar among others – and has now become a major political symbol.
A name that empowers when others humiliate
The direct meaning of Dalit may be ‘broken’ or ‘shattered’, but its use is being opposed only because it has now become a term of empowerment for the oppressed community that uses it.
When drafting the Constitution of India, Ambedkar included the Dalits – considered untouchable by the caste Hindus – in a separate list to give them separate representation. He used the term ‘Scheduled’. This term was politically familiar because the British had already used the terms Depressed Classes and Scheduled Castes to denote the Untouchables and thus the terms ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’ got place in the constitution.
When the oppressed who were harassed by their caste names in the villages stepped into educational institutions because of reservation, they escaped from direct caste insults. But the term ‘SC’ soon became a caste slur for caste Hindus. Even today, the term is used to humiliate Dalit students. Though SC as a term is not derogatory, it has turned offensive in practical usage. Since the term figures in the constitution as an administrative term, there is a logic to using it in government records for administrative purposes. But to force the media to use the term SC clearly springs from malicious intent – to perpetuate the oppression of an already oppressed community.
Caste Hindus have humiliated Dalits with individual caste names such as Pallars, Paraiyars, Sakkiliars and some common names such as Dasa, Rakshasa, Asura, Avarna, Panchama, Chandalas, Untouchables and Harijans. In the British period, they were classified as Depressed Classes and Scheduled Castes. It was around this time that the oppressed communities for the first time called themselves ‘Dalits’ – a casteless term. It does not carry any shame, contrary to claims made by the government, the high court or some movements and individuals. In fact, it is a word that stands against all the degrading names given to the oppressed community by caste Hindus.
What Ambedkar told Gandhi
When Gandhi gave the name Harijan to Untouchables, Ambedkar opposed it vehemently and rejected the term. ”… The Untouchables say that they preferred to be called Untouchables. They argue that it is better that the wrong should be called by its known name. It is better for the patient to know what he is suffering from. It is better for the wrongdoer that the wrong is there, still to be redressed. Any concealment will give a false sense of both as to existing facts. The new name in so far as it is a concealment is a fraud upon the untouchables and a false absolution to the Hindus,” he explained.
For Ambedkar, even though bitter, the word that reflects reality is always better. The term ‘Dalit’, which indicated the natural social status of those oppressed by caste, gained huge attention after the Ambedkar centenary in 1991. Organisations like the Dalit Panthers were already making a mark. Movements, literature and socio-political struggles carrying the prefix emerged during this period. Dalit became a term of liberation for writers, protestors and politicians. The term politically connected all 1300 oppressed communities across the country and attracted attention in international human rights forums.
To ban the term that has now come to be identified with the political awareness of an oppressed community is in itself caste oppression. In fact, several terms and actions that consistently humiliate the oppressed communities have been alive for over 2000 years. How else to understand a move that does nothing about these terms and actions, yet positions the identity of Dalits against themselves?
The term ‘Brahmin’ is insulting to Dalits
Let us be open and direct. Will the courts and the government ban the term ‘Brahmin’ even if a number of petitions are filed? Aren’t they supreme in society only because they believe they were born from the head of Brahma according to Varnashrama’s steep hierarchy? In this hierarchy, the shudras (backward classes) are kept below and the panchamars (oppressed classes) are kept out of it. If a person calls herself/himself a Brahmin, it is akin to calling others low persons.
The first term that humiliates Dalits is ‘Brahmin’. The Oxford Dictionary defines a Brahmin as a socially or culturally superior person. Does it not follow that others in society are inferior? The dictionary has no such meaning for whites or white people. Among the many meanings, ‘white’ also has this meaning: ‘Belonging to or denoting a human group having light-coloured skin’. Even when ‘whites’ ruled the world, even when they had enslaved the blacks and other native communities, the dictionary did not call them superior. The term ‘negro’ is defined as ‘a member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara’. It also carries the warning of being offensive. Several terms used by whites to humiliate blacks do not exist now. They are considered offensive, even illegal. The laws – and maturity of the people – have changed discrimination in all aspects.
The fact that Brahmin is not defined simply as “one among Indian castes” but as a culturally or socially superior person, reflects the backwardness and lack of maturity of caste Hindus who see Brahmins as superior and thus are unable to see how the continued use of the term actually shames the majority of people in the country, the non-brahmins. Since the term oppresses others by putting one group of people on a higher pedestal, ‘Brahmin’ should have been banned in India a long time ago.
Yet even today the Brahmins continue to flaunt their caste surnames. It is important to note that even the media uses the term liberally. Apart from news reports, columns and TV shows, there are matrimony and rental ads with Brahmin only tags. There are even ‘Brahmin only’ property advertisements which newspapers print quite openly.
If we follow the nomenclature used in the constitution, and the logic of the Bombay high court and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, then the term ‘Brahmin’ should not be used by the media; instead, the only permissible term would be ‘General category’ or ‘Non-Scheduled Castes’ or ‘Other Castes’. Yet Brahmins identify themselves as Brahmins everywhere, including in interviews, press conferences, debates, workplaces, public forums and even in foreign countries.
More recently, a petition demanding a ‘Brahmins Atrocity Prevention Act’ was uploaded on Change.org and sent to the Supreme Court and Prime Minister’s office. Do they even know what an atrocity means? The Andhra Pradesh government has created a ‘Brahmin Welfare Corporation’ and has allotted Rs. 200 crore for it. Is it not illegal for the government to use the term Brahmin? Does anybody have the courage to ban this as unconstitutional?
Names as oral caste certificates
Even in an age as advanced as this, the caste Hindus continue to carry caste names as surnames. Mishra, Pandey, Bharadwaj, Deshmukh, Deshpande, Kulkarni, Desai, Patil, Jothi, Kaul, Trivedi, Chaturvedi, Agnihotri, Mukherjee, Chatterjee, Acharya, Goswami, Desai, Bhat, Rao, Hegde, Sharma, Shastri, Tiwari, Shukla, Namboothiri, Iyer, Iyengar and what not.
Brahmins use their caste names as surnames with much pride. Indians across the country may differ from one another when it comes to language, culture and food habits. But if there is one aspect that connects someone living in Kashmir with somebody in Kanyakumari, it is their caste. In Kashmir, he is a Bhat, in Punjab Sharma, in Gujarat Trivedi, in Maharashtra Gokhale, in Bengal Mukherjee, in Odisha Mishra, in Assam Goswami, in Karnataka Acharya, in Andhra Shastri, in Kerala Namboothiri, In Tamil Nadu, Iyer. Whatever their cultural differences, caste brings together the Brahmins from various states.
It is perhaps for this reason that the habit of using caste as a surname was created. The surname could be an oral caste certificate. The name alone would suffice to open all doors. They could have a cakewalk to the top. This is how Brahmins across the country occupy dominant positions in virtually all fields.
The use of caste names is the rule for all 6000 castes in India. One could be identified as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudhra or Panchama by name and accordingly, demarcation lines are drawn. Caste Hindus carry their caste surnames with pride while the oppressed communities do it with shame. This has not attracted any attention even in this modern age. No one seems perturbed by the fact that they carry surnames that perpetuate the dominant-slave system. It is surprising that even progressives, rationalists, women rights activists and rights defenders who speak against caste discrimination seem not to be conscious about their surnames, which denote their castes.
Indian progressives believe caste operates outside, only among common people. But to every Indian, either progressive or conservative, caste operates deep within the human mind. Ambedkar says it operates in the unconscious mind. It is so much a part of their being that they do not realise they carry caste markers in their names. How can caste be annihilated when someone who fights against it also carries their caste identity in their name?
- Whatever their cultural differences, caste brings together the Brahmins from various states. It is perhaps for this reason that the habit of using caste as a surname was created. The surname could be an oral caste certificate. The name alone would suffice to open all doors.
The problem of Indian progressives – the educated generations – is precisely this. They do not apply the same rule to themselves that they would apply to others when it comes to caste. So caste is protected as belief, as tradition and ritual in every household. Had Indian liberals followed a minimum level of honesty on the question of caste, they would have made a lot of difference.
The irony is that even women who vehemently oppose Hindutva do not feel guilty about carrying caste surnames. The fact is that the caste Hindu system considers women lower creatures. Even if they carry caste surnames such as Seshadhri, Mishra, Sen, Patkar, Rai, Karat, Iyer or Iyengar, women are lowly creatures according to caste Hindu beliefs. The Manusmriti says those who have sinned in their previous births are born as women. Both Periyar and Ambedkar have written extensively on the status of women in Hinduism. Any self-respecting woman, after reading them, would refuse to carry caste surnames.
“Religion says a woman is not fit for freedom at any level. A woman as a child should be supervised by her parents, and in her youth by her husband. She should be supervised by her children at her old age and cannot be left independently says Manusmriti. The religious text says that since women have been created as prostitutes at their birth by the Gods, they should be carefully guarded.”
This is part of Periyar’s speech published in Kudi Arasu dated February 5, 1933.
How Tamil Nadu dropped its caste names
It was Periyar’s clarity on caste that led to abolition of the practice of having caste surnames in Tamil Nadu. In keeping with the ethics that those working for the annihilation of caste should first be shorn of caste themselves, the first Tamil Provincial Self Respect Conference at Chengalpet in 1929 (conducted by the Self Respect movement) passed a resolution abolishing caste surnames. One can only imagine how aggressive the Brahmin hegemony would have been then. Yet Periyar, along with many others, got rid of their castes. He took the oath ‘I, E. Ve. Ramasamy Nayakkar from now onwards would be called E. Ve. Ramasamy’. Periyar took part in many meetings of caste organisations but everywhere he exhorted the crowd to abolish their caste surnames.
Today, we do not have individuals carrying caste surnames in Tamil Nadu. The state achieved this without a government order or an act. The consciousness of society evolved to a point where it became an act of incivility – something that invited ridicule – to carry caste surnames. Most Brahmins also did away with their caste surnames. Anyone using caste names to gain political mileage here has never been able to win. Cultural changes can only be brought about by the change of hearts and awareness among the public; never by laws. How sad it is that only in Tamil Nadu has there been this cultural change, and nowhere else,
To carry caste surnames is the most humiliating thing that Dalits are forced to encounter in open every day. People might ask how it is demeaning to someone else if they carry their castes in their names. When a Brahmin is introduced as an Iyer or Trivedi in a public place, is it not inherently humiliating to the Dalit present there? If you are a Brahmin, what am I – this is a question that remains unanswered yet stays there. When a person from a dominant caste gives her name with the caste surname to a Dalit, she reminds the Dalit of her own caste – causing hurt without knife or blood.
There are so many debates around caste, so much literature is being written on the subject, and so many protests around caste issues. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, has written over 10,000 pages on caste. If all this cannot influence an educated mind, what does it mean? Because it helps them, because it gives them power and domination, educated caste Hindus do not want to do away with caste. They carry castes as their culture even if they settle abroad. The principle of equality followed in many countries does not touch them in any way. They will be rattled and protest if there is an ethnic attack or taunt against a person of Indian origin. But whatever they do to Dalits is ‘culture’.
Caste as crime
Caste Hindus who refuse to do away with their caste names are angry about community certificates asked for in schools. They complain that it is only because of community certificates that the caste system exists, yet they carry community certificates in their own names. We could make a list of hundreds of public personalities across the country including politicians, scientists, writers, actors, activists, environmentalists, communists, rights activists and journalists who carry caste surnames. They do not deem it fit to correct themselves before they set out to correct the society. This is the reason why Indian democracy failed.
In Ambedkar’s time, only untouchability was made a crime. However hard he fought, he could not make caste a crime. If India had people with a pure conscience, this task would have been accomplished in the 70 years of independence. If caste were to be made a crime in the constitution, caste Hindus would not be able to flaunt it as culture and deceive the international community. The ignominious practice of carrying caste surnames as family names would have come to an end.
But instead, caste rituals are revived and given a new lease of life in this generation too. It is easy to ask a person for his caste. Matrimonial advertisements openly name the dominant castes. Is this not an insult to Dalits? The newspapers that run these ads do not carry advertisements for Dalit sub-sects like Pallars, Paraiyars or Arundhathiyars. Is this not discrimination? Is this not untouchability? An actor advertising a household product says that he has come to the house of Mrs. Iyer. Couldn’t the advertisers get another name for the woman? These kinds of advertisements humiliate the Dalits who watch television every day. This subtle domination is dangerous. It spreads across discreetly, like cancer. But who will ask to ban this?
If the courts and the government are really concerned about the dignity of the Dalits, let them declare all the 6000 caste names including ‘Brahmin’ as illegal, unconstitutional. Until the caste Hindus become cultured and civilised and get rid of caste surnames at all levels – if not their own then at least that of their children and of future generations – the term Dalit will stay, to remind them of the inequality and injustice prevailing in society.
Jeya Rani is a journalist based in Chennai.
Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan