Invoking Dalit Rights Isn't the Best Way to Counter Centre's Decisions on J&K

The Centre's controversial move could result in dignity and constitutional safeguards for Jammu and Kashmir's Dalits.

It was a relative on the phone. “The day is not far when reservations too will be scrapped by the ruling party in the same undemocratic manner. They will soon come for our people,” said the relative, a Dalit activist, as news about the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status broke.

Then it was Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien who in his Rajya Sabha speech paraphrased German pastor Martin Niemöller.

“First, they came for the Dalits, and I said, I’m not a Dalit, so I didn’t stand up. Then, they came for the oppressed, and I said, I’m not oppressed, so I didn’t stand up. Today, they came for the Kashmiris, and I said I’m not Kashmiri.”

I am not sure why he wasted the limited time of the Rajya Sabha by using the words “oppressed” and “Dalits” in two separate lines. 

On social media, sections of Dalit activists are visibly angry with the position taken by Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party which supported the move. Some even claimed that Dalits have become ‘Islamophobes’ by supporting the watering down of Article 370.  

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati. Photo: Reuters

Which brings us to the question, is it possible to connect Dalits with Article 370?  Yes, but not in the way most activists and liberals might like to think. 

The scrapping of Article 35A has been a long-standing demand of the Dalits of Jammu and Kashmir. One might argue that the sense of partial relief among Dalits after the reading down of Article 370, which is spoken of in the same vein as Article 35A, is an unintended byproduct of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s main agenda. That could well be true, but one cannot overlook the huge discrimination meted out to Dalits due to Article 35A. 

Article 35A and Permanent Resident Certificate

Article 35A is a provision incorporated in the constitution, giving the Jammu and Kashmir legislature the authority to decide who the “permanent residents” of the state are, and confer on them special rights and privileges in public sector jobs, in the acquisition of property in the state, in getting scholarships and other public aid and welfare.

Also read: Why Article 35A Matters

This means those who are not permanent residents of the state never got access to government jobs, government scholarships, government loan schemes and even business opportunities in many cases. In order to get state benefits, it is mandatory for a citizen to possess a PRC or a Permanent Resident Certificate. 

The strange case of the Valmiki community

In 1957, a union of sweepers in Jammu city went on an indefinite strike to push forward their demand for a salary hike and regulation of jobs. The back and forth between the government and the agitators continued for a month without any resolution. The urgency of the situation can be gauged by the fact that the then Jammu and Kashmir government, headed by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, finally had to bring in sweepers from another state.

A deal was stuck between the Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir government, as a part of which many Dalits belonging to the Valmiki caste were bought in the city of Jammu for sanitary work. Initially, they were promised PRCs in the state and also assured all rights that state citizens enjoyed. Yet nothing of that sort happened. 

Also read: The Constitution is Allowing the Continued Discrimination of Valmikis in J&K

While change were made in the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Services Rules to assist them in migrating to the state, a clause was added which prevented the sanitary workers from changing professions. This meant that they could never opt for any other government job apart from that of a sanitary worker’s.  

The real brunt of these were felt by the educated younger generation who wanted to become lawyers, officers and policemen. Despite possessing Masters and post-graduate degrees, they had no other options but to stick to cleaning jobs.  

Radhika Gill and Eklavya

The case of Radhika Gill, who belonged to the Valmiki caste of Jammu, reflected this awful conundrum. Her dream was to join the Border Security Forces. She cleared the BSF written exam and was also said to have topped the second group of physical tests. When it came to the document verification round, her application was rejected because she had no PRC. 

Generations of Valmikis have been forced to remain sweepers in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

The story of Eklavya, who was a political science postgraduate but still only was eligible for the job of sweeper, is similar. 

Like many others, Radhika tried to approach the authorities to for a PRCs but her requests were rejected on the grounds of provisions such as Article 35A and Section 6 of the Jammu and Kashmir constitution. They had all filed a petition in the Supreme Court.

Dalits laws not applicable 

Many government schemes which were designed for the emancipation of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities were not applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. This also includes the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which safeguards the rights of these marginalised communities.

Bakarwal Muslims come under the ST category in the state and until now have been deprived of the benefits of many tribal acts which are meant to protect the life and dignity of tribal communities across India. The victim of the Kathua atrocity was from the same community. Had the region come under the purview of the SC/ST (PoA) Act, then the perpetrators would be have been charged additionally under it as well. 

It needs to be seen whether the Centre’s decisions on the special status of Jammu and Kashmir turns out to be a great move or a disastrous one. At the moment, we have no exact way of anticipating any social and political eventuality in the region. One thing, though, is clear: the move has some unintended beneficial consequences for Dalit communities.

Those who are opposing the decision should not invoke the name of the Dalits to win the battle. There are many ways to attack this extremely controversial decision. Linking Articles 370 and 35A with the Dalit conflict is perhaps not one of them. 

Anurag Minus Verma is an alumnus of the Arts and Aesthetic department of Jawaharlal Nehru University.