In March this year, the Union ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had issued similar orders to all state governments, stating that only the term ‘Scheduled Caste’ should be used in all official communication, adding that the term ‘Dalit’ does not find mention in the Constitution or any statute.
If we go back to 2008, we would know that the National SC/ST commission too suggested that the word ‘Dalit’ not be used in official communication. A few state governments also have acted on this. Now the government feels that the term ‘Dalit’ is 'unconstitutional'. But is our Constitution a lexicon?
Dalit is basically a term to address/identify or segregate an oppressed community, just like the term ‘Negro’. As per various information sources, the Maharashtrian reformer Jyotirao Phule had first used the word. At the time, it was used as a Hindi/Marathi translation for ‘depressed classes’. The British Raj used the term ‘Scheduled Caste’ which is more technical.
As per history, during the Poona Pact, Mahatma Gandhi had insisted that Dalits be given representation, but within the Hindu fold, while Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate. Gandhi chose to call Dalits Harijans (children of god) but this was a term that did not find favour within the community. Ambedkar too rejected the term ‘Harijan’ to describe themselves on account of it being condescending.
Historian Ramachandra Guha says:“In truth, Gandhi’s own earlier coinage, ‘suppressed classes’ explicitly targeted social discrimination, whereas ‘Harijan’ euphemized it.”
The main opponent of the MIB’s order, Ramdas Athawale, the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, had said that his Republican Party of India (RPI) would approach the Supreme Court to challenge the government's advisory which had asked media to refrain from using the word.
He said: "The terms Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe are already in use in government records, but we are of the view that the word 'Dalit' should be used. RPI is approaching the Supreme Court (to challenge the advisory). We will go to the Supreme Court and challenge the Bombay High Court's decision to ban the usage of the word 'Dalit' because it isn't offensive. It is wrong to ban its usage. We respect the court, even our ministry had issued a directive to use the word 'Scheduled Caste' instead of 'Dalit' in official documents, but it is not right to stop the media from using the word."
Delhi HC declines to accept the petition:
On 19 September, the MIB’s directive was challenged by The National Dalit Movement for Justice’s (NDMJ) in the Delhi High Court. But the court said it was not inclined to hear it and asked the petitionerto move the Supreme Court instead.
The National Dalit Movement for Justice’s (NDMJ) general secretary, V A Ramesh Nathan, said: “Dalit word helps the diverse communities of notified scheduled castes across the country to unite under a common banner and associate, mobilize and gather consensus on the various common issues that need redress”.
Nathan said in his plea: “The word ‘Dalit’ is a self- chosen name, a positive self-identifier and as a political identity to describe the pan-Indian community of all those who have been affected by the caste system and the practice of untouchability for several centuries and thus deprived of social, economic, political and cultural rights”.
The petition added: “The ‘Dalit’ identity is a hard-won identity that the community has chosen for itself. The community identifies with the word ‘Dalit’, pride for the history of the community’s past and ongoing struggle against the caste system and its various evils, with continued and relentless activism against oppression, discrimination and untouchability and with the continued quest for full and equal citizenship as contemplated under the Constitution.”
The petition said that MIB’s circular violates the scheduled castes’ rights of choice, personal autonomy, self-determination and expression of their own identity “by encroaching upon the freedom of the individuals who wish to be referred to as ‘Dalit’ by creating an environment where they may not be referred to as such”.
TV Channels meet I&B Minister:
In Mid-September this year, TV channels’ representatives met the I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, and told him that they cannot do much if panellists, politicians use it either in TV studios or outside.
The Minister was told by a channel spokesperson: “We have conveyed to the centre that this issue needs deliberations and a blanket ban on the word, Dalit, is just not possible. What we can start is basically not use it in our scripts but if the word is being used in rallies or protests that are being covered, there is no way we can suppress it.”
The broadcasters also told the Minister: “It was also conveyed that while the word Dalit may not figure in our constitution, luminaries such as BR Ambedkar who wrote the Indian constitution used the word otherwise. Implementing the advisory in every TV report would entail logistical issues - from editing old footage of speeches to videos to quotes which is very difficult.”
Constitution rightly safeguards free speech and privacy, freedom of thought and belief. However the government’s agencies often violated it on the pretext of the low. The present government backed by the RSS is more active in forcing things happen only in its own way and no other way.