[The lead story is here: http://www.newsweekindia.com/content/?p=12761.]
The flame of emancipation that endures in the hearts and minds of Dalits still casts a spectral shadow on the remnants of an excruciating past, than illuminating the alleyways towards a bright future. If the Indian establishment collectively experiences the pain and horrors of exploitation lasting so many millenniums, the statue of an empowered Dalit would stand deified as the emblem of equality in the hallows of a conscientious democracy. Far away from Noida, from the blistering “twilight of the idols” (as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have added mockingly), this story of assertion is heralding a new chapter in Punjab, whose aftermaths would be felt nationwide.
For it was in this state, home to the highest proportion of scheduled castes, that Dalit consciousness took the shape of a formidable socio-political movement, paving the way for an upheaval in UP and across India. What was once a confident and cohesive community strumming to the tunes of empowerment, the Punjabi Dalits are now engaged in a divisive battle to safeguard their interests against each other. And the averseness shown by successive state governments in lending a patient ear to their woes and aspirations could forever mar the egalitarian credentials of Punjab.
The SAD-BJP administration would be treading a very fine line when it replies to a notice issued by the Supreme Court on the contentious issue of sub-classification of scheduled castes within a stipulated period of three weeks. An apolitical organisation by the name of Chamar Mahan Sabha has filed a special leave petition to revaluate the directives of The Punjab Scheduled Caste And Backward Classes (Reservation In Services) Act, 2006, that allocates a 50% quota to the Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs from the overall entitlement of government jobs reserved for the scheduled castes.
As is the norm, the 37 listed scheduled castes of Punjab can broadly be divided into three groups based on their socio-economic standing: 41.9% are the Balmikis and Mazhabis, the Ad-Dharmis and Chamar Sikhs (Ravidasia and Ramdasia) constitute another 41.59% and the remaining 33 castes forming a minority of 16.51%. The second cluster being a relatively progressive lot — with a long history of political, social and religious reforms that have helped them break the manacles of the caste system — took up a lion’s share of the reservation quota. Then there was also the case of occupational mobility as the entrepreneurial Chamars were able to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for leather-based goods in the newly setup British cantonments. On the other hand, the Balmikis and Mazhabis found it increasingly difficult to graduate from their caste’s occupation of scavenging, a debilitating exercise that completely sapped their hopes and confidence. The ignominy associated with their work must be unbearable considering the fact that a law against manual scavenging was passed decades ago. Unable to blend-in with their Dalit brethren from other sub-castes, as there were strict protocols of inter-dining and inter-marriage based on the degree of “pollution”, they could truly be termed as the lowliest of the low.
Driven partially by their plight but more so by political necessities, Giani Zail Singh – the only chief minister hailing from the backward community, a position that is still hogged by the dominant Jats – passed an executive order in 1975 to reserve a 50% sub-quota for the Balmikis and Mazhabis in direct recruitments. The progressive decision inspired many other governments to take up the case of “reservation within reservation” with Haryana implementing a similar provision in 1994, also fostering sub-caste movements in states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Citing a Supreme Court decision that declared sub-classification as “unlawful and unconstitutional”, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled over the orders of the state government in 2005 in response to a writ petition filed by a Chamar. Aggravated by the decision, the Balmikis and Mazhabis took to the streets leading to incidents of public disturbance and vandalism. Realizing that this development could have an impact on the approaching elections, the Congress government hastily drafted the aforementioned Act to reinstate the provisions. Amidst all drama, it was passed on the concluding day of the last session of the 12th Vidhan Sabha. To add a little twist to the tale, the centre had also appointed a commission in 2006 under the chairmanship of Justice Usha Mehra to cast a serious glance on the issue as the Madigas in Andhra Pradesh became more vociferous. The Commission which submitted its report in May, 2008, ruled in favour of sub-classification thus giving a major impetus to the stance of Punjab government.
But the issue is far from resolved as various factions are clamouring to get the rightful compensation for their communities. All eyes are set on Punjab as it tries hard to steer clear from the social cleavages that it has ignored for so long, having acquired an explosive propensity now. From the holy triumvirate of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary whose formulaic deductions are void of empathy, to the religio-communitarian disposition of the Punjabi society that has surrendered its allegiances to an institutionalized clergy and the political elite — all are to be blamed for this mess. Nietzsche compared such societal passivity to the diminishing “pathos of distance” in an environment where equality thrives “as a certain factual increase in similarity”. The Dalits of Punjab must also recall that Ambedkar envisaged reservation as a means to gain political standing and hence, they must strive to remove the disparities of representation in the legislature rather than succumbing to communitarianism.