Labelling Dalits ‘Harijans’: How we remain ignorant and insensitive to Dalit identity

Several decades into anti-caste activism, it is tragic that the discourse over Dalits still lacks sensitivity and understanding.
Labelling Dalits ‘Harijans’: How we remain ignorant and insensitive to Dalit identity
Labelling Dalits ‘Harijans’: How we remain ignorant and insensitive to Dalit identity
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During a recent panel-discussion on Tamil news channel Thanthi TV over Union Minister VK Singh's "dog" statement, a short kerfuffle broke out between two of the panelists. While defending VK Singh's statement, BJP's State Secretary KT Raghavan referred to the Dalit community as "Harijans", which did not go down too well with Dalit party VCK’s General Secretary D Ravikumar.

When Ravikumar pointed out that “Harijan” was an insulting tag for Dalits, BJP’s Raghavan came up with the age-old defense that “Hari” means God and that he was only referring to Dalits as “God’s children”. When pointed out that usage of the word is offensive to Dalits, the BJP leader responded with arrogance stating that he will use it, while the anchor ignorantly wondered if the word was indeed insensitive. You can watch this particular part of the show here.

The argument between Raghavan and Ravikumar is not as trivial as it may seem.

The History

The disagreement over the use of "Harijan" to refer to Dalits goes back to the 1930s. "Harijan", meaning "children of God", was a term first used by Gandhi to refer to Dalits in 1932. He even started three journals in English, Hindu and Gujarati in the same name in 1933. The exact origin of the word is subject to debate.

The term is said to have first figured in the bhajan "Vaishnava jana to" by Narsinh Mehta. Scholar Aishwary Kumar also points out that Gandhi cites Tulsidas Ramayana for the use of the word, in which Lakshmana describes to Parashurama the characteristics of Kshatriya thus: “It is the trait of our clan never to use force towards a god, a Brahmin, a Harijan, or a cow.”

Gandhi’s idea of using the word "Harijan", many argue, was to avoid other words like "untouchables or ‘bhangis" which were then used to refer to Dalits, because they were strongly stigmatised. He used the word "Harijan" to bring the untouchables closer to God, and thereby to those who believed in God, which was the rest of Hindu society. Gandhi is also known to have said that he felt use of the term "Depressed Classes" reminded people of slavery and was offensive to them, so he preferred the more benign term, "Harijans".

When Gandhi started using the term, many including BR Ambedkar objected to it, stating that it was condescending and obscurantist in nature, an attempt to side-step the real issue.

In fact, on January 22, 1938, Ambedkar walked out from Bombay Legislature protesting the use of word. He said, “I must say that the name "Harijan" has now become practically equivalent to the term "Asprishya" (meaning not-to-be-touched); beyond that there is nothing remaining in that name, and I would think that if the Honorable Prime Minister had felt in the same way in which we feel that the word " Harijan " has now become identical with the expression "scheduled class" then it was his duty, for the moment, to have withdrawn that word, and later on he could have discussed the matter with us with a view to find out some alternative term. His arguments, however, have not carried any conviction to us. I will, therefore, leave the Hall.”

Governments in India are barred from using "Harijan"

Today however, not many know that the government, in effect, has banned the use of the word ‘Harijans’ in caste certificates and official communication. In 1982, the Union government issued statements to all state governments asking them not to use the term to refer to Dalits. But the use of the word continued. Several organisations, like Centre for Dalit Human Rights, have protested against the use of the word through the years. In 2010, a parliamentary committee took serious note of the fact that the word was still being widely used and recommended that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment issue fresh guidelines to all departments and the state governments, directing them to not use the term. The committee also suggested punitive action to stop its use.

In recent years, several circulars have been issued to government departments - like this one - so the use of the word in official communication has since ceased. But as can be seen in the TV debate, not many are aware of the offensive nature of the word.

Why it’s a problem, and why it matters today

The issue is not just one of semantics. The arrogance and ignorance which lies underneath the usage of the word run deep. The disagreement over usage of "Harijans" points to a larger issue which remains relevant in today’s India, where identities of caste and religion play a significant political role, and the privileged classes still deny that casteism is still a major problem.

It has also been claimed by many that the word is derogatory and offensive since it was used to refer to the sons of Devadasis, although this claim cannot be verified.

By using the word "Harjan", Gandhi was in effect making Dalits "more acceptable" to the "rest of the society". Instead of dealing with the real problem, which was the mindset of the upper castes, he chose to tinker with the identity of the Dalits to make it more suitable for the upper castes. And in doing so, Gandhi wanted to make sure that he did not ruffle the feathers of influential Hindus, for he needed their support for his politics.

Further, all that "renaming" of Dalits as Harijans did was side-step the issue. It only removed "the offence to the ear" and did nothing more, as Gandhi was once told.

This is a contemporary issue, not one which belongs the 30s. Even today, many among do not accept that caste-divisions run deep, and continue to believe that casteism is not prevalent. From Gandhi to this day, one significant road-block to Dalit liberation has been the refusal to accept that upper castes are strongly caste-minded. Many among us still believe that the solution to casteism lies in tinkering with Dalit identity or the way they live.

The other problem with the word is that there was a politico-religious underpinning to the term, and that too resonates even today.

Many have argued that using "Harijan" for Dalits is a project in Hindu consolidation. By using this term, Gandhi brought untouchables into the Hindu fold. This belief was further strengthened by the fact that Gandhi’s Harijan Sevak Sangh was manned by privileged Hindus, and Ambedkar saw this as the Congress’s plan to “kill Untouchables by kindness”. 

Over the years, and more so recently, the BJP has been consistently engaged in bringing Dalits under the Hindutva umbrella. Ahead of the 2014 elections, the BJP made efforts to reach out to Dalits, and the same was done ahead of the Bihar polls which are now underway. Even in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, consistent efforts are being made to bring Dalits into the Hindu fold, much to chagrin of Dalit activists and leaders.

Several decades into anti-caste activism, it is tragic that the discourse over Dalits still lacks sensitivity and understanding. Our arrogance and ignorance in dealing with issues related to caste-identity have remained, manifesting in different forms, if not worsening. 

Reference: Annihilation of Caste, Navyana edition

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