The view of the present government is that the term ‘Dalit ‘ is 'unconstitutional'. What we must realise is that the Constitution is not a lexicon. It cannot delimit social and cultural usage.

Why we must oppose any attempt to ban the word DalitThe author, D Ravikumar. Picture by arrangement.
news Opinion Wednesday, September 05, 2018 - 17:09

The I&B Ministry has stirred a hornet’s nest by issuing a directive to the media, asking them to avoid the word ‘Dalit’ in their reports. Earlier in 2008, 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.

The view of the present government is that the term ‘Dalit ‘ is 'unconstitutional'. What we must realise is that the Constitution is not a lexicon. It cannot delimit social and cultural usage.

In the US, the term ‘negro’ was used for a long time to refer to blacks. Today, African American is used by everyone. In India, the bureaucracy and administration have to keep pace with the times. The use of the official term Scheduled Castes does not in any way clash with the social/academic/ literary/media use of the term Dalit. The two are independent. Some observations in this context.

1. Statutes are enacted to maintain law and order not to interfere in the affairs of language. So looking at the statutes to decide the fate of a word is incorrect.

2. Though the I&B Ministry’s directive is only meant for the media not for literature or rest of society, it has far reaching implications.

3. Dalit leaders have used many words to call themselves. Pandit Iyothee Thass (1845-1914) a leader of Tamil Dalits had used ‘casteless Dravidians’ and ‘Original Buddhists’. He criticised the usage of the term ‘Depressed Class' in his writings. Ambedkar used several words –  Depressed Class, Untouchables and Minorities, and also on a few occasions the term 'Dalit'.

4. A well known scholar of the Dalit movement and literature Eleanor Zelliot has stated in her introduction to Vasant Moon's autobiography 'Growing up Untouchable in India': "The most recent nomenclature for ex-untouchables is 'dalit'; a term meaning downtrodden or broken down but used with pride as self-chosen name that reflects no idea of pollution and can include all who identify themselves as oppressed by the caste system.' ‘Dalit' came into currency in the 1970s in movements that took names such as Dalit Panthers and Dalit literature and now is the preferred name for those (such as Vasant Moon) who want to free themselves from the concept of pollution and from the patronage of Gandhian ideology.” So the etymological meaning of the word 'Dalit' is not important here as much as its functional meaning.

5. It is a 'subjectivity' chosen by those who want to annihilate caste system; it is not an 'identity'. Choosing subjectivity is a conscious act. But the Hindu caste system wants to reduce the subjectivity into an identity by making the word as a mere replacement for Scheduled Caste or Untouchable.

6. So we have to restrict the instruction of the I&B Ministry to official documents of the central/state governments.

We must oppose any attempt to ban the word 'Dalit'.

At a time when the Australian Prime Minister apologised to the nation for the atrocities perpetrated on the aborigines, and at a time when in Canada the state has apologised for the oppressive policies Native Americans (First Nation people) were subjected to till as late as the 1970s, we in India seem to be involved to be quibbling over non-substantive issues to divert the attention of Dalits from the violence perpetuated by lynch mobs.

Ravikumar is the General Secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK) and a Former MLA of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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