Untouchability in 2023 garb: Dalits Speak Out CJP interviewed Dalit voices of editors, artists, authors, advocates from various parts of the country to centre narratives of survival and dignity in modern India.

29, Dec 2023 | CJP Team

“People are celebrating the Amrit Mahotsav of Azadi, it’s been 75 years, but we still lag so far behind. There has not been an Indian Dalit woman editor in India ever. This should be a source of sharmindagi that we have had to wait for so long.” Meena Kotwal, the founding editor of Mooknayak talks about the state of Indian media. This statement, from CJP’s interview with Meena Kotwal stands as a testament to the persistent presence of caste in India. As 2023 ends, this essay brings to you reflections by Dalit individuals as they look back at how they chart their personal journey as well as that of Indian society in the 21st century.

Sanjeev Sonpimpare, an artist based in Mumbai, reflects on the bias in reportage about the Dalit community and observes what big media tactically refuses to cover. “Atrocities against Dalits are happening every day, everyone is aware about this. Every person from the community experiences it. What is worse is the mainstream media’s response, which is completely biased.  For instance, it will not cover Bahujan’s events and celebrations, such as the Mahaparinirwan Diwas (on December 6), or Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14. My work as an artist is based on Ambedkarite thought and ideology. Through my work, I deal with social issues surrounding caste and capitalism, basic rights, and social justice.”

Similarly, it seems that India’s esteemed institutes are also not immune or completely sensitised from preventing violence against Dalits. Jyoti, name changed, is a young student from a government university reflects on these questions, and says “Caste system pretty much exists in all spaces, even the so called political and progressive spaces. For instance, I know of a student at my university, a doctoral student, who was discriminated against for drinking water in the hostel. She was not allowed to use the water cooler. Even a simple, fundamental part of life, such as drinking water becomes laden with caste. Even Babasaheb was prevented from drinking water…” When asked about everyday violence, “yes, this is an issue. Our social media are saturated with everyday violence, especially against Dalit women; it is an endless barrage of statistics, that is all that one sees in the media, endless violence against Dalit bodies. It is exasperating and can be overwhelming. Furthermore, what is interesting is that the media often prefers to focus on these violent incidents as well and reduces Dalits to that, as if Dalit persons are defined by nothing but violence. This is a propaganda, I feel, which is casteist in nature.”

Thus, from Jyoti’s narratives we can see that caste continues to function in the everyday with taboos, based on notions of purity and pollution, as it is seamlessly woven in everyday practices from universities to media houses. Structural barriers provided by caste not only impede access to justice but also exacerbate existing social and economic disparities, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage for Dalit communities.

A survey conducted by the SC/ST Students’ Cell at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay was reported by the Indian Express, highlights caste as a “central reason” behind the mental health challenges faced by students from reserved categories on campus. The survey was conducted in June of 2022 and revealed that nearly one-fourth of the SC/ST students involved experienced mental health issues. Additionally, 7.5% of them grappled with “acute mental health problems and exhibited a tendency for self-harm.”

How do intersectional identities such as gender and caste interact? CJP spoke to an Uttar Pradesh based activist named Mamta who has been working as an activist for many years. Prior to this she worked as a teacher for several years, too. She proudly states that now she is known as a Dalit mahila activist. Talking about her work, she narrates, “I take up issues of people who are often from the most vulnerable of social groups.” Discussing the particular vulnerability women from marginalised communities face, she says, “If your economic condition is not great you will face even more issues and problems.” Many of these affected people are women, who face issues at home with domestic violence and other issues. Many of these women,” she says, “are forced to work jobs day in and out and in that process, their children end up alone and neglected at home.” On asked how she herself managed having a family while at the same time working as an activist,  “It is very difficult. I am often told that I am on my own. Especially if there are emergency cases where I may have to venture out at night after receiving a call, I am told that I have chosen this so I have to do this on my own.  Life is not easy for Mamta who, in her own words, argues that she faces the double burden of gender and caste as she navigates her life.

Structural violence against Dalit people and other marginalised groups puts them at vulnerable spots where they are prone to violence. CJP Mr Sumedh Jadhav, a Maharashtra based anti-caste activist and trade unionist who has worked with the Dalit Panthers for over 50 years, delved into the vision and ideals that have centred, talked about Maharashtra has been plagued with Casteism, from riots and violence in every village to large scale anti-Dalit violence in 1974.

The Dalit Panthers was a revolutionary social and political movement which emerged in Maharashtra. In 1974, Mumbai saw the Worli Riots where those who attended bore the brunt of police repression in assaulting Dalits. On January 10, 1974, during a protest rally, a stone was flung from a building by Shiv Sainiks in the vicinity of Parel Railway workshop. This incident took the life of Mr Jadhav’s brother, Shaheed Bhagwat Jadhav, and he became a martyr. Mr Jadhav talks about how he lost his brother, Shaheed Bhagwat Jadhav. Mr Jadhav details how the organisation focussed on providing legal assistance to victims of anti-Dalit violence in the state, “After an act of violence, the family is left emotionally derailed, and morally lost, to take up legal hurdles. This is where our work became pivotal, as we would step in and assist those families who faced violence and provide them legal help in courts and beyond. The work of the casteist and communal forces over the years has been to divide the nation and its social fabric, this is something we fight against.”

Asked about whether in 2023, how he looks back to the changes that have come about, Mr Jadhav states that not much has changed. However, he stands resolute in his stance that he will continue to struggle and fight against casteist forces. With a vision towards the future, Mr Jadhav talks about how on January 10, 2024 would be his brother Shaheed Bhagwat Jadhav’s 50 years death anniversary, “We will be organising a grand programme with politicians from across the spectrum. We operate with the vision of Babasaheb’s constitution and its values and firmly believe in the fight against the forces that seek to weaken the constitution.”

Instances of reported violence against ST/SC persons have reportedly increased over the years. While viewers hear of it mostly from their screens or through newspaper, Advocate Dular who spoke to CJP provides a closer view at the harrowing reality about how existing mechanisms for justice are not functional for Dalit people as those that implement these provisions often belong to the same caste and ideology as those individuals who attacks Dalits. Identifying as Dalit human rights defender Advocate Ram Dular has been working for human rights in Uttar Pradesh for the past 20-25 years. He is currently based in Varanasi. “The situation for Dalits is extremely grave. There are mass attacks on Dalits. You can see about the latest incident in Kanpur.” Adv. Dular is referring to the incident where a group of upper castes came and attacked people celebrating Buddha Katha in Kanpur. “Why can’t one celebrate Buddha Katha, or the religion they want? It is a fundamental right.”

Drawing light to the media, he highlights that the media does not “follow up” on these cases, and covers a limited number of incidents related to Dalits. “It only covers issues tagged as “Hindu-Muslim” violence, including Dalits under those they consider as Hindu – although ST/SCs have never been Hindu in reality. Casteist fundamentalism is really fuelled by the soch and vichaarhara (ideology) where upper castes think they can do anything to Dalit people. Now, these actions are being done openly. They have become nidar (fearless) in their actions. The government is not doing anything to curb it. Just recently, I heard of a case where a minor Dalit boy was beaten so badly and received internal injuries. He was brought home but he didn’t speak or do anything. Later when he was taken to the hospital, he died of the injuries he sustained by the attack. The boy’s family filed an FIR but the FIR was not registered for murder, it was only registered under section 506 of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 which is only a complaint against having received threat to murder. So in these cases we see that the survivors even face various hurdles in filing FIRs and getting justice. So you can see the police also participate in this, and they do so because they share the same soch, background and ideology as the attackers. This is an issue of the system which is biased. ”

Citing an incident, Adv. Dular narrates how he tried to diligently make the process of accessing a lawyer easier for survivors of anti-Dalit violence by trying to make sure that provisions by the Prevention of Atrocities Act were implemented at the local level, “I sent over 25-30 applications to the Zila Parishad, SDM, Tehsil officers for the implementation of the provision that states that any private lawyer hired by the family of the victim can be turned into a public prosecutor by the District Magistrate.” This implementation, he says, would ensure that the family does not have to make ends meet to pay lawyers’ fees and the lawyer they hire would be adequately compensated, however, he says, “No action was taken. He even sent letters to officials higher up urging them to ensure the district level administration takes action, but they instead replied saying that he should approach the district level,” and putting the request at a seemingly endless loop. This serves to illustrate his words that there really is a systemic apathy and biased demeanour of the justice system (against Dalits).”

These words remind us of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s final address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949. He talked about the necessity for a social democracy rather than confining efforts solely to political dimensions, “Political Democracy cannot last unless their lies at the base Social Democracy.” Ambedkar’s commitment to social democracy remains a guiding and relevant sight, especially in light of the fact that despite India functioning as a democracy, Dalits, even those in the higher echelons of power, face discrimination and injustice. For instance, in September this year, Kerala’s Minister for SC/ST Welfare, K Radhakrishnan, shared his personal experience of encountering caste discrimination during a temple function in the Kannur district of Kerala. Aghast and shocked, he spoke to the media and emphasised the urgent need for a profound shift in the mind-set that perpetuates such discriminatory practices. This incident reveals that even Dalits in positions of power are not immune to the pervasive impact of structural violence.

According to a report by Deccan Herald, a survey by OXFAM-Newslaundry reported the dismal representation of Dalit and marginalised castes in India and detailed that 90% of the leadership positions in “mainstream” media are occupied by General caste individuals.

Thus, narratives of power, discrimination and strength seem to persevere. CJP spoke to Meena Kotwal, one of India’s foremost journalists who is the founding editor of The Mooknayak, who talked to us about her role as a journalist in bringing change and instituting a new media platform, Mooknayak, to bring change into people’s lives, and being “too vocal” a Dalit for existing media houses. Referring to her time and subsequent departure from BBC India, Kotwal had spoken in public and highlighted the casteism she had faced on account of being a Dalit woman. She talks to CJP, narrating about having worked as a freelance journalist in various media outlets after leaving the BBC, saying that the position of Dalit journalists in media publications as freelancers especially is extremely precarious. “They have very difficult future prospects, they are not included in decision-making processes, and if anyone is a vocal Dalit, like me, they will not be given a job at all.  Following my time as a freelancer, I even started working without remuneration,”

However, that did not bode well for the journalist, she narrates how she faced vulnerabilities on account of gender and caste both. However, she argues that her heart did not want to settle, “Mann nahi lag raha tha. Existing media did not want to accept the kind of stories I would want to do. This made me very angry. It was January of 2020, and in my anger and fury, I formed The Mooknayak, on 31st January 2021. Dr Ambedkar too, seeing how ignorant Indian media was at the time to concerns and issues of the Dalit people, had formed The Mooknayak on the very same day. So, it got me thinking, why should I not revive it again? I decided to form The Mooknayak which would focus on caste and gender in particular. Initially I started it alone. But gradually, we were 5 people, then more, and more joined.”

Talking about the toil put in the work of journalism, she says, “I was working very hard. I thought then, why not work hard for stories I believe are necessary. In India, despite it being the place where caste has originated, there is not enough work done on caste. Research and journalism on caste is happening in countries such as the US and UK, but not India.”

On being asked what is rewarding about her pioneering efforts in media, she says, “I don’t find this being rewarding in the sense that we should have had these initiatives long back. People are celebrating the Amrit Mahotsav of Azadi, it’s been 75 years, but we still lag so far behind. There has not been an Indian Dalit woman editor in India ever,” until of course, Kotwal took up the helm herself, marking a shift in what it means to be Dalit in media, “This should be a source of sharmindagi that we have had to wait for so long. There is nothing rewarding about this. It is something we lack.” Further discussing how international media has covered and been in contact with The Mooknayak more than domestic media, a fact that can be attributed to casteism, Kotwal talks about how domestic media fails to pay attention.

Talking about the momentous impact of The Mooknayak, she narrates that, “Our stories bring change. Due to coverage and reportage, if a person is getting access to electricity or water, improves food quality – or even is able to file an FIR, because it is become extremely dangerous and difficult for survivors to file an FIR in cases of SC/ST atrocities, I would say that is monumental impact by The Mooknayak. I am not here to change the government. Governments come and governments go, the situation of Dalits continues to remain the same even as time passes across decades. I believe small issues constitute a big change. If Mooknayak is able to bring these changes, it is something, I believe, that has a lasting, long term impact.”

Citing NCRB statistics, Kotwal states that crimes against Dalits have risen, “These are only the instances that are reported.” Thus, she observes how the condition of caste persists despite government promises over the years, thereby reiterating her belief in bringing changes in everyday experiences to be a source of lasting change. Meena Kotwal herself was subjected to casteist violence and even faced initial difficulty in filing an FIR against these instances after she released a photo on Twitter, now X, of burning the Manusmriti on December 25. Babasaheb Ambedkar had also burned the Manusmriti on December 25, Kotwal reminded us during the conversation, during the Mahad Satyagraha which was a struggle for Dalits to achieve access to public drinking water. He strongly believed that the Manusmriti was an anti-social text and thus the day he burned it is regarded as the Manusrmiti Dahan Diwas, he has explained the burning of the text saying that he was convinced that the Manusmriti did not even remotely support the idea of social equality.

One figure, revered as an ideologue by Hindutva organisations, was known for his casteist  views. M. S. Golwalkar who attempted to justify the Varna system to a modern audience and asserted that it served as a means to coordinate between different societal divisions, thus making the practice of caste a palatable practice for modern Indians. Golwalkar bemoaned the supposed benefits of the caste system and contended that this system, based on hereditary functions, facilitated individuals in serving society according to their “inherent” capabilities. Yet despite Golwalkar’s attempt to portray the Varna system as a harmonious division of labour, the harsh reality for Dalits has been marked by systemic exclusions and taboos and can never be fit within a modern system or theory. One of the most acute forms of discrimination revolves around everyday practices such as eating, where Dalits have historically faced severe restrictions, often being forced into separate spaces or denied access altogether. Moreover, access to basic resources like water has been marred by caste-based discrimination, with Dalits encountering barriers in fetching water from community sources. While the nation continues to stand in the shadow of the horrifyingly brutal rape and murder of a young Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, the reality is that these incidents are the norm. The notion of “contamination” and the stigmatisation of Dalits in the name of scriptures have perpetuated deeply ingrained prejudices. Golwalkar’s speech in Ahmedabad in December 1960, as reported in Organiser in January 1961, reflects the far-right Hindutva’s use of ideological justifications for violently enforcing hierarchical norms.

While the nation continues to stand in the shadow of the horrifyingly brutal rape and murder of a young Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, the reality is that these incidents are the norm. The notion of “contamination” and the stigmatisation of Dalits in the name of scriptures have perpetuated deeply ingrained prejudices. Golwalkar’s speech in Ahmedabad in December 1960, as reported in Organiser in January 1961, reflects the far-right Hindutva’s use of ideological justifications for violently enforcing hierarchical norms.

The RSS seeks to unite India to a pan-Hindu nation-state, but scholars, writers, and activists have questioned the attempts by RSS to include it in its ambit of Hindu. Bhanwar Meghanshi, spoke to CJP in his eloquent but clear manner of speaking, putting to words his journey as an author offering a Dalit perspective from within India’s largest organisation, the parent organisation of India’s ruling party in power, the BJP. Hailing from Bhilwara, Rajasthan, Meghwanshi has published the now famous memoir of the times he worked in the RSS as a Swayamsevak, titled ‘I could not be a Hindu: the story of a Dalit in RSS.’ “I was compelled to write on my experience after the 2002 Godhra massacre. I initially started writing on Facebook, where I wrote about 54 episodes about my experience, much of which today have become a part of the book. This was how the book initially started. The responses to the posts were very welcoming. However, the book took time. It was in 2017, that it actually came about, in Hindi.”

Speaking about how his words unsettled people, he narrates, “However, the publishers were…apprehensive. They seemed to want to make some changes, reduce the teekhapan, and change the language which constituted a direct attack. However, another publication came, Navarun Prakashan, which published my book in 2019, and later on Navayana also took it forward with an English translation a year later. Now, it has been translated to several languages including Marathi, Malayalam, and a Punjabi version is also forthcoming. The response to the book was also great. However, there was absolutely no response from those I criticised, the RSS. Even though they respond and make an uproar about a single Tweet, for which people are often sent to jail, they did not respond to my book.” Meghwanshi terms it as a strategic silence, “They did not wish to give my book, and my perspective, any attention so that it might attract more readers. I have heard that some members of the organisation have certainly read my book but they have not responded, in fact, and have acted like the book does not exist. There has been violence or intimidation.”

Meghwanshi details how he came to write the book, “In the early 2000s, I used to work in the Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan following which I worked in village camps in affected areas in Gujarat post the 2002 massacre. This really struck me, and was the point that moved me to write about my experiences. I could see that Dalit and Adivasi communities were also involved in the violence, in the looting. I wanted them to have ‘another face’. I wanted them to know they are being used for politics.” “Furthermore, when the BJP came to power in 2014, I noticed that people were increasingly becoming silent. I felt that I should break the silence, who knows whether I might too be silenced in the coming years.”

While, he states that he did not face violence to his book, he did face comments from people at home. “From people in Bhilwara, there were mixed responses. Because the people I interact and meet with on a daily basis in the city are the characters that are featured in the book. About 80% of the people, the incidents, the place are all from the area, people I see drinking chai at a shop, catching a bus, or train or going about their work. However, there was no violent response. They would certainly give some comments, “Arey Meghwanshi ji, kya likh diya.” But it was limited to that.”

CJP asked him about the impact of his writing, and what propelled him to write, “What was different with me was that I wrote. Many people have such experiences, but not many write. The written word always presents a pramanikta (authenticity). Written word can be put to test of truth by court, thereby written words have credibility, and they also ensure the writer is accountable and responsible to what he writes.” On the RSS response, Meghwansi shares his understanding, “It seems that the RSS officials have decided that there would be no reaction to my book. When the book started selling copies in Bhilwara, I had heard from someone that a Dalit parshad was going to burn my book in public. However, the burning never took place. The plan was swiftly, it seems, done away with. I asked one acquaintance why this was happening. One of them told me it is because I am not a communist or Muslim or Christian, they do not wish to bring attention to the question of Dalits within the RSS that an attack on me would bring.”

After the book was published, Bhanwar Meghwanshi states that he was contacted by a working professional who was with the RSS for many years who contacted Meghwanshi saying that he had some questions and doubts about the book. The individual, who belongs to a marginalised background, told Meghwanshi that after he heard of the book, he bought it from Amazon, but it ended up lying in his home, unread, for quite some time. Meghwanshi asked the person why, who told him he was not sure he wanted to read it. However, once he did read it, he had even greater curiosity about the book and its contents, and thus he sought answers from RSS officials about Meghwanshi’s part in the RSS. He called up the official, and asked them about the book and its author, he was met with no refrain, the official mentioned that Meghwanshi was a good old Swayamsevak, and that these days he was naraaz with the organisation. Meghwanshi and this individual had a lengthy conversation about the book and their experience in the organisation.

Meghwanshi reflects on the impact of his book, “I think when you speak, well within your rights, your life and your life’s truth come out, and this may guide someone who’s lost their way, it may give someone hope … One incident struck me. Moolchand Rana has mentioned me in his book. He told me that he has worked in the RSS for 49 years, and left it after 49 years. However, he was inspired by my writing and encouraged to write by it. That’s what it is, writing breaks silence, I think, that is important. One mustn’t be silent, one must speak up no matter how much darkness there is.”


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