Members of various student organisations express solidarity after the Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide on January 25 2016.

Time and again, reservation for backward castes as well as Dalits (scheduled castes and tribes) has been a matter of public debate in India. The topic is on the national platform yet again with the current agitations seeking job quotas even as others discuss abolition of reservation. With the Patels (Patidars) of Gujarat, the Jats of Haryana and Rajputs in some pockets seeking job reservations, it is time to look at how the Dalits figure in this equation as India’s most oppressed social category.

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, whose 125th birth anniversary is celebrated today, gifted reservation to the Dalits and there was a reason for that. Communities who were a part of those oppressing the Dalits in the past are now working to seek reservation for nearly everyone (including, those who were their oppressors). It seems the idea is to make the concept of reservation for Dalits disappear altogether. Dalits in India have been oppressed for over 2,000 years. They have been raped, looted, humiliated for generations in the name of caste. Their status in society has been worse than that of slaves. Dalits are among India’s oldest inhabitants, but they have never been allowed to lead normal human lives. Accounts of Dalit lives through the centuries would suggest a Dalit dies many deaths in a lifetime — suffering discrimination, some variant of slavery and disrespect. Nearly 70 years after Independence, toilet cleaners, rickshaw pullers, landless labourers and slum dwellers belong primarily to the lower castes, especially Dalits, whereas 95% of landlords and priests hail from the upper castes. Top-level bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians still come from the upper castes. Despite 67 years of job reservations, there is no major change in the social status of a majority of Dalits. There is a debate on job reservation but none on why Dalits were oppressed, how to divide land equitably, how to abolish the caste system — or on accepting Dalit priests. It is all right to prevent the creamy layer in Dalit community from getting reservations so that the major benefits of reservation go to deserving. I, for one, would not deserve the benefit though I am a Dalit as I have done well, but my ancestors in Bihar were treated like slaves. There are poor people in upper castes as well, but they have not suffered humiliations similar to those of Dalits. It is important to distinguish Dalits as victims of maltreatment, and this is not an economic issue. We often talk about the poor performance of Dalit students, but we don’t think about how their suppression of over 2,000 years can affect their genes or talent. Darwinian theory states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive and reproduce. Dalits have been at the wrong end of this evolution. This is a major reason why Dalit students are unable to compete with the same ability as other students. If we still believe that giving them reservation in jobs is not appropriate, we are not understanding the core issue. This is a shame.
Rameshwar M Paswan is a Norway-based entrepreneur

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