Following my speech at the Dalit Freedom Network in Germany a few days ago, a gentleman approached me with the following request: "If you find the time to send me a few of your thoughts on business and human rights regarding the Dalits for that upcomig hearing at the Bundestag in Berlin I would very much appreciate that."
As you know, the Dalits (formerly correctly known as "Untouchables") with the "Other Backward Castes" are the majority of the Indian population.
The word "Dalit" means "crushed" or "Crushed into a mass".
As untouchability was outlawed under the Constitution of the Republic of India, when that Constitution was adopted in 1951, and as a policy was put in place of reserving a few seats for Dalits in government schools, hospitals, bureaucratic jobs, and so on, the fortunes of some Dalits improved - to the point that there is now a so-caled "creamy layer" among Dalits. The existence of this "creamy layer" along with the existence of what one may call a "dry layer" among other castes, makes many Indians think that the problem of untouchability and caste-discrimination has been resolved and that nothing further needs to be done - in fact, many are seeking even to abolish the reservations that exist for Dalits. There is also the complication that non-Untouchables have got them classified as "Dalits" in order to benefit from the reservations! However, the "creamy layer" among the Dalits is extremely thin, and the vast majority of Dalits continue to face discrimination against them in social life as well as in employment opportunities. In fact, the reservations offer, in many cases, only a theoretical benefit, as many government schools exist even today only on paper!
The Census now being carried out in India is the first one since the 1930s because, for various reasons, no one wanted to find out the current number of Dalits and people belonging to various religious and economic backgrounds.
When the current Census is completed later this year, we will be in a position to know something like the facts about the current situation.
However, what is clear is that the policy of abolishing untouchability and offering reservations based on caste has been a mixed success - and that, so far, the majority of Dalits continue to be the majority of those who have benefited least from India's development since the country became independent.
Much more needs to be done to ensure that the Dalits progress. Fully one-third of India lives on less than US Dollars 1.25 a day. Another one-third of India's population lives on more than US Dollars 1.25 but less than US Dollars 2.50 a day. The majority of Dalits fall into these two categories.
Some time ago, the Government of India commented to private companies that, in a liberalising economy, private companies needed to do much more than they were doing to employ Dalits, and that if private companies did not improve their record, then the government would consider requiring private companies by law to reserve a proportion of positions for Dalits. Companies have done something but, like the government itself, too little so far - and it is not clear whether the current administration has the ability or the determination to do more on that front.
Meanwhile,as I said, the picture is complicated because for example there are now many poor families from other castes - of course, they should also be helped to stand again on their own feet.
On the other hand, SOME Dalits have made significant or even substantial economic progress. That progress is used as an excuse by the educated classes not to exert oneself greatly in relation to these problems (with a handful of exceptions, of course).
My conclusion is that the problems that Dalits face have become invisible to educated Indians - but are glaringly obvious to any interested observer of the country.