Q: What is the literal meaning of “Dalit”?
Dalit is a Sanskrit word from the root dal, meaning “broken” or “crushed”. Dr B R Ambedkar or Jotiba Phule (1827-1890, a social reformer and revolutionary) are variously credited with using the word Dalit for untouchables, as broken victims of the caste system.
In the 1970s, the Dalit Panther Movement (Maharashtra, India) adopted the term Dalit. Today, the word is widely used, especially by Dalit people themselves.
Q: If it wasn’t for the Guru Granth Sahib then Guru Ravidas’s legacy and bani wouldn’t have survived?
This question is erroneous and is sadly based on ignorance; there is a larger corpus of shabads that have been preserved independent of the Guru Granth Sahib. In total Guru Ravidas’s bani is based primarily upon twelve manuscript sources which date from AD 1582 to AD 1698. The manuscripts come from four traditions. First, a non-sectarian tradition represented by the Fatehpur Manuscript of AD 1582. Second the Dadu Panthi tradition, represented by eight Manuscript Source of AD 1636 to AD 1698. Third, a Rajasthani Nath Siddha tradition represented by two Manuscript Source of AD 1660 and AD 1681, and fourth, the Punjabi tradition as represented by the Adi Granth of AD 1603-4.
Q: Are we Sikhs or Hindus?
We can be one or the other, or we can be neither. This identity conundrum isn’t only just confined to the chamar caste, for example there are more Hindu and Muslim Jats than there are Sikh Jats. Similarly there are also Muslim, Buddhist and Christian Chamars, but over the years we are finding more and more Chamars embracing their Ravidassia identity as they have found that despite embracing other religions they have not been able to escape the stigma of caste.
Q: There is a strong argument that by strengthening your own caste identity you are inadvertently supporting the caste system, do you agree?
In short no! Look at the Afro-Americans in America. They are challenging white hegemony, not by denying their blackness, but precisely by stressing it, by cultivating pride in being black. This is also what we are trying to do. We need to strengthen our own caste identities in order to counter casteism or caste oppression. We have to take pride in being Chamars. We have to recover our own histories, and our own stories of caste struggle. Any community which forgets its past, its identity, is doomed to slavery.
Q: How do Dalits fare against the poverty line?
The poorest people in the world subsist on an income of less than one US dollar a day. (The World Bank “extreme economic poverty” line for India is set at US$1.08 a day.) Roughly half the Dalit population lives at or below this level of income; compared with about one-third of the total population of India.
Q: What is a scheduled caste? …a scheduled tribe?
The British listed the poorest (principally Dalit) sub-castes in 1935, creating detailed lists of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
The 1948 Indian constitution, thanks to its architect Dr B R Ambedkar, reinforced this classification, for a system of affirmative action called reservation. The concept was that these measures would help the poorest to escape poverty and oppression.
Q: What is “reservation”?
Reservation is an attempt by the Indian national government to redress past discrimination. The constitution reserves 22.5% of national government jobs, state legislature seats, seats in the lower house of the national parliament and higher education places for members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Unfortunately, this policy has not been implemented in full. Less than half the national government quota had been filled in total in 1998 and less than 15% of “reserved” public sector jobs. An unspoken policy discriminates in favour of upper castes, particularly Brahmins. Dalit representation in university teaching posts is less than 1%.