Internet Social networking has speeded the exchange of information between Dalits in India and abroad: Dr. Meena Dhanda

...I have heard stories of sudden change in friendly relations when caste becomes known, although, this sort of expression of prejudice in personal relations does not get legally classed as discrimination, observes Dr. Meena Dhanda, a well known scholar in Philosophy and Cultural Politics, while sharing her views on various issues relating to the Indian Diaspora in general and Sikh Dalit Diaspora in particular in an interview with Vinod Sartape


Vinod Sartape (VS):  Dr. Dhanda, your academic works are wide ranging from both disciplinary as well as subject of study. Your research on issues such as personal identity, women, Dalits, Punjabi identity is well known and your recent works on Dalit Diaspora explores some of the new dimensions of identity within the diasporic context. Dalits are not a monolithic category even in India. How do you differentiate the Dalits originated from other parts of India and Dalits from Punjab?

Dr. Meena Dhanda (MD): It is right to note the diversity of Dalits in any location. Cultural tradition, history, socio-economic relations and even relationships between Dalit groups vary in different regions. The position of Dalits within Punjab is in some respects similar and in others remarkably different from their position in other parts of India. The similarity lies in that sanitation work is done largely by Valmikis and the leather industry largely employs Chamars/Ad Dharmis. There is some mobility, as some Dalits are small shop keepers, electricians, video cable operators. In cities with a high concentration of Dalits, such as, Navanshahr, one would find Dalits in many different strata: doctors, teachers, shop keepers, bank officials. One would have expected more mixing and greater mobility in larger cities, but my data from the most industrialized and largest city of Punjab, Ludhiana, with the lowest concentration of Dalits in Punjab, shows that amongst the Valmikis, there is very low literacy and very high unemployment amongst young Dalit men. The difference in the position of Punjabi Dalits lies in the salience of Punjab’s rootedness in the Sikh ethos, which has largely eroded untouchability, as noted by many researchers. But equally one must also note the resilience of casteism. I have paid some attention to inter-caste runaway marriages in Punjab, majority of which are inter-caste marriages between upper-castes, but I also found that there is perhaps a silent revolution taking place in that the border between the so called ‘savarna’ jatis and Dalits is also being breeched. Dalits are forthcoming in accepting this change, not so the ‘upper-castes’. In the villages, there are frequent clashes between Majhabi Sikhs (Dalits amongst Sikhs), who are mostly landless agricultural labourers (though in some regions of Punjab Dalits are small landowners too) and upper-caste Sikhs (Jat landowners) attesting to the growing assertion amongst Dalits. The political leadership in Punjab, of the ruling party as well as of the opposition, actively seeks to keep ‘good relations’ with Dalits. This is largely a vote-seeking measure and not a genuine concern with improvement in the lives of Dalits in Punjab.

VS: Dalit has had its origin in Hindu religion but now it is quite visible among the Indian communities from all major religious background found in India. How do religious identity, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim intermediate among the Punjabi Dalits?

MD: Sikhs like to proclaim that casteism is alien to their religious traditions. Yet there is evidence that even in some Gurdwaras, some voluntary duties, for example, distribution of Prashad, are denied to Dalits. The conundrum that is faced by Ravidassias (largely drawn from the Chamar caste) is whether or not to retain their fraternal ties with upper-caste Sikhs implied by their hitherto common worship of Shri Guru Granth Sahib ji, the uniquely designated Guru of the Sikhs or to severe these ties by adopting a separate Ravidassia identity differentiated symbolically through adopting the Amrit Bani, a recently popularized compilation of the verses of their Guru Ravidas (or Bhagat Ravidas as Sikhs would refer to him). Similarly, on the religious front, Valmikis, led by Darshan Ratan Raavan, are seeking to consolidate a religious identity distinct from Hindus. The annual gathering in Amritsar on 31 December (Yogima Parv) is a remarkable one with over 70,000 people, who take a procession on 1 January to Valmiki Teerath, on the outskirts of Amritsar, making a statement of religious solidarity, and giving inspiration to the younger generation of Valmikis to forge their destiny away from the debilitating superstitions and hierarchies of upper-caste Hindus. I have not done any work with Punjabi Muslim Dalits so I am not able to comment on how their religious practice impacts upon their caste status.

VS: What are the basic grounds where Dalits are being discriminated on the caste lines within the Indian diasporic community? Is there any institutional mechanism in Indian Diaspora to deal with the caste atrocities against Dalits?

MD: I am mostly familiar with the Dalit community in Britain, not in U.S.A. or Canada. Discrimination here is usually subtle but just under the surface. It erupts now and again. Within private employment, some people report cancellation of contracts when caste is divulged. In public jobs, refusal to offer services (e.g. in nursing care) has been reported when ‘touching’ might be involved across the caste border of ‘untouchability’. I have heard stories of sudden change in friendly relations when caste becomes known, although, this sort of expression of prejudice in personal relations does not get legally classed as discrimination. Thus far there is no institutional mechanism specifically to deal with Caste discrimination/prejudice.

VS: Recently the UK parliament had discussed the issues of caste. What are the complexities involve in dealing with “caste” a category quite alien to the British society? Do you think the caste discrimination will be prohibited if the laws against caste discrimination enacted in Britain and will have some impact elsewhere?

MD: The Sikh Council of UK has precisely challenged the definition of caste in the Equality Act 2010, Section 9 (5), a section which is yet to get activated. The ministers have relied on consultations with community groups e.g. CasteWatch UK, Voice of Dalit International (VODI), Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN), Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance on the one side and various South Asian religious organizations on the other. There is no consensus, as must be expected, in ideology, intent, or purpose of including ‘caste’ as a category in the law.

Recently, the House of Lords (4 March 2013) has passed an Amendment Clause to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill with an impressive majority (256 Contents; Not Contents 153) to include 'caste' as an aspect of 'race'. I am proud to say that I was present at the demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament to support this move and spoke to some of the peers before they went in to vote. Now, if the Amendment Clause is voted FOR by MPs in the Commons, MPs committed to removing caste discrimination, then Equality Act Section 9(5)a will be activated, as indeed it should be, truly to become a legal safeguard for victims of caste discrimination. The government’s alternative to legislation is to set aside £20000 for a programme called ‘Talk for a Change’. I think that talk of strengthening community relations is a smokescreen for avoidance of the real issue of bringing offenders to book. What is needed is that caste discrimination should become a legal offence as the Early Day Motion 1183 (primary sponsor Labour Party MP, Jeremy Corbyn) clearly states: "That this House supports the majority vote passed in the House of Lords to outlaw caste discrimination in the UK by including caste as an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010; notes the UK's international human rights obligations; and calls on the Government to reconsider its position and to uphold the essential British value of equality and justice." There is a vigorous campaign underway to lobby MPs to ratify the Lords decision and there is also a lot of opposition to the legislation from the Hindu and Sikh Councils in UK. It would be a historic development if the Amendment clause, introducing caste discrimination under the definition of race discrimination, in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is passed in the House of Commons, thus activating Section 9(5) in the Equality Act 2010.

VS: Dalit movement is crucial factor behind assertion of Dalits in India. Do you find the Dalit movement in India impacting on the Dalit mobilization abroad especially in UK, USA, Canada, etc? If so how does Dalit movement work in these places?

MD: I think that social networking through the internet has speeded the exchange of information between Dalit groups in India and those abroad. But so has the opposition to the Dalit movement redoubled its offensive through social networking. On balance, I think that the sharing of ideas, thinking of revolutionary steps to take the Dalit movement forward, and gaining support from like-minded individuals in India has visibly grown. There still is much work acutely needed on consolidation of ideas and ideological clarity.

VS: While taking a decision to migrate, people aspire for better opportunities. Migration most often facilitates the transformation in economic, political and social domains. In your view, what are the major transformations experienced by the Dalits in Britain?

MD: The main transformation is in economic advancement, but also specifically for women, in the far greater freedom of movement, without the threat of sexual assault. Both these transformations have opened many doors for Dalit men and women in Britain. Ownership of housing and other material assets, as well as upward professional mobility for the second generation has evidently taken place. Second and third generation Dalit men and women in Britain are highly educated.

VS: Most women from the South Asian countries are first or second generation migrants. Quite a substantial number of them are from middle class background. How do you find the position of South Asian women, and especially women from Dalit backgrounds, in the diaspora negotiating their place in a multicultural British society?

MD: Migrant Dalit women from India to Britain are likely to have come by way of marriage, or to join a parent who has previously migrated. There would be very few Dalits amongst middle-class women who migrate to Britain independently as students or, more recently, as employees in MNCs. I have already mentioned the greater social mobility that women experience even though many of them, like women everywhere, shoulder dual burdens of housework and holding on to jobs. Nonetheless, one must appreciate the relative autonomy that comes with economic independence. South Asian working class women in Britain have also been at the forefront of protests against bad employment conditions.

VS: In recent years we find scholars finding more interest on Diaspora studies. This can also be the case in the policy domain in developing as well as developed countries. At least a hundred major institutions across the globe including multilateral institutions such as UN bodies are working on the issues related to Diaspora. How do you see Diaspora as field of study within the Social Sciences or Humanities and what bearing it will have in the policy domain in the coming years?

MD: I think Diaspora as a field of study within the Social Sciences and Humanities addresses three main needs. Firstly, there is the need for the generation of ideas that address problems of assimilation or inclusion faced by host societies and of alienation and hostility experienced by migrants. Secondly, such studies might enable a better understanding for various investors of how best to forge links with India, amongst other emerging economic powers, perhaps, also by considering a greater mobility of labour across international borders. Finally, and most importantly for me, from the point of view of those who want to resist the worst effects of global capitalism, Diaspora studies could provide comparative perspectives, which show us the pitfalls we must avoid and the danger signals we must learn to read (e.g. the ill-effects of the slide towards privatization of essential services).

VS: Dr. Dhanda, it is nice to have your views on very important aspect of the diasporic existence today. We would like to hear about your present research work/project on Diaspora studies.

MD: Thank you. You might want to see the first ever televised public debate on Caste Discrimination in the U.K. (hosted by Apache Indian) aired in the programme ‘Real Talk’ on Brit Asia TV on 21 and 28 February 2013, in the attached link (for those who cannot watch it in its entirety, and want to know what I said, you'll find me at segments 18:34 to 24:42; 30:15 to 31:22; 1:17:15 to 1:21:09; about 11 minutes in all).

VS: Thank you for providing your precious time and ideas.


Dr. Meena Dhanda is a Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton. She was a Commonwealth Scholar and a Rhodes JRF at the University of Oxford. Her publications include The Negotiation of Personal Identity (Saarbruken: VDM Verlag, 2008), Reservations for Women (ed.) (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008) and several papers. As a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2010-12) she conducted primary research on Punjabi dalits, which she is currently shaping into a book: Caste Aside: A Philosophical Study of Cultural Identity and Resistance of Punjabi Dalits (New Delhi: Routledge, 2014).

Vinod Sartape is a Ph.D. scholar working on Diaspora issues at the Centre for Study of Social System, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Interview Date:   Sunday, Apr 14, 2013
Person Name:   Dr. Meena Dhanda

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