Dalits in India 2000

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Shyama Venkateswar Good afternoon. My name is Shyama Venkateswar. I am a Senior Program Officer at the Asia Society. I am pleased to welcome to the Asia Society, Mr. Sainath, both a journalist and an author and currently an Eisenhower fellow travelling across the United States. He has also previously been a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Iowa, Times of India fellow and a deputy editor at The Blitz in Bombay. He is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest District, which is now in its eighth printing.

Sainath’s work is on the Dalit question in India. As many of you know Dalit literally means oppressed, downtrodden and it is a category that is used to describe 16 percent of India’s population or almost 160 million people. Mr Sainath was given an award from Amnesty International for his article on "A Dalit goes to Court."

The Dalit issue today is one of the worst examples of discrimination against, and the oppressive living conditions of, millions of people in India. This discrimination persists despite government efforts to improve the situation through affirmative action policies and land reform policies in the last 50 years which were ostensibly directed toward access to education and government jobs and geared towards improving the condition of bonded laborers. Of course, we cannot discount the fact that some upward mobility has occurred for Dalits, but the mobility has clear regional differences in terms of land ownership, political power and social status.

It is precisely this kind of uneven mobility and the low status of this group that calls into question the effectiveness of government policies and also focuses on the inherent prejudices and racism, if you will, within the caste system in India. Finally, and I hope Mr. Sainath will touch on this, a critical element in discussing the status of Dalits in India is the question of women within the Dalit community who face the dual brunt of discrimination - based on their caste and their gender. With this introduction, I now turn to Mr. Sainath. Welcome.

P. Sainath Before I begin, I would just like to say a couple of words about the project I am involved in right now, which was backed by the Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship and The Hindu newspaper, which has been running a series of reports on the condition of Dalits throughout the country. So far I have covered 10 states and if after the talk you wish to have a glance at the kind of stuff that has appeared so far, these are 40 reports The Hindu has thus far carried on very different issues. I intend to cover all the states and a couple of union territories as well so the evidence is national. I am not an academic, I was trained to be a historian but went into journalism 20 years ago and remained there. My method of doing this is very simple, it is similar to what I followed when I wrote the book Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

The book that Shyama was mentioning, which is in its eighth printing is actually a collection of field reports from the forest districts of India. In one sense, the method of working on these has been absolutely the same. I go to the villages and stay with the community. I stay in the village for the time I need to write the story and I try looking at things from their perspective. That is what the reporting part is about. Let me try to give you an idea of the scope of the problem involved. The 16.48 per cent of the population that we are taking about - and I suspect that in a few months you will see it is around 17-17.5 per cent in the next census because the poor tend to have larger families and higher growth rates. So I think you are going to see 175 million people from the scheduled caste at the very minimum.

What does it means in terms of size? There are more Dalits in India than there are people in Pakistan. There are more Dalits in India than there are people in Brazil, marginally more. If taken as a national population they would be the fifth largest in the world after China, India, the United States and Indonesia. You are really taking about a very large section of humanity. They comprise about 16.48 per cent of India’s population and their contribution in terms of labor and their contribution to culture is enormous and significantly larger than their share in the population. What is disproportionately lower relative to their size in the population is their ownership of land and property and their access to education and to employment of a serious, meaningful and gainful nature.

In the last three years I have spent about 800 days in Dalit settlements across the country. Eighty-four per cent of these settlements will be rural and 16 per cent of them will be urban- based because I have tried to be consistent with the demographic divide that the census shows. The stories I am doing will reflect that demographic balance.

The issue I thought I would throw up here today is an issue I became conscious of while I was working on poverty. It was then that I realized I was weak on the question of caste and decided not to focus on that too much. It was far too complex and it also pertained to an area that is a gaping hole, a big silence in Indian public discourse, and I will show you that in figures.

I did a survey of a quarter of a million centimetres of news on Dalits in the Indian press. A quarter of a million taken at random from The Center for Education and Documentation in Bombay so whatever they had on their files on Dalits we scanned back. There was a lot of reporting on major atrocities; if over 25 people get killed you cover it because of the number, that is the way the page positioning is decided. If it is over 25, you make front pages. In the incredible amount of material on Dalits, the quarter of a million centimetres on Dalits, one word was conspicuous in its absence: untouchability. In this quarter of a million words on Dalits the word ‘untouchability’ appeared nine times, four times in a single article by Ramachandra Guha. Of the remaining five times, it appeared three times because of a misunderstanding on the part of the journalist that the Prevention of Atrocities Act is sometimes referred to by police officers as the Untouchability Act.

There is no such thing called the Untouchability Act. So out of nine references, four came out of an article by a single author, three were actually referring to a particular act and getting the name wrong, and two references appeared in the words of a Dalit saying that they are suffering untouchability (the same person in this article was quoted twice). This is rather alarming compared to the prevalence of the practice of untouchability which is regrettably widespread even fifty years after the constitution abolished it.

Consider that a quarter of a million words can produce nine mentions of the subject (and only four times in any seriousness), and it shows us that there’s a gaping hole, a silent area, an area we don’t want to get into. Since 1993 I have spent an average of 240 days in rural India and have become increasingly conscious of the various forms of exclusion. I will go over some of the forms of exclusion and then immediately stop because Shyama suggested that we do this as an exchange.

I think it is untouchability more than anything else that is responsible for the denial of human rights to this group of people. In fact untouchability is central to caste. I do not see untouchability as a social evil and to call it a social evil is to trivialize it enormously. It is and has been for a very long time an extremely sophisticated economic and political strategy for ensuring a perpetual pool of demoralized, cheap labor that has no sense of its bargaining power.

This forced labor or free labor is not accounted for in the gross domestic product of the Indian economy. No one has ever done a calculation and I will come to that in terms of women’s work. Shyama was mentioning that the burden of Dalit women is a dual burden; I would say it is a triple burden because the bulk of Dalits are also landless.

When I am taking about Dalits I am taking about people who are very largely poor. Who are the Indian poor? Forty per cent of the Indian poor are landless agricultural laborers, 45 per cent are small and marginal farmers, 60 per cent of them own less than one hectare and of the remaining 15 per cent, 7.5 percent are rural weavers and other kinds of artisans. What does that show you? It shows you that 85 per cent of the poor people’s problem is directly linked to land. That is the issue we will come back to because central to the Dalit question again is land, or rather the lack of land.

Now the Dalits form the single largest group of agricultural laborers in the country: the landless agricultural laborers. This happens to be the poorest and the most vulnerable section of Indian society. This is the group of society that has taken the worst beating in the last 10-11 years of economic change. Within this group, the largest share of agricultural labor is Dalit, of which the majority are Dalit women. India’s food is produced primarily by Dalit women. They are the lowest paid section of agrarian society. Therefore, it is a triple burden: a burden of class, caste and gender.

Fifty-three years after independence a vast mass of this group still lives in segregated sections in the overwhelming majority of Indian villages. I saw one very sympathetic story on TV of a very poor village in Chattisgarh and the passion of the reporter really moved me. The poor reporter did not know that the four people around him were the richest landlords in the region (one whose hospitality I enjoyed for a week and envied his wealth) but they were not wearing shirts so the reporter thought they were poor. They were not wearing shirts because they were farmers and it was the agricultural season . Villages are poor, you see, so everybody is poor, that is the media stereotype.

However, Dalits live in segregated colonies on the outskirts of villages. It is very important to know where their position is relative to the village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, you will find Dalits on the southern border or the southern outskirts of the village. There is a religious rationalization for this. In good Hindu theology, Lord Yama dwells in the South. A good Hindu should not sleep with his head facing the South because if Lord Yama is looking for an after-dinner snack, you are in trouble. So the external rationalization for positioning the Dalit basti in the South is the religious rationalization.

I am simplifying many things here because we do not have the time to go into details but I want to give you a sense of what happens. Suddenly you will find in Rajasthan, my friend’s home state, the rationalization of the reasoning will change and the Dalit bastis will appear in the east and the northeast of the village. This mystified me no end. Did Yama take a different route in Rajasthan? There must be some reason for this. There is a good economic reasoning for it. The positioning of the basti is determined by how the river runs, how the water runs and how the stream of irrigation runs.

Typically, the forward caste will till at the head of the water, the middle caste will till in the middle water, and the tail water will be left to the lower caste and the Dalits. Now in Rajasthan this problem does not arise, since there is no water, no river in the border areas. So how is the positioning of the Dalit basti determined in Rajasthan? In all other parts of the country where the river water runs north to south, the Dalit basti will be in the south. Why is it on the east and northeast there? This happens because Dalits work on leather, which stinks and our sacred nostrils cannot be offended by this menial activity, so we place them outside, so the smell of carcasses and tanning does not enter the village.

So whatever the religious or mythological reasoning, there are hard realities to contend with in terms of resources. If you go to the sand dunes of Barmer, if you go to the border district, you will find another very interesting phenomenon where Lord Yama’s trail changes its strategy yet again. There it is not a question of north and east, it is a question of up and down. If you go to a village like Gumanakatala (which means Gumana’s well), you will find that upper caste people live on top of sand-dunes while villagers live at the bottom, but you will also find that their roles are completely reversed when it comes to doing agriculture. The Rajput lives at the top and the Dalits live at the bottom. The Rajputs live at the top of the dune, where there is security, it is cooler, and it is generally more comfortable. But when it comes to tilling land, when it comes to agriculture, the Rajputs come below and till the land where the Dalits live and Dalits go further out into the desert to till whatever little land they may have.

Why is this so? Because the little rainwater there is runs off the dunes, so the advantages of living at the top are lost when it comes to agriculture. So when you need to till your land, the land where the Dalits live is more fertile because of the water from the dunes. So I can live here but I cannot till here. The segregation of the Dalit basti from the rest of the village is sanctified and legitimized by the Government of India, programs like the Indira Awaas Yojana which continue to build Dalit houses in Dalit colonies. They continue to build Adivasi houses in Adivasi colonies. So the principle of segregation is now a part of national strategy programs, whether this is thought out or stupidity, I leave for you to decide.

Across the country, you will see fights going on, and just because we do not cover them does not mean they are not happening. There are a number of fights over burial grounds and burning ghats because in a very large number of villages, the Dalits are not allowed to use the burial grounds. Contrary to popular myth, a lot of Indians bury their dead because the very poor cannot afford fuel. In fact, even some people who are not lower castes, like the Lingayats in Karnataka, bury their dead.

But we have this romantic notion that everybody in India cremates. This is not true. It should be understood that when I am speaking of caste and untouchability it is reflected in every single religion of the Indian subcontinent, nobody is exempt.

If you go to a Christian graveyard you will find all the graves neatly arranged according to caste. If you go to Kerala today, you will find that the same religious denomination has four different churches in the same area organized by caste. Kerala was one of the places where they introduced reform in the Catholic Church by doing away with the holy community. They did away with it because the idea of drinking wine from the same glass as the upper castes was simply too much and the upper caste revolted and threatened to reconvert to Hinduism if this was imposed. So in the name of hygiene it was abolished.

The third kind of exclusion you will encounter is that whether you go to Pudukotai in Tamil Nadu or to Gulbarga in Karnataka or Bharatpur in Rajasthan or Mehbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh or Navapada in Orissa, to this day, the Dalit postman does not cycle through the upper caste section of the village. He parks his cycle and walks through that section of the village because otherwise he will be beaten for the insolence of daring to enter on a cycle.

I entered Alkuru village in Mehbubnagar in 1998. It became a big issue in the legislature of the Andhra Pradesh assembly at a time when a Dalit boy had succeeded in getting a job, was very proud of it and like a good Andhra wore a white shirt and white pants and came back on a new cycle. In addition, he entered the village in his excitement, going through the backward-caste section of the basti. When I came he was being taken to the hospital after having been beaten to a pulp for entering the main part of the village on his bike.

Incidentally many of the things I am telling you about are written year after year in the government’s official reports. In the annual reports produced by the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, this issue is dealt with quite plainly. These reports are given to the President of India, and then presented to Parliament. Any investigative report that is placed before Parliament is placed under ATR. You can imagine the logistics of getting action reports from 25 states and union territories. In 1999, for instance, the Indian Parliament discussed the report of 1988 when most of the cases had been thrown out of court for want of evidence, many of the biggest and openly self-proclaimed killers had been acquitted, and many of the victims had been forced to withdraw their charges. In the village of Kumher, Rajasthan, for example, the victims were forced to withdraw charges when forty ministers and 250 members of parliament visited the area eight years after the massacre.

The most obvious sign of this oppression is the two-glass system. Teashops keep separate glasses for untouchables and Dalits because at the heart of untouchability is the notion of “ritual pollution.” People who perform certain functions like disposing of carcasses or cleaning latrines are considered polluted. This is the central argument of untouchability. Of course, as Shyama said a lot of things have changed and they have changed for the better, largely as a result of public action.

There are an incredible plethora of laws on this. You have a law on the abolition of manual scavanging. Every municipal corporation in the country employs the scavagers and denies them officially. They are there because someone has to clear the shit. On the other hand a state like Kerala has no scavengers; they did not pass a law but there was this dignity and self-respect movement that did away with it. Novelists in the ‘60s wrote powerful books; The Son of a Scavenger was one such book. Kerala has serious caste problems and serious Dalit problems but public action and a conscious citizenry make a big difference.

So these separate glasses in some parts of Mehbub Nagar hang outside in a basket. I have got pictures which have been published widely in the Times of India and The Hindu where the glasses are kept in a barred window and you take the glass from outside the window. When this story appeared I am very happy to say that the Andhra government was infuriated and the first discussion in 37 years on caste took place. They set up a one-man commission with Justice Ponaiyya (who is part of the constitutional review committee) and the idea was that my stories would be discredited. Instead, Justice Ponaiyya ended up saying that he had gone to the villages and that I had understated the case.

This Ponaiyya Report is due out any day now and he has said that the situation has degenerated. Dalits can be beaten up for dressing better. In the Hindi belt, in a traditional Indian wedding, no Dalit can mount a horse in a barat (bridegroom’s party). Most riots during weddings are over this issue because a Dalit mounting a horse is an affront to the social hierarchy. This is faithfully reflected in the South in another way. I was born in Andhra and brought up in Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu when women came into the Panchayat after 1973, an amendment was passed that reserved 33 per cent of seats in local government for women and a large number of Dalit women came into local governance.

In six of the villages I went to, the resolutions of the Panchayat resolved that the committee will buy chairs for the office to avoid having Dalits on an equal footing with others.

If you go to Haryana, this is not an issue because in Haryana the upper castes will sit on the chair and the Dalit Sarpanch will sit on the floor. Dalit women representatives are excluded by very creative means in different places in various parts of the country. We were talking about regional variations. I mean the amount of creativity in this is simply stunning. That is what I call the Bundelkhand method, the Haryana method.

The Bundelkhand method is very simple: the night before there are votes on a major issue half the Panchayat goes on a pilgrimage. The Dalits are forced at gunpoint to go to a temple a hundred miles away. So although the Dalits are in a majority in the Panchayat, they lose the vote because half the Panchayat cannot vote. That is the Bundelkhand method.

A pan-Indian method is to bog down the electorate. Dalit women who become Sarpanch as a result of affirmative action programs are often manipulated and intimidated out of office, and often into jail. The more feudal the area, the more likely this is to happen.

The third method, probably the cleverest and most sophisticated, involves common property resources. One of the biggest issues raging in the countryside is the privatization of common property resources that is crushing agricultural laborers. Traditionally every village had a common patch. The reason why the ruling elites tolerated the common patch was because they needed the labor of the poor. So you give them some ground where they had some neem trees, mango trees, and perhaps where there was a stream, from where they could fetch water, graze cattle, etc. Now technology is pushing the poor out of these regions. In Haryana, for instance, if 1,000 people were once needed for a particular job, by the ‘70s the tractor came and reduced that 1,000 to 200, so it no longer made sense to have such extensive common property resources. Struggles were going on over common property resources in Haryana and the Dalits swept the elections and especially the women won handsomely in the elections. In the Panchayats of Bandh and Kachroli, in both these villages the women dominated the Panchayat, now their life depends on that common patch.

If you privatize that common patch you are killing them. Despite the number, the upper castes still manage to win the vote since in every village in India the infrastructure is concentrated in the upper caste colonies. The village bank, if there is one, will be in the upper caste colony; the water tank if there is one, will be in the upper caste colony, etc. The panchayat meeting will be called late at night and no Dalit woman enters the basti after 6pm. So simply by holding the meeting 9:30pm will insure that over half of the members will not be able to attend because the women are terrified of entering that colony. The upper castes will simply conclude that these uneducated people do not come for meetings, so they win, and this is how the common lands are privatized.

Let us talk about education in India because there are mistaken ideas about how much access the lower castes have. The vast majority of students who drop out in elementary school are lower-caste girls. If you take a class like Jabuya, the education of the upper classes is entirely funded by the Adivasis because in any district the Dalits are in a majority. The Social Welfare Department pays for the education and Jabuya in Madhya Pradesh has a tribal majority.

If you go to primary school in Jabuya, the demographic division will be honestly reflected in class one: 85 per cent will be tribals and 15 per cent will be non-tribals. By the time you get to high school, the percentage is exactly reversed. This is the problem the government of Madhya Pradesh has wrestled with for years but they are at least serious about it. Dalit girls drop out because of child labor and acute poverty but also because of the torture inflicted on them by fellow students. These girls tend to be bhangis, the ones who clean latrines and you don’t need to be an expert on caste to know who the bhangi girls are because they are not allowed to sit with the rest of the class. They sit in the corner, near the door, where the shoes of the other students are kept. They are not allowed to sit on the pattis that other Indian rural students sit on, they have their own sacks. When the girl enters the class, all the other children mock them and start singing, “Bhanghi ayee hai (the latrine-cleaner has come). The girl bursts into tears and runs away and refuses to go back to school.

It is very important to mention that this happens in 90 per cent of Dalit-majority schools because untouchability is such a phenomenon that there is severe and extensive practice of untouchability among the Dalits, within the scheduled class. It is the absorption of the ideology of the oppressor. It is always nice to have someone below you whom you can beat up. In all the villages of Navapada the headmasters divide the children on the basis of caste at the time of the midday meal. The reason for this is ritual pollution.

I went to the headmaster and asked him if they were segregated. He denied the fact that they were segregated. Each group was sitting together in the corridor. When the eating is done the cleaning up has to be done by a cleaning woman. If the Dalits are sitting there she does not clean. Dalit children have to clean and mop up and sweep the place, which would be fine if all children were doing it. This is going on today in Kalahandi, Navapada and in Bolangia district in Orissa. In Tamil Nadu it showed up in different forms. The most extraordinary story we covered was in the Tutkudi district of Tamil Nadu, a school kabaddi match led to 24 dead because the headmaster in his wisdom divided the two teams on the basis of Marawar vs. Pallav, Tavar vs. Dalit. The Dalits won the match and that was it. A spiral of violence was in the district leading to one-way killings and the Tamil Nadu government is still dealing with it. It’s out of control in Tamil Nadu in some respects, that kind of thing.

Another kind of exclusion is that millions of people in this country do not have the right to enter the temples. In Karnataka, for instance, there was an ordinary victory where ordinary people banded together united in an association and went into the temple and beat drums in it. In Nataduara temple, throughout the early 1980s, Swami Agnivesh protested to gain entry for the Dalits but commerce did it because the huge amount of violence there saw a drop in tourist traffic. So now they can’t explicitly exclude Dalits so what happens instead is that no shop in the lanes of the temple will hire a Dalit and no Dalit is a permanent employee of the Municipal Corporation. They are all contract-employees of the temple.

If you think this is all so rural and remote, please understand that there is an enormous amount of discrimination in the urban areas. In the capital city of Delhi, we have had a problem over a major medical college. This has made front pages in the national newspapers and nobody has been punished. A national hostel was segregated and all Dalit students were kept to one floor. The tables were also segregated.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, BHEL has spit on purely caste lines because the Dalits working in that organization felt that they were being sidelined. They decided to leave those unions and form their own union. I went there and investigated what the complaints were and a majority of the complaints were valid. In campus housing I found that if one of my fellow Brahmins showed up on campus, no matter how long the waiting list is, he gets the house. If a Dalit shows up, however, he can wait for four years without getting a house.

I have done a survey of bank postings. There are lots of Dalits in banks because of affirmative action . Find me one Dalit who is in charge of loans and advances. They are never given the prime portfolios within the bank. One of the strangest phenomena now arising has to do with false certificates. Lot of Dalits are changing their names to escape discrimination. Even if you are a Tahsildar you will find it difficult to get accommodation. A lot of Dalits at the lower rungs of the government service have legally changed their names. Any day of the week if you look at the Rajasthan Patrika there will be poll deeds: “I so-and-so Maurya changing my name to Mahinder Singh Deo because I am not going to get housing unless I do.” The leader of the Communist Party in Kumher changed his name in order to find a place to live in Jaipur. So the actual gap between Dalits and non-Dalits is very wide.

If you think this is something of the past and is a rural phenomenon, I suggest you go to the net and look at the matrimonial columns of any major newspaper, including the matrimonial sites of oversees Indian. You will see people not only asking for brides from the same linguistic group but they seek also the same caste and the same sub-caste.

I wanted also to emphasize that this is an all-pervasive phenomenon across every religion in India. If you go Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh you will find that the caste system that exists in the Hindu community is faithfully represented in the Muslim community because caste is much larger than religion in many respects. The problem of caste does not arise so much in Buddhism because there are no untouchables. In that sense it must be seen as exempt. We have only covered 20 per cent of what we wanted to. However we will stop there and discuss anything you like.

Shyama Venkateswar Thank you very much, Mr. Sainath, for a thoughtful, provocative and dismaying talk. I would like to open up the floor for questions.

Question Many of you may have seen a 60 Minutes feature on CBS with Christiane Amanpour which focused on caste conflict in India and the status of night-soil workers, particularly in a village in South India. The feature was an effective commentary on the intertwining of class, caste and gender issues. The subtext of that 60 Minutes video was that the only way out of this situation is an armed response; the video shows people arming themselves to protect themselves from upper-caste violence. The question then is do you think this is an accurate depiction? Is change possible from within the system, through democratic institutions or is an armed response the only solution?

P. Sainath Absolutely. Let me make a fundamental point here in my way of seeing the world. I write for an Indian audience. They are familiar with how certain things work in their own life. I must say that each time I come back from the countryside, I feel encouraged by the resilience of ordinary people. The circumstances under which they stand up and fight. Often I see people fighting who are going to lose but who are not willing to compromise their democratic rights. I completed 20 years of my life as a journalist on September 20, and I have never seen the Indian poor as assertive regarding their human rights as they are today.

These things happened twenty years ago, they were not reported. People are now fighting back, and for me that mould is breaking, the silence is breaking. Our job is to smash that silence. This shows in a variety of ways. The reason the old landed elements are reacting so much to the Dalits is because that nominal extension of democracy threatens them so much. They have worked the lever of power much better. Nothing entertains me more than the middle class fear of instability. The whole bloody country is burning around us. I am for instability. I love elections; I wish we would have one every year. But the fact is that the chattering classes in India do not vote.

I agree with the political point you are making and I agree with your point about despair but I come back wondering whether I would have the courage to handle the kind of situation the Dalits face and my conclusion is no. I think some great things have happened in India in the last 50 years. Fundamental conditions have changed. The ruled are not willing to be ruled in the old way. The rulers cannot rule in the old way. In some parts of the country I could not endorse your view more. If I were living in those parts of the country, I would be for armed struggle. But there are other regions where people have worked it differently.

Where I support your point entirely is the incredible failure of the law. If you take Rajasthan, one Dalit women is raped every 60 hours, there are arson attacks every four days. I am just trying to offer the possibility that something else might happen.

In the Andhra legislature, as this whole debate over whether these stories were true or false was going on and the Justice Purniyya Commission was announced, mobs gathered. An organized crowd of 30,000 people gathered there and went and broke 3,000 glasses in their respective districts. I think that sort of action is a must.

Smita Narula My name is Smita Nirula. I work with Human Rights Watch. I would like to say that I am aware of your work and I respect it highly. I want to thank you for your talk and to also thank the Asia Society for having such an important subject for discussion. As you know we released a report last year looking at caste-based violence and discrimination which Dalits face. The report also led to the formation of a national campaign for human rights. As you rightly said, the alternative lies in the action of the people. The campaign is expanding its focus to 11 countries.

My question is that one of the things that the campaign did was to release black papers detailing lots of statistics on education, reservations that the governments are not providing. One of the things they looked at and one of the things our report looked at is the implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. My first question is whether you are looking into the Prevention of Atrocities Act which many people feel will revolutionize the legal system as it applies to punishing those who commit atrocities in its own limited way? The second question is that the campaign is doing so much and getting very little press coverage. Can you talk a little bit about prejudices within the press in India?

P.Sainath It is very difficult to talk a little bit about the press and its prejudices. (laughter) Let me answer the second question first. It’s my conclusion that of all the institutions of Indian society there is none that is so unrepresentative as the media. It is the most elitist sector. You can search from Kanyakumari to Kashmir for a Dalit editor in a mainstream journal at any position above chief-sub and you will not find one. You will find extremely talented Dalit journalists but you will never find them occupying positions inside newspapers. They are completely marginalized in the media. In the government they can’t be marginalized because of affirmative action to some extent but in media they are marginalized. That’s the first thing.

The second thing about the national campaign… I am very well aware of them, I know these people very well. I know Henry Tiffany very well. When they held their public hearing on April 18 it was a very moving experience for me. I refused to be in the jury. I said it was not for a journalist to be on the jury. They sent me a summons as a witness. So that was a legitimate role and I went. I am glad that I did. One, I was very moved by the fact that a lot of the cases presented were indeed from The Hindu newspaper series and it was also an opportunity for me… I knew 60 per cent of the audience because they were the people in the stories. I was seeing them all in one hall, it was a very moving experience. Apart from The Hindu, other major newspapers did not give any coverage to the public hearing. There is a very discriminatory attitude towards the whole thing. If you don’t see it, it does not happen. That’s the thing about the press. It is extremely unrepresentative, very hostile. There are ways we can break it. We are trying. The royalties of the book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, are entirely written to young rural journalists and the first winner was an Adivasi journalist. Next are two young Dalit reporters from Kalahandi. I mean we have to try, we have to try to break through these barriers. I think it can happen. I think it can be done.

I have actually worked very hard on the Prevention of Atrocities Act. I have looked through police files looking for false cases. The only false cases that we found were filed under coercion from a landlord; there were two such cases. The other thing was the conviction rate on genuine cases. In Rajasthan the conviction rate for atrocities acknowledged to have happened (ie, the police agree that these atrocities occurred) was less than three per cent. In Dolpur district I had access to the actual files of the cases, and the conviction rate was 2.5 per cent. In Tonk district it was 1.5 per cent. The judge was writing law. The highest punishment was Rs. 500 fine and one year’s probation. I don’t know what 1 year’s probation means in the legal system but anyway, the judge knows more than I do. The result of this was that anti-scheduled crimes between 1981 and 1991 went up 23 or 24 per cent.

So, yes, the Prevention of Atrocities Act has very stringent provisions but your rights are as secure as the process that defends them. I think that the Indian Constitution has some really tremendous things on paper. I mean it has the abolition of child labor on paper. It has women as equals. It will put women in a much better position if it is implemented. But who is to implement it? Here again the role of mass movements and public action becomes important. But, yes, to answer your question, the Prevention of Atrocities Act could be a very powerful instrument if implemented. Let me mention now the international campaign in December submitted 2.5 million and 20 lakh signatures to the Prime Minister as part of the Act.

Shyama Venkateswar Unfortunately we are out of time. Thank you all for coming and thank you, Mr. Sainath, for helping to generate a very lively discussion this afternoon.