More than 16 percent of our population comprises of the scheduled castes. Owing to a long history of social exclusion, a section of our society was not exposed to opportunities of personal growth and development. This section was called ‘Depressed classes’ by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Coming from the same social background Babasaheb was cognizant of the needs and challenges of the community. In course of his public life, Babasaheb scaled great heights of achievement. After being educated at institutions of eminence worldwide, he came back to homeland to work in the furtherance of interest of the community.
Being the chairperson of the drafting committee of the constitution of India, he ensured special preference is given in education and employment to people coming from the so-called depressed classes. Apart from affirmative action in specific sectors, he also ensured political representation of socially and politically deprived segments of our society through reservation of seats in union parliament and state legislatures. However no such measures were adopted in nomination to the upper house of the parliament (Rajya Sabha) and the state legislative councils.
History is often a product of interactions between individuals and circumstances. Similarly, Dalit history is fraught with examples of heroes and heroines who successfully contested the challenges thrown upon them by the prevailing social order and emerged subsequently with renewed strength. Dakshayani Velayudhan was a first Dalit woman to be a member in the constituent assembly of India that went on to draft the Constitution of this country. Babu Jagjivan Ram again was the member of the first union cabinet of independent India. He played a stellar role as defense minister of India during the 1971 war that led to birth of a new nation. Gary Bass, noted American diplomat and author of ‘The Blood Telegram’, refers to him as the most hawkish defense minister. Likewise, there are many legends who sacrificed their present in the interest of the future of the Dalit community.
Globally, there are strong constitutional measures to ensure justice to the weaker segments of the society. American society is hugely diverse in nature. Historically, American citizens who are of African- American origin have had suffered unfortunate predicament by the dominant nativists. Keeping this in mind, American policy makers had made clauses for ‘Affirmative Action’ and ‘Positive Discrimination’. Such policy measures are usually envisioned to warrant effective representation in key areas and equitable distribution of national resources.
Indian experience also entails similar constitutional scheme to empower those who were left behind in the course of history of our nation. There are many important provisions enshrined in the constitution for the same.
Article 17 is a considered a pioneering effort towards bringing social reforms. By enacting this Article, the government of independent India acted earnestly to abolish the scourge of social discrimination. The Constitution-makers not only provided for criminalizing any form of social discrimination but also punishing those who practice such discriminations.
Similarly, Article 46 states, “The state shall promote with special care the educational and economic interest of the weaker sections of the people, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” To achieve this objective, Article 15(4) empowers the State to make special provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward class of the citizens and for SCs. This article enabled the State to reserve seats for SCs in educational institutions.
Article 335 is an enabling provision which allows relaxation in qualifying marks for admission in educational institutes or promotions for SCs/STs. Similarly, Article 243D mentions reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in every Panchayat.
While Article 243T provides for reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in every Municipality, Article 330 makes provision reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in the House of the People and Article 332 in the Legislative Assemblies of the States.
The Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) act, 1989 is another protective legislation intended for providing a legislative umbrella against caste based violence and discrimination. Only recently some important amendments were effectuated by adding more teeth to it. The list of offences inflicted upon the person from socially deprived communities has been made more exhaustive like garlanding with footwear, imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott etc. This amendment has also added a separate chapter according rights to victims and witnesses.
Many schemes highlight that the governments are committed to the cause of up-liftment of Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of the population. Various landmark initiatives have been initiated under the various regimes to eliminate poverty and empower the weaker sections of the society. Much has been done, much needs to be done.
Read in Hindi: स्वतंत्र भारत के 70 सालों में सतत सामाजिक न्याय की परंपरा...
(Author is working as a Senior Research Fellow and Project Head at India Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed in the article are his personal.)