WHEN India's political parties were ready to make a Dalit the president of the republic, Kerala offered an eminently qualified candidate in KR Narayanan. More recently, the state provided the country its first Dalit chief justice.
But the emergence of a president and a chief justice from the Dalit ranks does not mean oppression and discrimination are things of the past. The long drawn out agitations of Dalits and Adivasis for land are stark reminders that their struggle for the right to live is not over.
Last week the police reported that Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM), a militant group, was responsible for a murder and an attempted murder at Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram district.
A section of the media, weary of the Muthoot murder case, found the police account of Dalit militancy a good diversion. Its formal denial by DHRM received little attention.
Soon there was a debate on whether Dalits were forsaking mainstream political parties and taking to the path of extremism.
Sivaprasad, a senior citizen, was killed on Sept.23 while on a morning walk in Varkala. Asokan, a tea stall owner, was attacked not far from the site of murder a little later.
The police, who took up investigation, said the next day both the attacks were the handiwork of DHRM activists. The assailants, who had no personal enmity towards the victims, had committed the violent acts to demonstrate the organisation's strength and create scare, it added.
The police said many DHRM activists were involved in the murder conspiracy. It also dropped hints about some extremist elements helping the group.
Director-General of Police Jacob Punnose, who visited Varkala and reviewed the progress of the investigation, was more circumspect than the local officials. He said whether DHRM as an organisation was involved in the murder and whether it was receiving assistance from extremists were matters under investigation.
Even as the police raids were continuing, young DHRM activists, men and women, wearing black T-shirts and blue trousers, staged a peaceful protest outside the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
The quick swoop on Dalit colonies across the state suggests the police had prior information about the DHRM network. The quick convergence of uniformed protestors in the state capital suggests DHRM has disciplined cadres.
The material made available by the police and other sources so far is insufficient to form any judgment about DHRM beyond that.
DHRM chairman Selvaraj and legal adviser Asokan are among the seven persons taken into custody in connection with the murder.
Reacting to reports of Dalit militancy, Electricity Minister AK Balan urged political parties to summon the will to address the problems of the community. In a subsequent comment, he said some people were trying to wean Dalits away from the mainstream.
Dalit disenchantment with the political parties in which they had placed their faith stems from the realisation that they were giving them a raw deal. During land reform, farms were transferred from landlords to tenants, bypassing the tillers, most of them Dalits.
While KR Narayanan and KG Balakrishnan exemplify the community's ability to progress through education, instances of discrimination persist.
M. Kunhaman, a Dalit professor with Left leanings, quit after being repeatedly bypassed by the Left-dominated bodies of Kerala University.
Official statistics show that Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) lag behind the rest. Only 19.52 per cent of the state's population depends upon agriculture for livelihood. The corresponding figures for Dalits and Adivasis, most of them landless, are 31.09 per cent and 54.79 per cent respectively.
According to the findings of the National Sample Survey, Dalits and Adivasis, who constitute 10 per cent and one per cent of the population respectively, account for 19 per cent and three per cent respectively of those below the poverty line.
The Planning Board's latest annual economic review says, "The incidence of deprivation among SCs and STs is 45.5 and 57.9 respectively while that for the total population is only 29.5."
Thiruvananthapuram is among the four districts where the SC population has a deprivation index of above 50. The Dalit colonies where the police is hunting for militants are miserable islands of poverty.
Clearly the problem is not that the Dalits are moving away from the mainstream but that they are yet to be brought into it. It is well known that political intermediaries siphon off much of the funds earmarked for the welfare of the poor. -- Gulf Today, October 5, 2009.