Between promise and action: Dalits in post-2014 India

The BJP administration, led by PM Narendra Modi, has established an ethno-religious and populist style of rule since 2014. As this majoritarian ideology pervades the media and public discourse, it also affects the judiciary, universities and cultural institutions, increasingly captured by Hindu nationalists. Dissent and difference are silenced and debate increasingly sidelined as the press is muzzled or intimidated in the courts.

Edited by Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot, Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India traces the ascendance of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India. It is a collection of essays that offers rich empirical analysis and documentation to investigate the causes and consequences of the illiberal turn taken by the world’s largest democracy. The following is an excerpt from Sukhadeo Thorat’s essay “Dalits in Post-2014 India: Between Promise and Action” of the book.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to appropriate Dr B.R. Ambedkar, knowing completely that Ambedkar’s views on many issues deviated considerably from the party’s ideological position. This was particularly the case with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, allegedly, felt ‘indebted’ to Dr Ambedkar for inspiring him to push forward the cause of depressed castes. This appropriation of Dr Ambedkar was brought into play by making open commitments to Dalit upliftment. These commitments were reflected in the BJP’s 2014 poll manifesto which promised to do many things for the Dalits: a section titled ‘SCs, STs and other Weaker Sections: Social Justice and Empowerment’ spelt out a new approach towards the development of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). It read:

The BJP is committed to bridge the gap, following the principle of Samajik Nyaya (social justice) and Samajik Samrasata (social harmony). The social justice must be further complemented with economic justice and political empowerment—we will focus upon empowering the deprived sections of society. Steps will be taken to create an enabling ecosystem of equal opportunity—for education, health and livelihood. We will accord highest priority to ensuring their security especially the prevention of atrocities against SCs and STs.1

The manifesto further identified the following specific areas for action:

• A high priority for SC would be to create an ecosystem for education and entrepreneurship.
• BJP is committed to eradication of untouchability at all levels.
• BJP is committed to eliminate manual scavenging.
• BJP will follow more effective ways to pull these people out of the poverty line.
• BJP will ensure that the funds allocated for schemes and programmes for SC—are utilised properly.
• A mission mode project would be made for housing, education, health, and skill development.
• Special focus would be [placed] on children, especially the girl child, with regard to health, education, and skill development.2

In economic empowerment, the focus was on livelihood so as to reduce poverty, with priority given to education, entrepreneurship, skill development, and housing. In social empowerment, it promised to provide security by assigning priority to the prevention of atrocities against SCs and the eradication of untouchability.

In the following pages, we will assess the policies and the outcomes of the initiatives proposed by the BJP in its manifesto by using the data which have been made available by the government so far.

Financial Allocation under Special Component Plan from 2014/15 to 2018/19

The allocation of funds to the Special Component Plan (SCP) for the Scheduled Castes is the main instrument for uplifting of the Scheduled Castes. Therefore, the priorities of the government are generally reflected in the financial allocation under this SCP for the Scheduled Castes in the annual budget of the Union government. Now, the financial allocation under the Special Component for Scheduled Castes (SCSC) in the last five years does not reflect the priorities spelt out in the BJP 2014 manifesto for their economic and social empowerment. The Union government is required to allocate funds to the SCP for development of SCs across central (federal) ministries in proportion to their population share, that is 16.6 per cent. However, the old problem of low allocation continued under this government during the five years of its duration. The ratio of Plan allocation (on central and centrally-sponsored schemes) for SCs to total plan allocation was 8.79 per cent in 2014/15, 6.63 per cent in 2015/16, 7.06 per cent in 2016/17, 8.91 per cent in 2017/18, and 6.55 per cent in 2018/19 (Graph 1). The average allocation to the SCP for five years between 2014 and 2018 comes to a mere 7 per cent which is about ten percentage points short of the 16.6 per cent SC population in the country. According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan (Dalit economic rights movement), these ten percentage points represent Rs 2752.72 billion.3 This low allocation has naturally affected several schemes.

Graph 1: Proportion of SCSP/SCC allocation to total plan outlay (CS+CSS) schemes

Note: CS: Central schemes, CSS: Centrally sponsored schemes.
Source: National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit Adivasi Budget Analysis 2018–19, Delhi: Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan, 2018.

Besides, the reporting on the SCP in the Union Budget 2017/18 marks a significant departure from the earlier budgets. The name, that is, ‘Scheduled Caste Component Plan’, has been replaced by a new term: ‘Allocation for Welfare of Scheduled Castes’. The new terminology has taken away the focus from the ‘Special allocation’ under the Special Component Plan for SCs. We may recall that earlier, the Ministry of Social Welfare was renamed as Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 1998 with a purpose to bring a clear focus on social justice and empowerment, rather than on the mere notion of social welfare, with its condescending overtones. Whatever the purpose behind the change in nomenclature, it certainly takes away the clear focus that the SCP had accorded to the empowerment of and social justice for Dalits. Besides, in the absence of the specific mention of ‘special’ allocation under the SCP and the norms for allocation, there is now no clarity on the parameters for assessing the allocations reported by different ministries or departments under the heading of ‘Welfare of Scheduled Castes’.4

Another matter of concern is the indirect consequences of combining the plan and non-plan expenditure into one. In the Union Budget 2017–18, the government merged the plan and non-plan components of the budget. We know that the allocation under the SCP is for development of SCs under plan expenditure. The likely consequences of the merging of developmental (plan) and non-developmental (non-plan) expenditure, is that some of the non-plan expenditure, such as salaries, and administrative expenditure, may be shown as part of the total. This may reduce the actual expenditure on schemes related to the economic development of SC, which has, in fact, happened in the budget for 2018/19.

Impact on Educational Financial Schemes

The low allocation to the SCP has affected some flagship schemes financed by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The scholarship schemes are cases in point. The post-matriculation scholarships for SCs, which were started by DrB.R. Ambedkar in 1945, is one such scheme whose allocation has been badly affected due to low allocation under the SCP. The post-matriculation scholarship scheme with all its limitations has been the main source of development of higher education of Dalits. It is meant for the day to day maintenance of the poor SC students including fees. About 5.1 million SC students across the country have faced immense dificulties due to delayed or pending release of funds of more than Rs 80 billion by the Union government to the state governments for the last three consecutive years. Further, the 2018/19 budget has allocated only Rs 30 billion towards scholarship for SCs.

Non-payment of scholarship money to SC students resulted in increasing dropouts from colleges and universities. The former Secretary of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, P.S. Krishnan, had written a letter to the Finance Minister on 9 November 2016 seeking payment of arrears of post-matriculation scholarships to the tune of Rs 110 billion, pleading that the amount would not raise the fiscal deficit much.5 But the government seems to be more concerned about the fiscal deficit than the fate of the 5.1 million poor SC students. Similarly, the delay in the release of funds to the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the National Fellowship for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (earlier called Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship) for Ph.D. students across the country has also put many SC research students in extreme hardship, at a time when the enrolment rate of SCs in higher education remains quite low compared to ‘others’, that is non-SC/ST groups. For instance, in 2014 the enrolment rate in higher education was 22 per cent for SCs, compared with 29 per cent of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and 41 per cent of others.6 In this context, since the goal of the policy under the BJP 2014 manifesto was to reduce the gap between the SCs and others in education attainment, the government should have increased the allocation for the fellowship schemes rather than reducing the amount.

More recently, the Allahabad high court had given a verdict against the present practice in central universities of implementing reservation at the university level and suggested replacement by reservation at the departmental level, a change that would result in under-representation. The central government instead of going to the supreme court, lent support to the Allahabad high court decision through an order by the University Grants Commission and thus remained insensitive to the likely fall in the posts under reservation for faculty in the universities, where the representation of SCs/STs is already low.

A tale of two suicides

The problem of discrimination against Dalits in institutions of higher education such as state universities is an old one. It was recognised by the previous government. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), under Kapil Sibal asked the UGC to pass a regulation against caste discrimination against Dalit students and other marginalised students in higher education institutions. Today, these regulations are not effectively enforced. In fact, the continuing problem of caste discrimination grabbed the attention of the entire nation after the suicide of a Dalit student named Rohith Vemula, in the University of Hyderabad in January 2016, and of another Dalit research scholar, Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham, in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, in March 2017. Rohith Vemula’s controversial suicide, in the light of casteist discrimination in the university space, triggered nationwide outrage among Dalits and other sections of society. A case was filed under the Atrocity Act against the university’s vice chancellor and the Union labour minister. While the students sought his removal, the vice chancellor was sent on leave. The university finally reopened with an assurance from the Ministry of Human Resource Development that the guilty would be treated under the Atrocity Act, that the vice chancellor would not be brought back, and that the remedial assistance for Dalit and students from other weaker sections would be strengthened. Other assurances by the government to the agitating students included increased participation of Dalit students and faculty in decision making, and regularisation of the National Fellowship for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Also, a special education programme would be introduced to sensitise students about caste and gender discrimination in universities through courses in civic learning. The government however reneged on its assurances and did exactly the opposite on some of them, while maintaining silence on others. In a bid to save the minister and the vice chancellor from trial under the Atrocity Act, all-out efforts were made to prove that Rohith Vemula was an OBC and not a Dalit, so that the case could not be registered under the Atrocity Act. Also, the vice chancellor was brought back with honour. No initiative was taken on the rest of the demands. Yet another opportunity arose for the MHRD after the suicide of Dalit research scholar Muthukrishnan in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Similar promises were made, to no avail.

On the contrary, during this time, some decisions detrimental to the interests of SCs/STs/OBCs were taken: the UGC’s admission rule of six MPhil/ PhD students per faculty member was enforced in central universities, with a complete disregard to the interests of the SC/ST/OBC students. This rule led to a drastic fall in admissions in central universities. For example, in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the total net admissions fell from 502 students in 2016/17 to only 130 in 2017/18. Correspondingly, the intake of SC students declined from 141 in 2016/17 to 37 in 2017/18, while that of ST students fell from 75 to 16, and that of OBC students from 265 to 76 during the same period. The rule could have been changed by the UGC at any time to avoid these consequences. However, the question that begs an answer is how the faculty in Jawaharlal Nehru University and other central universities ended up with more than six PhD students—in some cases running to fifteen. The reason can be traced to a decision by the previous government. The earlier government provided 27 percent reservation to OBCs, and to avoid a fall in the admission of general category students (non-SC/ST/OBC), it took a bold decision and the number of positions by 27 per cent, thus leading to a 54 per cent jump in the admission of students, which is rarely done. This landed the faculty with more than six MPhil/PhD students each. What the government should have done is to revise the decision of six students per faculty member till the situation became normal. That was not done. Instead, it reduced the admission by 70 per cent. What a contrast between two approaches of governance! While the previous government changed the rule to avoid the negative consequences of OBC reservation on non-SC/ST/OBC groups and to safeguard their interest, under the new dispensation, the rule is implemented in letter and spirit to the detriment of the SC/ST/OBC students. The option would have been to change the rule in the interest of all students, as rules have to be for the good of the people and not otherwise. We know that the enrolment rate of SC/ST/OBC students in higher education is much lower than for others.7 Therefore, the need was to increase their admission—but in practice the opposite has happened.

Another decision that has caused pain to SC/ST students is the rule regarding the procedure of admission to MPhil/PhD. The rule framed in 2016 prescribed a minimum of 50 percent marks in the written entrance examination to qualify for interview and then made the selection entirely on the basis of the interview, making the entrance test only qualifying in nature. The provision of relaxation of marks to SC/ST students was withdrawn. The SC/ST/ OBC students were seeking reduction in the interview marks and selection mainly on written examination, because they had provided evidence of discrimination in the interviews. The government on the other hand did exactly the opposite: making selection solely on the basis of interview. What message did the Dalits receive from these policy decisions in higher education after 2014 which are detrimental to their interests?

1. Bharatiya Janata Party, Election Manifisto 2014; Ek Bharat: Shreshtha Bharat, Saath Sabka Vikas, New Delhi: BJP, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit Adivasi Budget Analysis 2018-19, Delhi: Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan, 2018.
4. Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), What do the Numbers Tell: An Analysis of Union Budget 2017/18, CBGA, February 2017.
5. Krishnan, P.S., ‘Budget 2018/19 from the view point of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes’, 3 Feb. 2018, Letter to Union Finance Minister.
6. Thorat, Sukhadeo and Khalid Khan, ‘Private sector and equity in higher education: Challenges of growing unequal access and equity’, in Varghese, N :V., Sabharwat N. and Malish, C.M. (eds) India Higher Education Report, Delhi: Sage, 2016.
7. Thorat, Sukhadeo and Khalid Khan op. cit.