Recently, in a bombshell announcement about Punjab’s top ruling shakeup, most of the Indian newspapers carried the banner headline that the “Congress Party announced Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister.”

Immediately there was a sharp reaction and even outcry on social media why bringing upfront the caste factor while putting under the carpet that the new C.M. qualifies on his merits with impressive academic qualifications and track record in politics rather than a Dalit man.

The reaction has quite a validity to it. After all, governance of the state requires the credentials of a sincere and hardworking elected politician. Indeed, not based on the caste of the person.

Bringing up the caste factor as a Dalit related to Mr. Channi seems to be downgrading his social status.

Is Dalit a derogatory word to describe a class of people who do not belong to the four Brahminic castes?

Officially, these people belong to the term Scheduled Castes. But at its roots is a distinct identity of the millions of lower-caste Indians, oppressed through the centuries.

The nomenclature carries historical, cultural, and political significance since its introduction by Pune-based social reformer Jyotirao Phule in late 1880.

Dalit is a Marathi word meaning oppressed and broken. It does not mean untouchable.

Dr. Ambedkar used Dalit to refer to a large class of people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

Under the backdrop of caste atrocity and lack of political representation, Dalit as a term began to acquire a political meaning.

Moreover, Dalit literature began to use the term for people of all castes and communities who historically faced oppression.

Dalit became a self-chosen term in 1972 when a group of Bombay youths organized the ‘Dalit Panthers’ to align themselves with the militancy of the American Black Panthers. Like the word ‘black’ in the USA, it was used proudly by them.

Being applied similarly to ‘Blacks’ in the U.S., Dalit is a symbolic reassertion of identity and struggle against an oppressive, caste-ridden society.

The fact is for those who suffer the realities of caste oppression, a more vigorous and assertive identity need to be required. Dalit, with its historical connotations, offers that identity.

Being applied similarly to ‘Blacks’ in the U.S., Dalit is a symbolic reassertion of identity and struggle against an oppressive, caste-ridden society.

In its contemporary context, Dalit symbolizes a protest, an effective movement to seek equality within the caste-ridden Indian society. Mr. Channi reflects a milestone in this imperative correction.

-Promod Puri

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