The Thorat committee’s recommendations against using the term “dalit” in textbooks has p;rovoked some commentary on terms of identity. “Dalit”, as we have noted, is a term denoting militancy. This is its history. But history, as we should remember, moves on and is always in process.
We can see this very clearly if we look at the differing terms of identity used for Blacks, or African Americans. In the 19th century the preferred term was ‘Negro.” But this began to fall into disuse. By the 1960s, with the rise of new militancy and the “black is beautiful” movement, the term “Black” began to come into usage as the preferred and proud term of identity. The young Blacks I and a friend used to work with in Berkeley used to say, “We have a lot of niggers in this organization but at least we don’t have any Negroes!” What they meant by this was in reference to the subaltern meanings that predominated. “Nigger,” while a term of abuse when used by whites, was almost a term of pride when used by Blacks themselves – it pointed to a rebel, someone uncontrollable by the system. In contrast, “Negro” by that time had come to have the connotation of someone who had sold out, a middle class, “tame” person, amenable to white control. Black pride was stressed in this days.
Since then the term “African American” has become more popular. In contrast to the word “Black” it has no color connotations; rather it denotes an ethnic identity and points to the African origin and history of the people. It is now the most widely accepted term. There is no legally imposed term similar to “scheduled caste” in the U.S., so African American is used in most legal documents.
Are similar changes occurring in the case of India’s scheduled castes/dalits? “Dalit” has had its history of militancy, but now the word is beginning to be questioned by many. Perhaps this is one reason why the Thorat Committee has taken the position it did. But, “Scheduled Caste” cannot really be a substitute. It is not a self-chosen term of identity, of ethnic identification or popular identification of any kind. Rather it is a formal and legalistic word, imposed by the constitutional process. While this may make it acceptable for a neutral usage, it cannot satisfy the deep urge for meaning and significance felt by those who have been oppressed by the caste hierarchy. Similarly, identities such as “Buddhist” are too exclusive – leaving out those who do not chose to identify with Buddhism. For this reason, in spite of the dissatisfaction that many seem to feel with it, the term “Dalit” continues to be used. There is so far no satisfactory alternative.