In keeping with Maharashtra’s reputation as a progressive State, its government has decided to rename settlements and localities that have caste-based names. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who chaired a Cabinet meeting with regard to this in December 2020, said it was a revolutionary step that would go a long way in creating social harmony and unity among castes.
Dhananjay Munde, Minister for Social Justice and Special Assistance, explained it was a move to abolish the caste system gradually. “Everyone has an equal right to live with dignity. No one should be discriminated on the basis of caste and religion,” he said.
Names such as Maharwada, Boudhwada, Mangwada, Dhorvasti and Mali Galli, all of which indicate Scheduled Caste origins, will now be changed to neutral sounding Samata Nagar, Jyoti Nagar, Kranti Nagar and so on. Encouragingly, even a name like Brahmanwada will be changed. Names of government programmes and awards are also set to change. Dalit Vasti Sudhar Yojana has been renamed Scheduled Castes and Neo-Buddhists Vasti Sudhar Yojana. The Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Dalit Mitra Award is now Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Samaj Bhushan Award.
Centre’s 2018 directive
The State government’s decision is part of an ongoing transformation that began two years ago. In March 2018, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre asked the State and Central government departments to stop using the word Dalit in official correspondence while describing the Scheduled Castes. The directive came just two days before the Supreme Court banned the registration of cases and automatic arrests under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, saying it was meant to protect public servants while discharging their bona fide duties and prevent them from being blackmailed with false cases filed under the Act. There were nationwide protests against this amendment, including a Bharat bandh that turned violent, killing nine people.
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The March 2018 letter from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, addressed to all Chief Secretaries, said: “All the State governments/Union Territory administrations are requested that for all official transactions, matters, dealings, certificates etc., the constitutional term, ‘Scheduled Caste’ in English, and its appropriate translation in other national languages should alone be used for denoting the persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes notified in the Presidential Orders issued under Article 341 of the Constitution of India.”
The letter cited an order passed by the Gwalior Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court on January 15, 2018, which said “…that the Central government/State government and its functionaries would refrain from using the nomenclature ‘Dalit’ for the members belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as the same does not find mentioned in the Constitution of India or any statute”. The order was passed in a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by a Gwalior-based social worker named Mohanlal Mahor, who wanted government and non-government organisations to stop using the word Dalit because he said it had no constitutional standing and was used in a derogatory manner.
Then, in June 2018, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court issued an order favouring the PIL petition of another social worker, Pankaj Meshram, who is associated with the organisation Bhim Shakti which works for the upliftment of the Scheduled Castes. Meshram believed the word was unconstitutional and hurt the feelings of the community.
In September 2018 the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent out an advisory to all private satellite TV channels asking them to cease using the word Dalit for people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, in compliance with the Bombay High Court directive.
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In Maharashtra, Dalit is not generally thought of as a derogatory word, a fact seen by political parties that call themselves Dalits and represent Dalit interests; most notably the Dalit Panthers. And the community has done much to help itself. Education is a prized goal and families work towards their own upliftment inspired by Ambedkar. The constitutionally correct term of Neo Buddhist, or Nav Boudh in Marathi, is also used but so is Dalit. Dalit pride is something that has grown as a reverse reaction. And it has served to immensely bond the community without it developing a victim mentality.
Apart from names, locations are also caste markers. Again, this is almost entirely a rural phenomenon. Those from the lower castes have for centuries been forced to live on the periphery of villages and often with limited access to water. How much will the government’s name change proposal go towards removing this slur? And while it is encouraging that the government, while giving examples of changes in nomenclature, has mentioned that even Brahmanwadas (of which there are many around the State) would change, would they also include places prefixed with Maratha? If contempt of lower castes is something to be eradicated, then so should pride in being part of an upper caste. The two go hand in hand.
While the suggested change by the government is propelled by progressive thinking, there are issues around it that need to also be thought about. Maratha pride, for instance, has been soaring over the last few years while Maratha is not a caste. They belong to the Kunbi caste who were primarily agriculturists. In the caste hierarchy they are Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and stand just one step above the Scheduled Castes, but there have been notable cases of atrocities committed by Kunbis on the so-called lower caste. The most horrifying of this in recent times was the Khairlanji massacre in 2006 when the numerically dominant Kunbis stripped and paraded a mother and daughter belonging to the lower caste for their “audacity” in registering a police complaint in a land-related matter. The mother, daughter and the son of the family were later murdered. It was actually this case that prompted Pankaj Meshram to approach the Nagpur Bench to eradicate the use of the word Dalit.
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The ramifications of the government’s nomenclature plans are many, and as the government claims, if indeed it is a step to eradicate the caste mindset, then there is great value in the project. For this it will need to go beyond a name change and into the intangible, and often dark, world of pride, sense of entitlement and exclusive behaviours.
Currently the departments of Urban and Rural Development have been told to identify places whose names need to be changed. So, while the plan has the go-ahead from Mantralaya it will be a long time before it is actually implemented.