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‘External independence is quite compatible with internal slavery’

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August 15, 2020



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Sanjeev Sonpimpare, The Rising 3 (2020), Acrylic on Canvas. Image courtesy of artist Sanjeev Sonpimpare

Ambedkar’s words still resonate today. While the Indian Constitution formally outlaws untouchability and its practice, caste continues to be a determining feature of independent India. Caste is everywhere. It is immutable, unchangeable. It travels and adapts. It determines a person’s destiny even before they are born. Caste decides whether someone is born in a hospital; attends school or college; what their profession will be; who they will love; how they live and die; and even what will happen to their body when they are gone. As Ambedkar had predicted, Indian ‘independence’ did not change a great deal for many Dalit communities.

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Balaji Ponna, Walking under The Empty Sky (2020), Watercolor and Dry Pestles on Acid Free Handmade paper. Image courtesy of Balaji Ponna

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This ‘freedom’ is both determined and proclaimed by savarnas, who only look upwards to the colonial structures that oppressed them. They wax eloquent about the British debt to India; the return of the Kohinoor diamond; of how they are victims of the colonial enterprise. If they deign to look downwards, they might see their own complicity in perpetuating the unfreedom of a people that make up a significant proportion of the nation state’s population. Savarna decolonisation discourse on freedom assumes to be secular and untainted by caste (or perhaps even post-caste?). It is imposed upon Dalits in the name of nationalism, religion and unity. Ambedkar, in his last speech at the Constituent Assembly in 1949, remarked that India is not yet a nation as we lack fraternity and are divided by caste. This remains to be true.

Vikrant Bhise, Ambedkar and a labourer (2020),  
Mix Media on Paper. Image courtesy of Vikrant Bhise.

The lack of fraternity Ambedkar points to is reflected in the normalisation and routinisation of violence against, and the humiliation of, Dalit lives. Caste atrocities seek to punish Dalits for perceived violations of unspoken caste norms. These acts of violence – ranging from casteist slurs to sexual assault and brutal murder – exist to discipline and remind Dalits about their place in the caste system. These incidents are often recorded on cell phones and circulated as a triumphant gesture of caste supremacy: an act which renders the injured Dalit body as a spectacle for the upper caste gaze. According to National Crime Records Bureau 2018 data, there were a total of 49,793 cases registered for atrocities against Schedule Castes (SC) and Schedule Tribes (ST) communities in India. It is safe to assume that this is a conservative estimate, as reporting these crimes involves negotiating a casteist justice system and making claims against powerful caste elites. Conviction rates also remain abysmally low because of a range of factors including state apathy. For instance, in 2016, the conviction rate was 25.7% for atrocity crimes against SCs and 20.8% for atrocity crimes against ST, which is significantly lower than the conviction rates for other Indian Penal Code crimes, where the numbers are nearly double.

‘Ambedkar was more sceptical about the narrative of nationalism which has been till today reinvoking the tradition of freedom, sacrifice, dedication and glory of the freedom fighters particularly of extremist variety. But at the same time, this narrative of nationalism is very vague and abstract about the concrete and therefore, contestable question of unequal distribution of power and prestige of the dalits and other toiling masses … the nationalists have always fulminated against the distribution of power among the deprived sections of the society and therefore have seldom if ever, had occasion to deplore the absence of power among the dalits. On the contrary, they have opposed such distribution of course on not such a convincing rational ground but on patriotic grounds which made convenient sense only to some selective sections during the freedom struggle.’

'Being a Dalit in independent India - Dhiren Borisa'. Source: Hindustan Times

'Being a Dalit in independent India - Rajeswari Kasi'. Source: Hindustan Times

Capitalism – supposedly premised on the freedom of choice – also masks the insidious ways in which caste continues to operate in spaces of labor, such as sanitation work. Through state policies, like the Preferential Treatment policy, sanitation work is inherited from parent to child and is tied to housing. As a result, it continues to be a caste-based occupation where Dalits labour under hazardous conditions with little dignity of work. Each year, more manual scavengers die because of their working conditions than army personnel. Despite this, mainstream culture regularly valourises the loss of soldiers, barely casting a sideways glance at the structural violence that occurs in a casual, everyday fashion in savarna homes and on the streets. Families are forced to do the same work for many generations as all access to social mobility and education is cut off by savarna-driven structures that monopolise capital, power and privilege.

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Palani Kumar, Manual Scavenging series-1 (2020), Image courtesy of artist Palani Kumar.

The caste system is an asset to the capitalist state, it perpetuates the myth of unskilled labour, bonding manual labour to select communities in all but perpetuity. On the surface it might seem that Dalits have the freedom to choose not to do this work but these decisions do not exist in a vacuum. They need to be understood within the structural landscape of choice – of job insecurity, of caste discrimination, of restricted opportunities, of rural atrocities, of hungry bellies and roofs that may disappear at any moment.

'Being a Dalit in independent India - Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi'. Source: Hindustan Times

‘The agitation in a slave country for political independence and political marches is, to a great extent, easier; for the mass of people sympathise overtly or covertly with the rising forces in the nation. The people may sprinkle the roads of their political liberators with rose water. But reverse is the fate of those who launch a ruthless attack to liberate society from its ills, superstitions, outworn traditions and evil customs; for their action, their move and their drive are against the belief of the whole society of whom the majority are always conservative, unwilling to part with old customs and traditions that are dear to their hearts.’

When we speak of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ what do these words really mean for us as Dalits? They should mean the freedom to live as we please: to love, to work, to learn, to speak, to listen to music, to have a moustache, to ride a horse, to live with dignity, to not live in fear, to be funny, or silly – to just be. If any of these things seem obvious, know that people have been killed for less. We are cast in oppression, in sadness, in degradation, and that is our reality. Freedom does not mean just to live and not be killed. We need to speak not just about freedom or independence but also about emancipatory joy.



Dance to someone else’s tune 

for a serving of rice. 

Depend on someone else 

for a daily meal. 


For how many days  

can you fight 

in the name of justice 

when you are hungry 

and thirsty?

from Bama’s ‘Karukku’ (2014)

Adapted by Rajyashri Goody as part of her ongoing series Writing Recipes (2016–), exploring narratives of food within Dalit literature.

Artwork from Broken Foot – Unfolding Inequalities Exhibition


‘Broken Foot – Unfolding inequalities’ is a curatorial fundraiser exhibit curated by Prabhakar Kamble & Rumi Samadhan. It is Artists United Collective’s first online exhibition project and fundraiser. The sixty participating artists collectively raise a voice through their various forms of dissent – as projections of subjects representing as well as interrelating the context of ‘Labour’ and ‘Nation’.

10th July- 10th October, 2020.

Videos from the Hindustan Times series: Being a Dalit in Independent India 

Story: Zehra Kazmi & Dhrubo Jyoti 

Video: Athar Rather 

Production: Ashish Malhotra 

Edit: Ronit Singh Soin 

With Rajeswari Kasi, Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, and
 Dhiren Borisa © 2016

DURGESH SOLANKI is a Sociology PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. He studies caste, race, disease and empire.


RAJYASHRI GOODY is an artist based in Pune. Through ceramics, writing and photography, she attempts to decode and make visible instances of everyday power and resistance within Dalit communities.