It was improper of the Centre to seek to instruct the media recently not to use the expression “dalit” to denote what the Constitution drily calls “Scheduled Castes”. In a democracy, the media should not follow a government’s dictates unless the government can convincingly show that not following an instruction will compromise public order or national security. In fact, it wouldn’t be a free media if it followed such orders.
A high court had recently observed that state and Central governments may refrain from using the term “dalit” as it was absent from the Constitution, and only “Scheduled Caste” was appropriate. The latter term entered official usage upon its inclusion in the Government of India Act 1935 to denote the former “untouchables”, who were placed in a special schedule. Thus, castes included in that particular schedule came to be officially described as Scheduled Castes (SCs).
The word “dalit”, on the other hand, derives from society and politics (and awareness of injustice) as much as Mahatma Gandhi’s “Harijan” did. However, unlike “Harijan” — which dalit opinion over time has come to reject as it considers it condescending and patronising — “dalit” signifies a recognition of oppression, and simultaneously signifies the will of the oppressed to challenge and resist the pernicious caste order that represents injustice and inequality from time immemorial.
The term “dalit” isn’t used in government documents as a rule. So it’s not clear what occasions the high court advice. But outside the official lexicon, the term enjoys the same acceptability and endorsement as the word “black” did in America at one time. In any case, there is no point mincing words.