Dalit politics as an autonomous entity began with Dr. Ambedkar. And from the very beginning, it spawned a rich and vibrant intellectual tradition with an enormous literature aimed at the analysis and critique of social structure and theorising the possible solutions to the problems of social discrimination and inequality. Although, Ambedkar’s politics failed to find much resonance outside Maharashtra and even in Maharashtra, where it soon ended up as a spent force, the message he formulated in the form of “Educate, Organise and Agitate” travelled far and wide. Ambedkar, without doubt, became the icon of Dalits across the country irrespective of their political affiliations and remain so. It was Ambedkar, who in the true sense laid the groundwork of the Dalit politics by raising the socio-political consciousness of the depressed sections. Moreover, the safeguards like reservations provided by the constitution resulted in emergence of a small but significant class of government servants and educated elites among Dalits. It’s mainly they who drive Dalit politics and discourse.

While Ambedkar laid the foundation of Dalit politics, the real inclusion of Dalits in the mass politics in the Hindi heartland was a result of the freedom struggle led by Gandhi’s Congress. Congress was able to enlist Dalits mainly in the urban areas from 1930s onwards by making Dalit centric social issues part of the national struggle. It never took up issues of the Dalits in rural area though, as it would have upset its crucial support base of landed gentry and feudal elements that it was able to mobilise for the nationalist cause. However, it was always sure to pay lip service to their emancipation and promise patronage and protection.

The relation Congress forged with Dalits endured even after the independence. Congress created a rainbow alliance of various sections of the society, which enabled it to rule unchallenged for several decades and Dalit vote was the mainstay of that alliance. Nevertheless, Congress remained a party dominated by upper-caste elites where Dalits occupied the sub-ordinate position. Congress extended patronage in the form of welfare policies, reservations and by accommodating prominent Dalit figures and local leaders. But there never was any doubt about where the real power rested and from whose vantage point the wider questions of politics and policies were viewed. It provided a platform to Dalit leaders but the party could replace those leaders who tried to assert themselves as and when such a need would arise.

Dalits accepted the arrangement, as they were too weak to assert and sustain an autonomous Dalit politics or to challenge dominant castes within the fold of Congress or other parties. Congress was seen as a vehicle of upliftment of Dalits as it at least, ensured them a place in the mainstream even though it was status quoist with no commitment to social transformation beyond mere lip service. Dalits were symbolically a part of the formal power structure but were out of any real policy and administrative framework. However, it nonetheless provided Dalits a brush with realpolitik and trained them in the art of democratic politics of the new India. The limited gains made, raised the consciousness of an even wider community, its aspirations and more importantly, its restlessness.

Second phase, which starts with late 70s, saw a new generation of Dalit leaders and activists, who were more confident and radical then the previous generation. They vigorously challenged the old guard. Now, dependence on Congress was seen as an impediment to socio-economic upliftment of the Dalits. It was because despite tall promises and “welfare policies” very little had changed on the ground. The conditions, especially in the villages, remained hellish for a vast majority of the Dalits. Even though our poets and Bollywood lyricist painted a serene and innocent picture of the Indian village, it remained what Ambedkar once famously called it, “a den of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.”

Dalit leaders were criticized for compromising the Dalit cause for the illusive gains and crumbs thrown down from the high table. “Chamcha” (sycophant) was the word used for them by Kanshiram, who emerged as the face of this new phase of Dalit politics. The Gandhian, Socialist and Communist constructs which presented themselves as liberators of Dalits came under direct scrutiny and challenge by new Dalit leaders and thinkers. It must be noted, that young Mayawati caught attention of Kanshiram after her fiery and stunning speech against Gandhians and Samajwadis in a conference in constitution club of Delhi, September-1977. It was organised by the socialists of Janata Party to deliberate on the conditions of Dalits, with Raj Narain (who was at his peak after defeating Indira Gandhi) among the main speakers. After Mayawati directly slammed him (in his presence) and Janata Party, the hall reverberated with the slogans of “remove Raj Narain”, “remove Janata Party”. She was in her early 20s.

This period was marked by three important developments- 1) Resurrection of Ambedkar 2) Discourse of Bahujan and 3) Creation of an independent Dalit party aimed at capturing state power. Ambedkar had been sidelined by the communist and socialist court-historians of Congress. Dalit assertion of this period succeeded in resurrection of Ambedkar as a Dalit and national icon. It also created a stable Dalit political party-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)- whose aim was to contest elections and capture political power as it was felt that little can change without it and Dalits cannot depend on the patronage of those who monopolised political power.

However, it failed to transform the ideological construct of Bahujan into a political reality, which was expected because Bahujan is an artificial wishful construct with little to do with ground reality. Its hollowness came to the fore almost immediately in the bitter alliance between OBC dominated Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP in early 90s, which ended with the infamous Lucknow Guest House case. The Dalits, the EBCs, the OBCs, lower caste Muslims, Upper caste Muslims, even different castes within the Dalit fold have interests and agendas, which are too diverse to be wielded in a uniform “Bahujan” construct. In fact, the conflicts between many of them are more direct and bitter than that with the upper-castes.

Despite its shortcomings and romanticism, the fact that a Dalit party was able to come to power (indirectly in 1993 and directly in 1995) meant that this period saw the rapid gains made by Dalits in the state. It heralded the arrival of hitherto neglected castes as a political force, increased social mobility and created a spurt in confidence and assertion at the grass root level never seen before. As a result, it also saw an increase in caste conflicts as the established order of caste hierarchy resisted the increasing “insubordination” of Dalits. The period also coincided with and contributed to the demise of Congress hegemony in Indian politics as Dalits deserted it in politically crucial U.P.

But the tremendous gains made in the second phase, including the capture of state power, means that Dalit politics has reached a plateau. One of the most cherished goals, which fired the missionary zeal among Dalits and united them, has been achieved. It is like a “been there, seen that” phenomenon. This marks the present phase. Two important changes currently taking place are the assertion of heterogeneity of Dalit political aspirations and emergence of an urban middle class of Dalits with its own concerns and agenda.

The Dalit politics until now has been dominated by few numerically powerful castes or the “vanguard caste” and whole Dalit discourse was viewed from their vantage point. However, the gains made in the previous decades have uplifted and politicised other Dalit castes as well. There are 66 Dalit castes in U.P who form 21% of state’s population. According to the 2001 Census, Jatavs constitute 56% of the Dalit population. Pasis constitute 16% while the third rung (another 15%) is made of Dhobis, Koris and Balmikis. The last chunk, comprising Gonds, Dhanuks, and Khatiks constitute about 5%. Mayawati belongs to the Jatav caste but now leaders of other castes are challenging the status quo of Dalit politics and demanding their share of the pie.

It is leading to fragmentation of the Dalit politics as more and more castes are moving out of the umbrella of “Dalit Politics” and searching for alternatives. They have been striking deals with other parties but this time from a position of strength, demanding better deal than what Dalit parties (notably BSP) give them. Many prominent Dalit castes like Pasis shifted en masse even to SP (normally seen as an anti-Dalit OBC party) in the 2012 assembly elections.

Of late, BJP has been a major beneficiary of this trend as prominent Dalit leaders like Udit Raj have been joining it. The record of accomplishment of governance in various BJP ruled states like Gujarat has increased the attractiveness of BJP for Dalit middle class. In addition, increasing Islamic aggression on the ground is pushing rural and lower-middle class Dalits towards BJP as its they who are on the receiving end of the Islamic violence. And whenever there is a clash between Dalits and Muslims, secular and leftist forces automatically join the Muslims under the twisted ‘secularism’ of India. Then suddenly, Dalits become part of ‘majoritarian Hindu fascism’ and this assertion is by the same people who otherwise spend their day and night arguing that Dalits are not part of the Hindu society and Dharma!

There is also the strong Modi factor, which is attracting support from Dalits due to his vision and development agenda. His humble origins, ridicule & hatred he suffers and persecution by the “system” is resonating with Dalits. Plus, opposition to Modi within the BJP is being seen by the Dalits, to put it bluntly, as an upper-caste attempt to deny a lower caste person his legitimate due, yet again. The examples of how other non-savarna leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti etc were sidelined within BJP are vividly remembered. Needless to say, Modi enjoys Dalit sympathy even though he himself is not a Dalit.

Then there is the emergence of an urban middle class, which is increasingly diversifying out of government sector into private sector and business. Economic reforms and decades of reservation has resulted in the creation of an urban middle class whose children are increasingly finding jobs in the private sector and multinationals or starting their own ventures. This small but powerful and rapidly growing class is becoming a strong supporter of nationalism, economic reforms and good governance. It has spawned a new discourse of “Dalit Capitalism” which advocates entrepreneurship and access to markets as the route to emancipation rather than old policies of reservations etc. It is this emerging trend, which has the potential to drive the Dalit politics in the future, as more and more Dalits cross the Rubicon into middle class category.

We will have to wait for some years to see its full impact on Dalit politics. But two predictions can be made based on the current observable trends. First, rising prosperity & political power and resultant decline in caste discrimination means that anti-Hinduism discourse is losing its hold. More and more Dalits are proudly asserting their caste identity within the Hindu fold. We can expect an increase in Sanskritization and consolidation of the Hindutva constituency. But much will depend on how other castes respond to this new Dalit assertion. Second, we can expect increased pressure for good governance, anti-corruption and substantive policies rather than symbolism by political parties. As of now, 2014 general elections will see massive voting for Modi led BJP.


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Abhinav Prakash Singh

Abhinav is a Doctoral Scholar in Economics, JNU. He has done his Masters in Economics from JNU and Economics (Honours ) from Hindu College, University of Delhi. His is interested in politics, history, economics, religion and hopes to grasp the reasons behind rise and fall of civilizations.

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