In defence of Dalit politics (and emancipation)

Living under the shadow of upper castes or ‘Hinduised’ Dalit leaders is no way out, nor is belief in an overnight revolution.

In defence of Dalit politics (and emancipation)
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Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, loosely defined society as an arena of “social solidarity”. In the Far East, another social theorist, Dr BR Ambedkar, while analysing Indian society, critiqued it for its lack of “consciousness of kind” and failure to provide social spaces for the so-called untouchables.

He went on to question even the existence of Indian society and wrote in the context of presence of caste that “…the first and foremost thing that must be recognised is that Hindu society is a myth”.

Indian (society?) is a case of “missing society” in itself. The caste system remains the most horrendous social practice in contemporary Indian society. The many caste groups constitute the so-called Indian society. Without the identity of caste, an individual, in the dominant version of Hindu society, is either impure or becomes the “other”. Even if one tries to shed his/her caste identity, especially the assigned lower caste, it becomes a danger to the entire Hindu social structure.

Situating Dalits

Why does a Dalit revolt against the Hindu religion or caste system become a major issue for Hindu society? The answer is simple. The legitimacy of the Hindu religion as “pure” and its protectors (upper castes) as “purity” ultimately depends on the “impurity of Dalits”.

Also, to build a larger Hindu identity in order to rule, Dalits are superficially considered as “Hindu” by political and extra-political individuals/groups. Hindu beliefs, myths and day-to-day cultural practices are flaunted to build a foundation of this “Hindu identity”.

It is because of this project of building the “We” that any dissent by Dalits is seen with suspicion. Consciously or unconsciously, Dalits are made to believe that their position in this hierarchical society is “natural”. By doing this, the political and extra-political individuals/groups create an environment where the status of Dalits is naturalised and ideologies of dominant groups (read upper castes) are imposed.

This is what Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence”. It also explains why Parliament and state Assemblies are never stalled when it comes to Dalit issues or when crimes are committed against Dalits on a daily basis.

Betrayal of cause

A notion of purity and acts of violence have formed the very basis of this land. Our progressive Constitution and secular institutions were put in place after Independence to undermine the orthodox individuals and groups propagating the religious/caste divide. But those who were given the responsibility of creating a society based on equality, themselves had a deep interest in maintaining the status quo because they derived their social status from others being considered “impure”. This is how Dalits were betrayed in independent India. Their perpetrators were assigned as their saviours.

Orthodox Hindu ideology, co-option and “Hinduisation” of Dalit leaders, betrayal by the Left, landed Shudra’s growth, and Hindutva agenda by the political Left, Right and Centre in post-Independence India further undermined the goal of Dalit emancipation.

This narrative is now being taken over by the Right, which derives its “purity” and legitimacy from the Hindu religion. This circle has now put Dalits in the worst possible situation.

Contemporary Indian society has become a perfect place for Hindu strategists to impose their version of history and belief. A “purified” backward leader (in order to get acceptance from the larger mass) at the helm with Brahmanised foot soldiers is what is needed to impose a dominant (upper caste) ideology on society.

Strategy for emancipation

What alternatives do we have to provide an inclusive social space to Dalits? The only path which looks feasible for long-term emancipation of the community is the time-tested strategy of first creating a separate identity for Dalits – distinct from the Hindu religion – and then building upon it an independent Dalit politics.

A separate identity remains the first condition for any long-term strategy for escaping this inhumane caste system. The dual strategy of a separate identity and politics has been tested numerous times; here two instances are worth mentioning.

First, during the colonial period, Dalits of present Uttar Pradesh had mobilised under the banner of Adi-Hindu identity and later demanded political representation. Second, during the post-colonial period Maharashtra saw Neo-Buddhists asserting their identity and demands most vocally.

The power of independent politics can be seen by the confidence among Dalits in general and Jatavs in particular in UP during and after Mayawati’s tenure in the state. Similarly, the confidence that Dalits in general and Mahars in particular enjoy in present Maharashtra is a case in point.


The rise of Dalit leaders Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and advocate Chandrashekhar Azad in UP has given new hope for future Dalit politics and movements. While Azad is under heavy state scrutiny, his future action is at the mercy of the state, the Left-leaning Mevani is a cause of concern for Ambedkarite groups, given the prominence the Left gives to class over caste.

The Left’s failure to uplift or provide any real-life chances to Dalits in Kerala and West Bengal is a classic case of “hypocrisy” of the upper caste Left. To take a case, let’s consider the Left’s talk on land redistribution.

The 70th round of Land and Livestock Holdings Survey (L&LS, 2013) of the NSSO highlights the rhetoric of the Left with regards to land for Dalits in two states – West Bengal (34 years of Left rule) and Kerala (in 2016, Leftist parties occupied the CM’s office for the 10th time).

At the all-India level, 58.4 per cent of rural Dalit households are landless, but the situation is worse in West Bengal and Kerala. Here, rural landless Dalit households make up 69.4 per cent and 72.3 per cent, respectively. Concern over a new Left-leaning Dalit leader is thus not misplaced, given the land hypocrisy.

This year’s Bhima-Koregaon celebration also threw up an important question: who shifted the narrative for Dalits from “we won” to “we defeated” you?

Apart from the need to be cautious of the Left or upper caste leaders (from the Right and Centre), the bigger threat which exists today is from “Hinduised” and opportunistic Dalit leaders, who are the biggest hurdle in the emancipation of the community. Such leaders not only affect the Dalit movement and politics adversely but also provide an opportunity to critics to question Dalits’ choice of candidates and ultimately their movement.

There are lessons in the failure of the Congress to uplift Dalits despite getting a huge chunk of Dalit votes until the mid-1980s, the actions of the Left in West Bengal and Kerala, and the failure of the BJP to protect the basic rights of the community.

Living under the shadow of upper castes or “Hinduised” Dalit leaders is no way out, nor is belief in an overnight revolution. Dalits have to carefully choose their path by first building a separate religious identity, and then pitching for independent politics.

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