All social communities have a history that is experienced, or perceived, or both. Communities survive and sustain themselves on these histories. When political forces try to mobilise these communities, they usually do so by exploring their history and then giving it a political meaning that suits their agenda. In the beginning, when the political party is new, it gives space and respect to the small histories of each community that it wants to mobilise. Through this process, the party seeks to create unity among all these communities for its political purpose. When the party becomes powerful, it develops a meta or grand history in which it tries to appropriate the histories of all the communities which it had earlier mobilised individually. In this process, the histories of small communities that are not politically powerful or do not have political representation get hidden. This phenomenon can be seen in the politicisation of the different dalit castes in Uttar Pradesh by various political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress and others. However, it is more forcefully apparent in the case of the BSP, the party formed to politically empower dalits by Kanshiram during the 1980s.

From Maharashtra to U.P.

In the initial days after moving to Uttar Pradesh from Maharashtra, Kanshiram used the political language and metaphors popular in Maharashtra, based on social and economic empowerment for mobilising the dalit community as one. Later, when he realised that the soil of U.P. was different from that of Maharashtra and people are more influenced by cultural, mythical and identity issues, he started using the local histories of different castes to mobilise each dalit caste individually.

For this purpose he formed committees of local historians at block levels to collect local caste histories which they gave to the BSP political leaders. These leaders, who usually came from other parts of the State, used the local histories — invariably stories about glorious kings who were suppressed by the upper castes — to mobilise individual communities. These small histories were then put together to form a grand history of oppression and exploitation by the upper castes. Through these local heroes, the party formed a symbolic pyramid in which the first rung comprised local heroes like Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi and Mahaviri Bhangi; the second level comprised dalit kings Daldev, Baldeo, Bijli Pasi; the third rung had saints of the Bhakti movement Ravidas, Kabir, etc., and epical heroes of marginalised communities in the Ramayan and the Mahabharat like Eklavaya, Shambook, etc. The topmost or peak was formed of important dalit social reformers Ambedkar and Periyar. These dalit heroes were then used in the image-making of Mayawati, the leader of the BSP. When the BSP became powerful, it started building a grand history around Ambedkar and Periyar by installing their statues and developing parks in their names. In the process, it marginalised the micro-histories of the small dalit castes.

Political tensions

The main problem with forming a grand history of all dalit castes is that it suppresses the uniqueness by which caste articulates its social experiences. For this reason, a grand history and creation of a homogeneous memory causes competition and social contestations within the various Dalit castes, which then get reflected as political tensions. This is the case with the two major dalit castes of U.P., namely the Chamars and the Pasi. While the Chamars believe that the Pasis, who worked as stick wielders of the upper castes, oppressed them under the orders of the upper castes, the Pasis think that Chamars are stealing their share in the political and development pie because of their education and social progress. It has led to competing histories about who exploited whom more.

Additionally, in this process of grand history building, the histories and identities of more than 50 numerically small dalit castes like the Tatwa, the Rangrej, the Bharbhuja and others, have not been noticed by any political force, while the histories of some bigger castes like the Nai, the Dhobi, the Khatik, which have not got political representation even after 15-20 years of dalit assertion, are being ignored. It thus appears that the castes which have got political representation have done so because they succeeded in constructing their identities based on their caste heroes and history. In other words, those castes which have not developed their identities and histories have been deprived political representation.

In these elections

In the U.P. Assembly elections, although development and hi-tech modernity appear to be the chief agenda of most political parties, a closer look at the political mobilisations by the various political parties shows that micro-histories of different dalit castes are once again being used for mobilising these castes individually. Since each caste travelled a different path of exploitation and oppression during their course of development, the history of each caste is different which makes it difficult to form a grand history of the dalits. In addition, each caste has small heroes who have still remained unknown and unsung. In these elections, the Congress, the BJP, the Apna Dali and the Bh.S.P. (Bhartiya Samaj Party, a small party of the Rajbhar caste popular in east U.P.) are promising to honour the heroes of dalits who were not given respect during the BSP reign, and also give respect to caste-based skills and identity of small dalit castes.

For instance, the Congress is trying to mobilise Most Backward Castes (MBCs) by giving space to their identity, history, community knowledge and skills. In its manifesto, it has promised to enhance traditional skills and knowledge of castes such as potters, shepherds, shoemakers, and weavers, linking such skills to their economic empowerment. It has promised to construct cultural complexes where programmes around jatiya sahabhao will be held and traditional skills of these communities will be taught. Alongside, the party has also promised to identify ati-dalit freedom fighters, and honour lesser known dalit saints who were not honoured by the BSP like Swami Shivnarain, a Chamar guru of eastern U.P., Sant Balmiki of the Balmiki caste, Baba Jagjivan Das, Sant Dariyasa and so on, pledging to build memorials to them.

In the last few days, the party also organised an ati-pichhra (Most Backward Caste) rally where hoardings of various heroes of MBCs who played a role in the 1857 rebellion like Lochan Mallah, Samadhan Nishad, Ahilyabai Holkar, Avantibai Lodhi were put up. Lochan Mallah and Samadhan Nishad had played a role in the Sati Chauraha episode in Kanpur where the Nishads massacred British officers. In its manifesto the BJP has also promised to put up statues of pre-medieval dalit heroes like Bijli Pasi who it claims were dispossessed by Muslim invaders, in the process communalising these dalit heroes to suit its political agenda. Thus the hidden histories of the various dalit castes are providing space for different political parties to mobilise them. While the BSP's effort to create a grand history and memory has served to suppress the micro identities of the small Dalit castes, other political parties are gleefully digging them out and celebrating these hidden histories for their political purposes.

(The writer teaches at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Jhusi, Allahabad, and is an analyst of dalit issues.)

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