A new idiom of Dalit assertion

There’s a new turn in Dalit politics that entails taking charge of affairs in their own hands, and a widening of the terrain of struggle rather than restricting it to political power or religious conversion.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2016 01:54 am IST

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edit page dalits 191116

There is a new swing in Dalit politics today. Its signs are palpable in the way Dalits have reacted to atrocities on them, the modes of struggles devised, the kind of alliances forged, and the nodal concepts and norms invoked for action. While old ways of doing Dalit politics — paternalism, quotas, sub-caste appeal, conversion, bahujan (including sarvajan) — are still around, more in a client-patron mode, Dalits are increasingly taking charge of affairs in their own hands.

A few features of this turn are noteworthy: caste is back into reckoning; the use of social media to network and communicate has proliferated; Left politics and its limitations are under scrutiny; Babasaheb Ambedkar has reinforced his presence as the flagpole; there is a highly literate Dalit leadership deeply aware of historical injustice and electorally decisive numbers in support; a thick notion of Brahmanism is highlighted as the enemy; a search for a new civil society-state axis is on; and a new body of concepts and slogans are being deployed as the battle cry. Dalits have begun to dig deep into layers and layers of folklore and alternative nationalist imagery to forge skilful use of signs, symbols and representations.

While one can say that all these features were part of the Dalit movement at one time or the other, it is their combinatory which is proving itself lethal. Above all, this stir is situating itself on the terrain of India’s distinct democratic politics, employing its resources as much as possible. There is no single political party at the head of this movement although many political parties will have much at stake in it.

Reaction to atrocities The continuing, large-scale and disdainfully executed atrocities on Dalits were largely confined to police records and the bulky records of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes for long. But incidents such as a suicide note by a research scholar, Rohith Vemula, that stated, “My birth is my fatal accident”, has connected all of them and much more to the social fact of caste: his suicide is seen as a witness to the squeezing out of the life of millions of youth — bright, daring, and with dreams to reach out to the sky — on account of caste and all it means in context. Dalits increasingly feel that the opportunity to access the legal and institutional resources of a democratic polity has gone hand in hand with relocating them into a caste grid, consigning all their effort, again in Vemula’s words, to “immediate identity and nearest possibility”. Their life prospects are much inferior to those of its other beneficiaries. This sense of ‘unfair inclusion’ connects them to the vast numbers in the Indian subcontinent who are kept, in Ambedkar’s cryptic phrase, “outside the fold”.

Valerian Rodrigues

The effect of land reforms and agrarian transformation — while reinforcing the hold of landed castes and communities in the countryside — has pushed Dalits and social segments akin to them further to the margins. There is a new enslavement and recrudescence of gradation and ranking at the workplace rather than enablement and camaraderie.

The Hindutva agenda of inviting all Hindus to the banquet table but assigning lower castes to their predestined places has further exacerbated the sense of being unwanted. ‘The fatal accident of birth’ connects all the sites that have witnessed Dalit upsurge in recent days, from Tughlakabad to Una, from Hyderabad to Udupi. But it also runs through the distinction between skilled and unskilled, organised and informal, rural and urban, and male and female labour. This cleavage also links much subtler forms of exclusion and relative marginalisation to more cruder forms of atrocities.

Modes of struggle The social relations in which Dalits are caught calls upon them to struggle not merely against external dominance, be it capital, caste or power, but also against denial of their very humanity. The latter forms of struggle are pitted against subtler forms of human degradation and enslavement of one’s very self.

The new turn in Dalit politics is precisely calling for a widening of the terrain of struggle rather than merely restricting it to political power or religious conversion. Given this task, there are new instrumentalities in place in Dalit struggles: the social media does not become merely a site to network, but also to inform, to criticise, to assess as well as redefine concerns. In fact the social media has emerged today as the backbone of the new Dalit awakening as could be seen in the >solidarity movement with Rohith Vemula across the country , in ‘Azadi Koon’ (March for Freedom) from Ahmedabad to Una in Gujarat, or the ‘Udupi Chalo’ walk that brought thousands of Dalits from different parts of Karnataka to the temple town, Udupi.

The great marches and rallies winding across distant villages and small towns and uniting people around a set of core demands are connecting people physically and emotionally. There are slogans asserting pride in being a Dalit, with a sub-caste enumeration as an add-on, not infrequently. There is a resurgence of folklore, sites of atrocities have become places of pilgrimage, traditional musical instruments of Dalits have thrown up fusion with rhythmic dances of great power and poise, and broadsheets, songs and street plays, evocative posters and imaginative slogans challenge dominant perception and sensitivity. Women and men are found shoulder to shoulder with one another in this ‘long march’, something that the late Sharmila Rege portrayed in her writings. Ambedkar makes a rich and exemplary presence across such performances, and there is almost none beside him in stature. Today, sites of Dalit rallies are crowded with a rich display of books and publications, a widespread practice in Left rallies of yore.

Hitherto, cleavages between Dalits and backward castes, Dalits and Muslims, and the gender divide have come in the way of optimising the democratic dividend from their overwhelming numbers. The decisive support of Dalits to the backward castes in the Mandal agitation did not beget enduring political alliances. The Dalit and Muslim alliance never took off the ground at any time in right earnest. And, less said the better with regard to the alliance between backward castes and women. In recent years, faced with Hindu consolidation under the aegis of Hindutva, the targeting of Dalits and Muslims by the cow-brigades or Gau Rakshak Dals, the growth in civil society surveillance and moral policing, and the relative marginality of these groups in the market, there is a growing realisation among sections of them that they need to politically draw closer.

The slogans that resound in the Dalit movement today indicate such a thaw: The banners read, and slogans echo: ‘choice of food’, ‘right to land’, ‘Swabhiman’ and ‘Atmabhiman’ (self-respect), ‘Azadi’ (freedom) and ‘dignity’. They pronounce death knell to historic oppression, and freedom to define their own self-hood. Dalits also proudly announce the equality of women and their right to choose the kind of life they wish to live and denounce the surveillance of Hindutva brigades on them. The dragging out of Mohammad Akhlaq from his house and his killing by a local Hindu mob on the charge of storing beef at his house in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, has become an important issue in Dalit struggles, woven around the right to food. As a result, we find the bonding together of a large number of associations of these groups and communities.

Nodal concepts and norms The registry of norms that are invoked by the current Dalit movement to explain and justify its objectives and actions has much to distinguish it from its earlier expressions. It is increasingly human dignity and worth, and the capacity to be what one can be, that occupy the high ground. The reduction of freedom to one’s birthmarks, and the social structures, institutions, prejudices and interactions that sustain such a state of affairs are seen as new forms of enslavement. A patch of land of one’s own, a home where one can live on one’s own terms, not to be condemned to certain occupations, or be treated as low and defiled stir Dalit imagination today as never before.

The term Brahmanism that Dalits have employed to rally against a specific mode of dominance from the time of Jyotirao Phule and Iyothee Thass has acquired new connotations of sustaining a social order based on graded inequality, servility and deference, and self-aggrandisement at the expense of misery and inhumanity meted out to others. India’s so-called modern and democratic institutions are increasingly perceived as sustaining a Brahmanical dispensation. The central concerns of Muslims, women and backward castes are perceived as being consonant with these concepts and norms.

What electoral dividends this new sensitivity will bring at the hustings or in foisting party alliances is difficult to anticipate at present. The new Dalit politics feels that it holds the key to some of these concerns and strivings. While there is much that unites the social groups and communities enumerated above, there is much that divides them too. Bridges connecting these divides are yet to be built. Dalits are yet to reach out to Adivasis in a meaningful way.

Valerian Rodrigues is formerly Professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and currently National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research.

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