On September 16, Parliament Street near Jantar Mantar witnessed a Dalit rally that was unlike other such events in the recent past. What set it apart was the number of speakers from the Left. Sharing the stage with Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and Jignesh Mewani were the likes of Sitaram Yechury, Sudhakar Reddy and D. Raja. And surprisingly, for a gathering that self-identified as ‘Dalit’, the rallying cries of “Jai Bhim” were accompanied by a slogan rarely heard outside Left circles, “Lal Salaam”.
Such an alliance of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam, if translated into a political programme, could mark a significant departure for both Left and Dalit politics. The recent Dalit agitations in Gujarat offer a glimpse of what may be possible if a fusion of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam were to go beyond sloganeering into the realm of praxis.
Lessons from Gujarat The > mobilisation in Gujarat following the Una incident, in which Dalit youth were assaulted by cow vigilantes, has already achieved two substantive victories. First, the protesters successfully pressured the State administration to initiate the process of distributing 220 bighas of government land to > 115 landless Dalit families of Saroda village in Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district.
The second success came from the 6,000 safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), who went on strike for 36 days. Their demands included regularisation of contract workers, provision of provident fund (PF) scheme and health benefits, guaranteed minimum wage, safety equipment for all workers, job for kin in case of accidental death or injury, and clearance of PF arrears from 2011. Every one of these is a material demand, and they were all accepted by the AMC.
These are two instances where Dalit anger was channelled into pragmatic political projects by identitarian outfits such as the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch and Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, as well as trade unions such as Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions and Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha, along with civil rights bodies such as Jan Sangharsh Manch. While the beneficiaries of this mobilisation were Dalits, the demand-making was premised not on identitarian but a material basis. Land ownership and permanent employment with social benefits make a big difference to the material existence of Dalits. But a militant articulation of material demands has rarely been a consistent feature of Dalit politics.
This lacuna finds an inverse parallel in Left politics as well, which has never seriously taken up caste issues — neither atrocities against Dalits, nor casteism in general. It has restricted itself to class politics without challenging the caste underpinnings of class exploitation. A major reason, apparently, was the fear of dividing the working class along caste lines.
But the Indian working classes were already split along multiple identitarian axes, most prominently caste. The Left’s failure to counter this caste-based division is one of the reasons for its marginalisation in Indian politics. Ambedkarite critics blame the upper-caste domination of Left leadership for its blindness to caste exploitation. Indeed, there are few Dalits, if any, in the political bureaus or central committees of the Left parties.
At the same time, the Left’s criticism of Ambedkarite identity politics is not without substance. This critique was best expressed by Anuradha Ghandy in an essay on the “caste question”, where she writes that “the ruling classes have consciously sponsored an elite among the Dalits who have consciously appealed to Dalit solidarity and a sectarian approach, while denying any unity with other exploited sections and parties representing them.”
Limitations of identitarianism Ms. Ghandy’s fundamental point that Dalit-OBC unity is “practically impossible to sustain” due to class contradictions has been borne out by recent events. In different parts of the country, the dominant agricultural castes have begun to mobilise — not against the upper castes who own land or capital, but against Dalits. After the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, Jats in Haryana, and Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra have now taken to the streets demanding reservations. Plus they have another demand: dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Not surprisingly, there is a creeping realisation among a section of Dalits — most visibly in Gujarat, where they constitute a minuscule 7 per cent minority — that identity politics can only take them so far. This realisation entails grappling with three painful truths about the Indian political reality.
First, within the electoral system, identity politics can only yield brokers of Dalit votes, who can, at best, extract minor concessions for Dalits without challenging the caste order, and at worst, pass off personal aggrandisement as empowerment of the community. Leaders like Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj exemplify this phenomenon. As for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), its political potential has been curtailed by an extreme concentration of power in one individual — a disease endemic to political parties in India.
Second, Dalit-OBC unity — a minimum requirement for identitarian Dalit politics to gain critical mass — is a non-starter due to class contradictions. A glance at the castes of the accused in atrocity cases would be enough to put the idea to rest.
Finally, with public sector disinvestment and privatisation becoming official government policy, reservations can no longer be the answer for the vast majority of Dalits. This is a reality that other dominant castes agitating for reservations are yet to come to grips with. But they, too, will have to, sooner than later. If we think beyond reservations, what else can identity politics promise, let alone deliver?
Sheer political logic therefore dictates that Dalits look for allies who share their social, political, and material predicament — in other words, look beyond identity politics. For, on their own, they do not have the numbers — either to retaliate in kind against their caste oppressors or to avoid being reduced to vote banks for parties controlled by their caste oppressors.
To take a recent example, the violence sparked by cow vigilantism targeted both Muslims and Dalits. It even prompted calls for Dalit-Muslim unity. But Muslims are a minority identity too. This alliance is fraught with not just class but also caste contradictions that could easily undermine it, as the failed attempts to forge Dalit-Muslim unity in Uttar Pradesh show.
Dalit politics at the moment does not have an answer to class collaboration between their own elites and their caste oppressors; nor to caste collaboration between the poor and wealthy classes of their caste oppressors. It cannot move forward unless it is willing to articulate the material aspirations of the dispossessed — not only among the Dalits, but also the OBCs and the upper castes. These would include the landless, the contract workers, indebted farmers, and migrant workers.
Similarly, Left politics has no future unless it serves the democratic aspirations of the socially oppressed, and recognises that annihilation of caste is the condition of possibility for any progressive politics. In a semi-feudal, partially modernised nation like India, anti-capitalism has little transformative potential without anti-casteism. Such an understanding would entail the Left joining hands with Dalit forces, and attacking casteism with the same kind of energy it reserves for condemning imperialism.
Natural affinity of interests A convergence of Left and Dalit politics is hardly new though. Marx and Ambedkar have come together before, especially in the 1950s when Ambedkar, together with the Communist Party of India, led struggles for distribution of government land for landless Dalits. Then in the 1970s came the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra. It took a combination of state repression, upper caste violence (led by the Shiv Sena) and co-option through prizes and electoral tickets to neutralise this wave of militant left-wing Dalit assertion.
Today, a confederacy of casteist forces with control over capital and the state apparatus are on one side, and a mass of socially oppressed and economically marginalised are arrayed on the other. The ruling elite, as ever, are conscious of their class interests cutting across caste lines. But the working classes, especially the Dalits and OBCs among them, stand divided into a great number of identities that are locked in mutual antagonisms, designed to ensure that their identity as a class remains buried.
The Dalits need the Left because there is no other political formation that programmatically raises working class issues such as a living wage, job security, pensions, and abolition of contract labour. As for the Left, sheer survival requires it to raise Dalit issues. Given that the overwhelming majority of Dalits are working class, there is a natural affinity of political interests.
Of course, the two have fallen out in the past, and Dalits have bitter memories of betrayal by the Left. Past disappointments notwithstanding, in the current vacuum of political representation vis-à-vis Dalit-working class interests, a partnership between Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam may yet be an experiment worth revisiting.