The crisis in Dalit-Bahujan politics

The right wing has appropriated caste-based politics with more representation to BCs but no robust social agenda

Updated - November 04, 2019 01:13 am IST

Published - November 04, 2019 12:02 am IST

The political mobilisation of Dalit-Bahujans in India is in the midst of an epistemic crisis. Though it entered the mainstream riding on steep identitarianism, and independent and ‘autonomous’ mobilisation, Dalit-Bahujan politics has unfortunately become all about ‘merely’ demanding more representation. Given the extremely skewed social power between dominant castes on the one hand and internal divisions of sub-castes within the Dalits and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) on the other, identity politics, demanding more representation without an accompanying social and economic development agenda, seems to have been an attempt to short-circuit the humongous gap in power. Many Dalit-Bahujan scholars and political leaders read more representation as the “social revolution” Ambedkar had spoken about.

Misreading the equation

Kancha Iliah Shepherd, who shot to fame with his book Why I am Not a Hindu , best symbolises this militant demand for representation with an empty social agenda. He demanded representation for Dalit-Bahujans from being appointed as priests of the Venkateshwara temple at Tirupati to being the general secretary of the Communist Party.

He equated right and left, and in fact went to the extent of arguing that while the right is like a white snake in the green grass that can be easily identified; the left is a green snake in the green grass that surreptitiously denies Dalit-Bahujans their due in leadership and in articulating their justified demands.

But a mode of articulation that began with a legitimate urge to find an autonomous space outside the left fold, soon led to the formation of a political group claiming exclusivity and universality at the same time. If one expressed sympathy and solidarity and articulated views in support of anti-caste politics, it was deemed to be an attempt to appropriate the Dalit-Bahujan agenda, while if one did not join the group it was because of Brahminical prejudice.

Dalit-Bahujan politics has got entangled in this vicious cycle of a prejudice-appropriation dynamic, disallowing it to either forge larger solidarities or assert exclusivity with a radical social agenda. It increasingly became indifferent to other forms of progressive political articulations. The identity that enabled it to enter the mainstream carried in its interstices the processes of its own marginalisation.

With representation as the lone marker for Dalit-Bahujan assertion, its politics lost the velocity of offering a fresh perspective as also the possibility of leading the opposition with various political and ideological formations. Kancha Iliah Shepherd, a bitter critique of the Hindutva brand of politics, and Hinduism too for its deep seated discriminatory practices, celebrated Narendra Modi becoming the first OBC leader to take office as Prime Minister. He compared him with Abraham Lincoln and saw the possibility of the emancipation of Dalit-Bahujans under his leadership, just the way Lincoln contributed to abolishing slavery. When Mr. Iliah Shepherd did not see that happening in reality, he blamed it not on Mr. Modi`s ideological training by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but on the fact that he was not a shudra OBC but a baniya-OBC.

Even as scholars like Mr. Iliah Shepherd saw a ray of hope in the ascendance of an OBC leader like Mr. Modi, he remained a bitter critique of non-Dalit-OBC social activists, again based on their birth, and leaving no space for social or political negotiation. In his recent autobiography, he accuses social activist K. Balagopal of being prejudiced, and refers to him as a ‘Brahmin’. K. Balagopal has worked tirelessly for a range of social causes and also demonstrated uncanny physical courage and personal integrity but much of this goes unacknowledged. Instead of appropriating the activism of K. Balagopal, representation and identity politics practised by this group dismissed non-Dalit-Bahujans as an anthropological moral crisis of integrity.

A shallow politics

The shallow representational politics of social justice seems to have found a space in right-wing politics. The right appears to be welcoming of a brand of politics that demands representation without an accompanying social and economic agenda. This process also got further accentuated as identity politics disallowed raising questions of power internal to Dalits and the OBCs. While it pitched for Bahujanism, it never allowed taking a serious look into the skewed power relations that often found expression in physical assaults between OBCs and Dalits. In fact, such questions were often represented as a way of weakening Dalit-Bahujan unity. Unity based on power hierarchies is precisely the mode in which the right led by the RSS wishes to actualise its fantasy of a Hindu Rashtra based on Hindu unity.

Dalit-Bahujan politics is caught between extending representation by joining various political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party-RSS combine, on the one hand, and demanding separate and autonomous spaces like that of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) which undercuts the possibilities of secular political parties, on the other. This undoubtedly reflects the stamp of a dark history of caste in India with skewed power relations, and for that very reason it is imperative that the current ‘epistemic crisis’ must be overcome.

One way out is for secular political formations to offer more leadership positions to those coming from the Dalit-Bahujan communities along with including a robust social agenda and knowledge systems internal to such communities.

The clues to such a move also lie in Dalit-Bahujans asserting a non-hegemonic universality as the post-colonial thinker, Achille Mbembe, rightly said, “It is simply not true that unless I have undergone the exact same experience as the other, I know nothing about his or her pain and should simply shut up. Insofar as to be human is to open oneself up to the possibility always already there of becoming (an)other, such a conception of self and identity is by definition antihuman. The political in our time must start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common. For the idea of decolonisation to have any purchase at a planetary scale, it cannot start from the assumption that I am purer than my neighbour.”

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. His forthcoming edited book is Secular Sectarianism: Limits of Subaltern Politic s

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