A rightward shift in Dalit politics

PRAGMATIC: Udit Raj joining the BJP or Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan (right) joining the coalition is perceived as part of a necessary move for the current Dalit agenda. Picture shows them at a rally in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. Photo; Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Where is Dalit politics heading in India today? Dalits seem to have come a full circle from the agenda of “annihilation of caste” to “secularisation of caste,” and conversion from Hinduism to actively claiming the Hindu identity, as is evident from the spate of communal riots in Uttar Pradesh in the last few months which have been primarily between Dalits and Muslims. The dynamics in rural Dalit politics seems to have moved from challenging the upper castes to finding acceptance and becoming a part of the majoritarian polity that is under construction. Mobility by gaining acceptance looks far more tangible and achievable than the abstract and rather Utopian idea of annihilating caste. This acceptance can be perceived as a mobility as well as an undermining of the dominance of the upper castes by compelling them to recognise that they need Dalit support in rural hinterlands against the perceived aggression of Muslims, and that they are mutually interdependent.

Fractured identity

Dalit identity is itself internally fractured as the issue of conflicting interests, including the practice of untouchability between various Dalit sub castes, is coming to the fore and gaining political articulation. There is little that can hold the identity together, as was the case in the past. Further, the sustained mobilisation of Dalits by political parties, such as the Congress in the past, for various historical and sociological reasons, had benefited certain Dalit sub castes. Only those who feel the sense of having lost out are finding a new political space within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Similar is the case with the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), where mobilisation by parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) benefited the dominant factions of the OBCs such as the Yadavs and the Kurmis. Though the JD(U) under Nitish Kumar made an extra effort by subdividing the OBCs into Extremely Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes in order to reach out to the less privileged, this nevertheless has come to be perceived to be happening under the tutelage and patronage of the dominant OBC castes which is no longer acceptable. The coming together of Mr. Lalu Prasad and Mr. Kumar is precisely to put brakes on theBJP’s efforts in weaning away the less privileged OBCs from their fold.

Further, the larger sub castes among the Dalits have mostly converted to Christianity and some to Islam, leaving the smaller sub castes the sole option of moving to the Hindu fold. Moreover, the vulnerability felt by smaller sub castes — not so much to the upper castes but to their fellow Dalit sub castes who have eclipsed them and got relatively more benefits — can be overcome by the assumed power of aligning with the dominant Hindu religion. The weakness of size and social backwardness is sought to be overcome by accruing power in joining the majoritarian political construct.

Finally, all this is being further strengthened by the change in strategy by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Both organisations are now considering the possibility of actively mobilising Dalits, without losing the support base of the so-called upper castes. While the BSP attempted this strategy bottom-up — by moving from the Bhujan to the Sarvajan, the BJP-RSS combine is attempting the same strategy top-down.

Story of urban Dalits

The story is slightly different with urban Dalits who moved to cities in search of education and who have benefited from affirmative policies of the last four decades. The emergent “new” middle classes from among these Dalit families continued to feel the pinch of caste within the anonymity of urban spaces. However, even this social group, if we go by recent poll statistics, voted for Narendra Modi in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and is certainly moving towards the BJP. The possibility here seems to be that the new aspirational social group among Dalits wishes to be as much a part of the growth story as the traditional upper castes. Here, it is much less of the Hindu identity as it is about a perceived universalism of the benefits of growth and governance. This political language also provides anonymity and ostensibly sidelines and undermines the language of caste that comes as a relief to the urban Dalit.

This comes with a belief that globalisation cannot be understood with a simple-minded monolithic frame: that it is neoliberal in content; instead one needs to concede that it undermines caste-based labour practices and has opened new economic opportunities for Dalits, unlike the local or national capital. It is this mood that Udit Raj represents in the BJP. Mr. Raj was otherwise a champion of conversions of Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism. It is also for this very reason that the Dalit movement today has developed as much contempt for the Left parties and left-based social mobilisation as the traditional upper caste social elites in India and the traditional right-wing political parties such as the BJP. This is yet another growing commonality between the Right and the neo-Dalit agenda in Indian politics. This is why Mr. Raj joining the BJP or Ram Vilas Paswan joining the coalition is perceived as part of a pragmatic move necessary for the current Dalit agenda, while Arundhati Roy writing on B.R. Ambedkar is perceived as an illegitimate appropriation and worse, as “poaching” from the outside. Here, strangely, Dalit politics uses the exclusivist Dalit identity and the need to be born a Dalit to speak of caste and Ambedkar.

Earlier, in the 1970s and even the 1980s, the tension between Dalit and Left politics was articulated around how to draw equivalence between caste and classes. Now, however, Dalit politics has a conflict with the very vision of the Left and the anti-capitalist agenda. They perceive this as yet another strategy of the upper castes, in the garb of Leftism, to dislodge the upper mobility of the Dalit entrepreneurs, while Ambedkar himself all along unequivocally argued against both Brahmanism and capitalism — twin processes that have perpetuated caste in India. The post-Ambedkarite Dalit politics, among other things, is gradually but unmistakably taking a rightward shift. This in turn would be decisive for the content and contours of democracy in India, for a long time to come.

(Ajay Gudavarthy is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.)

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 9:34:06 PM |

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