The goal of building a popular Dalit agenda

There may be a visible Dalit presence on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, on April 14, but the fact is that the community has many battles to fight

April 14, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 11:32 am IST

‘It is in electoral battles that Dalits have witnessed their growing marginalisation’

‘It is in electoral battles that Dalits have witnessed their growing marginalisation’ | Photo Credit: AP

It is to the credit of modern liberal ideas, capitalist development and democratic churning that Dalits are now a well-recognised social and political force — a transformation made possible under the maverick leadership of B.R. Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, Ambedkar’s vision to elevate Dalits as an independent religious community or to improvise their lot as the dominating political force in the democratic battles has not yet been realised.

There is a looming fear as the government of the day has been aggressive in adopting neo-liberal economic policies that often undermine social justice safeguards meant for the emancipation of historically marginalised communities. Further, the Hindutva ideological agenda considers independent Dalit assertions as a challenge to the politics of cultural nationalism. The threats and surveillance against the Dalit socio-political movement have been accentuated, relegating it to a passive powerless location today.

A vision for social justice

Ambedkar realised that the colonial regime opened the doors of modern institutions to various marginalised social groups, welcoming them to become an integral part of democratic processes. Constitutional principles allowed the untouchable castes in particular to raise their grievances effectively and reprimanded the social elite leadership for their exclusive exploitation of state power and social privileges. Ambedkar hoped that the policy of job reservation or Dalit representation in legislative bodies would induce the substantive democratisation of political power and introduce Dalits as influential shareholders in modern institutions.

Also read: The philatelic lives of Dr. Ambedkar

Second, Ambedkar visualised that non-political public spaces (educational institutions, media, culture and art industries) should be democratised, allowing Dalits to play an effective role as entitled citizens. Further, the state would take effective measures to cultivate a sensitive public culture and punish offenders who practised caste or community-based discrimination. In modern India, it was expected that people would enjoy the profits of cosmopolitan culture without much fear of social discrimination and harassment. Ambedkar also believed that modernity should not be adored only for elevating the untouchables as a special category that would require the perpetual assistance of the state. Instead, he expected that Dalits must escape the burdened social identity (by converting to Buddhism) and reduce their dependency on the state. He imagined Dalits to be the natural leaders of historically deprived groups.

Dalit assertion

Influenced by Ambedkar’s socio-political directives, Dalit intervention in the public sphere has been to demand social dignity, independent cultural rights and political power. The affirmative action policies of the state have helped a significant Dalit section to emerge as a crucial segment of the mainstream middle class, allowing them to enjoy the profits of urban life. The arrival of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the 1980s was possible due to the committed support of the Dalit middle class. However, various sections within the Dalits have not shown sincere attachment to the social justice movement and remained hegemonised by conventional cultural values, even drifting towards political options considered as antithetical to the politics of Dalit emancipation.

Second, on the social and cultural front, Dalits introduced themselves as an assertive and independent alternative. Today, Ambedkar’s life-size statues in many cities are a visible marker of the dignified presence of Dalits in public spaces. Further, Dalits organise impressive public events (celebration of Constitution Day), or the birth anniversaries of revolutionary icons or the organisation of massive gatherings at historic sites to showcase their elevated sense of equality and dignity in public life. Dalits have introduced themselves as the proponent of alternative cultural values and have democratised the public sphere. Third, it is in electoral battles that Dalits have witnessed their growing marginalisation. With the periodic decline of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh as a commendable mainstream party, the possibility that the national regime can be governed under Dalit-Bahujan leadership has been derailed. Interestingly, it is the BJP that often claims itself to be an inclusive party, representing the interests of the worst-off Dalit-Bahujan castes. In Maharashtra, Bihar, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, though there are impressive social and political mobilisations by Dalits, these have limited capacities to overturn the domination of the nationalist parties, especially the BJP juggernaut at the Centre.

The realities

The post-Ambedkar Dalit activism has surely enlarged its presence and democratised the social and political sphere substantively. However the conventional class and caste relationships have not reformed much. Growing cases of caste atrocities, violence and assaults are enough to depress Dalit hopes for social emancipation. Further, even in modern institutions such as universities, the judiciary, the media and cultural industries, there is a marginalisation of Dalit participation. On Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (April 14), the dignified public presence of Dalits may be visible, but there are few who look into their substantive issues about growing political marginalisation, a lack of representation in the institutions of power and their quest for freedom from the clutch of Brahmanical casteism. A rethinking is needed to build a popular Dalit agenda that mobilises the vulnerable and marginalised communities for a greater emancipatory project.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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