20/04/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Disintegration Of Dalit Politics

Indians watch a procession to mark the birth anniversary of Bhim Rao Ambedkar in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Ambedkar, an untouchable, or Dalit, and a prominent Indian freedom fighter, was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on caste. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Dr. Ambedkar would be truly surprised and I presume sad if he were alive today.

As we observe his 125th birth anniversary this April, those who decried him when he was alive now celebrate him without understanding or appreciating his legacy.

Dr. Ambedkar would be disappointed because even after more than six decades of independence, the Dalits and the oppressed in India are not nearly as emancipated as he had hoped for while penning the constitutional provisions granting them freedom from oppression, discrimination and humiliation. Dalit politics may have started with Dr Ambedkar, but he probably never envisioned that it would assume the opportunistic form it has today. This erosion of values and the fracturing of the community along the lines of sub-castes may well result in the death of Dalit politics as we know it today.

To understand the assertion above we will have to examine in brief the history of Dalit politics in India. In an informative article published in Centre Right India, Abhinav Prakash Singh asserts that though Ambedkar laid the foundation of Dalit politics, the community became an integral part of mass politics under the Congress, which integrated Dalits and their social issues into the freedom struggle. He adds that the Congress built a "rainbow alliance" across social classes by taking up Dalit issues, while also taking care not to alienate the upper castes. The arrangement ensured that the Congress ruled across most of India even after independence for many decades.

"A 'Brahmanic' layer has emerged within the Dalits as a result of the favours showered on certain sub-castes at the cost of others."

During its rule, writes Singh, the Congress "extended patronage [to the Dalits] in the form of welfare policies, reservations and by accommodating prominent Dalit figures and local leaders" but the party was still dominated by the upper castes. This meant that the Dalits had less of a say in policy and administrative issues.

Singh continues:

"Dalits accepted the arrangement, as they were too weak to assert and sustain an autonomous Dalit politics or to challenge dominant castes within the fold of Congress or other parties. Congress was seen as a vehicle of upliftment of Dalits as it at least, ensured them a place in the mainstream... [This experience] provided an entire generation of Dalits, a brush with realpolitik and trained them in the art of democratic politics of the new India. The limited gains made, raised the consciousness of an even wider community, its aspirations and more importantly, its restlessness."


In the article, Singh further explains that in the 70s these opportunities gave rise to a new wave of Dalit politics:

"[The new] generation of Dalit leaders and activists... were more confident and radical then the previous generation. They vigorously challenged the old guard. Now, dependence on Congress was seen as an impediment to socio-economic upliftment of the Dalits. It was because despite numerous 'welfare policies' very little had changed on the ground due to poor implementation and rampant corruption seeped in bureaucratic red tape... Dalit leaders were criticised for compromising the Dalit cause for the illusive gains and crumbs thrown down from the high table. "Chamcha" (sycophant) was the word used for them by Kanshiram, who emerged as the face of this new phase of Dalit politics. The Gandhian, Socialist and Communist constructs, which presented themselves as liberators of Dalits, came under direct scrutiny and challenge by new Dalit leaders and thinkers. This is the period when Mayawati caught the attention of Kanshiram after her fiery and stunning speech against Gandhians and Samajwadis in a conference in constitution club of Delhi, September 1977."

A few years later, in the early 1980s, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was formed. This Dalit party's singular aim was to capture political power. This, felt the new generation of Dalit leaders, was necessary for true emancipation.

And capture power it did, not once, not twice but four times in Uttar Pradesh with Mayawati at the helm. However, once the Dalits reached the pinnacle of power in the state, they lost their common cause.

Once the unifying goal -- the capture of political power -- was achieved, the cracks within the construct of the term "Bahujan" started surfacing with the varying agendas of the Dalits, EBCs, OBCs, lower caste Muslims, upper caste Muslims, even different castes within the Dalit fold. In fact, the conflicts between many of them were and continue to be more direct and bitter than that with the upper-castes.

"Members of the community are striking political alliances based on their sub-caste identity rather than their unifying Dalit identity to garner a better deal than what the BSP gave them."

Despite the differences, the rise of the BSP saw rapid gains by Dalits in the state. While some sub-castes within the Dalit community -- like the Jatavs, the sub-caste to which Mayawati belongs -- benefited more than others, it served to increase the aspirations of Dalits in general. But all was not well. Over the years the gap between aspirations and appropriation between the Dalit sub-castes has widened. A "Brahmanic" layer has emerged within the Dalits as a result of the favours showered on certain sub-castes at the cost of others.

This fragmentation, I believe, will eventually lead to the demise of Dalit politics as we know it today. As per the 2011 census there UP has 66 Dalit castes that together form 21% of state's population. The Jatav/Chamar caste is on top with a share of over 55% of the state's Dalit population. The Pasis are a distant second at around 15%, while Dhobis, Koris and Balmikis account for another 15% of the Dalit vote. The Gonds, Dhanuks and Khatiks constitute about 5% of the community's population. All these sub-castes feel short-changed by the BSP and are seeking political representation that is less skewed towards the interests of the Jatav/Chamar community. This in turn has prompted more and more castes to move out of the umbrella of "Dalit politics" and search for alternatives.

Interestingly the "untouchables" of yesterday are now being wooed by political parties of all hues and members of the community are striking political alliances based on their sub-caste identity rather than their unifying Dalit identity to garner a better deal than what the BSP gave them. For example, the Pasis voted for the Samajwadi Party in the 2012 U.P. elections and for the BJP in the 2014 Parliamentary elections.

Thus we see today that even as political parties compete to appropriate the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar, they make a mockery of it by dividing the Dalit vote along sub-caste lines for electoral gains. Besides, they are doing little for the emancipation of the majority of Dalits who still live in chronic social and economic deprivation.

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