Dalit Movement after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in India: Pitfalls, Challenges & Way Ahead

Goldy M George

Published in Issue III, September 2013

The Centrality of the Context

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar has undeniably been the tallest person in the struggles of oppressed people, particularly the Dalits in the post-modern India. Indisputably he was the first one to provide a broader intellectual canvas to the struggle of the thitherto broken people. One cannot ever make any undue claim to the profound resistance put forward by predecessors and the contemporaries, which laid the contextual edifice of Dr. Ambedkar argument.

Any thesis that stands to thrive the basic humanist principles of Justice, Freedom, Equality, Liberty, Justice and Peace needs consistent study, reframing, evaluation and modification. In this sense it would be the victory of Babasaheb and the principles he laid forth in annihilating caste and thereby evolving the process of secular social democracy engagement where sharing of material and ideological-cultural-spiritual values would run as the core standard of every single aspect of engagement. Ideally the key feature of the Dalit movement should have aimed at annihilation of caste at the primary level, establishment of secular or rational social democracy as the secondary stage and ensuring the value sharing mechanism as the third and major objective.

While dealing with the question of the movement of ex-untouchables, it is essential to address the present context in its complexities, rather the crisis that has and is crippling India and how is it affecting the people at the lowest rung. This would automatically draw our attention to the core question. Without this it would be problematical to be in a strategic position to discuss or debate the relevance of Dalits as a people, the present challenges, cope up mechanisms, identification of friends and foes, reconstruction and what strategies should it adopt to attain these goals. It would also present a wider picture of the nation as a whole and its complexes from the abyss, with caste as the core functional aspect. Today all crises in the world had expanded to unpredictable magnitude with severe implication and utter insinuation.

Essentially one needs to discuss all aspects including ideology, politics and practise of egalitarianism, since it holds the key to set the basics and background of any secular social democratic revolution in the country. The ex-untouchables while belonging to a broader class of rejected and abandoned people by the classics of Brahimincal Hinduism; it also had the additional disability of being have-nots. Economically, most of them are still the poorest of poor. A minuscule minority has managed to escape poverty limits and to locate itself on to a continuum ranging up to a reasonable level of prosperity, yet they suffer the historically superimposed of social oppression.

The main factor that has catalysed this upward mobility is the reservation policy – despite whatever flaws and errors – with provided the basic opportunity to enter the modern sectors of education, employment, economy and politics. In social terms the social oppression varies from the crudest variety of untouchability, discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation and alienation – practiced across the entire rural areas of India, to it’s sophisticated manifestations urban areas including the corporate world. Although statistics indicate to have made a significant progress on almost all parameters during the past seven post-independence decades, the relative gap between the Dalits and non-Dalits seems to have remained the same or rather deteriorated (George, 2006B).

Understanding the historical context and position is indispensable not only for positioning and strategising the Dalit movement but also to delineate the modern testicles of the continuity of caste system in post-modern era. In a broader overview, popular organised Dalit struggles cannot be traced before the British period. This is also due to the fact that the mystified Indian history and its historian’s haven’t provided much of information on any such organised resistance to caste oppression. From this viewpoint one cannot arrive at a shortcut conclusion there was no organised resistance to the caste hierarchy of the Brahminical religion. The important question is whether the ones in the lowest rug accepted it as their destiny or if it was a forced fate superimposed in the classical style of Roman slavery through sanctions of religions (George, 2006B).

One is that the entire thesis of Hinduism as rightly pointed and argued by Babasaheb is banking the four-fold system of eternal domination viz. Varnashram which further developed into sub-class called caste. Subscribing to this argument, if a prudent and thorough exploration of the transformation of varna into caste is done one could find the expression and emergence of new theory of “purity of blood”, which is by and large the antidotes used even today by the protagonists of caste (George, 2006B). The extraordinary success of this contrivance of social stratification is as much attributable to its own design that effectively obviated coalescence of the oppressed castes and facilitated establishment and maintenance of the ideological hegemony as to its purported divine origination. None could ordinarily raise a question as it meant incurring divine wrath and consequent ruination of the prospects of getting a better birth in their next life. Thus the caste system held society in a  metaphysical engagement and at the same time in physical alienation with itself (Teltumbde, 2006).

Since, this superstructure was pivoted on the religio – ideological foundation, the manifestation of resistance to the caste system always used the metaphysical toolkit that contrived its arguments into the religious form. Right from the early revolts like Buddhism and Jainism down to the Bhakti movement in the medieval age, one finds articulation of opposition to the caste system materialising in a religio-ideological idiom. This trend in fact extends well down to modern times that mark a new awakening of the oppressed castes and the birth of the contemporary Dalit movement. All anti-caste movements thus, from the beginning to the present, invariably appear engaged in religious or metaphysical confrontation with Brahminism,  either in terms of its denouncement or of adoption of some other religion (Teltumbde, 2006). It is under the above mentioned circumstances and juncture; I place the investigation on the pitfalls, challenges and ways ahead of the Dalit movement.

Untouchables in British India

Down the line of history the British colonisers aligned with the Indian rulers as well as mercantile class through its imperial and bourgeois liberal ethos coupled with the imperatives of their ruling strategy marked the creation of space for setting up subaltern identities, particularly in terms of caste and religion. Initially the British rule delivered nothing different to the untouchables as the early British association was confined to the courts of kings. Until they confronted with each other with correspondingly led to institutional changes (judiciary, civil administration, commodity, markets), cultural changes (modernity, western mode of living, English education, exposure to western treasure of knowledge and scholarship), economic changes (zamindari and ryotwari systems in place of jajmani-balutedari), and social changes. The development opportunities that these changes created gave an impetus to the lower castes and also came into conflict with traditional social relations, which still shackled them through caste bondage. This could be termed as the second phase of emergence of autonomous Dalit movement in pre-Ambedkar phase (George, 2006B).

This second phase is crucial as it marked a difference from the single out previous metaphysical. While dealing with Brahminical hegemony, the autonomous Dalit movement of course perceived an ally in the backward castes. The anti-Brahmin movement launched by the original visionary genius like Ayyotitasha, Sri Narayana Guru, Phule, Ayyankali, Baba Manguram, and others attains key space; which went beyond the rhetoric of metaphysical religious engagement to the level of physical and material struggles for land rights, labour rights, social dignity, temple entry movements, educational space, movement against slavery and bondage and upward mobility.

Dr. Ambedkar was much influenced by Mahatama Phule in Maharashtra. In spite of the difference in time period marking out different transitory phases in the history; differences in dispositions, equipment and social backgrounds between Phule and Ambedkar, one finds essential similarities in their characterisation of the social structure and the movements they launched and led. British rule was considered positive by both Phule and Ambedkar for the introduction of modernity into the waning Hindu society but concurrently has exposed its; both rejected the claims of nationalists that India was a nation; both had no faith in the Indian National Congress; both came to characterise and oppose it similarly; both declared their vehement opposition to Brahminism but still did not hate Brahmins; both were rationalist; both had hated the blood sucking class of priests, landlords, moneylenders and capitalists and sought to organise their victims; both emphasised the importance of education in the scheme of liberation of Dalits and backward castes; and so on and so forth  (Teltumbde, 2006).

Howsoever underestimated or grossly overlooked the contradictions between the Shudra backward castes and the non-caste Dalits may be in the village setting where precisely the caste problem is to be confronted, the Shudra castes came to share the mantle of Brahminism in relation to Dalits. This is basically strengthened by the economic contradictions between these farmer castes and the Dalits who are the farm labourers dependent on them. This legacy of Manu could neither be overcome by the powerful non-Brahmin movement of Mahatma Phule, who had certainly shown how to bring them together during his life time; nor by the Dalit movement despite its significant investment for bringing about a broad unity of all the labouring people during Ambedkar’s time.

The Post-Ambedkar period

The post-Ambedkar Dalit movement had witnessed several ups and downs. On one side a categorical awakening among the Dalits had grown beyond all imagination and on the other it has somewhere stagnant after Dr. Ambedkar mainly due to ideological disposition. The post-Ambedkar phase can be broadly divided into three phases – rise and fall of the Republican Party, emergence of the Dalit Panthers and thirdly the growing assertion of Dalits for political power and their consequent refusal to remain satisfied merely with education and job opportunities arising out of the policy of reservation. While the first two phases were confined to Maharashtra, interestingly the third one hardly had any role of Maharashtra – it was mostly outside the state of Maharashtra.

The factors that unfolded these phases depended much on the orientation guiding them. In Maharashtra except the strong efforts of Dadasaheb Gaikwad and some instant initiatives by Dalit Panthers, the Dalit movement almost failed to address the material aspect and life of Dalits. This perhaps was the key contributor to why the Congress party as a whole gained immense strength in the 60s and 70s within Maharashtra ensuring Dalits as their natural vote banks, despite the overarching legacy of Amebdkar. The fall of these movements marked the entry of the petty-bourgeoisie outlook to the centre stage of perspective and the middle class cultural norm governing the leadership life-style married with splits and schism and a complete detachment from the real mass.

There is no denial of the fact that the Dalit movement in the post-Ambedkar phase has gained immense potential and stridden several step ahead in the real democratisation of the Indian society with the rejection of political dominated by Brahminical values (George, 2005). The impressive emergence of BSP under Kanshiram in the national politics underlines this major chunk of the third phase. Kanshiram laid the foundation for this through forming All India Backward and Minority Castes Employees Federation (BAMCEF) in 1973 at first and later the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangarsh Samiti, popularly known as DS-4 in 1981 (Singh, 2010).

The success achieved by BSP has certainly encouraged the emergence of similar experiments in different parts of the country (George, 2005). The emergence of Vidudalai Chiruthaigal Katchi as the largest Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu under the leadership of Thirumavalavan in recent years and another party called Puthiya Tamilagam under Dr Krishnaswami are quite inspirational and instilled new rays of hope against caste oppression. Dalit Samrakshana Samiti in Karnataka could also be seen as an emergent movement, despite the limitation of the time-space factor. The efforts to revive the Republican Party in Maharashtra – despite all its multiple factions – could also be seen as efforts with certain political goals in place. There are similar efforts in other states too.

All these developments had certainly been a marker in the quest for attaining political mobility and space. However one could also observe that these formations from parties to social movements of the oppressed, poor and marginalised has failed to mobilise the larger societal social consciousness to bring more social equilibrium for the Dalits. Dr. Ambedkar has left with a mission to be continued with specific objectives and goals of building an India, which he often referred to as ‘Prabuddha Bharat’. Thus the Dalit movements seem to have not only lost their momentum as a movement, but also has shifted from its core agenda to a more populist agenda which sweeping shift in their slogans and languages.

Land Question and Power Dynamics – the missed line by Dalits Movements

Parallel to these developments there is another aspect that somehow consciously or unconsciously slipped away from the Dalit-Bahujan movement in the national political scenario after independence. During the post-independence period the imperatives of electoral politics provided the motive force for the consolidation of the middle castes. Thus a majority of the Shudra castes – who were marginal or small farmers or artisans labouring in the jajmani-balutedari (client-patron) system – attained crucial and critical room for affirming themselves (George, 2006B).

These castes received disproportionate benefits from the policies and programmes implemented during this period. The most significant have been the land reforms that sought to restore the lands to tenants and later the green revolution that channelled significant investments into agriculture and raised its productivity. The former could not reach real tenants who in most cases were Dalits because the government machinery would not know that there operated a layered tenancy in villages as a Dalit tenant could not be dealt with by the high caste landlord directly. So, by default, it recognised the intermediaries as the legal tenants who invariably belonged to these farmer castes. Many of the benami transfers also went to them, as they were the confidants of the former landlords. The green revolution, as numerous studies concluded, clearly benefited the bigger farmers who again belonged to these castes. The empowerment of a section from these Shudra castes impelled them to create a formidable constituency for themselves in nexus with the capitalist class and wielded significant political power. The contradiction between them and the Brahmins that impelled the non-Brahmin movements during the colonial times were overcome in this  process, which enabled them to assume the hegemonic role in the rural setting (Teltumbde, 2006).

Omvedt and Patankar (1979) points to the development of two parallel hierarchies in development of caste system in India. One hierarchy developed in the domain of agrarian relations ranging from landlords to independent peasants to tenant-cultivator to field servants. The last category comprised the untouchables – a form of semi-slavery. The entire land policy evolved in the colonial period and during the freedom struggle was focussed on the ideology of ‘land to the tiller’, which excluded the lowest hierarchy in the agrarian system i.e. the untouchable field servants.

In the pre-1947 phase, the castes under this generic Shudra caste-group were not well off economically and equal socially. Many of them, the artisan and service castes, were as poor as Dalits and continue at various rungs in the caste hierarchy. However, they could be bracketed together socially in caste terms as one entity for the reason that they were economically farmers since many of these groups held land in the new set of arrangements. The caste divisions between them were really imperceptible in hierarchical terms, though social engagements are still limited (George, 2006B).

In relations to Dalits – however they were placed socially and culturally clearly apart as the caste Hindus – their superiority perception in relation to the increasingly assertive Dalits was deliberately worked up by the powerful elements in villages, which thwarted any possibility of their making common base and agenda with Dalits. All these Shudra castes came to pose as a single block in opposition to Dalits for mainly two reasons. One, their superiority in the caste hierarchy to Dalits lent them power over them to extract more and more economic surplus and two, the assertiveness of the majority Dalit caste induced by their political consciousness (through the Dalit movement) and economic betterment (through reservation policy) made them vulnerable and defensive (George, 2006B).

These dynamics achieved two things for the rural rich. One, it obfuscated their exploitative relations with their own caste fellows and two; it provided them the requisite mass base to claim political power. One shouldn’t conceal or mask the historical blunder of the Communist movement in its incapacity to analyse the caste system which led to the unambiguous failure to interpret the established traditional working class sections of India. This also had done a lot of damage to the Dalit movement and at large frozen the working class either. Beyond the definite splitting up of Dalits it also botched in addressing the questions of bringing the new class along with Dalit with the class movement. Obliterating the class structure in India could only begin with the annihilation of caste (Teltumbde, 2006) that was completely forgotten by the communists.

Any question of caste annihilation cannot happen without thrashing the power structure, which has its roots in the land holding patterns that emerged in the post independence period. The historical alienation of Dalit movement from Communist – who otherwise could had been their natural ally – for whatsoever reasons, juxtaposed from composing any alliance at this facade either. This new class of landed people emerged as the political class, who in return completely dismissed any question of Dalit land rights, nor did the emergent Dalit movements felt the necessary need of taking up the land question at the national level seriously. Thus the Ambedkar’s project of annihilation of caste remains as a distant dream of all those who claimed to be the vanguards of the new society creation.

Hindutva Fascism & Dalits Movements

Another aspect that the Dalit movement in the post-Ambedkar era failed to address is that of the direct challenges of communal fascism. Communal Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial or puritan rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community. Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence. Often, but not always, it promotes racial superiority doctrines, ethnic persecution, imperialist expansion, and genocide. At the same time, fascists may embrace a form of internationalism based on either racial or ideological solidarity across national boundaries. Usually fascism espouses open male supremacy, though sometimes it may also promote female solidarity and new opportunities for women of the privileged nation or race (George, 2006A).

Fascism’s approach to politics is both populist – in that it seeks to activate “the people” as a whole against perceived oppressors or enemies – and elitist – in that it treats the people’s will as embodied in a select group, or often one supreme leader, from whom authority proceeds downward. Fascism seeks to organise a cadre-led mass movement in a drive to seize state power. It seeks to forcibly subordinate all spheres of society to its ideological vision of organic community, usually through a totalitarian state. Both as a movement and a regime, fascism uses mass organisations as a system of integration and control, and uses organized violence to suppress opposition, although the scale of violence varies widely (George, 2006A).

The present phase of fascism is a more organised and systematic attempt to continue the caste-class legacy. It started with the emergence of Hindu Chauvinism and Cultural Nationalism under the leadership of RSS led camp. This camp learnt various things from different sectors. They learnt the skills in organising and mobilising from Communist parties, mastered the management techniques from Churches & Christian institutions, the one-man dictator model of Adolph Hitler and the also the methods of maintaining private militia. In nutshell, the wholesome exercise was to sustain and strengthen the same old ideology of purity of the three upper varnas and Shudras and Panchamas as impure and pollutants. A twin strategy of dictating the Dalits and non-Hindu communities is the present form of communal fascism in India. Current mode of communal polity coupled with sustained casteism apparently speaks of this truth (George, 2006B).

Communal-fascism has built philanthropic and religious institutions like Saraswati Sishu Mandir, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Sanghs, Deen Dayal Shodh Sansthan, Sanskriti Bihar, Vikas Bharit, Gayatri Pariwar, Brahmakumari Samaj, etc. are some of the strategies adopted to create inroads among the Dalits & Adivasis. Expansion of fascism has so far and is disintegrating the Dalit-Adivasi ideology, theology, and identity and intimidated their very existence. Apparently this ruptures the community, deteriorates the noble notions of sharing, caring and co-operation, expansion of patriarchy and battered the inkling of community ownership over resources and all remaining symbols of common property (George, 2006A).

Another strategy applied is the steady and systematic capturing of the community panchayats and organisations. The best example of this is Gujarat where the communal fascists have got their stranglehold and successfully executed the carnage against the Muslims by communalising Dalits and Adivasis. Two crucial incidences in the Dalit history of India would remain as irremovable scars – one being the demolition of Babri Mazjit and the second the post Godra genocide of Muslim. Regretfully no Dalit organisation had a strong stand against either of these.

Dalits chosen to be the foot soldiers of the Hindutva forces against Muslims indeed surprised many. The very same Brahmins, Banias and Patidars who constitute the Hindutva command today sparked off the 1981 anti-reservations riots against Dalits. 20 years should not be too long a period for the collective memory of the victims to be effaced in favour of the perpetrators of crime. The riots were a part of their protest against the reservation system that gave Dalits access to medical and engineering colleges. They were based on falsehood and blatant lies even then as any of the riots thereafter and the recent carnages are. It led to riots in which Dalits were targeted in 18 of Gujarat’s 19 districts. The backlash was so harsh and widespread that it marked a watershed in the Dalit consciousness. The violence of 1981 riots achieved in one shot what they could not do over many years. It is significant to remember that during these riots the Muslims had sheltered Dalits at many places. Dalits faced the wrath of same Brahmins, Banias and Patidars combine again in 1985 although this time their agitation was against the hike in job quotas for the OBCs in government and educational institutions. Ironically the Dalits upheld the reservations for the OBCs under the Mandal Commission and bore the wrath of the higher castes but the actual beneficiaries continued not only to be with the higher castes but also against Dalits (Teltumbde, 2004).

Resultant is the perpetual assurance of control over these communities plus a bonus of sustaining casteism. Expansion of caste fascism has so far and is disintegrating the Dalit ideology, theology, and identity and intimidated their very existence. Apparently this ruptures the community, deteriorates the noble notions of sharing, caring and co-operation, expansion of patriarchy and battered the inkling of community ownership over resources. Let us not forget Ambedkar was the greatest fighter against religious fascism and historical caste fascism.

To be continued in next issue………

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