Any analysis of the political structure of India, at present, and any predictions of its future will confirm the place of Dalit politics within it. It is fairly evident that as a marginalised group, the Dalits can no longer be ignored. However, this was not always so. Having faced centuries of oppression, the Dalits (taken here to mean largely the ‘untouchables’ but politicians who coined the term took it to symbolise a wider coalition of the oppressed and disadvantaged), have suddenly found a new voice in the Indian political arena.
In the post Independence phase when the Constitution of India was promulgated in 1950, the framers of the Constitution sought to outlaw untouchability and make provisions for those sections of the population who had been historically deprived. Laudable as their motives were, this often led to certain legal and theoretical confusion. While Article 15 of the Constitution prohibited any discrimination on the grounds of caste, race, sex, religion or language, there was also a recognition in part 4 of the same article for the need to provide affirmative action programs. There was a hope that the process of nation building would automatically rid the country of inequities such as the caste system. But with caste identities being re-affirmed, albeit for philanthropic purposes by the Constitution, there is little chance of this materialising. On a more practical note, these Constitutional provisions can provide leverage but not protection. Caste identities are often linked to daily and subtle humiliations faced by the Dalits, and there is hardly any legal mechanism that can adequately confront this. If one views caste as a social (and partly religious) problem, then it becomes clear that mere constitutional safeguards will not change the way the wider populace approaches the issue of caste. This dichotomy has also meant that while the Constitution expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, recent electoral politics has seen the rise of caste based parties that are not ashamed to proclaim their Dalit or OBC identity and have insisted that their numerical superiority needs to be more clearly reflected in the decision making echelons of the state.
A second problem with the Constitutional provisions was that it now required state agencies to arbitrate upon complex social issues and to pass judgement on issues such as what constituted a caste, who was a ‘backward’ caste, how backward they were (which would then determine the level of affirmative action they were entitled to) and so on. This meant that caste issues were soon taken out of its social context, and became increasingly bureaucratised. The bureaucracy in the early years of Independence was largely recruited from the educated, upper classes. As Bayly points out, this meant that certain upper caste, as well as colonial constructs of caste, and ‘lower caste’ identity, found their way into bureaucratic formulations.
The Dalit identity is a complex one. It encompasses not only a long history of struggle against religious discourse and discrimination, but also increasingly against socio-economic structures. The term Dalit is supposed to mean not merely the former un-touchables but a wider range of the oppressed. The Dalit identity relates not merely to a denial of rights but also a demand for dignity, and in some cases, a desire for revolution. Hence, the struggles of the Dalits have not merely centred on issues such as untouchability, perpetuation of atrocities, minimum wages, land rights, employment and political representation, but also issues of identity, self-respect and dignity. As Kothari argues, the Dalit identity that has emerged, now seeks to turn the logic of ‘casteism’ on its head, and we find that those who would normally seek out the obliteration of caste distinctions are those who are now seeking to use it to change the social order. This is a deeply baffling phenomenon for many among the educated middle class- on the one hand, both officially and otherwise, caste identities are supposed to be shunned. But it is Dalits who are reaffirming their caste identity and demanding a place in the new social order, on equal terms, but also with an underlying recognition of the historical injustices they have suffered from. The very people who have suffered under the caste system are now pressing their caste identities to demand economic advancement, social status and political power. Further, the notion of an all-encompassing Dalit identity can be utterly misleading. Within the Dalits there have remained sub castes and caste divisions, often leading to violent clashes. It has been argued that this notion of a monolithic Dalit community could in fact be traced to the Constitutional provisions mentioned above, which sought to treat all former untouchables and lower castes as a single group that needed to be socially and economically uplifted.
In the political arena, the rise of the Dalits has been slow but inexorable. No political party can now afford to ignore the Dalit voter. This applies not just to those parties that have been constructed on caste lines, but even the two large mainstream parties- the Congress and the BJP have been forced to acknowledge that caste politics are here to stay. No political party will now openly speak out against reservations (except occasionally the Left), and while the Sangh Parivar may subtly try to portray the militancy of the Dalit movement as being ‘anti-national’ or the concessions granted to them as proof of ‘Congress appeasement’ of the minorities, which then extends to Muslims, this is rarely stated publicly. The decline of the Congress and the inability of the Bharatiya Janata Party to make significant inroads into the south has meant that control over the central government has centred around the electoral fortunes of parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is not surprising that these two states, which have a history of significant caste polarization, have seen the rise of caste based parties and politics.
Article 330 and 332 of the Constitution provides for reservation of 78 seats in the Lok Sabha and 540 in the Vidhan Sabhas for the Scheduled Castes. However, it is noticeable that those who get elected belong to the ranks of the educated, wealthier lot and those taking a more militant line are denied party representation. Moreover, SC legislators have not really advanced the Dalit cause and did not participate actively in Lok Sabha/Vidhan Sabha debates about deprived communities. Often these legislators have ended up using their numbers to bargain for political positions in the Cabinet, various committees and statutory bodies. This has led to a deadlock. Parliamentary democracy has offered to those who take advantage of ‘development programs’ and enter the corridors of power. But the in the present system, such opportunities are still limited and many MLA/MPs find themselves being co-opted by the ruling elite or unable to use their political power to bring about socio-economic change. Hence, the introduction of political democracy without real social democracy or economic equality has proved problematic.
The political elite after ’47 was largely upper caste. They dominated colleges, universities, the civil service, and the government. The key institutions shaping political power, social status and economic privilege were in their hands. As a result of intra party factionalism there was some cooption by the Congress of the lower castes. This intra party factionalism and competition between political parties then induced party leaders to mobilize caste leaders at the local level and to create caste based vote banks. This mobilization of castes took place at different speeds across the country. In south India, for example, the mobilization of non Brahmins took place much earlier and violent caste conflicts have been not as frequent in the south as in the north. Again, the same political dichotomy that characterizes the Constitutional provisions regarding caste began to rear its head. While Congress leaders openly spoke out against caste, they were building up caste based vote banks at the same time.
The caste movement in the 1960s was dominated by the Republican Party of India (RPI). The in 1962 they won only 3 out of the 68 Lok Sabha seats that they contested and 11 out of the 301 Vidhan Sabha seats. Not only did they lack a clear ideology, they were also let down by their leaders. The Chamars or the small group of educated Scheduled Caste (or SC, this is the official term in the Constitution for the Dalits) elite had taken the lead within the RPI, but were often feared and disliked by those lower in the jati hierarchy. There was confusion among the leaders over the methods of politicization, most notably over the question of reservations. Finally, the power structure in UP, especially in the rural areas, enabled the Congress to secure SC votes and prevented the RPI from building up a support base.
The 1970s saw a new more militant face of Dalit politics coming to the forefront. In 1972, the Dalit panthers were set up. Their movement was often largely symbolic and comprised a number of young writers and poets. Their hard-hitting manifesto called for a complete revolution. For many of the young members of the Dalit Panthers, who lived in the slums of Bombay, caste discrimination was not a social or cultural issue but the framework within which they had always lived, often in close juxtaposition with middle class, upper caste liberals living nearby, and the contradictions of such an existence did not escape them. Their refusal to support a Congress-Shiv Sena alliance in a by-election in Central Bombay in 1974, released the wrath of the Sena upon them. Sena orchestrated violence between the OBCs and the SCs broke out, especially in Worli. The ultimate failure of the Panthers was a result of their inability to move beyond a clash with the brahmanical elite, its figureheads and symbols. The Marxist versus Ambedkarite clash within the Panther fold, as reflected in the personalities and policies of their two leaders- Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal, further damaged their cause. They gained little help from the Communists or the Naxalites who failed to realize that what the Maharashtrian Dalits needed at this stage was a broad united mass movement rather than increased militancy. The Panthers were briefly revived in 1976 but soon fell prey to Congress progressive rhetoric with Dhale and Dhasal supporting the Emergency. Their militancy was never adequately channelised to move beyond the symbolic, and the organizational structure was largely limited to the mahars of Maharashtra.
Despite their apparent failure, the Panther legacy to the social movement included an opposition to brahmanism, a common vocabulary of autonomy and a rejection of outsiders who claimed to speak in the name of the oppressed. That the Panthers had ruffled quite a few upper caste feathers was evident from the reaction to the renaming of the Marathwada University. The violent opposition to the move showed that many among the upper castes were still uneasy with the sudden mobility of the Dalits. Further, it also meant the end of any hope of a shudra/atishudra or dalit/non brahmin alliance. The main attackers of the Dalits were often middle caste maratha-kunbi peasants and both the OBCs and the Sena were involved.
The 1980s and 90s have been characterized by the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in U.P. and its increasing importance in national politics. With the dawning of the era of coalition politics, the importance of caste based and regional parties in government formation has been magnified. It has been argued that the rise of caste based parties and their recent electoral success is linked to the second democratic upsurge in Indian politics. This upsurge has seen a change in the electoral base of the voters rather than a mere increase in numbers. There has been greater politicization among the Dalits and the other ‘backward’ castes who are now conscious of their numerical strength and the advantages that holds. The logic of democratic politics has meant that the Dalit voter has now realised the power he possesses. Since the 70s, the odds of a Dalit voter turning out to vote are now 70% higher than that of an upper caste voter. This has been reflected in the performance of the BSP which won 2.07% of the votes in 1989 but increased its share to 20% in 1996. The bulk of their votes and Lok Sabha can be traced to U.P., which has 85 seats earmarked in the Lok Sabha, making control of the state crucial for government formation at the centre.
The change in SC politics and the rise of the BSP can be linked to two factors. First, the decline of the Congress caused by over centralisation of power, factionalism and disintegration of its social base. It created a political vacuum where direct appeals to caste and community affinities could be utilised for political gain. There were also significant changes within the Scheduled Castes with the Green Revolution have increased investment in agriculture and increasing employment opportunities in the urban areas. A small urban elite of Chamar professional and administrators who were beginning to benefit from educational opportunities and reservations now came to the forefront of the Dalit struggle. It is this elite that forms the core support base of the BSP and has been carefully cultivated by Kanshi Ram in the hope that their success will elevate the collective standing of the group.
The origins of the BSP are significantly different from past SC organizations, most notably the Panthers. It was not reactive in its origins, but rather deliberate. It has stayed out of a number of Dalit campaigns and is predominantly a political organization that seeks to capture power and use it for the benefit of the Dalit community. Even the leadership of the BSP is markedly different from the RPI. There is a new uncompromising attitude towards fighting the entrenched Brahminical culture. The social base that was initially the upwardly mobile educated government employees has now been expanded to include poorer sections of the community.
The electoral performance of the BSP showed a marked improvement after 1989. The Vidhan Sabha election in UP in 1993 signaled the arrival of the BSP as a power to be reckoned with, but at the same time was marked by clashes with both the OBCs and the forces of Hindutva. The brief alliance of the BCs, SCs and Muslims however did not mark a polarisation of the ‘Bahujan’ community. This was also a period of increasing Dalit assertiveness against the OBCs in the countryside that often led to clashes.
Despite the electoral success of the BSP, (and they are currently in power in UP), there have been certain contradictions in the way the BSP has sought to build its political alliances. Many of the measures introduced by Mayawati during her last tenure were largely symbolic and there has been little effort by the BSP to involve themselves in deeper structural changes. There has been little discussion or discourse on the nature of the Dalit identity or a coherent plan, beyond the mere acquisition power. Most political commentators feel that in their haste to garner votes and remain in power, the BSP has found itself involved in dubious alliances, including one with the BJP, that has led to a public perception of the party as one of political opportunists rather than visionaries.
The issue of reservations is one that has often caused divisions even with the Dalit community. While there is no denying the need for affirmative action, there has been considerable debate over the nature of such action. It has been pointed out that while fixing quotas, only caste and class considerations have often overlapped leading to much confusion and resentment. In many cases, quotas have rarely been fulfilled. Again, the system of reservations brings us back to the fundamental dichotomy underlying the Constitutional provisions designed to uplift the Dalits. At both the official and the personal level, these reservations have often upheld traditional stereotypes. They have encouraged people to affirm their caste origins since aid seekers must ritually proclaim their inferior birth to qualify. There is the problem of the ‘creamy layers’ or the already educated, upwardly mobile amongst the Dalits taking advantage of these reservations while the fate of the vast majority of the Dalits remain unchanged. However, while one may have significant differences of opinion over how the affirmative action programs should be carried out, there is little doubt that they have often brought about gradual change in many areas, especially in the field of local government and the bureaucracy. These reservations have been in place for a less than 50 years, and it would take much longer to wipe out centuries of entrenched discrimination and social attitudes. The efficacy of these reservations have been ironically demonstrated by upper caste backlashes, which in turn have helped lower caste leaders to blur intercaste divisions and appeal to caste solidarity.
The rise of caste based politics has also been accompanied by caste wars- not merely been the upper castes and the Dalits but also between the Dalits and the OBCs. This is especially true of both U.P. and Bihar. The upper and middle castes and landowning ranks of the OBCs often respond to lower caste mobilization by forming Senas or armies of their own and utilizing the local police and judiciary to oppress the Dalits. This violence is generally sporadic and localized with intense violence in a few areas. But the strained caste relations that this has generated may impede the functioning of local governments.
In conclusion, it can be pointed out that while Dalit mobilization in the field of politics has been striking, political decentralization and political empowerment of the lower castes will have little effect without more attention to human resource development policies. As long as such policies remain bureaucratised and a potential source of divisive conflict, there is hardly any possibility of caste ceasing to be a factor in the socio-economic arena. But two important changes have taken place and must be acknowledged. Crude and blatant discrimination in the public sphere is less frequent and a Dalit middle class is beginning to emerge. With occupational diversification and capitalist development, certain old caste ties have been loosened. Protective discrimination in the arena of jobs as well as admission to educational institutions has opened up opportunities for upward mobility. Finally, competitive party politics have politicized Dalits to a far greater degree than before, right from the level of the panchayats to the Parliament. Such developments can only bode well for the future.