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Rise of the Dalits and the Renewed Debate on Caste

Author(s): Rajni Kothari


Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 26 (Jun. 25, 1994), pp. 1589-1594
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
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SPECIAL ARTICLES

Rise of the Dalits and the Renewed

Debate on Caste
Rajni Kothari

For long consciousness of caste was the preserve of the brahminic upper castes. Today something quite different
is happening: the very sufferers from the system (including the caste system) are invoking caste identity and claims.
Of course, as there is no clear and well-thought-out ideologicalframework that is relevant to undertaking these

new, struggles, co-optation and buying up, divide and rule by the dominant class or party continues.
But it appears from a variety of indications that the process has started and there is need to provide fresh impetus
and intellectual understanding backed by political action based on new models of coalition-making that cut across
the wide array of deprived and oppressed social strata.
WE are in the middle of a new debate on

people, that as the development process also

the age-old issue of caste in a radically


changed historical setting both at home and

gets under way and more and more people

those who should seek obliteration of the

and communities benefit from it all and the

divisions and disparities that characterise

globally. It is a setting of growing human

sources of poverty, unemployment and

the deeply hierarchical nature of the caste

iniquity and widening social chasms within

human misery are eliminated, and that as the


productive forces get unfolded and the

hoping to undermine it by undertaking basic

and across nations. But, more pertinently,


it has been gradually dawning on us that the
various ideological models of dealing with
oppression of the poor and discriminated
sections of society, protecting their freedom
anddignity and their sheersurvival as human
beings and communities, have proved not
just inadequate but by and large irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the new thinking on economic
development is going to exacerbate the
situation.

Acts of brutality and terror continue to

be part of the atrocities perpetuated on the


dalits and other lower classes, the more so
the more they become conscious of their
rights and begin to assert themselves. Entire
communities are found to be in deep turmoil,

face constant humiliation and growing


erosion of their identity and sense of being
part of civil society, the nation and the state.
Ever so often we hear ghastly tales of these
atrocities taking place in one or another part
of the country. The police, the political
parties, the bureaucrats in charge are always
found to arrive late on the sceneof rampage.
Then follow the journalists and the
photographers, the lawyers and the human
rights activists. The ministers and the chief
ministers arrive still later and, so that the
political mileage is not lost, the prime minister

follows suit in a quick helicopter ride. A


commission of inquiry is soon announced,
compensation for the families of the dead

dialectic of history gets working, there will


be no need for 'parochial' structures of caste,
community, tribe and various feudal vestiges
and that people will enter into new
relationships of a more secular and political
kind. These assumptions have since been
belied. As we think backwards and examine
our record on the promises that were held
out by the system and the dominant ideology
of 'development' to the poor and the
oppressed peoples, in which incidentally the
people themselves had reposed a lot of faith,
we are struck by our incapacity and our
growing powerlessness before the vested
interests that have acted in concert to take
the system in completely different directions.
It seems to me that there are two main
reasons for this. First, the very agenda of
democratic national building and social
transformation has not been carried through.
A'nd, second, we are' finding that Indian
reality is proving too complex and ridden
with deep divisions and paradoxes which are
proving unamenable to traditional analysis
and ideological interpretations. Over time,
after showing a lot of patienice and
forbearance, the people are losing faith and
are coming to the conclusion that they might
have to fend for themselves. This is not to
be regretted for the essence of the democratic
process is that people come into their own
and not wait endlessly for the state or the

is widely broadcast and in the meanwhile

political parti"es to make things better for

we are told that it was all the work of some

them.

'anti-social elements' and opposition parties

It is against this background that the newly


exploding caste identity and consciousness
needs to be viewed. For long consciousness
of caste was the preserve of the brahminic
uppercastes. Today something quite different
is happening: the very sufferers from the
system (including the caste system) are

and groups. This sequence has now become


a routine in the relationship of the mainstream
Indian polity with the poor and the oppressed.
The long-held assumption that as the
project of nation-building gets under way
and democratic rights are extended to the

invoking caste identity and claims. Precisely

system are found to use it the most, still

transformation in the social order, defeating


the forces of communalism and fascism, and
do precisely what the larger secular order
has failed to provide: a society free of
exploitation and oppression and indignities.
No doubt, the more such assertion takes
place, the more the backlash from the upper
castes and the well-to-do who find this rise
of the masses intolerable and something
they have never been used to and the more
the efforts to divide, confuse and co-opt the
forces of change. As there is no clear and
well-thought-out ideological framework that
is relevant to undertaking these new struggles,
the processes of co-optation and buying up,
of divide and rule, by the dominant class or
party continues. We are nowhere near the
end or even the glimpses of an-end to iniquity
and exploitation. But it appears from a variety
of indications that the process has started
and there is need to provide fresh impetus
and intellectual understanding backed by
political action based new on models of
coalition-making that cut across the wide
array of deprived and oppressed social strata.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF NEW
UPSURGE OF CASTE

Given this overall statementof the problem,


let me now turn to a somewhat detailed
consideration of the theoretical and political
issues involved in the whole debate on caste
and its role in social transformation. In the
mindless drift from a pursuit of consensus
out of a highly diverse and plural set of
interests and identities to polarisation that
threatens to undermine it all and from
insistence on national self-reliance and
sovereignty to integration into the world
market the entire social and cultural terrain

Economic and Political Weekly June 25, 1994 1589

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have been thrown into turmoil. It has thrown

justice, not as a result of state policy but as

the balance between the traditional civil

a matter of right, hence sought to be acquired

caste system. I had developed this view at


some length in an earlier work, published

society and the modern state into jeopardy,

through access to state power. The traditional

as far back as 1970,4 where I had argued that

moving away from the earlier 'fit' between

liberal view of pluralism is now being

"casteism in politics is no more and no less

social diversity and democratic institutions'

countered by a more radical interpretation

than politicisation of caste" which, in turn,

to a-growing lack of fit between the two

of it.

leads to a transformation of the caste system.


This happened both structurally and

arising out of aggressive social and

ideological assertions based on majoritarian

CASTE AND STRUGGLE AGAINST OPPRESSION

ideologically. Within the social structure of


caste a whole variety of new alignments took

claims of a hypothetical community


In this upsurge the struggle for social

place which undermined the rigidity of the

justice is found to move beyond the logic

system-both the splitting and the federating

multi-centred, multi-ethnic and multi-caste

of class or of socialismn and thus also

out of gear. In the process the state itself has

constitutes a major challenge to both the


politics of the Left and the politics of what
are known as the 'new social movements'

of caste, along secular political lines, enabling


them to bargain with political parties and
adopt organisational forms in keeping with

(claiming to be a 'religion') and throwing


the political system that was designed to be

become at once more centralised and more

the demands of the latter.5 Ideologically

oppressive, especially vis-a-vis the deprived,


the weak, the marginalised (both traditionally
marginalised and newly marginalised) and

alongside being a challenge to the Nehruvi an


perspective that has guided the post-

to plurality, from ordained status to

the victimised sections of society.

independence elite's thinking on social

negotiated positions of power, from ritual

there took place a basic shift from hierarchy

change, economic development, modernisa-

definitions of roles and positions to civic and

the last few years), given their disappointment

tion, secularism, modern education and

political definitions of the same.

with the Indian state on which they had

electoral democracy all of which were

Of course, as already hinted, in the post-

relied so much for ending their states of

supposed to move the country towards a

independence period various efforts have

Yet, during the same period (especially in

oppression and discrimination-and still

progressive, non-hierarchical, non-segmental,

been made to reduce the potency of caste

do-the poorer and socially marginalised

'open society'. It is a challenge that is

in the social process and in time eliminate

sections, including the ethnic and religious

minorities, have started seeking out their

beginning to put on the defensive a large


cross-section of individuals and institutions

efforts have not succeeded. Part of this effort

own futures on the basis of their own identities

that were hitherto engaged in the task of

is based on the idea that as secularism will

and numbers. This has led to a mobilisation

'nation-building' and the building of a

undermine communal and religious identities

it from the operation of the same. These

based on caste, sub-caste (including withifl

'secular' society. For most of them caste

it will undermine caste identities as well or,

religious minorities), tribe, ethno-regional

continues to be an anachronism. That caste

as held by some others, as class consciousness

and such other identities.

and caste identity can, under certain

grows, caste consciousness will decline. Or

Both mainstream intellectuals and

circumstances, prove to be secular for the

that with 'equality' of access and opportunity

mainstream political response to such social

political process and is able to counter

people will be drawn out of their caste and

churning based on caste and caste-like

communal parties and ideologies is

creed and other traditional identities into the

identities have been at best ambivalent and

unacceptable to most of them. When I had

modern sector, that modern education will

at worst hostile and contemptuous. In India

argued such a case following the adoption

make them part of a single and homogeneous

caste has continued to baffle and bewilder

of the. Mandal Commission Report by the


National Front government, leading

middle class and that a new conception of


unity based on national identity will emerge.

observers, both Indian and non-Indian. As


a social phenomenon it is considered strange
and intriguing even among inhabitants of

the land for whom caste and the 'caste system'


have had a long pedigree and have been the
source of both identities and animosities,

both horizontal alignments and vertical


exploitation and oppression. This may not

be so for the mass of the people but is


certainly the case with the more educated
middle classes including the ruling elite
whose business it should be to understand

and recognise the social terrain over which


it presides. On the contrary, there is utter

sociologists of thecountry had expressed


strong disagreement with me.3 I continue to
hold that position. For me caste can be
oppressive but it can also provide a basis
for struggle against oppression. It can at
once be a-traditionaliser and a moderniser.
It has the potentiality of being a two-pronged

catalyst: as purveyor of collective identity


and annihilator of the same hierarchical order
from which the collective identity is drawn.
Furthermore, certain types of caste
mobilisation are also pitched against

As this happens both communalism based


on religious assertions and casteism based

on traditional identities of both 'varna' and


'jati' type will simultaneously go under.
This pairing of 'caste' and 'communalism'
has been most misleading and tends to confuse
the persistence of plural identities with
attempted polarisation. The term 'communal
identity' can itself take two wholly opposite

forms-identity giving and identity eroding,


subjugating and eradicating-just as
'community' can have distinct meanings. It

communalism of the religious sectarian type,


hence my characterisation of it as a 'secular
upsurge' against which the eminent

can be used in the macro all-encompassing

case on the ground in rural India (the former

who have been attracted to the communal

sociologists had expressed their


disagreement.

overtones of Hindutva are against caste

It all depends on the activisation and

meaning has acquired some sway only of


late). With the entry of the democratic

raising its head to register old or new claims

deepening (as against stagnation and flatten-

political process the pluralistic micro

on the system.2) This growing politicisation

ing or regression) of the democratic process.


It was argued very early by M N Srinivas

polarising macro attempt that was carried

and others that with the coming of democracy


caste got a new lease of life. This is being

over by some from pre-partition days and


in the meanwhile the diverse micro processes

said now with much greater vehemence. The


point is that caste does resurface as a result

added up to a new macro structure of societypolitics interaction-until the old macro view

of the democratic process but in its

reverberated with a bang after the challenge


thrown to it by the Mandal phenomenon.'

confusion. Semantically and ideologically

'casteism' is considered to be at least at par


with 'communalism' if not worse. (Many

of caste is found to be even mnore


disconcerting with the changed focus of
claims and demands on the part of those who
press their caste identities: from economic

advancement to social status and political


power. The pluralism that has all along been
there and has been accepted as inherent to

resurfacing it gets transformed. Indeed, one

form of polarising comniunities or in micro


pluralising form as has all along been the

perspective took precedence over the

the Indian social terrain is now being

can argue that 'casteism in politics' is an

More recently, the polarising thrust has

expressed in an upsurge of equity and social

agenda for the very transformation of the

received a setback following the state

1590 Economic and Political Weekly June 25, 1994

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elections in 1993 and there seems to be a

of the entire social terrain below the

new maladies-environmental degradation,

sigh of relief among secular parties and


intellectuals; it seems that the Indian polity
has an inherent capacity to contain extremities
and polar positions when these are
overstretched, a sort of refusal to get into
a dark alley or an abyss of total destruction.
But whether the forces of Hindutva have
been rolled back for good is by no means
clear. Nor is there any clue as to what will
take its place. It should also be remembered
that it was not the parties or the intellectuals
who rolled it back but rather a large upsurge
of both consciousness and political assertion
on the part of the dalit masses on the one
hand and the Muslim middle level leadership
in UP on the other. It is also not clear as
to who will be the net beneficiary. Will it
not be the same old story of others doing
the mobilisation-dissident movements,
grass roots organisations and a section of the
opposition-and the old status quo Congress
Party gettingthe benefit of it all, putting both
the major adversary (in this case the BJP)
and the new social forces (in this case the
dalit and other lower castes) on the margins.
Already, the new government in UP is
dependent on the Congress for its survival

privileged upper castes.

violation of the status of women, destruction

in office.

Which way the phenomenon of caste will

of tribal cultures and the undermining of

take Indian society it may be too early to

human rights-none of which are in and by

say. Much will depend on the vitality as

themselves transformative of the social order.

against erosion of the democratic process,

They are in that way quite different from

of the ability of the intellectuals to impart

revolutionary ideologies of the past. But

social -eontent to the development process

their basic weakness lies in their beiiig so

and the extent to which the growing

heavily fr-agmented. In this they are not any

convergence between the forces of

different from earlier attempts at social

privatisation and globalisation and the

change or from the nature of party politics

theology of a religious monolith represented


by Hindutva can be contained. But whichever
way it goes, there is no gainsaying the

that we have had. Fragmentation that is short


of total disintegration has been the hallmark
of Indian society. That it is partly based on

importance of caste in the social process in

the very pluralism of Indian society which

the coming decades.

allows it to 'hold' may be true but that it


constantly debilitates the entire social process

IMPORTANCE OF CASTE IN THE SOCIAL PROCESS

is equally true. Nations that have split as a


result of'determined polarisation have had

This is important to grasp as on the one

to go through traumas of violence and warfare

hand almost the entire spectrum of secular

but have not at the end come out badly, not

striving, from the liberal to the radical, has

worse anyway than steady erosion which too

ruled out caste and caste identity as part of

entail a lot of violence and a whole series

the transformative process while on the other

of micro civil wars and secessionist

hand there is emerging a new caste

movements. Add to this state of

consciousness (sometimes dubbed as caste-

fragmentation a high degree of passivity-

class) which is finding the traditional secular


approach to social transformation as wanting
and in effect leaving the truly deprived and

cum-quiescence-cum-confirmity on the part


of large sections of the people, and the result
is a virtual state of sterility and stupor which

This process is still under way and has of


late received new social inputs. It is a highly
complex and turbulent process. While there
is no doubt that both commualism and the
caste system pose dangers to the democratic
polity, they are quite distinct from each other
and in the case of caste, can be used in
support of secularising and democratising

destitute social strata, the dalits in particular


but other backward castes too, out of the

is however riven with deep tension, distress

purview of state power, and arguing for a

space occupied by the new social movements

the institutions of parliamentary democracy

movement of the people. They are too

movements. The two can of course combine;

and the legal framework of the Constitution

fragmented, reactive, ad hocish, providing


no comprehensive framework of basic social
change. Their being anti this or that (anti-

and multiple polarities. A large part of the

new form of radicalism based on the assertion

seems to be suffering from these various

and the claims of these castes. The secular

chafacteristics which have prevented them

forces have been expressed in three streams:

from being relevant to the truly oppressed

the liberal democratic state operating through

and the poor in the form of a solid unified

the worst of communalism and the worst of

which laid down people's rights and the

caste oppression can converge, the former


undermining plurality and diversity and the

principles of equality and non-discrimination

on grounds of caste or creed but provided

west, anti-capitalist,' anti-development, etc)

basic democratic vision of the society while

no institutional mechanisms for realising the

does not make them any more coherent, any

the latter providing new leases of life to the


brahminic social order the essence of which

same, also no clear social-as opposed to


formally-legal and political-prescriptions;

more relevant to oppressed and peripheralised


communities.

is contempt for the labouring classes and for


labour as such, especially for the most
arduous and demeaning kinds, the ultimate

the social movements (often called the new

logic of which has been the phenomenon


of untouchability (arising out of the basic
dichotomy between the brahmin, the

being too fragmented and lacking in real


transformative quality; and the traditional
Left (both parties and intellectuals, of both

various grass roots movements that the new

dispenser of knowledge, and the sudra, the


bearer of all variety of physical labour).
There are also inherent limits to the

Marxist and Leninist-Maoist variety) which

seems like emerging. The dalit consciousness

also lacked in a clear social agenda beyond


the traditional highly simplistic bourgeois-

is by no means limited to the scheduled


castes. It has begun to symbolise a much

pluralism represented by the caste system.


Pluralism can be as exploitative as other-

of a highly complex indigenous reality and

broader spectre of the oppressed and hitherto


excluded social strata. It is based on an

social movements) that arose to demand


fulfilment of these rights but also failed

petty bourgeois-kulak-proletariat depiction

NEW 'DALIT' MOVEMENT

It is against this growing irrelevance of


'dalit' movement in India is emerging, or

regarding and ameliorative. Plurality can be

failed to give to the dalits, the backwards

attempted though by no means still realised

hierarchised, instilled with animus, brutalised.

and other oppressed social strata a position

solidarity of the poor and the discriminated

When this is combined with economic

in their own organisational structures. I have

deprivation and traditional attitudes of social

-said enough on the mainstream liberal

classes of the people, long held back and


frustrated, its leadership divided and bought

pollution it can reinforce the impacts of


corporate capitalism and bureaucratic
hegemonism, and produce a world in which
millions are excluded, and made dispensable.7
In the process the dalits and other seemingly
upward mobile castes can be marginalised.
Alongside.proletarianisation and general

pauperisation can also take place dalitisation

efforts-the social movements (often called

over, distanced from the masses and coopted within the mainstream and in
establishment structures and positions. Were
it not for a systematic and continuing

new social movements) and the ideological

onslaught by the rUral upper castes and the

democratic system's failures above and


enough is known about it any way. In what
follows I shall deal with the othertwo secular

Left.
As I see it nearly all 'new social
movements' have emerged as correctives to

real and deadly fear of a political kind held

out by the emergent brahminic party (the


BJP) and its arrogant cultural expression in

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the form of the VHP which in turn allowed

that were hitherto peripheralised by

Gandhian camp or among his intellectual

a gradual alignment and realignment with

mainstream Hinduism, with some recalling

disciples since then. If after almost half a

major minorities (the Muslims in particular),

of humanistic and socialist thinkers-M N

century since his death large sections of

the dalit phenomenon would not have

Roy, Raja Rammohan Roy, many of the old

emerged with the power and confidence that

liberals who were committed to eradication

Indian society find him dated or irrelevant


or too patronising for them to feel one with,
so be it. There is no need to immortalise
him. It is not part of Indian tradition to make
heroes out of history except to make gods
and deities out of them and add to the
pluralist pantheon that has imbibed in the
masses attitudes and sentiments that have
made them resist monolithic interpretations
of either culture or politics. But it has at
the same time pluralised deprivation and
suffering as well and, apart from periodic

it did in 1993. Even then it is no more than

of various evils in Hindu society before

a beginning for what has happened is

Gandhi arrived on the scene and pushed into


the background the whole social dimension

somewhat unexpected even as it has


happened. It will continue to remain weak

until its main thrust is merely in terms of


demands made on the state for jobs and

of national liberation.' We have yet to begin


to grasp the larger ramifications of the dalit
movement, once it takes roots. It is likely

positions instead of undertaking transforma-

to rekindle prevailing ideologies with new

tion of civil society and thereby transforming


the nature of the state, and until the pressure

rallying points and in the process indigenise


social theory.

put on its own leadership from the grass


roots is not strong enough. Also, there are
continuing divisions both within the dalits

CRITIQUE OF GANDHISM FROM THE OPPRESSED

and vis-a-vis the backwards and there is

Foralongtime now Gandhi andGandhism

continuing to be disproportionate dependence on personalities most of whom happen

have provided important ingredients of

to be unreliable in the long run. All the same,


in rolling back the threat of fascism combined

indigenous and alternative thinking, both in


India and to an extent globally. Gandhi will

with fundamentalism the role of the dalit

continue to be relevant, given his in many


ways highly original challenge to the vision

movement is likely to prove historic.

and perspective held out by the west. But

The dalit movement is also distinctive in

we should not be surprised if within India

some other respects compared to the new

his appeal suffers a decline and erosion.

social movements or the 'alternatives

There is a fast emerging critique of the


Gandhian approach to,the basic crises facing

movement' on major issues, especially in


respect of the nature of struggle against

India, mainly from the ranks of the oppressed.

dominant forces. It poses the question as


what to emphasise more, western hegemony
or caste domination within India, reflecting
the issue posed much earlier during the
independence movement as to what was

There is a curious paradox in this. Gandhi


had the genius of recognising the two issues

that divided Indian society and were likely


to defy its integrity-the oppression of the
dalits on the one hand and the alienation of

more important-social emancipation or

the Muslims on the other. And although. he

political autonomy. What is more important:

was forced to devote much, the most of his

autonomy (and agitational politics) of the

time and his unique techniques of resistance

community or autonomy of the nation in the

to the power of the mighty to the movement

international order? If it is both, how to

against the British, he was deeply possessed

reconcile the two? We seem to be back to

of these two sources of division and


debilitation of the Indian nation and

the Ambedkar-Gandhi controversy. The


same is the case with the overall critique of
modernity and of the western civilisational
thrust that is to a degree central to the
'alternatives movement' and to many of the

ended heroically, trying to stem the tide of

new social movements. The dalits'

communalism through his marathon padyatra

expectation and strategy seems to be designed

and fast unto death in Noakhali and giving

civilisation. And yet, in the end, he failed


on both counts. He could not stop partition
and he failed to humanise Hinduism. He

to challenge the dominant castes by means

his life in defence of the Muslims but in

of education, employment and special rights,

in short a struggle against theq system that


begins with challenging injustices within it,
thinking of the struggle against imperialism

giving his singular attention to the HinduMuslim divide, he gave little time to take
up cudgels on behalf of his 'harijans' against
the caste Hindus. There was also something

and other such things as of second order

wrong with his whole model of reconstructing

importance. Or, as some of them would say,


re-define the nature of imperialism in
essentially social terms-both globally and

of India of the future. Mere stresson reviving


village economy and decentralisation of the
state apparatus was not enough. He failed

locally.
Similarly, carrying further such a

to give attention to the social power structure


that pervaded it all. Today his model is

perspective, the more the social question

seriously being called into question, and


rightly so. 1, for one, do not find anything
untoward in such questioning. The sooner
the Gandhian model is subjected to new

acquires primacy, the more the return of a

wholly different set of critics, reformers and


revolutionaries than those propelled by the

Congress movement and overshadowed by


Gandhi-Ambedkar, Phule, the Periyar, a
whole variety of regional heroes and 'sants'
(including many from the Bhakti movement)
revered by various castes and communities,

perceptions of Indian reality-as are the


liberal bourgeois and the Marxist modelsthe better we will be able to creatively
respond to that reality. Gandhi died in 1948
and there has been little new thinking in the

and fragmentary outbursts of defiance, kept


them disunited in the arena of power. In
return they have been recipients of mercy
('daya') and patronising by the elite.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Gandhi fell
prey to the patronising tradition. The dalit
challenge to the Gandhian legacy is part of
a new stirring of consciousness among the
subjugated which rejects patronising and
insists on their rightful share in the power
structure of society.
And yet, despite this challenge to diverse
ideological models by the new wave of
radicalism represented by the dalit and other
oppressed and victimised social strata, there
is as yet no clear and categorical 'new
alignment of forces', no real phenomenon
of solidarity of the lower castes despite
growing and intensifying conflicts across
the hierarchy of the 'caste system'. In fact
the parallel often drawn with class is
misleading, as is the caste-class idea, perhaps
more so because there has not emerged any
real class solidarity either, which could have
given to the consciousness of caste a new
kind of subaltern identity. Doubtless, there
are recognisable ideological as well as interest
based bonds at all levels-upper, middle,
lower-but equally strong are the cleavages
within each. Cutting across them all is a

'ruling class' which is controlled by the


brahminic upper castes in politics but also,
and more potently, in the bureaucracy and
among the intelligentsia as well as the

surviving-and now reviving-colonial


advisors, capitalist road-rollers and high
professionals who are able to foster and
manipulate the diverse cleavages at all levels,
including the newly emergent level of the
dalits and the OBCs. And yet, it is the latter
that provides the possibility-a new
possibility-of radical change. Not only is
a new generation of leaders on the upswing,
exuding both a new confidence based on
new alignments of voters and a more basic
confidence about carving out a new future
for themselves. There is of course no inherent
reason why caste should have become the
basis of such confidence about radical change.
It is only because other models of social
change (provided by liberal democracy, the
new social movements and, as we shall

1592 Economic and Political Weekly June 25, 1994

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to fulfil aspirations of the depressed social

Even the niore Maoist groups committed to


'annihilation of class enemy' are riven by

presently see, the Marxist Left) have failed

pastures, engaging both in a backlash against


the newly emerging forces (as found in the

classes and the minorities-who incidentally

caste bickerings arising from domination by

recent epidemic of violence in UP) and co-

had for long placed a lot of faith on one or

brahmin and brahminic individuals. Some

optation of the middle and lower castes, the

ali of these other models-that the relevance

of the M-L individuals and groups did join

backwards and, most of all the dalits,

of caste as a basis for mobilisation has

radical movements of the regional self-

especiallv the highly educated and influential

emerged (or re-emerged).

determination and ethnic-federal types (e g,


in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and the North-

sections thereof who have been able to mnove

FAILURE OF LEFT MOVEMENT

East) leading to a collaboration between two


types of militancy, but failed to address

out of the menial and depressing condition


of the toiling masses and who are able to
spearhead a movement against the dominant

Which brings me to a consideration of the

themselves to the burning social issues. If

forces but have instead been 'Sanskritised'.

third stream of secular politics mentioned


above, namely, the Left movement. As with
the liberal democratic movement and the

anything, they have tended to ignore the


truly oppressed and out-caste social groups,
as for instance in Punjab where the SC and
other 'majhabi' elements have continued to
support the Congress.

The Ambedkarite movement too is beset by


this same virus of endemic co-optationfrom the old days of the Scheduled Caste

new social movements the Left movement


too has failed to produce a basis of real social
change. There are many reasons for this.

Federation and the Republican Party to the


Dalit Panthers to the various anti-reservation

Perhaps the only major exception has been

movements to the recent outbreak of the

First, the Left movement ceased to be a

the 'Satyashodhak' ideology of caste-class

'movement' long back. The assumption that


the politics of the Left would be based on

districts of Maharashtra and even there has

Ambedkar cult. It is by no means surprising


that the main beneficiary-as well as
propagator-of this cult is a class of IAS

a mass movement that would in turn utilise

institutional spaces within the system has


not happened. In fact the reverse has
happened: legislative and electoral spaces
have utilised and manipulated the mass
movements. Second, even as a movement
to the extent rank and file parties and
continuing concern with ideological issues
were still there, it failed to provide the kind
of praxis that socially oppressed populations
needed. It was at once fragmented and
monolithic ('democratic centralist'), riven
by multiple divisions yet providing no real
pluralism, no vibrant democratic process in
its organisational framework. It was for too
long-and still is-dominated by upper
castes, brahminic in both style and intellectual

but (a) this has remained confined to a few


been unable to evolve a common front
between mahars and other SC groups, and
(b) has got bogged down to settling scores
with CPI(M) -which in its vehement
denunciation of such radical dissidence and

its sense of discomfort with anything which


legitimises caste and caste consciousness

(even among lowly and the oppressed castes),


has poured scorn and ridicule on it. In some

increase in 'casteism' and the outbreak of

'caste wars' which is how they are

governing class, ineluding the police. On the

interpreting local incidents of conflicts and

whole both the Satyashodhak kind of

violence.

reformation in the Marxist ideology and the


truly grass rootsy and authentic formations
like the Kashtakari Sangathana have faced
a determined pincer of right reaction and the
establishment Left.

grasp. It provided no -cal fresh alternative

The overall result is that whereas the

emerging political process propelled by an


upsurge of mass consciousness among the

and

the media and manipulations in the rural


political arena, a picture of a phenomenal

areas it has even collaborated with the

to the nationalist secular credo to which it


is still wedded. In terms of the development
paradigm too it is a prisoner of western
progressivism-cum-technologism, seeking
credibility not from a mass movement but
by joining the parliamentary democratic and
nationalist-secularframework, wholly failing
to provide an alternative to it. Worse still,
the main parties (CPI and CPI(M) never
really got out of the Congress-Communist
honeymoon (even after the emergency
experience) in the making of which Marxist
intellectuals and academics of the CP variety
played a leading part; for most of them
crumbs of office and influence proved too
seductive. Even later, after full disillusionment with the Congress, whenever they have
been faced by a challenge from the Right,
they have tended to slip into an opportunistic
alliance with the Congress as against building
a viable and-long-term Left alternative
within the system, not to speak of a major
revolutionary alternative- to it.
As for the Naxal groups too, after waging
some heroic struggles in various micro and
regional settings, most of them have shown
signs of exhaustion and have sought entry
into the legi.slative-electoral arena, mostly
fielding upper and middle caste candidates.

Economic

bureaucrats and academics. Hence the

disproportionate, almost exclusive, emphasis


on reservations.9 Meanwhile, scared by the
rise of the dalits and their slow entry into
the middle class professions, the uppercastes
are trying to project, through their hold on

dalits and otheroppressed groups is definitely


moving leftward, the Left movement itself
has been unable to strike roots among these
social strata and, through that, in the wider
political arena. Instead, completely non-Left
and socially upper class forces are on the

upswing-the Tikaits, the Sarad Joshis, the


Nanjundaswamis and so on, with even

sensitive intellectuals and activists in close


sympathy with the dalits (Gail Omvedt being
a prime example) joining in. There seems

to be a continuing hold of economism,


deliberate overlooking of the social
dimension, whereas the reality isthat central
to the political crisis facing India is a social

crisis and an important part though not the


whole of the social crisis is a crisis of the
caste system. Hence the rise of the new
ideological appeal wedded to a name other

than Gandhi and Nehru, Marx or Lenin or


Mao, namely, Ambedkarism.
Unfortunately, the Ambedkarite appeal
too is riven with both confusion and schism,
spurred by the multi-faced Janus of

brahminism. Contrary to common belief,


brahminism is not some fixed dogma but is

highly adaptable and looking for ever new

Political

Weekly

I)ALIT-BAHUJAN ALLIANCE

Against all this experience of continuing,


let downs and reactions comes the latest

stream of non-Left radicalism, namely, the


dalit-bahujan alliance of SCs and OBCs,
offshoot of the Mandal slogan but couched
in terms not just of achieving social justice
(which is still based on the idea of making
the existing state and its power-holders more
just and accommodative of the lower social

strata) but of the dalits and theOBCs grabbing


political power.. There are problems with
this too. First, the SCs and OBCs have little

in common, socially and organisationally.


While the SCs are, relatively speaking,
structurally homogeneous, the OBCs are
internally highly differentiated and
heterogeneous. Many of the latter are found
to be perpetrating terror on the former in the

rural areas. Second, provoked by the


phenomenon of co-optation over such a long
period, there has emerged a tendency among
the dalits to insist on 'autonomous',
exclusivist identity and membership, striking
a discordant attitude towards movements
and intellectuals and political activists that
are committed to them but belong to other
castes. The recent Mayawati assault against
Gandhian, Lohi aite and leftist efforts to serve
the dalit cause highlights just this.
Paradoxically, all this is precisely what can
be used by the ruling class and particularly
by the Congress Party by (a) inducting dalits,

June

25,

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1994

1593

backwards and others in the establishment

moving appeals of citizens on the march

to Mandal in the form of an upper caste

thus giving them, especially the educated

protesting against the agonising reports on

brahminic backlash against the threat of an

among them, a sense of triumph but then

atrocities, rampages and rapes, the inspiring

(b) working out concessions of various kinds

chronicles of,micro-movements of tribals

OBC-dalit-Muslim alignment and that in turn


it met its waterloo precisely from that
alignment, in the Assembly elections of 1993

and co-opting and corrupting them. The BJP

and other 'indigenous' peoples struggling to

too is in the process of devising a strategy


tihat will cash in on such divisions.
The current permeation of this exclusivist

retain and enrich their land and forests, their

worldviews. What the dalit movement needs

3 For the controversy, see my article, 'Caste

notion of identity and struggle in grass roots,

to do is to take all this in and to provide

and Politics: The Great Secular Upsurge', The

struggle-oriented movements on the Left is


undermining their radical socio-economic

a new vanguard of social change. In the

Times of India, September 28, 1990 followed

process, broad-base and deepen the social

by M N Srinivas, A M Shah and B S Baviskar,

striving and making them (including the


Left parties) concede and co-opt."' All this

and cultural terrain of the 'dalit movement'.


Such an integral vision is not going to be

Times of India, October 17, 1990.

is producing a new crisis of idenfity of left

easy to put on ground. It is not an abstract

ancestral heritage and their holistic

and radical politics. Coming on top of the

academic exercise one is talking about.

larger crisis of identity of the Left movement,

Actually, even as an act of imagination, it

following the collapse of socialism in the

does not exist anywhere. At no point in the

and since. See my An All-Out Brahminic


Offensive against The Masses', The Pioneer,
January 26, 1993.

'Kothari's Illusion of Secular Upsurge', The


4 Caste in Indian Politics, Orient Longman,
New Delhi, 1970.

5 See Rajni Kothari and Rushikesh Maru, 'Caste


and Secularism in India: Case Study of a

Caste Federation', Journal of Asian Studies,

global political arena and acute questioning

history of ideas has there emerged a truly

of the Marxist ideology and of Marx (and

integrated vision that could steer humanity

Lenin) individually, this kind of aggressive

to a coherent future that could be pursued

India', The Modernity of Tradition, University

posturing by the dalits will only put the Left


further on the defensive. But nor would it
provide the dalit cause the necessary political
base for it to be a catalyst of history. Unless
the new consciousness aimed at bringing
about radical transformation also sees itself

realistically and could mobilise a comtbina-

of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1967.

tion of hope and determination. At each


juncture in the long travails of the human
enterprise the normative and ideational efforts
failed to generate relevant interventions in
the social terrain that could really reach out.

25(1), November 1965. Also, Lloyd and


Susanne Rudolph, 'Caste Associations in

6 See my 'Pluralism and Secularism: Lessons

of Ayodhya', Economic and Political Weekly,


December 19-26, 1992.

7 On the Dispensability thesis, see my 'Of

Humane Governance' and 'The Phenomenon


of Two Indias' in State against Democracy,

as part of a larger social and global movement

The Encyclopaedist (who tried to lay an

opposed to both capitalist and imperialist

intellectual foundation for the European

designs and fundamentalist and fascist social

Enlightenment) tried this in vain. We have

forces, both of which are on the upswing

tried to show in this paper how the liberal

(his own conception of his work being one

(despite the latter being held back as a result


of the dalits and the Muslims defeating the

democratic variatibn of it and, though much

of transcending the dichotomy between social

BJP in UP), they are bound to face the pincer

variation too failed to respond and reach out

mentioned above, of backlash on the one


hand and co-optation on the other. The dalit
movement must emerge as a movement for
genuine emancipation, aligning with all social

to the ideological needs and the praxis that

more radically conceived, the Marxist

socially oppressed peoples and communities

called for. From the more spiritual and moral


domains, Gandhi and his disciples have failed

op cit.

8 Gandhi tried to pursue a simultaneous attack


on the political and socio-economic fronts

reform and political struggle, as also the


opposition between the Liberals and the

Radicals in the Congress) by adopting


a 'constructive work programme' whichcould
take up various issues-from untouchability
and the condition of the tribals to the whole
social arena of education, health and sanitation

action groups engaged in a politics of


transformation, mobilising them all for a

to reach out to them while the philosophical

to his advocacy of khadi and village and

outpourings of Sri Aurobindo and Ramana

small-scale industry-and keep the 'armies'

fundamental defeat of the brahminic social

Maharshi reached out even less; by and large

mobilised by various non-cooperation

order. Where it should seek a change is with

they remained confined to the pulpit. Yet

movements fruitfully engaged. But there

respect to the present economistic definition

the mere fact of the inadequacy of prevailing

of such transformation and ask for a


fundamentally social re-definition of the
same. Even the battles against imperialism
and the 'new world order' should be socially
defined, within and across nations. But there

ideological models should not numb our

senses and detract us from the required efforts

to pick up the threads and provide a new


beginning. For one must continue to hope
and keep struggling so that out of the myriad

is no need to be exclusivist either in terms of

churnings of the same human enterprise a

caste identity or any other social categorisation.

relevant future can take shape. The dalit

There shouldbe no compromising in any such

movement in India should be considered as

broadbasing but there should be no fear or

part of that churning.

sense of insecurity either.

There is no shortage of sensitive and


committed people in castes and classes

occupying the middle spaces in the country.


One has only to watch the deeply moving
plays and films, read the highly unnerving
reportage on social oppression and state

terror, gauge the stirring of the depths of


our consciousness through literary and other
humanistic efforts (the mobilisation of the
nation's creative artists and litterateurs after

December6, 1992by Sahmatbeing only one


example of it), alongside the dalit poetry,

the highly disturbing 'feminist' exposes, the

approach. For the priority was always the

anti-British movement, not social transformation. In that lay Gandhi's strength too: he
could make a success of his model of a nation-

wide yet on the whole non-violent struggle

against imperialism without having to build

a cadre-based party of national liberation. But


in that very success lay his failure as a social
emancipator.
9 I happen to be a strong advocate of reservations
but mainly as a means of augmenting both
the social and the numerical base of the

Notes

PERSPECwnVE FOR DALIT MOVEMENT

precisely may have been the flaw in the whole

[This paper presents a further development of the


Tenth AKG Memorial LIecture delivered on March

22, 1994. Parts of it have been used in my 'Caste,


Communalism and the Democratic Process' to
be published in South Asia Bulletin, Department
of History, Duke University, USA. A much

shorter version appeared as 'Dalits of Today:


Gandhi, Ambedkar Not Relevant', The Times of

India, May 16, 1994].


1 See my 'Why Has India Been Democratic'

published in State against Democracy: In

oppressed groups and their ability to permeate


established or freshly conceived institutions
(e g, only thus can panchayati raj institutions
be made socially representative, otherwise
they will continue to be dominated by the
rural upper castes and their mafia operations).
But this alone cannot fulfil the needs either

of an organic social identity of struggling


groups or the beginnings of a new and relevant
ideology.
10 1 found this recently when I was in Andhra
Pradesh even in such radical and to my mind

Search of Hunane Governacice, New Delhi,

highly committed political movements like

Ajanta, 1988.

the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee

2 Indeed, one interpretation of the Hindutva


tirade is that it was an almost instant reaction

(APCLC) and, at another level, in thie People's


War Group (PWG).

Economic and Political Weekly June 25, 1994

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