Friday, March 7, 2008

The Dalit Movement: From where, where to

The Dalit movement is regarded by many scholars as the most influential social movement in Independent India. While in the wider sense of lower caste struggle against Brahminical hegemony, the ‘Dalit movement’ has coexisted with the idea of caste itself; the movement as we know it – as a front of organized political resistance against caste oppression in Hindu society – may be seen to have emerged only in the colonial times. The British colonization with its bourgeois liberal ethos coupled with the imperatives of their ruling strategy created space for the working up of subaltern identities, mainly in terms of caste and religion. The changes during colonial rule – institutional, social, economic and cultural – gave an added impetus to the aspirations of the lower castes and created the environment for the emergence of an opposition to Brahminical hegemony on the basis of strong modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity; while the strategic compulsions of the British allowed an opportunity for deft political maneuvering within electoral and representational quotas.

In the pre-Independence period, the anti-caste movement comprised strong non-Brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu as well as Dalit movements in Maharashtra, Punjab, western UP, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra and Hyderabad. Independent India saw two decades of silence through the Nehru era, before the issue of caste once again burst onto the national consciousness with the founding of the Dalit Panthers in 1972 and the emergence of the Dalits as a major electoral force through the 1980s and 90s.

The start of the Dalit movement can be placed around the 1920s with the emergence of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar, who was almost the sole national voice of the Dalits in the first 30 years of the movement, provided it with its ideological framework which demarcates the general rubric for Dalit resistance even today. Ambedkar’s resistance, in many ways, drew on the ideas of the 19th century Dalit reformer Jyotirao Phule and yet, in other was markedly different. Ambedkar, like Phule attacked Hindu society from a metaphysical perspective and shared his stand on the complete dismantling of an innately anti-democratic and anti-modern Hindu religion as the only way to do away with entrenched hierarchies of domination and subjugation. Both propagated an idea of an equalitarian society with decidedly modern ideals. Phule, influenced by the European ‘Aryan theory of race’ and the doctrines of the ‘Right of Man’ proposed that Dalits and the Shudras were the original inhabitants conquered by the invading Aryans. In this, violence and ideology were the driving forces of history. Phule propagated the replacement of Hinduism with a more universalistic, equalitarian and rationalistic religion which Phule called the ‘sarvajanik satya dharma’. Ambedkar, on the other hand, rejected the overbearing racial element in Phule, believing the caste system to have come into being through practices of excommunication long after the intermingling of Aryan and indigenous races. Ambedkar chose to look at the caste system as a construct of power relations, as more of a social phenomenon. Moreover, while Phule’s criticism is directed more at the oppressiveness of Hinduism and calls on a discourse of benevolence and compassion; Ambedkar’s focus is on the irrationality and superstition of the religion, and he felt comfortable only with an alternative like Buddhism - which had effectively rationalized God – that would allow him recourse to the call of ‘reason’.

The 1920s and 30s saw Ambedkar’s increasing radicalism, and it is in these years that a number of his most crucial ideas were put into practice, like the right of untouchables to pubic utilities with the Mahad satyagraha in 1927 and the entry of untouchables into temples in Nashik in 1930. Through the 30s, Ambedkar became an increasingly controversial character on the Indian political scene for his dogged insistence on holding to communitarian identities amidst a strengthening nationalist freedom movement built on modern, secular ideals. Ambedkar, like Phule, was willing to appreciate the positive aspects of British imperialism, in that they were harbingers of modernity in feudal India and had been instrumental in alleviating the conditions of the Dalits, in whatever small measure. While he declared categorically his opposition to any form of imperialist hegemony, his primary concerns lay with his own Mahar community’s plight, as was clear in his advocacy for reservations for Dalits in jobs and electorates in British India.

In 1936, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party (India), which won 15 seats in the 1937 elections to the Central Legislative Assembly. The party, the movement’s first attempt at formal political organization stuck to Ambedkar’s Dalit agenda but also broadened the scope and support for the movement by taking up peasant and workers issues which ran closely with those of caste discrimination. As a result, in 1937 the party pushed for legislation on the abolishment of the oppressive khoti landlord system prevalent in many parts of the country at the time. As the agitation reached its climax in 1938, Ambedkar was able to conduct a successful one-day general strike of Bombay textile workers in support of the peasants. In 1938, Ambedkar’s ILP joined the one-day general strike against the Bombay Industrial Dispute Bill, with its Dalit cadres fully in support of the workers.

In his attempt to weld together the class and caste movements, it would seem that Ambedkar would have a natural affinity to the Marxist movement which was also gathering strength at the time. But this was not to be, for a number of reasons. The main disagreement between Ambedkar and the Marxists was on the centrality of the caste question. For the Marxists, with their mechanical understanding of class, caste was a comparatively irrelevant category as it was only an outcrop of feudalism that would disappear with a successful class revolution. For Ambedkar, on the other hand, India could be mobilized to revolution only once its intense caste consciousness had been dismantled, which meant that caste was the bigger problem. For the Marxists, the main enemy was the imperialist, while for Ambedkar, it was upper-caste hegemony. Moreover, Ambedkar alleged casteism even within the ranks of the Communist movement, which drew its members primarily amongst the educated, upper-caste, university-educated bourgeoisie.

On similar grounds he laid out his opposition to the Congress party, which he labeled as also being a preserve of Brahminical hegemony. He accused the Congress of creating the delusion of a unified India, calling it an artifice to maintain the status quo in a country where caste forms the primary identity. He took particular exception to Gandhi’s ascriptive and patronizing use of the word ‘harijan’ and denounced Gandhism as unscientific, traditionalist and as still being within the clutches of Hinduism’s oppressive spiritual doctrines. The Dalits, Ambedkar claimed could never be represented by the Congress.

Thus, Ambedkar’s radicalism set him at loggerheads with the two strongest political forces of the time, thus foreclosing any possibility of support from them.

The 1940s saw escalating Hindu-Muslim tensions and increased political maneuvering in the run-up to Independence. In 1942 he formed the All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF) which remained mainly as a pressure group to secure better conditions and legislation for Dalits in the soon-to-be-independent India. This party, after Ambedkar’s ambitious effort at a radical fusion of caste and class resistance, seemed lukewarm in comparison. But it was him only trying to make the best of his tactical position to strengthen the community in terms of both social standing and political representation.

As India entered the 50s with a new Constitution framed by Ambedkar’s Drafting Committee, he began to look towards a spiritual resistance to the hegemony of Brahmanism. Months before his death in December 1956, Ambedkar along with thousands of his supporters, converted to Buddhism as the ultimate sign of protest. In Buddhism, Ambedkar found a rational, equalitarian philosophy which he found in agreement with his political principles. Through his conversion to Buddhism, it can be said that Ambedkar intersected the ideas of both Phule and Periyar in that all three believed in the need for a weapon at the metaphysical level to combat Hinduism in all its claustrophobic irrationality.

After the death of Ambedkar, however, the Dalit movement began to lose its vitality. The Republican Party of India, which was again an attempt to try and make the AISCF’s narrow caste agenda into a broad-based movement against inequality, discrimination and injustice. The party, however, proved to be only a name-change and in the post-Independence Nehruvian utopia of industrialization and secular modernity, the call of the Dalits was either ignored or pacified.

But by the 1970s, as promises of development grew stale and the old resentment began to resurface, the Dalit movement returned in a decisively more militant mode. In 1972, the Dalit Panthers came to the fore with the stated intention: “We don’t want a little place in Brahman galli; we want the rule of the whole country.” Strongly influenced by the Naxalite movement, the Dalit Panthers showed no aversion towards violence – meeting Shiv Sena cadres in open street confrontations – and looked to define ‘Dalit’ in a far broader sense, looking to rally not just the untouchables, but workers, women and all other oppressed sections of society to a people’s revolution. The Dalit Panthers, in an attempt similar to what Ambedkar tried in the 30s, welded together disparate issues of land reform, untouchability and communalism. Like Ambedkar, the Panthers also stood as a critique of both the Congress Government and the facile, sold-out Left, and tried to bring together the most diverse groups as a viable political alternative. The group was active through the 70s but by the 1980s, it was rife with internal splits that rendered it ineffective.

With an apparent exhausting of the militant solution, the Dalit movement began to become politically more assertive as caste-based parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party started to gain political weightage. The 1990s have come to be defined by caste politics, particularly with controversy on the Mandal Commission report on reservations in government jobs at the start of the decade becoming a high point of the Dalit struggle.

In the new decade of coalition politics, as caste-based regional parties gain prominence, a few questions still cast a shadow of doubt. Throughout the Dalit movement, its response has always been tactical in nature, depending upon the incumbent circumstances. Consequently, one may at times find the movement's political positions to be in apparent contradiction – their use of caste identity in an attempt to fight caste inequality; their seemingly favourable stance towards British imperialism in India as against their opposition to globalization.

While such a strategic approach may have worked well until now, there is a need to think seriously on the question of ‘what is to be done’, now that the movement is gaining some measure of power – what is the agenda the movement can offer the country as a whole? What is required is a genuine ‘view from below’ based on a solid theoretical foundation, rather than purely empirical assertions. A viewpoint that can build a Dalit critique in every field of study and provide an alternative vision of the world.

By Gaurav Rajkhowa


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