If the injustices of neoliberal economics and the Sangh Parivar’s majoritarian consolidation are to be reversed, this cannot happen without an honest reckoning over caste. Dalit communities not only embody the egalitarian quest of the Constitution but recognise Ambedkar’s text as the central device of this quest. At a time when every public institution is subverting the Constitution, and its egalitarian promise is under acute stress, the truth of the dalit struggle holds fast to that of the Constitution, proof against compromise.
Congress leader, K. Raju, points out in the Introduction that while a dalit billionaire, chief minister or another individual success counts as historic, these individuals do not alter the operation of caste in society. Collective struggle and solidarity with all marginalised communities is essential. For this to happen, political parties need to acknowledge the particular position of dalits, historically and in relation to the Constitution, while dalit communities must build alliances with all movements for justice.
The twelve essays in The Dalit Truth address a range of themes: caste in the judiciary and the saffronising campaign of the Sangh, the role of education and of entrepreneurship, up to dalit cinema and the need to leverage international institutions in the struggle against caste. The following excerpt is taken from Jignesh Mevani’s article, ‘A Blueprint for a New Dalit Politics: An open letter to the dalits’.
A Futuristic Dalit Politics
The time has come to reinvent Dalit politics. This would require concerted efforts from within the Dalit community and the progressive movement as well. In the light of the much bigger threat we all face, it is critical that this is done urgently, for it is the very future of India that is at stake. Unless we do so, the few successes we have institutionalized in the past seventy years will undoubtedly be reversed, and India will become a communal, fascist and casteist society.
Firstly, it is crucial to shift the focus to anti-caste and pro- poor politics, and not just pigeonhole all struggles into ‘Dalit politics’. In doing so, we can gainfully engage with material issues of labour rights and economic access, both of which are integral to the annihilation of caste. In terms of its political methodology, post-Ambedkar Dalit politics did not quite capture the nature of the struggle of the streets as much as they should have. While there have been some famous interventions of this nature many times since Independence, the dominating framework dictating our political methodology remained constitutionalism. Consequently, the Dalit movement in present-day India is locked in the dilemma of abstract versus concrete politics. As we make discursive shifts by attacking the politics of ideology, we forget how we are being beaten by concrete and material forces on the ground. In couching our politics in purely ideological terms, there is a tendency to overlook the very real developmental needs and aspirations of the poor, the Dalits, women and the adivasis. It is critical to synergize issues of lives and livelihoods with ideological questions, so as to ground value-based politics in real concrete politics.
Similarly, representation is of paramount importance for a future that is not hegemonized by the upper castes, and where the Dalits can make effective choices about their lives in the given structure. It is equally true that representation has many other psychological benefits when individuals see role models from their marginalized communities excel. This inspires them to continue their struggle against a society that wilfully denies them opportunities. However, such positive aspects of representation alone are not enough to ground a sustained political project at a time when Manuwadi forces have joined hands with the market.
Let us not forget that the BJP–RSS excel at token representation, while siding with big corporations occupying land, scuttling affordable public education and consistently undermining many serious material problems of the Dalits, the adivasis and the poor. The deliberate undermining of socialist goals of welfare, wealth redistribution and land rights as an inherent and necessary part of a radical Dalit politics is lamentable. While we see constant, admittedly justified and essential defence of the Constitution from Ambedkarite groups, when the right-wing tries to dismantle India’s egalitarian premises by distorting the welfare state, there is hardly a murmur. There is scant recognition of the multiple ends that the Constitution has promised, of a vision to actualize those ends, from those who claim to be champions of the Dalit community. This amnesia includes the issue of land reforms, which is wholly imaginable if we go by the principles of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution.
This non-recognition and selective amnesia have been impediments to the emergence of radical movements in and through Dalit politics. There are, in fact, many radical Dalit, or rather anti- caste, movements which involve socialist ideals and material issues. These radical movements are being demonized but are absent from mainstream Dalit politics. The example of the Bhima Koregaon witch-hunt and arrests is a sufficient illustration. To caricature anti- caste, left-leaning forces as ‘Naxals’, when all they seek is to draw attention to material issues, is untenable.
Red Flags to Avoid for New Dalit Politics
The usual retort to any Dalit political activist as a ‘communist stooge’ who tries to forge a broad coalition of anti-caste and leftist forces has demotivated many dedicated activists from coming together. In the larger ambit of subaltern solidarity, such bitterness has disallowed synergy between caste and class analyses. This has affected both our political theory and practice. In the domain of political theory, we have only focused on questions of identity and recognition, which, no matter how relevant, do not contextualize these relations in the political economy of Hindutva neo-liberalism of today’s India.
Secondly, some Dalit movements lack the zeal of communist struggles in India, disallowing Dalit politics to expand its horizons and capacities in the process. The problem is that Dalit identity politics has not seen the sanitation worker or agricultural labourer as ‘the Dalit’ or the ‘woman’. The communist movements, on the other hand, address the exploitation that emanates from being a Dalit. But Dalit identity politics fails to recognize the intersectionality of these issues and hence does not align with other movements.
Thirdly, when the BJP–RSS have mounted an attack on the minorities and other marginalized sections of society while symbolically putting a Dalit representative in the presidency, one cannot help but question the axiomatic position that we have granted to the concept of representation in our own politics. Many Dalit politicians, on whom we placed our hopes for a progressive Dalit politics over the last few years, have unfortunately betrayed us by moving in the same direction as the Hindu nationalists or joined forces with them. It is therefore important to rethink Dalit politics in a new light and find new champions who can pursue a progressive politics.
Fourthly, this conservatism notwithstanding, there are newer orientations that are challenging the conventional anti-caste politics with a political enthusiasm that has managed to bring many others into our struggle. These are paradigms that have demonstrated not only a commitment to the Constitution and its aspirational legacy but also to the power of people’s struggles and battles for justice fought on the streets.
Whether it is Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, which has managed to bring together numerous caste groups from the SC/ST and OBC sections along with Muslim groups in Maharashtra on a platform that effectively talks of the unity of the oppressed, or the newly formed Azad Samaj Party, the political wing of Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army, that has reinvigorated Dalit assertion in parts of north India by showing what reclaiming the streets means. There is a movemental organicity that both these groups demonstrate, which brings forth a fresh political project for the masses, including and especially the Dalit community. However, as it seems clear from the articulations made by their leaders so far, both these groups, like many others, remain fixated on questions of identity and its assertion, and seem occupied in the fight against the ideologies of Manuwad, Brahmanwad and Hindutvawad.
These are extremely important struggles to be engaged in. But the limitations of a politics that never moves beyond the questions of identity is clear from the status of identity politics in other countries, where they get co-opted by neo-liberal forces which are so dear to our own Indian right wing as well. To save questions of identity from becoming merely a talking point for a neo-liberal culture, we must infuse it with class politics too. This is where figures like Dadasaheb Gaikwad and Anand Teltumbde come in, who challenge the binary of either anti-caste or anti-class politics.
These new political struggles highlight the possibilities of an anti-caste movement informed by questions of class and its ability to evolve a more inclusive political vocabulary. This was our hope during the struggle in the aftermath of the Una incident, when the Dalit community came together to rally along raising the slogan, ‘Gaay ki poonch tum rakho, hamein hamari zameen do (Keep the tail of your cow, give us our rightful share of land)!’