When the independent state of India broke into the imagination of the world, a Constitution — a road map to our path ahead — was forged in the hands of a Dalit intellectual. While the document became our bible, the man who drafted it, BR Ambedkar, became a footnote to our ‘glorious’ history embellished with Gandhi, Nehru and Bhagat Singh. Much like the men and women of his own caste, Ambedkar, the foremost anti-caste activist of India, had become an afterthought when we wrote and rewrote the annals of our freedom struggle.
Be it before or after the British invasion, atrocities against the lower castes — Adivasis, Dalits and Bahujans — have been the order of the day since time immemorial. Barring a few variations here and there, the continuous onslaught of violence — physically, sexually, emotionally and psychologically — has legitimised two aspects. One, the Dalits and the Adivasis continue to remain in the margins, no matter what. If they suffer from the crudest form of violence in rural areas, in urban centres, they continue to be oppressed by sophisticated forms of discrimination. Two, the hegemony of the Savarnas or the upper castes, will ensure continuous social ostracism of the Dalits.
But even in such a bleak scenario, the political awakening of the Dalits, thanks to the sustained efforts of Ambedkar and other social reformers was inevitable. Ambedkar’s steadfast position during the freedom struggle, and while drafting the Constitution incorporating social justice, led to the construction of the political identity of the Dalits. However, until recently, this translated into electoral benefits for mainstream political parties. The Congress’ move to accommodate various Dalit leaders, without upsetting the caste equations was an eyewash. Not only did it ensure Dalits having less or no say in policy making, it also maintained the upper castes dominance in the top positions.
Eventually, the alliance along with its many hypocrisies were rejected when Dalits politically asserted the need to veer away from mainstream political parties. Ambedkar’s struggle against casteist forces led to the formation of political parties with Dalit emancipation as the main agenda. It led to a new crop of Dalit leaders, such as Kanshi Ram.
Atrocities against Dalits continued, seemingly sanctioned by the ideology of the ruling dispensation at the Centre. This coupled with the inability of the Dalit political parties to make inroads into the mainstream posed a pertinent question. At a time when the Hindutva campaign is at its peak and when backward classes are being brutally oppressed across all quarters, what ails the Dalit movement? Could it be the socio-political approach of major Dalit parties? Or could it be that the construction of Dalit as a social identity is itself problematic? If not, then how can one explain the formation of different groups like Mahadalits, Extremely Backward Communities (ebcs) and the like? “The construct of Dalit as a social identity is already becoming very weak,” says Ajay Gudavarthy, assistant professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “Different formations among the lower castes are a reflection of this. Though Hindutva forces have always been against Dalits, what has changed now is the attitude of the Dalits towards upper castes and Hindutva’s approach towards them,” he adds.
According to Gudavarthy, Hindutva forces have been giving more representation to Dalits and Other Backward Castes (obc). “This is in tune with the shift in the attitude of the Dalit parties. Since these parties have started giving more importance to gaining political power, thinking that political power is more important than getting rid of social prejudices, it has led to a convergence of right wing politics and political movements,” Ajay Gudavarthy tells Tehelka.