Dalit agitation in India: Prognosis of a social unrest

Dalit agitation in India tells the tale of a social-contract that’s flawed at the roots and now frayed at the edges

On January 1, this year, riots broke out at Bhima-Koregaon, near Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra over the commemoration of a 200-year-old event. On January 1, 1818, the British-Indian army had registered a major victory over the Peshwa ruler of the western region of undivided India. A key component of that British-Indian contingent was a group of Dalit (backward caste) fighters. This victory is perceived by the Dalits as a symbolic triumph of a socially-marginalised community over the dominant class in 19th century Maharashtra. This year, like every other year over the last two centuries, as the day was being marked by members of the Dalit community through public celebrations, clashes broke out between them and certain rightist fringe groups that considered commemoration of the defeat of a Maratha ruler as an affront to an average Indian’s nationalistic ethos.

Such dialectically opposite and conflicting interpretations of history is perhaps in keeping with the serious difference of opinion that had surfaced between B.R. Ambedkar — the foremost leader of the Dalit community and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution — on the one hand, and Mahatma Gandhi on the other over the assigning of a suitable social marker and commensurate political rights to this community.

A fact-finding committee, led by the Deputy Mayor of Pune, Siddharth Dhende, claimed on Tuesday that the Bhima-Koregaon violence was “pre-planned” and orchestrated by right-wing activists Sambhaji Bide and Milind Ekbote.

Commenting on the incident, Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, told Gulf News: “It is rather ironical that the socially deprived class [Dalits] in India is suddenly feeling politically empowered. There are so many states that have backward caste representatives as their chief ministers. Added to that of course is the even larger reality that the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself is a member of the backward caste.”

According to Nandy, what has led to so many protest-demonstrations in the recent past is a certain degree of political empowerment without any matching social or economic gains. “Unfortunately, no government has sought to address this disenchantment in coherent terms,” Nandy added.

From Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at University of Hyderabad, who committed suicide on campus in 2016 to the rise of leaders such as Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor in recent months, voices of protest from within the community have been growing louder over the last couple of years. And it is indeed ironical that in a country where the President, Ramnath Kovind, himself happens to be a member of this backward community, Dalits have had to literally take to the streets to seek their rightful place in India’s socio-political and economic life.

Here are some of the key components of the genesis of this backward community and its concomitant socio-economic characteristics:

Who is a Dalit?

The Sanskrit term Dalit literally means ‘broken’ or ‘split’. It was used to refer to people belonging to the backward castes in pre-independence India, who were subjected to untouchability by those belonging to upper castes. The term Dalit was popularised by economist and social reformer B.R. Ambedkar, who himself was a member of the backward caste. Dalits have had the lowest social status in India’s traditional Hindu social system.

Assigning suitable social markers and political rights:

In 1932, the British government in India decided to have a separate set of electorates to elect leaders of the Dalit community. This was supported by Ambedkar, but mahatma Gandhi was opposed to it. This difference of views initially resulted in the Puna Pact, which eventually paved the way for the Government of India Act, 1935, that provided reservation of seats for the depressed classes — later known as Scheduled Castes.

Dalits in independent India:

The Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, apart from abolishing the practice of untouchability, also took several measures to ensure adequate socio-economic benefits and opportunities for the backward castes. These included adoption of the reservations system in government jobs and national educational institutions and a further classification of backward castes into Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes.

Rise of the Dalit ‘consciousness’:

According to the national census of 2011, Dalits comprise 16.6 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population. Dalits have had the lowest stature in the traditional Hindu social structure. However, James Lochtefeld, a professor of Religion and Asian Studies, feels that “adoption and popularisation [of the term Dalit] reflects their growing awareness of the situation and their greater assertiveness in demanding their legal and constitutional rights”. This is what sociologist Ashis Nandy has also referred to as “a certain degree of political empowerment”. Emergence of young political leaders from the Dalit community, such as Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor bears, testimony to that.

The overwhelming reality:

On the one hand is the unavoidable social reality of a ‘short end of the stick’ that has been very lucidly enumerated in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report that likened the condition of Dalits to a “hidden apartheid”, whereby members of the community do not have adequate access to schools, health care, housing and public services. On the other hand is the issue of ‘haves’ and have-nots’ within the community itself, whereby, taking full advantage of reservations in government jobs and through participation in the political process, a certain section of Dalits have prospered. Torn between these two extremes, the issue of Dalit emancipation is front-and-centre in India’s social and political life.


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