Examining the Evolution of Dalit Politics

Two recent books chronicle the rise and fall of an influential Dalit movement and a significant Dalit politician.

Do the recent events at Bhima Koregaon presage a new trajectory in the struggle of Dalits to secure their place as equals in the Indian polity, a resurgent phase of Ambedkarite politics?

Two recent books – one on the short-lived but influential Dalit Panther movement of the 1970s, and the other on Mayawati, the most significant Dalit politician since Babasaheb Ambedkar – provide useful insights into the evolution of Dalit politics.

Until the 1970s, Dalit political aspirations were sought to be met through the Republican Party of India (RPI), which was derived from Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation, and through scheduled caste leaders co-opted in the political mainstream – principally, the Congress party. While the RPI was rendered largely ineffective by internal strife, mainstream political parties did little more for Dalits than exalt them as vote banks.

Wishing to move beyond the complacent and self-seeking politics of the RPI and Congress, idealistic young Dalits saw a model in the militant Black Panther movement in the US; while more sober elements, exemplified by Kanshi Ram, chose a path between radicalism and tame collaboration.

J.V. Pawar justifiably claims that Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, is an ‘autobiography’ of the movement. “I have actively participated in the movement,” he says, “not just as a spectator or writer, but as one of the people who initiated it”. As co-founder, organiser and general secretary of the Dalit Panthers, he had personal custody of the organisation’s documentation and correspondence, enabling him to compile a meticulous account of the movement’s eventful life.

J. V. Pawar. Credit: YouTube

J. V. Pawar. Credit: YouTube

Opting out of college during his post-graduation, Pawar claims that he and poet Namdeo Dhasal founded the Dalit Panthers – other accounts list more names – in June 1972 in (then) Bombay. Comprising mainly educated Mahar youth from families that had converted to Buddhism with Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the Panthers’ first actions was to observe India’s 25th Independence Day as ‘black independence day’ and to conduct a mock parliament session outside the legislature drawing attention to crimes against Dalits and calling for the annihilation of caste.

Resorting to protest marches and demonstrations, pamphleteering and inventive sloganeering, the youthful Panthers fearlessly confronted the entrenched might of the Congress and muscle-power of the Shiv Sena. The first mass arrests took place when the Panthers staged a protest during the visit of the central minister Jagjivan Ram, who they regarded as a Dalit ‘turncoat’. Gestures like the symbolic burning of the Manusmriti and Gita, commemoration of Dalit valour at Bhima Koregaon and a large rally on Ambedkar’s death anniversary at Chaitya Bhoomi (where he was laid to rest) enthused Dalit youth across Maharashtra and brought a large number of new entrants.

The reluctance of non-Buddhist youth to shed their Hindu identity was an impediment to bringing them into the fold but, according to Pawar, the Panthers were able to effect a transformation of mindsets to overturn traditional notions of caste and sub-caste.

As the Panthers extended their agitationist activities, taking up cases of Dalit exploitation and confronting the perpetrators as well as government authorities, “merely a warning from the Dalit Panther (sic) was enough to set things right”, and “even established goons would tremble” before them, asserts Pawar. By 1974, “the Dalit Panther (sic) had spread to all levels of society and was considered a force to reckon with”.

But cracks soon appeared in the Panther leadership. The main bone of contention was whether to take the communist path or to stay focused on caste (varna) struggle. Pawar recounts with some bitterness Dhasal’s flirtation with the leftists before opportunistically joining the Congress bandwagon, the jostling of Panther leaders for prominence and publicity and the petty jealousies against Pawar’s own stewardship of the group and against his ally Raja Dhale.

J.V. Pawar
Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History
Forward Press, 2017

Lacking coherent structure and organisation, the Panthers had split into at least three splinter groups by 1977, each campaigning for a different candidate in the general election following Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. To deflate the rebel groups, and to stymie the mushrooming of nefarious activities by persons claiming to be Panthers, Pawar and Dhale formally disbanded the Dalit Panthers in March 1977. In a dismal epitaph to the Panthers’ meteoric life, Pawar remarks: “The dissolution of the organisation put an end to the immoral activities of many.”

The limitations of the Dalit Panthers’ agitational approach brought home to Ram, a shaven Dalit Sikh government official, the crucial importance of organising the troops. Introduced in the early 1970s to the writings of Ambedkar by a Mahar Buddhist colleague, Ram would become the leading Dalit visionary and organiser whose impact would be felt in Indian politics for the next four decades.

In Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati, published in 2008, Ajoy Bose, a veteran journalist, recounted in gripping detail Ram’s vision of actualising Ambedkar’s maxim that “political power is the key”. This found expression in the extraordinary journey of a Dalit girl from beginnings noteworthy only for their deprivations and ordinariness to becoming chief minister of the country’s most populous and politically-significant state, and being touted as a future prime minister of India.

The revised title, Behenji: The Rise and Fall of Mayawati, of Bose’s updated version reflects the denouement in Mayawati’s fortunes brought by debacles in consecutive state elections and the 2014 parliamentary polls. With the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) altogether absent in the Lok Sabha and reduced to a rump in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, Bose avers that “it would be near impossible for her to become a dominant force in either the country or her home state again”.

Ajoy Bose
Behenji: The Rise and Fall of Mayawati
Penguin Books Limited, 2017

In the new edition of Behenji, Bose omits some of the administrative details relating to her last stint as the chief minister, while adding new chapters to cover the sea-change in the politics of the nation and of Uttar Pradesh. As her authoritative – though not official – biographer, he says that with these updates he has “decided to draw the curtain down on Mayawati’s historical but turbulent saga”.

Bose established himself as an authority on Mayawati with his first edition of Behenji, published when her rising growth curve presented tantalising future prospects – both for the protagonist as well as for the biographer. The second edition, written soon after Mayawati’s rejection by the voters of UP in 2012, assessed what went wrong but still seemed confident of her revival.  Events since then, however, seem to have led Bose to conclude his association with the Mayawati story seeing little journalistic mileage to be derived from it. While it is difficult to disagree with his assessment, one would hope that some years into the future, with the benefit of sober hindsight, an even-handed biography of this iconic Dalit – with inputs from the subject herself – will become available to the lay reader as well as to the scholar.

After three short stints as UP chief minister, helming shaky coalitions, Mayawati had resoundingly won the 2007 elections to head a government with a comfortable BSP majority. Attributing the victory to astute ‘social engineering’ whereby upper castes, and Brahmins in particular, were enticed to vote for BSP candidates, the party’s remit was expanded from bahujan samaj to sarvajan samaj. However, social engineering was a chimera, argues Bose: a manifestation of opportunistic manipulation by Brahmins, and the outcome of political expediency.

Ajoy Bose. Credit: Penguin India

Ajoy Bose. Credit: Penguin India

By 2017, Mayawati was left with little more than her Jatav base. Brahmins had long abandoned her, seeing more gains elsewhere; Muslims were dismayed at her inactivity in the face of repeated communal clashes; non-Jatav Dalits were antagonised by her purported minority bias and were progressively wooed back into the Hindu fold. Isolated in her splendid mansions, Mayawati had lost touch with ground reality and seemed bereft of ideas on how to make a comeback.

Dalit empowerment is Mayawati’s lasting contribution to the Indian polity. She has “given a sense of self-confidence to the community that even Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram could never give,” says Bose.  Now, however, that empowerment needs to find expression in a new manifesto extending beyond reservations and quotas, to make Dalits equal partners in India’s development story.

She painstakingly built the BSP and mobilised her constituency to produce a winning formula at the polls. But disinclination to delegate and decentralise, and distrust of competent subordinates, besides failure to meet the aspirations of young Dalits, has brought the BSP to a state of paralysis.

Mayawati was successful in implementing two pillars of Ambedkar’s dictum “Educate, Agitate, Organise”. To stay relevant she must employ the third: Agitate. Ironically, for someone who began as a youthful activist cycling from village to village spreading the empowerment message, she subsequently developed an aversion to mass action and street agitation – which has only been accentuated by her megalomania and delusions of exalted political status.

Mayawati must necessarily re-invent herself and her philosophy but, sadly, displays neither the will nor the capacity to do so. Bose concludes that at the present juncture “the prospects of a Dalit party being able to promote the interests of the community do not look very likely”.

In the light of deepening caste fissures in the country, it is not surprising that the baton of Ambedkarite politics is passing to agitationists such as the Bhim Army, and youthful protestors like those in Bhima Koregaon.

Govindan Nair is a retired civil servant who lives in Chennai after more than three decades in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and overseas.