Why India's Oppressed Lack a United Voice

While Patidars and Jats have joined together to fight for the alleviation of their economic distress, the middle and lower castes remain scattered and largely invisible.

Jat community members stage a protest. Credit: PTI

Jat community members stage a protest. Credit: PTI/Files

The neoliberal turn of the Indian economy since the early 1990s has been associated with the withdrawal of subsidies and other state support from the agrarian sector, accompanied by a decrease in the profitability of peasants. The development measures undertaken since independence till the early 1990s in rural areas in general and the agrarian sector, in particular, benefitted certain caste and class groups and enabled a few of them to emerge as dominant in their respective regions.

The groups already entrenched at the time of independence were able to further strengthen their dominance. Both these caste groups – the newly emergent and the already entrenched ones such as Jats in Haryana and UP, Patidars in Gujarat and MP, Marathas in Maharashtra, Bhumihars in Bihar and Lingayats in Karnataka – gained immense social, economic and political benefits at the cost of other castes and classes.

With decreasing returns from agriculture during the current neoliberal phase, these dominant castes began diversifying their economic portfolio and gravitated towards cities, while the rural areas largely remained a space for political dominance. Mandatory reservations for the lower castes in the Panchayati Raj institutions, however, led to some loss of political power for these entrenched caste groups.

In addition to this political dent, the phenomenon of jobless growth and plateauing economic returns in the recent period even from the urban sector have made these dominant groups nervous about their present as well as the future. Recent mobilisation for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs by some of them should thus be seen in this light. Demands by Marathas in Maharashtra and Patidars in Gujarat for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs are cases in point.

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Therefore, on the one hand we have these dominant groups who have traditionally reaped the benefits of state policies and are now rising for alleviation of their economic distress, and on the other we have a large number of middle and lower caste and class groups – who have suffered since independence and more so during the current phase due to their principal source of income (agriculture) becoming unproductive – who have been unable to articulate their demands for the alleviation of socio-economic distress as a group.

Becoming vote banks thus seems to be the only way these non-dominant sections can overcome their multiple deprivations, just like their dominant counterparts. It is important, therefore, to inquire into this perplexingly passive nature of these groups.

What is behind this apparent restraint?

First, forging unity in a diverse country like India requires not only the common consciousness of shared interests, but also involves manoeuvring through multiple identities. In rural areas, one’s attachment to his/her religious or caste identities has often trumped one’s developmental interests. As these non-dominant middle and lower caste groups are the most diverse ones in the rural areas, this diversity has become a hindrance to a united voice at the national or state level. Devolution of political power through 73rd Amendment Act has further proved divisive for these already divided groups.

Second, these diverse identities at the ground level do not possess the wherewithal – such as numbers and ‘capital’ – to conjure up a decisive voice which gets manifested in election results or during mass movements. For instance, there are 65 Dalit castes in UP of which over 55 are “numerically less, scattered and their presence is almost negligible.”

The third reason is related to the first two. History has shown us that even if a united voice from rural India comprising people from different caste and class backgrounds has managed to influence national or state-level politics, the unity in some sense was only artificial in nature. Myriad demands and aspirations of those who were at the bottom rung of the socio-economic pyramid were glossed over or simply ignored.

Becoming vote banks seems to be the only way the non-dominant sections can overcome their multiple deprivations. Credit: PTI

Becoming vote banks seems to be the only way the non-dominant sections can overcome their multiple deprivations. Credit: PTI

New agrarianism of the late 1960s, 70s and 80s, which saw the rural rising as a united force against the urban under the leadership of Choudhary Charan Singh, Mahendra Singh Tikait and others, saw the involvement of landless labourers, tenants and other similarly-placed groups in the false belief that their benefits were aligned with that of upper castes and classes. That their belief was misplaced was proved in the aftermath of the movement which did not bring in any perceptible improvement in their socio-economic conditions. In fact, the resultant political and economic empowerment of their erstwhile exploiters ensured their continued subjugation.

Fourth, literature in the social sciences points to the fact that the role of intellectuals in socio-political movements is also important to provide an ideological framework and overall direction to the struggle. This seems to be another lacuna which has held back rural groups when compared with their dominant counterparts.

Due to a continued history of subjugation, the rise of an educated elite among many of these groups from within themselves to spearhead the struggle has been delayed. However, it is also a fact that there has been an increase in literacy level across the social groups albeit with varying rates and educated youths are emerging from within these groups. Moreover, in the countryside, successive governments’ abhorrent attitude towards ground level activists, social workers and different NGOs have become a phenomenon of some sorts. Cancellation/non-renewal of licenses of a number of NGOs by the home affairs ministry in the recent past in the name of violating norms of the Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act is a case in point.

Fifth, rapid expansion of communication technologies and platforms in the form of applications like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. has immense potential for spreading of shared consciousness and sentiments as has been repeatedly observed. Rural India in general and the weaker sections, in particular, seem to have been excluded from this ‘digital revolution’. There is a perceptible wind of change in the anvil with farmers’ groups adopting social media to exchange information about new techniques of irrigation, crop patterns, pesticide use, new cultivation methods etc. as well as garnering support for those in distress in some parts of the country but it is anybody’s guess regarding the composition of these farmers’ groups. NDA government’s push for a ‘Digital India’ bodes well for the future provided that the fruits of the policy do not parallel the already skewed socio-economic order in rural areas.

The recent farmers’ agitations in different states mainly to demand the implementation of some of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission Report, the Dalit uprising in Gujarat spearheaded by Jignesh Mewani who was recently elected as an MLA are some of the instances where these hurdles must have been overcome by the protesting groups to varying degrees. It also demonstrates that the hurdles in achieving a united front can be overcome and has been reduced to some extent due to increased awareness and other factors. Therefore, the united front from hitherto non-dominant castes seems to be imminent. The thing to ponder is how to catalyse this churn, both spatially and temporally.

Nikhit Kumar Agrawal studies sociology at Delhi School of Economics and has a B.Tech from IIT Delhi.