Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist. He is a public intellectual who is almost allergic to identity politics. He is not seen as a Dalit thinker but as a scholar beyond identity who writes on Dalit politics in India. The strength of his writings lies in him being a thinker of class – something that enables a nuanced understanding beyond particularities of caste. Or is it truly so?
Teltumbde has written commentaries of scale on Dalits. I want to briefly respond to a recent article by Teltumbde on Mayawati and Bhim Army in the Indian Express. While reacting to Mayawati’s denial of support to the Bhim Army, Teltumbde suggests the BSP leader is not learning from her ‘ignominious’ defeats, that she fooled Dalits with her Dalit ki Beti rhetoric. Mayawati squandered Kanshi Ram’s legacy and caste atrocities against Dalits increased under her due to her ‘sarvajan strategy’. Dalits are finally waking up to the harsh reality and the Bhim Army is only a manifestation of this process, suggests Teltumbde.
In the wake of the Saharanpur violence, the Bhim Army has come to be seen as an important voice in Dalit politics. But is it really a new movement or just another angry eruption advancing Ambedkarite politics? Irrespective of the answer, the rise of the Bhim Army has fuelled a kind of hopefulness amongst the activists of the Left which seems intriguing. Those aspiring for an overnight class revolution with little patience for reform may not be able to see through the complexities that caste constructs for reform and transformation in Hindu society. So Teltumbde does the obvious – he tells us that Mayawati is bad, Kanshi Ram was good and the Bhim Army has the potential. And yet the Bhim Army is rooted in the stereotype of BSP-type identity politics. So what exactly is the leap in Teltumbde’s thinking?
That the Bhim Army leaders have nothing to do with Marx and Marxism is not a surprise. More so as they have been emphasising that they are followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and the constitution of India. The rhetorical celebration of violence by the Bhim Army has been exaggerated by the mainstream media and some intellectuals-of-syndicalism alike; the media has played up the negative form of the Bhim Army as violent and aggressive and the left intellectuals are trying to make capital of the ‘moment of anger’ in its ranks.
Teltumbde writes that Mayawati was never a leader of Dalits. Somehow, for him, this is suddenly not true about Kanshi Ram. One wonders if Kanshi Ram used the rhetoric of caste and Bahujan identity any less. The ‘strategic genius’ of Kanshi Ram that Teltumbde speaks of in his article is void of political cunning and (Bahujan) morality. In trying to pitch the Bhim Army against Mayawati, Teltumbde ends up forcing his own version of Marxism against Ambedkarite politics.
Is blue turning red?
The rhetoric of “hitting back”, and the occasional celebration of violence is not new to Dalit movements. This has been previously deployed by Dalit movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Dalits mostly attack the state for its apathy in dealing with the violence and exclusion they face. However, violent performance does not always constitute a substantive mode of protest. The use of violence undermines the Dalit cause and emancipatory politics. The repertoire of violence could affect the Dalit youth in particular, as the law implementing machinery is most effective in dealing with erring Dalits (and Muslims and Adivasis). Further, Dalit movements do not aspire to eliminate the oppressors (caste Hindus); they rather mobilise towards civilising them. The Dalit response to atrocities is thus one of legal measures and not of counter-violence.
Teltumbde maintains that atrocities against Dalits increased in Uttar Pradesh during the BSP’s rule and continued to grow due to the BSP’s abuse of power. This is a gross abuse of reason by an activist of his stature.
By now, it is common knowledge, at least for sociologists of caste, that the increase in (reported) violence against Dalits is also a signifier of Dalits challenging caste. That caste violence is less reported in Odisha and West Bengal does not mean that caste and caste violence do not exist there. What Teltumbde fails to look at is the rate of conviction under the SC/ST special laws during Mayawati’s rule. Interestingly, Uttar Pradesh witnessed the most convictions of any state for offences against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes during Mayawati’s rule in 2009. The rate of conviction in UP was 49.2 in the year 2001, 49.4 in the year 2005, and 52.6 in the year 2009. In Maharashtra, the percentage of conviction was as low as 1.8 in 2001, 5.9 in 2005, and 6.5 in 2009.
Kanshi Ram learnt a great deal from the failures of Dalit politics in Maharashtra before consolidating the BSP in UP. The violence of the Panthers, or at least their rhetoric, resulted in state repression against educated Dalit youth and caste violence of scale against rural Dalits. A strong, aggressive social movement with no political support meant that both the state and the dominant groups could easily mobilise against marginal minorities – more particularly Dalits.
Maharashtra has a strong social movement basis in the form of various Phule-Ambedkarite organisations. Dalits take to the streets on various occasions, and violence against the state machinery is not unusual – only the scale varies. We saw the best demonstration of this after the Khairlanji massacre. Unfortunately in Maharashtra, Dalit political parties are so fragmented that there is no single (Dalit) party of consequence that could ensure justice for the community. While Dalits in Maharashtra are forced to vote upwards for parties and ideologies of the privileged, Kanshi Ram turned this around in UP through rhetoric and reason.
Clinging on to power is a challenge for those from the lower rungs due to the graded nature of stigma and inequality – more so for Dalits. Historicised readings of Dalit movements and some parallels across regions and movements could help better comprehend past struggles and the long winding road of civil repair and justice in caste society. Opportunistic alliances can bring in limited security of political tenure, and social movements can continue to play a foundational role.
Caste, class and party politics
The rise of the Bhim Army is more significantly linked to the declining representation of Dalit interests and ideology in the state apparatus, first under the Samajwadi Party and now aggravated under the Bharatiya Janata Party. When all non-BJP forces have been decimated in the recent assembly elections in UP, there is nothing peculiar or extra-shameful about Mayawati’s defeat. Teltumbde could do better in understanding these nuances instead of terming the defeat of the BSP as ignominious, a great public shame.
Police reports in UP suggest that the BSP is supporting the Bhim Army and Mayawati says her party is not. Teltumbde trusts Mayawati more than the police and I am not sure why. Ideally, he would have benefitted from reading scholarship on Dalit movements that point to blurred boundaries between the social and political means in Dalit politics. The Bhim Army with its radical identity-politics is not necessarily a challenge to the BSP and may in fact help consolidate the BSP.
Despite Teltumbde’s reservations about anti-caste movements and their identity politics, they continue to be moral force to reckon with – the Bhim Army included. Dalit groups tend to break away from the totalising nature of class politics as they undermine caste. Failure in party politics may not result in the end of identity politics and the overnight dawn of class consciousness. The strategies of using identity for recognition and redistribution purposes continue to hold the potential for cultural and material transformation.
It was the rise of the BSP and SP that almost decimated an otherwise elite Congress in UP. The BJP, however, betters the Congress on various grounds and its major advance in contemporary politics lies in polarising the society through a newer rhetoric of development-cum-Hindu nationalism (Gujarat being an exemplary model). While Dalits and OBCs may have voted for the BSP, SP and BJP in UP, the ideological polarisation caused by the BJP has resulted in caste-Hindus moving en-masse towards it. These are signs of competitive cleavage based on ideology and a shift towards a war of positions.
Caste no doubt continues to be a central challenge facing the BJP and if there exists any major contradiction in Indian society which can be productively mobilised against the party, it remains caste. Caste could facilitate a negative dialectic of civility and transformation – like the one Laloo Yadav managed to pull through in Bihar and Siddaramaiah is riding on in Karnataka. The present times could well prove to be an opportune moment for Dalit and other marginal groups – not necessarily in securing political power but in dissenting with reason and speaking truth to power.
In the final analysis, I believe the Bhim Army only appears to advance the tradition of Ambedkarite politics, which creatively combines the constitution with social and political mobilisation to consolidate subaltern hegemony. Separating the Bhim Army from this tradition for the sake of “revolutionary rhetoric” only undermines the past struggles and makes it more difficult to make it through the long-winding road for justice in a caste-ridden society. Teltumbde tries the same as he hitches a ride on the Bhim Army; he vents his ire on Mayawati but does not know where to sit.
Suryakant Waghmore is the author of Civility Against Caste.