Future of Dalit Politics Swings Between Decline and Regeneration

Many Dalits feel that the BJP made promises that won it their support, but its actions once in power seem clearly anti-Dalit.

Espousing Kanshi Ram’s principle of ‘Bahujan hitaya, bahujan sukhaya’, the formation of the Azad Samaj Party (ASP) by Chandra Shekhar Aazad on March 15, 2020 marks a new phase in Dalit politics. 

Transformation of the movement to a political party

Formed initially as the Bhim Army in Gharkoli village in western Uttar Pradesh in 2015 to fight against rising caste atrocities in the country, the organisation became popular particularly among the younger generation of Dalits. With the transformation of the movement to a political party, Aazad hopes to reach out to all oppressed castes and build a political alliance. 

Whether the party can deal with the crisis in Dalit politics in the country today, remains to be seen. Analysis of the movement points to a paradox. 

On the one hand, Dalit parties are in deep electoral decline as large sections of the Dalits have moved away to non-Dalit parties, impacting the unity and strength of the movement. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which gained a majority in the 2007 assembly elections, failed to win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; 19 seats in the 2017 assembly elections; and 10 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Although Mayawati is still a tall Dalit leader, the party is facing an existential crisis. 

On the other hand, Dalit assertion on the ground remains strong. With the emergence of organisations/movements led by new Dalit leaders – ASP by Azad, the Una Aytachar Ladat Samiti by Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat, and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi by Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra – the earlier ideology and forms of mobilisation used by older Dalit leaders no longer seems to appeal. Young, educated and popular among the new generation, they represent a new, aggressive Dalit politics. It reflects in their immediate response to atrocities on Dalits, as well as the tremendous support they receive.

Having achieved a modicum of political empowerment, identity and self-respect in the 1990s, Dalits are in search of an evolved political party. 

Also read: Bhim Army Chief Chandra Shekhar Aazad Launches ‘Azad Samaj Party’

The dilemma of decline and regeneration

The Dalit movement is, currently facing the twin dilemma of decline and regeneration. Two significant developments have been responsible for this situation: 

1. Identity politics and a shift from the desire for social justice to aspiration impacted by globalisation and cultural modernisation, creating a divide between the better-off middle class and the marginalised section of Dalits. 

2. The revival of the BSP under new leadership, its promise of economic development and cultural inclusion. It has attracted the lower castes and created an ideological divide between the Ambedkarite or pro-BSP and Hindutvawadi or pro-BJP Dalits. 

These rapid and significant shifts in the 2000s have caused internal fragmentation within the Dalit community, which is the major challenge for Aazad and his newly formed party.

Internal fragmentation and decline

A significant development during the 1990s was the gradual emergence of a small, but influential, young, educated and politically aware Dalit middle class. This new class reached a ‘critical mass’ when the Indian polity experienced globalisation. With this move towards a market-oriented economy, the Dalit movement has also evolved over the last two decades. 

While the movements and parties such as BSP mobilised on issues of socio-political empowerment such as identity, dignity and self-respect, the rising middle-class Dalit intellectuals focus on different issues. They emphasise on the need for economic empowerment through a variety of new means, which represents the rise of middle-class activism among Dalits. 

The term 'Dalit', which indicated the natural social status of those oppressed by caste, gained huge attention after the Ambedkar centenary in the 1990s. Credit: PTI

The term ‘Dalit’ represented a robust coalition and unity of the oppressed masses. Credit: PTI

Their ideas are best reflected in the Dalit Agenda formulated at the Bhopal Conference in January 2002.

 The authors of the Dalit Agenda argued that under the traditional policies of protective discrimination and state welfare, Dalits have remained mere recipients of welfare, landless/asset-less, below the line of poverty, without a share in the capital in the economy and unable to improve their socio-economic status. 

Only a tiny elite or ‘creamy layer’ has been able to improve their educational attainments and enter into high paid jobs in the government, the professions, media, arts and increasingly the private sector. However, such movements have little in common or appeal to the rural groups that need protection against atrocities and help in improving their material condition.

At the same time, the poorer Dalit groups, also aspiring for upward mobility, have moved away from traditional parties. There is considerable disillusionment over the failure of the BSP to put forward a socioeconomic vision to address the specific problems of deprivation faced by Dalits.

With the capture of power by the BSP with a majority in the 2007 assembly election, Dalits had expected not only self-respect but also improvement in their material situation. Mayawati is no longer respected as before, her shift from a Dalit-oriented to a Sarvajan policy was viewed as having helped mainly the Jatavs and the upper castes that had helped her gain power in 2007.

Consequently, large sections today view it as a purely Jatav party. Equally important, in the 2000s, the marginalised groups undergoing a process of cultural modernisation and influenced by the Hindutva ideology are keen to be part of the larger identity of ‘Hindu’. BJP-RSS leaders have worked quietly overtime at the grassroots among these groups who are entering mainstream politics, finding ways of linking them in various ways to Hindutva. Hence, what we are witnessing in UP is as Paul Brass pointed out – in a different context – ‘politically induced cultural change’, the process by which political elites select some aspects of a group’s culture, attach new value and meaning to them, and use them as symbols to mobilise the group.

Also read: ‘Ambedkarite Parties Must Oppose CAA’: Thol Thirumavalavan Speaks to The Wire

New Dalit force: The Azad Samaj Party

Rising atrocities against Dalits since the BJP came to power in 2014 and the lack of remedial steps by the government underlie the formation of the ASP and similar organisations elsewhere in the country. Attempts by the BJP government to show respect to Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar by building memorials, installing a Dalit leader as president and celebrating Ambedkar’s 150th birthday have not helped.

Many Dalits feel that the BJP made promises that gained it their support, but its actions once in power, seem clearly anti-Dalit. Aazad has successfully harnessed the increasing disillusionment with both the BSP and the BJP to form first the Bhim Army and then the ASP. 

The Bhim Army named after Ambedkar, formed by Aazad, the son of a primary school teacher in western UP and Vinay Ratan Singh has over 20,000 followers in the Saharanpur region. Its declared aim is “direct action based on confrontation to preserve or restore the dignity of Dalit”. The Bhim Army since its formation has received tremendous support from Dalits in UP. This is because while the BSP devoted its efforts to electoral politics, the Bhim Army has tried to address the community’s feelings of fear and vulnerability, providing them a sense of security against atrocities.

One of the most important action was the rally against violent atrocities on Dalits by Thakurs at Saharanpur, in April 2017. At least 50 thousand Dalits gathered to show their solidarity at Jantar Mantar on May 21 in New Delhi. Other incidents are clashes over a signboard “The Great Chamar” put up in his village by Azad; action against removal of a Dalit groom from his horse by Thakurs; agitation in February 2020 against the demolition of a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas in Tughlaqabad Delhi, all of which received huge support.

Bhim Army Chief Chandra Shekhar Aazad. Photo: PTI

The UP government, afraid of Azad’s growing support, attempted to rein him in by arresting him on June 17, 2017. Despite being granted bail in November 2017, he was detained under the National Security Act till September 2018, which increased his popular support.

Other incidents that the Bhim Army took up were the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Una incident in Gujarat where seven Dalits were attacked by cow vigilantes in July 2016 and the violent attacks on Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra on January 1st, 2018. The Elgaar Parishad rally at Bhima Koregaon was attended by Aazad, Jignesh Mevani, Vinay Ratan Singh, Prakash Ambedkar and other activists. But the most important protest was in March 2018 against the apparent reluctance and delay by the government in filing a review petition in the Supreme Court against its March 20 order that called for changes in the SC/ST Act 1989.

While India has witnessed agitations by Dalits in the past, the scale of this protest – spread across several states, eleven persons killed, many injured, public property damaged, use of social media and anger visible on the street – was perhaps unprecedented and pointed to disillusionment, and rising anger against the BJP. These assaults fuelled a new, all-India Dalit consciousness and movements in support of leaders such as Aazad.

He has kept both the Bhim Army and ASP independent of both Dalit and non-Dalit parties.

While he had initially tried to move close to the BSP, criticism by Mayawati who viewed him as a rival, led him to move away. He also pointed out that the BSP had voted for the EWS reservation, Article 370 and the CAA in parliament, thereby “murdering” the constitution and weakening the Bahujan movement. He had also announced that his organisation would not join hands with or support the Congress party in the 2019 national elections, as latter had opposed Ambedkar and done nothing for Dalits during its 60-year rule.

Azad’s announcement in December 2029 that he would soon form a new political party providing a political alternative to the Bahujan community was received with great anticipation and interest.  

Also read: Ambedkar’s Warnings About Three Types of Dictatorships

These new organisations are also quasi-political forces that go beyond traditional Dalit parties in their attempt to address Dalit needs. While the BAMCEF (The All India Backward (SC, ST, and OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation) lost importance once the BSP was formed, Azad has decided to retain the Bhim Army as an organisational arm. The Bhim Army runs over 350 free schools for Bahujan children in SaharanpurMeerutShamli, and Muzaffarnagar, as Aazad believes that universalisation of education together with healthcare can take Dalits forward. He has announced that the ASP will undertake a parivartan yatra with the agenda of unifying all the Dalit Bahujan agitations across the country. 

The most important feature, of Aazad’s leadership, not evident in the narrower canvas of traditional Dalit parties, is that while focussing on Dalit needs and desires, it has linked them to larger issues of national significance.

He has provided support to widespread protests by citizens of all communities, against the CAA and NRC, and in upholding the secular fabric of the state. This is seen in Aazad’s reading of the preamble of the constitution at the Jama Masjid in Delhi, and support to the protests at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere. He has declared that his party will adhere to “constitutional morality”, the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity and participate in the process of nation-building. Azad has taken an inclusive stand on the citizenship issue and endorsed the idea of a plural society, in contrast to the attempt by the BJP to polarise Dalits and Muslims. 

Shaheen Bagh protest, Shaheen Bagh, anti CAA protest, Chandrashekhar Aazad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, National Register of Citizens, Constitution of India, Jamia Milia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani, Aligarh Muslim University, Rohith Vemula, Radhika Vemula,

Women at the Shaheen Bagh protest against the CAA hold up pictures of Chandra Shekhar Aazad. Photo: @ShaheenBaghOff/Twitter

New Dalit movement: Possibilities and limitations

For many Dalits and activists, the ASP under the leadership of Azad holds the promise of a new Dalit movement in north India. He has been compared to Kanshi Ram whose mission it is held remains unfulfilled. The ASP holds out possibilities as it has a strong leader with an Ambedkarite ideology and tremendous support in western UP. Moreover, Azad is a product of the new Dalit politics of the 2000s and his ASP different from earlier Dalit parties/organisations. The larger social, political and economic arena, within which Dalit politics operated earlier, has significantly altered. Consequently, the Dalit community, with emergent differences along with class and cultural lines, is seeking a re-orientation of its future by building a new vision of ideas and activities to suit its new-founded hopes and desires.

Dalits, particularly the younger generation, see in leaders such as Azad, a new force to spearhead the Dalit movement and fill the space left vacant by Mayawati’s diminishing popularity. 

However, while Azad may seem to have the ambition, potential, and support to take the Dalit movement forward, is this possible in the current political environment? All disadvantaged groups, including Dalits, are facing the onslaught of a right-wing, Hindu majoritarian party supported by a conservative, upper-caste society, and a centralised, authoritarian government. Any social movement for greater equality and diversity against the existing political order faces swift retribution. 

In this situation, can the ASP protect Dalits, fulfil their desires and tackle larger issues, such as inclusive citizenship, facing the nation? Thus, the new Dalit movement faces a herculean task, much hard work and struggle will be required. It remains to be seen if Azad and his ASP will be able to unite all sections of Dalits and achieve these goals.

Sudha Pai, a former Professor of JNU, was the Rector (Pro-Vice-Chancellor) from 2011 to 2015.