Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956


The Ambedkarites and the Dalits after Ambedkar

Until the recent emergence of the Bahujana Samaj Party, the only post-Independence example of a party centred on Untouchables was the Republican Party of India (RPI). This was the final political vehicle devised by Ambedkar, though its formation in reached fruition only some months after his death. The Republican Party was a transformation of the Scheduled Castes Federation, electorally unsuccessful and also judged to be an inappropriate organisational form for Buddhists who had sloughed off caste by the act of abandoning Hinduism.8 Again, as in the days of the Independent Labour Party, Ambedkar planned a party along class rather than caste lines. But almost from the beginning the RPI ran into ideological, organisational and factional problems. The first major division was between an old guard more deeply rooted in the village world of the majority of Mahars, and a younger and more highly educated lead-ership that increasingly focussed on the opportunities inherent in urban life and the scheme of compensatory discrimination. This generational conflict was connected to a split between those who saw the future of Mahar politics in terms of broader economic and class struggle - some of these were the older village-based activists - and an emerging leadership less committed to working with caste Hindus and even other Untouchable communities. While Ambedkar himself had been far less concerned with agrarian problems than with broader questions of political and constitu-tional principle, his stature had been such as to engender loyalty right across Mahar society and thus to blur the divergence of interest within it. After Ambedkar, and in the context of growing social and economic diver-sity among the Mahars, there was no one who could command this general loyalty. By 1959 division in the RPI was so deep that the two major factions held separate conventions (Gokhale 1993: 224). Inevitably it was the younger, better-educated and more prosperous faction based in the cities that became the more energetic element of the party.

The RPI carried its divisions into the election of 1962, and failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat from the new linguistic state of Maharashtra.' It did somewhat better in the State Assembly election of that year, but after that it won only a handful of Assembly seats in Maharashtra. The RPI also put down roots in several States where Atnbedkar's influence had been relatively strong - particularly Uttar Pradesh (notably the cities of Agra and Aligarh) and Punjab, but also Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Extraordinarily, the RPI was electorally more successful in Uttar Pradesh than in Maharashtra. Its success in UP was built around a substantial Buddhist politician of Chamar origins, B. P. Maurya, who drew votes away from Congress by engineering a local coalition of Untouchables and Muslims in the city and District of Aligarh. But the inherent instability of this alliance - there had been no historical sympa-thy between Chamars and Muslims - and the Congress split of 1969 quickly changed the electoral equation for the RPI in Uttar Pradesh. By 1971 B. P. Maurya and his major opponent within the party, Ramji Ram, were both returned to the Lok Sabha under the banner of Indira Gandhi's ostensibly left-orientated branch of the Congress. This was the effective end of the Republican Party as a force in Uttar Pradesh.

In Maharashtra, the death or eclipse of one Ambedkarite form has been a prelude to the rise of another. Thus in the early 1970 an organisation calling itself the Dalit Panthers was formed with the project of reinstating class-based Dalit politics following the Republican Party's perceived lapse into narrow self-interest (Gokhale 1993 264). The name, with its insurrectionist symbolism, was borrowed from the Black Panthers of the United States. At the time India was marked by widespread famine, per-vasive student activism and a non-party oppositional politics which later developed into Jayaprakash Narayan's direct confrontation of Indira Gandhi. But the Dalit Panthers proved unable to connect up with broader leftist politics. They were also no more attuned to the Dalit 'masses' - a majority of Mahars were still illiterate villagers - than was the Republican Party, and within a couple of years they were even more riven by ideological and personality differences. The core ideological split was publicly evident by 1974 and was personified in the two pre-eminent leaders of the movement, Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale. For Dhale's faction, the defining moment in Dalit history was the mass conversion to Buddhism under the leadership of Ambedkar; future gains were to be made primarily through a deepening and widening of Buddhist consciousness rather than through secular political action. Namdeo Dhasal, on the other hand, represented a more orthodox leftist, indeed Marxist, position, which gave both Ambedkar and the conversion move-ment less of a defining role. Abolition of Untouchability was an issue of class and economics more than of caste, religion and consciousness, and the natural allies of the Untouchables were the poor classes of whatever religious or caste community. Consistent with this view Dhasal had seen the CPI as the appropriate overall leader of the Dalits. But within a few years Indira Gandhi's anti-poverty programs of the Emergency period persuaded Dhasal that here was a leader genuinely committed to the poor, and his faction supported Congress in the 1977 election. By then the Panthers were divided into a number of geographically centred fac-tions of little potency, and it was only the riots in 1978 surrounding the Maharashtra Government's decision to add the prefix 'Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar' to 'Marathwada University' that brought them into some prominence again. The Dalit Panthers had failed to define a durable role for themselves - they were political activists without a political party or a clear strategy agreed among themselves. Moreover, they had become scarcely more radical, and certainly no more connected to ordinary Mahars, than the Republican Party. And, of course, they had demon-strated little capacity to reach out to other Untouchable castes.

The void left by the demise of the Panthers has been filled not by another party or other directly political organisation of the Mahar Daltts but, extraordinarily, by a literary movement. A whole new literature has sprung up on the common basis of rejection of varna. The lives and inter-ior world of Untouchables have been explored by a profusion of writers, some of them highly talented. It is tempting, and indeed legitimate, to see this new literature as heir to the great tradition of bhakti, though many of its exponents reject this tradition, Chokha Mela in particular, for its acceptance of inequality in the expectation of a better world in the life-to-come. The resort to literary means of communicating Dalit anger has been consciously adopted in disgust at what is perceived to be the failure of orthodox politics to transform the lives of the Dalits. Clearly the Dalit literature is an intensely political body of writing, some of it infused more with passion than with concern for literary effect. But the best Dalit writers are widely recognised as having created a literature of genuine merit.

Nor is this Dalit literature confined to Maharashtra. There is now a vigorous assembly of Dalit writers in Karnataka too. The immediate origins of this movement can be located in a speech delivered in 1974 by a Minister in the Congress Government of Karnataka. Basavalingappa, an Untouchable, was moved to describe the literature of Kannada, the lan-guage of the region, as little more than boosa or cattle fodder. He had in mind this literature's lack of attention to the lives of ordinary people, among them the Untouchables (still usually called Adi-Karnataka). It was as if Basavalingappa had put a torch to a pile of tinder, so great was the explosion of both acclamation and repudiation. To the orthodox cus-todians of Kannada literature the Untouchable Minister had defamed their cultural heritage in the service of a mindless radicalism. But to an astonishingly large number of actual or aspiring Dalit writers, Basavalingappa had opened the door to a palace of opportunity to express their rejection of their own place in Karnataka society (Mahadeva 1989). A conference of Dalit writers was held in 1974, and some hundreds are said to have attended (Indudan Honnapur interview: in January 1988). In subsequent years this Dalit literary movement has moved in a number of directions. For example, one group of young Dalits has established a popular weekly magazine, Sugathi, which combines the transmission of popular culture (film features and so on) with political and social comment on Dalit affairs. Its readership is mostly drawn from Adi-Karnatakas themselves, and in 1988 circulation was some 65,000 copies.

The literary movement preceded any narrow political expression of Dalit radicalism in Karnataka, and subsequent institutional forms have not followed the pattern of Maharashtra. Without the direct legacy of Ambedkar, the Karnataka Dalits have not sought to establish a Dalit political party. Rather, the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti has been set up as something of an umbrella organisation for the various Dalit groups within the State. Dalit activities have been directed to educating the conscious-ness of Adi-Karnataka adults and children, and staging agitations and demonstrations on matters of particular concern. A special focus has been on Harijan atrocities. Within particular industries - the nationalised banks, for example - there are organisations of Dalit workers. Many of the Dalit activists have embraced Buddhism and are engaged in increasing their knowledge of the literature of this religion and proselytising among the unconverted. But while the Karnataka movement has derived its inspiration from Ambedkar and from the Maharashtra movement in general, there is also a concern to avoid what is seen to be the Maharashtra defect of being too inward-looking and exclusive. Some of these activists have gone so far as to reject reservation of jobs and parliamentary seats as a trap which cuts them off from other progressive elements and also fails to do anything for the larger Dalit community. And there is special scorn for the occupants of reserved seats in legislatures. While there have been no intense ideological splits in Karnataka, there is evidence of the same tensions that have so destructively affected the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra. The recurrent choice for radical Untouchables everywhere is between cultivating a separate Untouchable identity or constructing alliances with all oppressed people who are prepared to listen.

Even more than in Maharashtra, the Dalit movement of Karnataka has been an urban phenomenon. The Untouchable castes of village Karnataka have not been drawn into a movement whose main preoccupa-tions have been literary, cultural and religious. During a visit to his ances-tral village, one of our Dalit guides - a leader among Dalit bank employees and a Buddhist - spoke scornfully of the backwardness of the Adi-Karnataka there. They lacked ambition and remained locked into a world of drudgery, alcohol and attachment to what he called ~some non-veg god'. To this man there was no point in trying to rouse the conscious-ness of his caste fellows and relatives in the village. His time was better spent working with young men studying in schools and colleges in the towns, and in staging demonstrations that would catch the eye of the media.

The lack of mobilisation of village Untouchables in Karnataka and even Maharashtra serves to point up the distinctiveness of the rural revolt in Bihar. In so far as there has been an ideological guide to the activity in Bihar, it has been a derivative of revolutionary Marxism. This should not lead us to conclude that Marxism is the appropriate ideology for the Dalits of Karnataka and Maharashtra, or that Ambedkarite principles are inherently incapable of attracting widespread support in rural India. As we shall see, Kanshi Ram has skilfully used the figure of Ambedkar to build a following among rural as well as urban Chamars in Uttar Pradesh. But it is notable that the Bihar mobilisation has proceeded primarily on demonstrations on matters of particular concern. A special focus has been on Harijan atrocities. Within particular industries - the nationalised banks, for example - there are organisations of Dalit workers. Many of the Dalit activists have embraced Buddhism and are engaged in increasing their knowledge of the literature of this religion and proselytising among the unconverted. But while the Karnataka movement has derived its inspiration from Ambedkar and from the Maharashtra movement in general, there is also a concern to avoid what is seen to be the Maharashtra defect of being too inward-looking and exclusive. Some of these activists have gone so far as to reject reservation of jobs and parliamentary seats as a trap which cuts them off from other progressive ele-ments and also fails to do anything for the larger Dalit community. And there is special scorn for the occupants of reserved seats in legislatures. While there have been no intense ideological splits in Karnataka, there is evidence of the same tensions that have so destructively affected the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra. The recurrent choice for radical Untouchables everywhere is between cultivating a separate Untouchable identity or constructing alliances with all oppressed people who are pre-pared to listen.

Even more than in Maharashtra, the Dalit movement of Karnataka has been an urban phenomenon. The Untouchable castes of village Karnataka have not been drawn into a movement whose main preoccupa-tions have been literary, cultural and religious. During a visit to his ances-tral village, one of our Dalit guides - a leader among Dalit bank employees and a Buddhist - spoke scornfully of the backwardness of the Adi-Karnataka there. They lacked ambition and remained locked into a world of drudgery, alcohol and attachment to what he called 'some non-veg god'. To this man there was no point in trying to rouse the conscious-ness of his caste fellows and relatives in the village. His time was better spent working with young men studying in schools and colleges in the towns, and in staging demonstrations that would catch the eye of the media.

The lack of mobilisation of village Untouchables in Karnataka and even Maharashtra serves to point up the distinctiveness of the rural revolt in Bihar. In so far as there has been an ideological guide to the activity in Bihar, it has been a derivative of revolutionary Marxism. This should not lead us to conclude that Marxism is the appropriate ideology for the Dalits of Karnataka and Maharashtra, or that Ambedkarite principles are inherently incapable of attracting widespread support in rural India. As we shall see, Kanshi Ram has skilfully used the figure of Ambedkar to build a following among rural as well as urban Chamars in Uttar Pradesh. But it is notable that the Bihar mobilisation has proceeded primarily on the basis of several pragmatic issues - social respect, higher wages and access to land - that have had an immediate and powerful resonance with the Untouchable population. These are the same broad issues that were the core of the program of Ambedkar's Independent Labour Party from 1937 t0 1942, and in somewhat variant form they were also the foundation of the later Republican Party and Dalit Panthers. But none of these bodies actually pursued their program with any determination, and the post-Independence organisations fell seriously out of step with village Mahars at the same time as they became further isolated from communi-ties other than the Mahars. Part of the problem has been Buddhism: despite its merits as a wellspring of personal empowerment, Buddhism scarcely speaks to the issues that are of immediate concern to poor villag-ers of Mahar or any other Untouchable caste. In so far as the Dalit leader-ship of Maharashtra has concentrated on the project of Buddhism, they have tended to abdicate from a position where mobilisation of village and less educated Untouchables is a possibility. Even worse, preoccupation with another religious system has driven a positive wedge between the Mahar Buddhists and Hindus from other poor and subordinated com-munities.

But despite the limitations of the Ambedkarite movement as an electoral and mobilising force in western India, the thought and life of Babasaheb Ambedkar enjoy a tremendous and indeed fast-growing potency across large parts of India. Within Maharashtra itself one of the recent expressions of this was the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations surrounding the publication of Ambedkar's work Riddles in Hinduism. This work is part of a multi-volume set of Ambedkar's writ-ings being published, or usually republished, by the Government of Maharashtra under the direction of Dalit scholars. That the project has gone forward at all is testimony to the weight of Ambedkar's writing and the political passion of his followers. Riddles in Hinduism had been consid-ered too inflammatory a work to be published during Ambedkar's life-time, and tens of years after it was written the work had scarcely become less controversial.

While Maharashtra and neighbouring Karnataka remain the centres where Ambedkar's legacy is taken most seriously, the physical image of the historical figure is now to be found on posters and in the form of statues in countless locations throughout India. The propagation of Babasaheb's image has become both a sacred duty to his followers and also an easily available means for politicians and political hopefuls to posi-tion themselves as radical champions of their own communities. Juxtaposition of one's own image beside that of Ambedkar can now be an alternative to statement of a clear political position. But more positively, through the politics of iconography Dalits have been busy reclaiming their own twentieth-century history. The great loser in this struggle of images is Gandhi. Whereas once Gandhi could be portrayed as the great champion of the 'Harijan', now Dalits themselves prefer to ignore or even castigate him for condescension and adherence to subordinating orthdoxy. Now it is Ambedkar who shows the way in thousands of out-of-the-way locations to which his writ did not run during his own lifetime.


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