Theorising The Dalit Movement: A Viewpoint

Anand Teltumbde


The Dalit movement, in the familiar sense of organised resistance of the ex-untouchables to caste oppression, may not be traced beyond colonial times. However, in a wider sense of the struggle of lower castes against the hegemony of Brahminical ideology, it has to coexist with the history of caste itself. The broad framework of caste remaining the same, the Dalit movement could also be seen in a historical continuum with its previous phases. In another sense, it could be taken as the articulation phase of the numerous faceless struggles against the iniquitous socio-economic formation ordained by the caste system, that has occupied vast spaces of Indian history. By any reckoning it seems to have done well in identifying its friends and foes, putting in place its strategies and tactics and more importantly, carving out a space for itself in every sphere. It kept pace with the changes taking place in socio-political sphere during the colonial times and thus displayed significant learning during this phase. However, it could not do so thereafter when it had to consolidate its gains particularly in the context of substantial changes that befell during the post-independence times.

During this period, it appears to have been eclipsed by the shadow of its own past. In an attempt to grasp certain generalities of the Dalit movement, this paper will try to present a hypothesis that all the predominant attributes that the contemporary Dalit movement tends to reflect, are basically acquired from the circumstances that brought it into existence. In corollary, the hypothesis is extended to state that the Dalit movement did not assimilate any significant learning through changes in these circumstances and so allowed itself to degenerate and to be used by the very set of people whom it intended to fight. While wading through the web of Indian reality around the Dalit movement it is expected to throw up issues the clarity on which is considered prerequisite to chalk out a road map for its liberation.


The mythologized history of India does not provide many clues to the direct rebellions of the oppressed masses against their oppression. But it is inconceivable that they did not take place at all over a long period of two millennia that nibbled at their existence every moment with a 'divine' contrivance called caste. The extraordinary success of this contrivance of social stratification is as much attributable to its own design that effectively obviated coalescence of the oppressed castes and facilitated establishment and maintenance of the ideological hegemony as to its purported divine origination. None could ordinarily raise a question as it meant incurring divine wrath and consequent ruination of the prospects of getting a better birth in their next life. Thus the caste system held society in a metaphysical engagement and at the same time in physical alienation with itself. Materially, it provided for the security of every one through caste professions and psychologically an aspirational space for every caste including the non-caste untouchables to feel superior to some other. Since, this superstructure was pivoted on the religio-ideological foundation, the manifestation of resistance to the caste system always used the metaphysical toolkit that contrived its arguments into the religious form. Right from the early revolts like Buddhism and Jainism down to the Bhakti movement in the medieval age, one finds articulation of opposition to the caste system materialising in a religio-ideological idiom. This trend in fact extends well down to modern times that marks a new awakening of the oppressed castes and the birth of the contemporary Dalit movement. All anti-caste movements thus, from the beginning to the present, invariably appear engaged in religious or metaphysical confrontation with Brahminism, either in terms of its denouncement or of adoption of some other religion.

The religious discourse is thus a common feature of all the anti-caste movements. For example, the Satnami movement of the Chamars in the Chhattisgarh plains in Eastern Madhya Pradesh that eventually became an independent religious sect (Russel 1916); the Dravid Kazhagam movement of Periyar EVR Ramaswamy Naicker which created a stir by publicly burning the effigy of Rama and celebrating the virtuousness of Ravana; the Nadar Mahajana Sabha in Tamilnadu (Hardgrave 1969); the Ezhava movement of Narayana Guru which culminated in establishment of a new religious sect called Sree Narayan Dharma Pratipalana Yogam in Kerala (Thomas 1965; Aiyappan 1944; Samuel 1973), and the most pervasive Dalit movement (Zelliot 1969) led by Babasaheb Ambedkar curiously reaching its climax of mass conversion to Buddhism; they all signify an overriding hatred for the religious code of Manu and a proposition of an alternate faith for themselves. It essentially embodied dejection with the Brahminism, which was perceived to be the root cause for their sufferings. The most articulate expression of this dejection is found in Ambedkar's own analyses that holds overthrowing of 'Hindu' religious ideological hegemony as a necessary condition for the liberation of Dalits (Omvedt, 1994).

Notwithstanding the views of some people who contend that the caste system was not a rigid system that had disallowed inter-caste movement of people, the fact remains that it does not have any evidence of having brought in a change in the forces of production or in the relations of production till the advent of British rule. With its quasi-autonomous villages it remained in a fossilised form for centuries. This feature of the Indian society precisely impelled Marx to disdainfully comment that India did not have history and to commend the British colonial rule for waking it up from its slumber to Western modernity. The first cultural shock this Indian society received was through the Moslem invaders. For the first time the Indians got to relate with some other religion and to realise that not only could there be alternative religious systems but also the gods postulating them. Egalitarian Islam initially treated all Indians equally but soon the imperative of their political strategies made them realise the utility of the intrinsic divisions existing in the Indian society and they not only decided to compromise their egalitarian zeal but also allowed adulteration of their cultural broth with the poison of caste.

Bhagawan Das (1983) quotes Ibn Batuta, a Moslem scholar who accompanied Mahmud Ghaznavi stating that the Moslem invaders at first treated all Indians alike but later took advantage of the cleavages existing in Indian society. The compulsions of politics overtook religious spirits, which meant the Brahminic social order, based on castes remained largely unhindered and even influenced the emergent Moslem society with the Hindu converts. Even then this process spelt a sea of opportunity to the untouchables living outside the cities and villages. It was the Moslem invaders who first opened the gates of their cities to these 'Untouchables'. Many 'Untouchables' and low caste people embraced Islam and joined the invaders, partly to avoid persecution and partly in search of better status and fortunes. Those who embraced Islam and joined the armies of Moslem invaders imitated the customs and manners of their new masters. They gradually merged and integrated into Moslem society. Besides those who formally embraced Islam, whether voluntarily or under compulsion, there were millions of those who belonged to the artisan castes like weavers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, basket makers, potters, dyers etc., who slowly came to be Moslems.

There were even some high caste Hindus including Brahmins who converted to Islam for various reasons. These converts coming from diverse castes brought in their respective cultural modes of living into the emergent Moslem society and along with it the caste divisions. Thus, although conversions to Islam could not rid the untouchables from their caste status fully, going by the intensity of oppression, they certainly must have experienced a great relief. First of all, the conversion enabled them to come out of their caste professions, which had been the mainstay of their low social status. Secondly, in renouncing their religion they must have had a sense of revenge against the ignominy heaped upon them and a vague sense of belonging to the ruling community. Thirdly, the opportunity to wield the sword in itself meant many things to them: it meant notional raise in their caste status catapulting them from a non-caste untouchable to that of Kshatriya - a penultimate rung in the caste hierarchy; it meant realisation of their manhood for the first time; it meant restoration of their confidence and most importantly, it meant economic betterment.

It is a moot point whether these conversions could be called a social movement insofar as technically the latter insists upon an organisation striving for some collective goal of social change. It certainly reflects a spirit of rebellion at least at the individual level to defy the caste code and embrace a different faith. Insofar as caste society had the intrinsic organisations of castes that governed their respective caste behaviours and managed the community life within the caste framework, it is a difficult proposition to say that this rebellion materialised without any organisational backing. An individual in the caste society was too small an entity to transcend the dictate of his caste organisation. In all probability these kinds of people's choices particularly in large numbers, get exercised only with social connivance. As could be seen from the later instances of conversions (Minakshipuram in Tamilnadu and several conversions of Dalits to Buddhism), the religious conversions never took place in any significant scale without there being a social movement to support it. In this sense, one could surmise the existence of some movement of untouchables that spearheaded the conversion to Islam.

The above overview highlights the following:
· Indian society as a whole never accepted hierarchy as a basic value system.
· The anti-caste movements essentially were against the creed of Brahminism that had ordained the iniquitous social structure.
· They were always articulated in terms of constituting an anti-theses to oppressive aspects of the 'Hindu' religion.
· They invariably materialised in the form of denouncements of these aspects and in corollary, adoption of a different faith, which in their perception was better.
· These movements invariably needed certain extraneous enablers especially the political congeniality.


Unlike the Moslem invaders, who had ruled India on the strength of their developed feudalism, far superior to the priest-ridden Indian system, the British conquest of the country was based on their superior technique of production and social form (the bourgeois), that was much more efficient than the technique of feudalism. The British colonisation with its bourgeois liberal ethos coupled with the imperatives of their ruling strategy, created space for working up subaltern identities, mainly in terms of caste and religion. The institutional changes (judiciary, civil administration, commodity markets), cultural changes (modernity, western mode of living, English education, exposure to western treasure of knowledge and scholarship), economic changes (zamindari and ryotwari systems in place of jajmani-balutedari), and emergent social changes that came in during the colonial rule gave impetus to the aspirations of the lower castes. The development opportunities that these changes created came into conflict with traditional social relations, which still shackled them through caste bondage.

There appears to be some kind of capability threshold that takes into account a balance of all resources with a social group, below which social movements are not possible. The colonial rule lent various opportunities to the disadvantaged sections and pushed them up past this threshold. It was thus natural that the first of the social resistance movements was by the Shudra castes. Because, as the labouring caste, they constituted an immediate interface with the parasitic upper castes, and in terms of resources they got over the threshold sooner than, say, the more oppressed untouchables. These movements broadly exposed the fraud perpetrated by Brahmins in the name of religion. They denounced their exploitation and praised British rule as an enemy of the enemy. In this formulation Dalits were vaguely bracketed as the co-oppressed ally. But the anti-Brahmin consciousness of these movements could not hold out in the face of the contradictions these castes had with the untouchable castes. Although, the Dalit movement was significantly influenced by the non-Brahmin movement of backward castes, it soon drifted away from the latter. With the advent of Ambedkar, it soon secured national prominence.

Around this time, there was a strong revolutionary movement all across the globe that drew its inspiration from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. It claimed its ideological strength from the theories of historical materialism, dialectical materialism and scientific socialism propounded by Karl Marx. The Russian revolution had ignited hope of emancipation in oppressed humanity. In India too, it soon took roots and came to be reckoned as a political force, especially in the urban centres where it had a particular appeal among the workers of various factories. The leadership of this communist movement however came from the middle class educated youth who for historical reasons had to come from the upper castes, the majority being the Brahmin itself. Their comprehension of the philosophy of communism was acutely constrained on one hand by the lack of systematic political education compounded by the non-availability of much of the original literature, and on the other by their class and caste consciousness. It rested on the dictums like class struggle, dictatorship of proletariat and notions of the base and superstructure without the underlying dialectics that lent it its specific meanings. This movement was essentially pitted against British imperialism that brought them nearer some sections of the nationalists and tended to ignore the caste as a superstructural identity. The emergence of autonomous Dalit movement could not therefore be taken kindly by the communist movement, as it saw the Dalit movement to be dividing the workers, diffusing the focus of the anti-imperialist struggle and being non-scientific. On its part, the Dalit movement not only did not find any answer to their specific caste exploitation but on the contrary total apathy about it in the communist movement. In their strategic formulation, the open anti-State stance of the communists moreover did not found favour with the Dalits.

As Gail Omvedt perceptibly observes, the autonomous Dalit movement had to engage with three forces in colonial society:
1. It developed in opposition to the socially and culturally pervasive and historically deep-rooted hegemony of Brahminical Hinduism.
2. It had to contend with the hegemony of the nationalist movement, which under the leadership of the Congress, strove to take over the agendas of several subaltern movements while restraining their democratic and egalitarian potential.
3. It had to face a difficult relationship with the communist movement which otherwise should have been its natural ally.


While dealing with Brahminical hegemony, the autonomous Dalit movement naturally perceived an ally in the backward castes. The anti-Brahmin movement launched by the creative and visionary genius of Mahatma Phule in Maharashtra in many ways inspired the Dalit movement (e.g., early proponents of the Dalit movement like Shivram Janaba Kamble were followers of Phule). In spite of the difference in time period marking out different transitory phases in the history of the country; differences in dispositions, equipment and social backgrounds between Phule and Ambedkar, one finds essential similarities in their characterisation of the social structure and the movements they launched and led. Both Phule and Ambedkar regarded British rule positively for introducing modernity into the moribund Hindu society but simultaneously both showed its limitations; both repudiated the claims of nationalists that India was a nation; both had no faith in the Indian National Congress; both came to characterise and oppose it similarly; both declared their vehement opposition to Brahminism but still did not hate Brahmins; both were rationalist; both had hated the parasitic class of priests, landlords, moneylenders and capitalists and sought to organise their victims; both emphasised the importance of education in the scheme of liberation of Dalits and backward castes; and so on and so forth. The pious formulation of Phule and to a certain degree of Ambedkar hoped to bring together all the Untouchables and the Shudra castes in opposition to Brahminism. Howsoever underestimated or grossly overlooked the contradictions between the Shudra backward castes and the non-caste Dalits may be in the village setting where precisely the caste problem is to be confronted, the Shudra castes came to share the mantle of Brahminism in relation to Dalits. This is basically strengthened by the economic contradictions between these farmer castes and the Dalits who are the farm labourers dependent on them. This legacy of Manu could neither be overcome by the powerful non-Brahmin movement of Mahatma Phule, who had certainly shown how to bring them together during his life time; nor by the Dalit movement despite its significant investment for bringing about a broad unity of all the labouring people during Ambedkar's time. Immediately after the death of Mahatma Phule his Satyashodhak Movement lost its anti-caste zeal. Even the attempts for reviving and revitalising it under the patronage of Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur could not succeed and by 1920 it completely lost its anti-Brahminism character and degenerated (barring a few who spearheaded leftist struggles) into a political addendum of ruling class.

The majority from the Shudra castes, as marginal or small farmers or artisans labouring in the jajmani-balutedari (client-patron) system, is variously exploited and is poor. A minority of them, as big farmers and middle farmers, were well off. Some of them were vested with the traditional powers of village administrators. These people of the farmer castes came to don the role of exploiter in the village setting. During the post-independence period the imperatives of electoral politics provided the motive force for the consolidation of the middle castes. These castes received disproportionate benefits from the policies and programmes implemented during this period. The most significant have been the land reforms that sought to restore the lands to tenants and later the green revolution that channelled significant investments into agriculture and raised its productivity. The former could not reach real tenants who in most cases were Dalits because the government machinery would not know that there operated a layered tenancy in villages as a Dalit tenant could not be dealt with by the high caste landlord directly. So, by default, it recognised the intermediaries as the legal tenants who invariably belonged to these farmer castes. Many of the benami transfers also went to them, as they were the confidants of the former landlords. The green revolution, as numerous studies concluded, clearly benefited the bigger farmers who again belonged to these castes. The empowerment of a section from these Shudra castes impelled them to create a formidable constituency for themselves in nexus with the capitalist class and to wield significant political power. The contradiction between them and the Brahmins that impelled the non-Brahmin movements during the colonial times were overcome in this process, which enabled them to assume the hegemonic role in the rural setting.

All the castes under this generic Shudra caste-group were not well off economically and equal socially. Many of them, the artisan and service castes, were as poor as Dalits and lay at various rungs in the caste hierarchy. However, they could be bracketed together socially in caste terms and economically as farmers as most of them had land. The caste divisions between them were really imperceptible in hierarchical terms. In relations to Dalits however they were placed socially and culturally clearly apart as the caste Hindus. Their superiority perception in relation to the increasingly assertive Dalits was deliberately worked up by the powerful elements in villages, which thwarted any possibility of their making common cause with Dalits. All these Shudra castes came to pose as a single block in opposition to Dalits for mainly two reasons. One, their superiority in the caste hierarchy to Dalits lent them power over them to extract more and more economic surplus and two, the assertiveness of the majority Dalit caste induced by their political consciousness (through the Dalit movement) and their economic betterment (through reservation policy) made them vulnerable and defensive. These dynamics achieved two things for the rural rich. One, it obfuscated their exploitative relations with their own caste fellows and two, it provided them the requisite mass base to claim political power.

While the caste identity consolidated the middle castes into a powerful block, the same identity was used to catalyse disablement of Dalits by dividing them into various caste groups. Historically, all the Dalit castes were not economically equal. Most of them had a specific caste calling and so had a reason to perceive a stake in the system. But, there was a caste engaged to do low skilled miscellaneous village jobs, by virtue of which it came to be relatively more populous and remained, economically, most vulnerable. Paradoxically, they constituted the interface between the village and town, which enabled them to acquire a self-identity as humans particularly during the alien rule. With nothing to lose, they therefore were the first to rebel against the caste system. There is enough evidence that the other Dalit castes also initially made common cause with this anti-caste movement. But, with the advent of parliamentary electoral politics the ruling class could easily engineer their detachment from the Dalit mainstream movement. Later, the contradiction between the middle caste hegemony and the Dalit struggle accentuated this division and put a cap on the prospects of Dalit unity.

This debacle embodied a larger debate relating to class vs. caste and the concomitant question of how to wage class struggle and also how to annihilate castes. Insofar as the working class in India collectively come from the Dalit and Shudra castes, it is important that they come together to become a class. In the same manner, the question of annihilation of castes is intimately linked to the coming together of the Dalits and lower-rung Shudra castes against the upper caste hegemony in every sphere of power. The class notion subsumes economic exploitation, which cannot be isolated from the notion of social hierarchy in the semi-feudal setting of Indian villages, and is thus essentially intertwined with the notion of caste. But the protagonists of class comprehended it in a restrictive manner and hence failed to tackle caste, which was the tangible and lived reality of the Indian proletariat. They were inevitably led to ignore it till they were compelled to acknowledge its existence by continual blows from concrete reality. It is to be said to the credit of Phule and Ambedkar that they unmistakably understood the crux of the problem, when they took up caste as a comprehensive exploitation-category for their movements and put forth a native agenda for democratisation of Indian society.

Unfortunately, this essentially anti-class, anti-caste agenda got juxtaposed against the class agenda of the communists and unleashed a sterile debate, which refuses to die even today. Caste or class, both these categories, to be workable, need to expand their boundaries to represent the current mode of exploitation in the country. This process would essentially bring out a large interface between them. This ought to happen however through the medium of concrete struggle based on caste or class-consciousness and not through any wishful amalgamation of caste and class conceived in the brains of some intellectual.

Insofar as the Shudra castes largely represent the class of have-nots together with the Dalit castes, and simultaneously functions as the nearest representative of Brahminism and also as the exploiting class, the need to apply a class filter to it cannot be overemphasised. The same principle is applicable to Dalits insofar as there is an evidence of class formation among them. It therefore needs to be understood that mere caste identity is not only going to be inadequate but is also going to prove dysfunctional. The usage of the caste idiom may bring in temporary electoral gains to the parliamentary players but it can never bring the real social change desired by the revolutionists. The prerequisite for this to happen is both, a strong Dalit movement which while fighting the remnant Brahminism is capable of orienting itself as a class assimilating the toiling masses from all the other castes, and a strong communist movement which incorporates into its class struggle the agenda of the struggles against social and cultural discrimination. The struggle shall have to be waged along both the axes of exploitation simultaneously, viz., caste and class. The Dalits as the most proletarianised people will have to be the vanguard of both these struggles.

The opposition to Brahminical Hinduism led naturally to its rejection by Dalits but not of the religion itself. On the contrary, it gave rise to the Dalit-obsession of religion that curiously refuses to wane even when the organised religions ceased to ordain social affairs as they did many years before. As we know religion is a product of particular socio-economic phase in history that served the purpose to resolve certain crises on the basis of accumulated knowledge available then. The religious resolution invariably took the form of suppression of man's desire to seek a good life by promising him a better after-life (Neusch, 1982). Marx dismissed religion outright as a vestige of superstition and a tool of social control used to enslave the masses. For Marx, religion existed not to console, but to control; it was "the opium of the people,"-a drug that dulled the will to throw off the chains of oppression. When Dalits rejected Hinduism, it might have been necessary to fill the void. But it was not necessary to fill it with some alternate organised religion. Buddhism, howsoever radical in its pristine form, came to be an organised religion with its package of aberrations. In its pure form, it may not even qualify to be a religion but in its popular form, with its own mythology, rituals, and mumbo jumbo, it was no different from any other. The consequence of this change has been in terms disorienting the Dalit masses from the material world where their real problems are rooted.


The second factor would seem out-of-date as it relates with a specific moment in the past. However, there are a few vital questions that crop up in its conjunction that are still consequential to the discourse of revolutionary change in India and that should impel us to its discussion.


The first is about what constitutes a nation. The Dalit movement dismissed the premise of the mainstream nationalist movement that India was a nation. Ambedkar, for instance, repudiated the notion of a nation in a caste society and challenged it saying that each caste was a nation. Phule, who was Ambedkar's preceptor, had said that "unless all the people in the Balisthan (his term for India), including the Shudras, Ati-Shudras, Bhill, Koli etc. become educated and are able to think over and unite, they cannot constitute a nation." At some other place, Ambedkar observed, "I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion". He questioned," How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?" and said that "these castes were anti-national." At another occasion he had said that, "unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilise the community either for defence or for offence. You cannot build up a nation; you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole"(Khairmode, 1958). Despite these forewarnings and subsequent nationality movements bloodying the bosom of the country, the ruling classes are yet not awake to India's multi-national character. The vested interests still keep on exhorting the gullible masses to sacrifice for the non-existent nation or dismiss genuine peoples' movements calling them anti-national. Paradoxically, as they do it the nationality problem in India waxes in complexity with the accentuation of inequalities engendered by the capitalist development.

Nation, inasmuch as it is a phenomenon associated with the capitalist development, the pre-capitalist caste has to be antithetical to the concept of nation. Dalit movement by squarely posing this problem has indeed contributed to India's nation building efforts. The Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the national struggle for independence, represented the emerging Indian bourgeoisie's drive for overall political and economic control, whereas the Dalit movement under Ambedkar sought to strengthen the most disadvantaged people in the Indian society and set in the process of internal consolidation of the Indian nation.

With Ambedkar's taking upon a role of a constitution maker and a position in the Nehru cabinet, many of these lofty theoretical standpoints that could provide a framework for the Dalit movement got shifted to background. Although his commitment to his people - the basic propeller for these moves remained undiminished, its expression particularly with reference to the means of its fulfilment suffered from compromise. Notwithstanding his lamentations and exhortations against the post-independence political system, the emergent framework of the Dalit movement could not escape distortion in the powerful vortex of ruling class parliamentary politics. The particularity of the tactics of law-abiding posture of its early phase got universalised into the new constitutionalism that set the parameters of the Dalit movement. Ambedkar's programme for annihilation of caste system thus was completely way laid by the ruling class.

In the context of nation, the question here is what should be the relationship between the Dalit and nationality movements. The nationality struggles invariably land up using certain primordial identities in their anxiety to secure themselves uniqueness but are essentially underscored by the exploitations experienced by a set of people. As Ambedkar argued, Dalit struggle has the characteristics of a nationality struggle. It thus gets linked to the struggles of all the oppressed nationalities the world over. However, the concept of nationality is prone to be abused by a section of ruling classes to settle scores against another and hence warrants a critical examination of the underlying issues and the forces driving it. The alliance of Dalit movement with the genuine struggles of other oppressed nationalities will have a congenial acculturation impact and strengthen the Dalit movement.


The second question is about the struggle against the British imperialism. It is a common feature of anti-caste movements that they did not support the freedom movements and to some extent saw the colonial rule in congenial terms vis-à-vis their objectives of eliminating caste disability and gaining a due share of power. It is a fact that the Dalits and the downtrodden castes had certainly favoured the alien rule to the oppressive Brahmin rule even before they expected anything positive from the former. In most of the decisive battles that established British colonialism in the country, Dalit soldiers had played a heroic role. It is said that while the Brahmins mourned the fall of Peshawa in Koregaon battle, all others celebrated the event as their liberation by distributing sweets all over Pune. It was the spontaneous revelry of the oppressed over the downfall of the oppressor. The British did many positive things: foremost, they admitted Dalits into their army, they made them compulsorily educated, they introduced a modern legal system, which at least in principle disowned caste as the basis for law; they opened up new employment opportunities for the 'Untochables' in the European families, in mills and factories, in the railway and in shipping; and later they introduced political reservation for them. All this opened a new chapter in the lives of the 'Untouchables' (Ellinwood 1978; Galanter 1972; Kananaikil 1981). Phule summarised these sentiments when he said, "We would be grateful to the Britishers because they did not honour the laws of Manu" (Keer, 1965)

It was not for any love for Dalits that the colonial rulers did favourable things to them. Most of it sprang from their strategic imperative and somewhat from a sense of superiority as victors. They did not hesitate reverting them when these reforms proved an impediment in their colonial interests. As for the anti-caste movements, it would be wrong to say that they were for the continuance of colonial rule. Even Phule who otherwise showered so much praise over the British rulers for having introduced elements of modernity and rule of justice in utter disregard to the demonic caste code of Manu, did not hesitate to highlight the fact that not enough was being done for the have-nots under the colonial rule. They were aware of the limitation of the alien rule. Ambedkar had squarely exposed the exploitative character of the colonial rule not only in his scholarly treatises but also in public. For instance, once he said to Dalits, " cannot sit singing the praises of the British bureaucracy for simply giving us improved roads, improved canals, railways, stable administration and new ideas of geography or for stopping internal wars….. I would be the first to agree that the praise given to the British would vanish once we turned our attention to the forcible extraction of profit by big capitalists and landlords from the poor working people of this country…"(Ambedkar 1930). At other time he perceptively said, "we must have a Government in which men in power, knowing where obedience will end and resistance will begin, will not be afraid to amend the social and economic code of life which the dictates of justice and expediency so urgently calls for. This role, the British Government will never be able to play". (Kshirsagar, 1992).

Thus, although the anti-caste movement in general and Dalit movement in particular acknowledged the positive aspects of colonial rule and tactically sought to make use of their contradiction with the bourgeoisie nationalists to exert pressure on the latter to agree for desired reforms and devolution of power to the lower castes, it never was so overwhelmed as not to see its long term interests lying in the demise of alien rule.

Today the menace of imperialism has engulfed the entire world through its credo of globalisation, which is being promoted through its agencies like the IMF and the World Bank. The underlying economic philosophy of these programmes is to rely more on market forces, dismantle controls, reduce the role of State, liberalise prices, and replace the public with private sector. It is going to mean privatisation of government-owned entities, doing away with superfluous labour force, structural changes in the economy aimed at export-led growth, free entry of foreign capital and technology without any let, hindrance or conditions, free entry and exit of foreign firms including financial and services industries, free cross border movement of capital and other funds, legislative safeguards for protection of intellectual property rights, creation of legal climate for enforcement of legal contracts, private property rights; and free entry and exit of business, industrial and financial firms and curbing of peoples' rights to organise and resist. The experience with this package all over the globe is uniformly anti-people and directly proportional to the degree of their marginalisation. Dalits being the most marginalised people in India, their movement ought to have been concerned with these policies. While accepting the proven fact that globalisation hits poor people the hardest, some intellectuals expect that it might do good in terms of removal of social disability of Dalits. The argument though not entirely misfounded, betrays inadequate learning from the experience with the capitalist operations of over a century in this country. As capitalism has made skilful use of caste, globalisation, which is essentially capitalism in the era of information and communication technology, is not going to impact it positively. Rather, in the wake of the increasing hardship of the general mass of people through declining jobs, rising inflation, teasing consumerism, reducing public services and cruel competition, caste, as a divisive instrument, will come in handy for the ruling classes to contain the people's ire. Of particular relevance to Dalits are certain implications of these policies of the free market.

One, the competitive advantage based investment would drive the corporatisation of agriculture and agri-business. The resultant consolidation of farms by the big agro-MNCs to have economies of scale is going to spell doom for the hopes of land reform. In so far the caste question is linked to this material key; it impels one to rethink the consequences. Two, the privatisation of the public sector and reduction of government jobs through the minimalist State that globalisation envisages, will directly hit the job-prospects of Dalits. Even the premature free market ethos unleashed by these policies and so enthusiastically upheld by the high caste bureaucracy, has already impacted Dalit interests adversely. It has many negative implications in terms of exploitation of Dalit women, Dalit culture and most importantly their hopes to struggle out their own emancipation. Dalit movement will have to understand the yawning contradiction between them and the imperialist agenda and devise strategies to counter it in their movement.


The third question that could be discerned from this moment is about the attitude of the Dalit movement towards the State. The Dalit movement reflects distinctly an attitude of one who looks at the State as an impartial, sans caste and class arbiter in the quarrel of classes and castes. Some times, the State is seen as the one genuinely interested in the welfare of downtrodden masses; a benevolent entity. This pro-State attitude could be understood when we see that the very birth of the Dalit movement was attributable to the factors provided by the State. Unless the colonial State had not brought in the western legal framework that treated all Indians equally and had offered certain opportunities of employment and education given to Dalits, the Dalit movement could not have been possible. The Colonial State comes out to be the basic enabler and catalyst of the Dalit movement. One of the first struggles that were launched at Mahad for reclaiming Dalit rights to access the public tank was basically to restore the writ of the State. Even later struggles cared not to violate the legal framework and thus tacitly expected the support of the State.

While contending with the hegemony of the nationalist movement under the nationalist bourgeoisie and while opposing the hegemony of Brahminism, the Dalit movement had essentially to take stock of its resources and opportunities held out by circumstances. In the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar categorically explains his strategic calculation that he could not fight the formidable enemy with his meagre resources on several fronts. He exhorted his people not to violate the law and incur the wrath of the State. As a matter of fact it was the State that had provided them the space to basically raise the issue of violation of their human rights. Their battles were essentially formulated on the strength of the State provision, the strategy being to use the existing law to assert the Dalit rights and expand the former to support the new ones.

Later, with the political reforms the Dalit movement forsook mass struggles and adopted the electoral path to secure political power. Political power was rightly seen as the key to all the problems. However, the concept of political power was acutely constrained by the framework laid down by the State. It was a well thought out strategy, to use the alien State as the bulwark to secure gains for Dalits from the competing camps. But the fact remains that the liberal democratic thought driving the contemporary Dalit movement did neither have any significant variant of this strategy nor any alternate concept of political power in its repertoire. As a result, the Dalit movement, which was conscious of its compulsions during the early days, got stuck in the traps laid out by the ruling classes. It forgot the transition from the colonial rule to the rule of native bourgeois landlord combine in 1947. In its fight for equality, reliance on colonial State as an arbiter could be a strategic decision, but when this State itself represents the adversary power, the continuance of the same behaviour is not only indefensible but also grossly self-defeating.

The Dalit movement linked the concept of State power with its claim of equality. The gamut of reservations basically sprang from this. If Dalits are represented in various parts of State machinery in the ratio of their population then it is assumed that due share of power is enjoyed by Dalits. The flaw in this schema is on account of the State character. The State irrespective of whether it is a welfare State or any other kind of State, admittedly is a coercive organ of the ruling class against the ruled ones. If therefore the ruled classes opted to be the part of such an organ voluntarily, it has to be beneficial to the latter. Generally, when it is difficult to win over an adversarial class in direct confrontation, the ruling class always adopts the strategy of co-opting. It very well knows that the co-opted minority would be submerged by its majority. In simple language, it is a pure bribe to buy-in an opponent. The Dalit strategy of becoming a part of this exploitative mechanism out of their volition in ultimate analysis thus serves the ruling class interest.

There is no denying the fact that following the strategy of sharing State power in the prevailing circumstances certainly brought significant gains to Dalits. Through the mechanism of reservations in education, employment and politics, many Dalits are catapulted to positions which otherwise would have been unthinkable to them. But the buy-ins are always associated with gains. The truth cannot be denied that this process, instead of strengthening Dalits, has emasculated them politically and caused the creation of a separate class of beneficiaries from amongst them, which if at all, had a very tenuous linkage with the Dalit masses. This class has completely distorted the ideology of Dalit liberation. Dalits as the native proletarian class cannot be liberated by sops granted in a prison. Their liberation is only conceivable in dynamiting this prison and constructing a new shelter in its place as per their own desire.

The profile of a Dalit notwithstanding the changes that has befallen to some due to the post-independence buy-ins is that of an illiterate, half-fed landless labourer utterly dependent upon his high caste patron who is constantly preyed upon by all kinds of vultures. He is the victim of a complex system evolved over several millennia. The Dalit movement may well have taken a tactical approach to make use of the State but they all should be dovetailed to serve its long-term strategy to destroy it and install a Dalit-worker State in its place.


The third factor is about its unsatisfactory relation with the communist movement. This factor will stand as the single most unfortunate paradox of contemporary Indian history. It stemmed from, not so much the ideological differences, which certainly existed in the form of certain unclear theoretical constructs in the mind of Ambedkar - the one who shaped the Dalit movement - as from the attitudes of the communist leaders towards the Dalit movement. These leaders working in Bombay in the Trade Unions dogmatically regarded the caste question as an unimportant superstructural issue, which would automatically disappear when the revolution takes place. The Dalit movement put the question on its head and asked that with the castes intact how would the revolution itself take place. The trade unions (Tus) under these communist leaders were tight-lipped on the discrimination faced by Dalits in not getting jobs in better remunerative departments like weaving in textile mills. The economic condition of Dalits was much worse than their savarna counterparts. Ambedkar observed that the communists used these TUs for their political gains rather than for the welfare of the working class. Whenever they took precipitate action to strike work, the workers tended to suffer differentially, owing to their caste-wise placements.

Ambedkar's objection to this 'irresponsible' TU behaviour was on two counts: (i) they were driven by raw 'economism' to the detriment of prospects of enhancing the political consciousness of the working class, (ii) they were using the working class as cannon fodder in the promotion of their political interests. Ambedkar's writing on communism or Marxism is heavily imbued with his annoyance with the Bombay-Communists. This legacy to identify Marxism with its self-appointed practitioners still appears to be followed by Dalits. They cite examples of the parliamentary communist parties to show the lacuna or inapplicability of Marxism. It is necessary for them to understand that Marxism intrinsically solicits criticism but it presupposes its careful study.

Much of the misunderstanding got reinforced during the course of the petit bourgeoisisation of the Dalit movement. The vested interests used the stray quotations of Ambedkar to denigrate communism. It was a deliberate distortion. For, although Ambedkar could not discuss the philosophy of communism in the manner it deserved, he was never antagonistically disposed towards it. Rather, he acknowledged the beauty of communist philosophy and said that it was closer to his own. Preoccupied with the mission of liberating the Dalits, he insisted, quite like Marx, that the test of the philosophy was in practice, and opined that if communists worked from that perspective, to win success in India would be far easier than in Russia (Janata, 15 January, 1938). He always regarded it (communism) as the ultimate benchmark to assess his highest ideal - Buddhism. With bitter experience with communist dogma and vulgarity of his times, he did sound polemically against Communism and appeared at times even professing its doom but it all underscored his wrath against the dogma that occupied the communist practice. After the collapse of communism in erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, the anti-communism argument is gleefully put by certain people to claim Ambedkar right. Indeed, he was right but the kind of attitude embedded in this glee is totally unfortunate. It not only reflects their ignorance of both communism and Ambedkar but also and more importantly, alienates Dalits from the ideology that is specifically dedicated to have-nots of the world. Dalit movement will have to revise its position vis-à-vis its most potential ally.


The Dalit movement has to revisit its stand on the issues of State, Religion, other modes of exploitation and culture. It needs to restate its objective in clearer terms, whether it aims at establishing a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity or at just reversing the sides in the equation of exploitation. It will have to rethink about its friends and foes in this context. The era of globalisation increasingly demands clearer stands by various classes of people. It already appears sans its vitality and badly stagnated in the past. Its consequent degeneration has already hit the Dalit masses. It needs serious self-criticism.

While there is a need for ruthless self-criticism in the Dalit movement along the above lines it should not mean denying its positive aspects. There are many of them: it implanted positive values of liberty, equality and fraternity; it promoted political consciousness to struggle against exploitation and injustice; it declared its allegiance to scientific rationalism and opposition to humbug of any kind. In terms of its gains, it has created significant resource base for itself in terms of education, organisational experience, and experience of working with the apparatus of its adversary. It is no mean an achievement to have secured this wherewithal in a short time. What is saddening is that it appears to be rapidly losing its grip over these gains and is straying into the channels created by the enemy. It could not consolidate its gains and hold together its constituents to work in a coordinated fashion for its long-term goal. This is possible only if it liberates itself from the grip of petty bourgeois hegemony and orients itself to serve the Dalit masses. The rhetorical aspects of such statements can be easily overcome by establishing certain ground rules, such as fixing priorities as per their salience to the majority Dalit masses; creating the structural space for their participation in decision making; promoting revolutionary culture among them, establishing values of struggle against any act of injustice, and anchoring the vision at achieving liberation of mankind to counter intrusion of any parochial tendencies. It certainly means a complete overhaul of itself. The consciousness and attitude of Dalit movements appears to have been frozen at its birth. It needs to recognise that the post-independence reality presents a far intricate complexity than in the colonial times.


Aiyappan, A., Social Revolution in a Kerala Village, Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 1965. Ambedkar, B. R., Speech for the Depressed Classes Conference, Nagpur, 1930, in M. F. Ganjare (ed.), Babasaheb Ambedkaranchi Bhashane, Khand 2, Nagpur, Ashok Prakashan, 1974, pp. 78-80.
Das, Bhagwan, Untouchability, Scheduled Castes and Nation Building in Jose Kananaikil, (Ed.) Scheduled Caste and Struggle Against Inequality- Strategies to Empower the Marginalised, New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1983.
Galanter, Marc, 'Untouchability and the Law', in Michael Mahar (Ed.), The Untouchables in Contemporary India, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1972, pp 226-314.
Hardgrave, Robert L. Jr., The Nadars of Tamilnadu, Berkeley University of California, 1969.
Kananaikil, Jose, Marginalisation of the Scheduled Castes: A Sociological Interpretation, in Jose Kananaikil, (Ed.) Scheduled Caste and Struggle Against Inequality- Strategies to Empower the Marginalised, New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1983, pp. 52-53.
Keer, Dhananjay, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1965, p. 227.
Khairmode, C.B., Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar Charitra, Vol. II, Bauddha Jan Panchayat, Parel, Bombay, 1958, p. 106.
Kshirsagar, R.K., Political Thought of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Intellectual Publishing House, New Delhi. 1992, p.24.
Neusch, Marcel, The Sources of Modern Atheism, Ramsey, N.J., Paulist Press, 1982, pp. 62-63.
Omvedt, Gail, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, Sage publications, New Delhi, 1994, p.338.
Russel,R.V. and Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, London, Macmillan, 1916.
Samuel, V.T., One Caste, One Religion and One God for Man: A Study of Sree Narayana Guru (1854-1928) of Kerala, India, Connecticut, Hartford 1973.
Thomas, M.M. and R.W. Taylor eds., Tribal Awakening, Bangalore Christian Institute for Study of Religion and Society, 1965.
Zelliot, Eleanor, Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement' Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1969.

Dr. Anand Teltumbde

A keen student of the peoples' emancipatory struggles; association with and participation in various movements connected with students, slum dwellers, human rights etc. His thoughtful analyses of various social issues exude high level of commitment to the cause of disadvantaged people. His recent publication include a book in Marathi- 'Arthik Sudhar ani Dalit Shyoshit', a monograph 'Impact of New Economic Reforms on Dalits in India' and a book - ''Ambedkar' in and for the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement' in English as well as in translations. A Mechanical Engineer by profession, he has postgraduate degree in management from IIM, Ahmedabad, and Ph. D. in Management from University of Bombay. Has participated and presented/ published research papers in many prestigious international conferences and journals. He is on the advisory / editorial boards of many international journals.


Send e-mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
No Copyright © 2000 dalit e-forum Last modified: April 10, 2000