The Crisis And Challenge Of Dalit-Bahujans
By Braj Ranjan Mani
17 December, 2013
There is no competing cultural vision from below for the mind and heart of India. Dalit-bahujans are still absent in the contest of ideas, policies and visions—the fundamentals on which democratic competition takes place. This paralysis of the mind is linked to their systemic cultural, intellectual and spiritual destruction. Without reference to history one cannot find even poor answers to the complex problems that keep them divided and demoralized, but the corruption and capitulation of the current dalit-OBC leadership has also aggravated the crisis. There is a burning need to renew and reconstruct an ideology—attempted in the past by Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar—that can pave the way to a broad-based unity for social reconstruction.
Constancy of change is the basic principle of life. Heraclitus made the illusion of permanence clear in the sixth century bce, and a little later Buddha articulated the same in his theory of dependent origin. As ‘everything changes but change itself', it is not surprising that social change is the central tendency in human societies. But the direction of change is largely determined by aspirations and visions of change agents. This implies that things can change a great deal, and yet the social order can remain more or less the same, since the people in the vanguard of change have a vested interest to retain the established hierarchy. Thus, there is a crucial difference between change and social change, development and social development.
Development and Social Development Are Not the Same Thing
While development is a necessary condition of social development, the latter involves the specific direction of development that can ensure larger social justice. Symbolically speaking, development can take a handful of people to the moon—it can produce billionaires like the Ambanis and Mittals with their private planes and palaces while the many remain hungry and homeless—but social development takes place through active participation and conscious choice of majority of citizens. Based on people's voice and choice, social development is co-terminus with uplifting the society as a whole, especially the disadvantaged who have been left behind or kept suppressed, historically and culturally.
In other words, development is value-free, while social development is value-loaded and value-driven. Social development cannot take place unless inclusive values and visions become the driving force of polity and society. That is why, when we talk of material and economic development, we should ask first who are at the centre of change, and what are their values and visions. For, development does not bring development in a similar way to everyone—many are left behind or hardly affected or even turned into victims of development.
Unfortunately, the chosen few who have ruled India since Independence under the benign banner of democracy have by and large concentrated on development, and not social development. As Meghnad Desai candidly stated recently, ‘The Indian State can deliver a nuclear bomb and launch satellites but not universal primary education and decent public health. This is not an accident. It is a choice made by the elite who have been in power for 60 years and reflects their values.' I am quoting Desai since similar plain speaking by any dalit-bahujan scholar is simply ignored or dismissed by the caste elites as ‘sectarian'.
… Indian society lacks a very basic element, which is present in most societies. This is the equality of respect, the basic idea that all human beings have equal status. Hindu society is caste society and caste denies the simple idea of status equality. In class societies, there is inequality of income and wealth but once feudalism disappeared, there was no status inequality. In the US, race was central to the denial of status equality, but that was fixed by the struggle for civil rights. India has adopted the political equality of ‘one adult one vote'. But in social terms, caste inequalities add to class inequalities. The Indian State has been mainly manned by upper-caste elites and they do not consider the lower orders deserving of education and health. (Meghnad Desai, ‘The Hindu Rate of Backwardness', The Indian Express , 28 July 2013).
Desai also stresses quite rightly that the Indian state has failed to deliver basic things like health and education not just during for the past 20 years since the liberalization, but even during the ‘halcyon days of Nehru-Gandhi socialism'. ‘Indian progressives love to talk about socialism but what they mean by it is very different from what it means in the West. Western socialism used the State to help poor masses. Indian socialists used the state to project elite power' (ibid.).
As I have underlined elsewhere, Pandit Nehru espoused socialist rhetoric but allowed the dominant groups to appropriate the developmental state, industrialization and public institutions. The investment priorities of the successive Five Years Plans under Nehru and his successors were enormously biased in favour of upper castes. A nexus of brahmanic-feudal-bureaucratic influence reinforced the hold of the traditional power structure through manipulations of the newly introduced participatory democracy. During the ‘socialist' development, the focus was not on mass education and mass health but on building big dams and steel mines and machines to build machines that catered to the needs of special interests and big business. Private interests thus benefitted the most from the public sector. In the realm of higher education, state-funded universities, institutions, and the centres of excellence like Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management were turned into new fiefdoms of the privileged. By and large, these institutions educated the elites on government subsidies, equipping them with the intellectual capital that they were to use in the age of privatization that began in the early1990s with the economic liberalization. Now, the same elements that reaped the most from Nehru-Gandhi's state socialism are blaming the ‘socialist era' for India's backwardness and pushing for the aggressive privatization of everything (from natural resources to education) as a panacea for mass illiteracy, mass hunger and all other problems afflicting India.
We see the ruling set making a song and dance about the market and technology as a great liberating force for everyone. The reality is, no technology or economics can empower the suppressed in a hierarchical society unless they are driven by the ethics of inclusiveness as the measure of human progress. Social development can only be ensured by the political and philosophical task of evolving an inclusive vision—and making them a lived reality through inclusive institutions. As Ambedkar pointed out, ‘History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.' This insight—that real transformation does not come without a decisive struggle between the privileged and commoners—has been validated by a new global research on power, poverty and prosperity.
Inclusive economic and political institutions do not emerge by themselves. They are often the outcome of significant conflict between elites resisting economic growth and political change and those wishing to limit the economic and political power of existing elites. Inclusive institutions emerge during critical junctures, …when a series of factors weaken the hold of the elites in power, make their opponent stronger, and create incentives for the formation of a pluralistic society. (D. Acemoglu and J. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty , 2012)
No Competing Indian Vision from Below
The tragedy of India is, despite all the changes, the upper-caste elites remain the norm-setting groups (by virtue of being highly educated, highly manipulative, highly rewarded) and the majority of Indians—dalit-adivasis, OBCs and Muslims—still face many kinds of overt or covert deprivation, disadvantage and exclusion. Reservations, subsidies, grants, cultural tokenism, and the rhetoric of democracy and justice notwithstanding, the basic economics and politics of caste remain intact. (For a comprehensive illustration of this point, see Chapter 2—‘Understanding the Modernization of Oppressive Tradition'—of my new work Knowledge and Power. ) Though the castes are increasingly getting separated from their former assigned tasks, the link between privilege and high caste status remains strong. And so remains the relation between low caste status and assignment of most laborious and non-intellectual tasks. In its contemporary reinvented forms (which may not be often easily visible), caste retains its sinister salience in the new India, making a mockery of its democracy. As Perry Anderson ( The Indian Ideology , 2012) has brilliantly pointed out, the role of caste in democratic politics has changed, yet ‘what would not change [is] its structural significance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy'.
The most demoralizing thing is: the dalit-bahujans, despite a longstanding struggle against their social degradation, have not been able to construct a unified vision (due to several external compulsions as well as their own contradictions and capitulations) that can bring about a significant turnaround in the near future.
The three mainstream or competing national visions about (the past and future of) India are essentially elitist—envisioned by the upper-caste minds. The first is cultural pluralism ( unity-in-diversity ) represented by the Congress. Hidden behind this show of multiculturalism, the Congress promotes an idea of India in which the brahmanic core of caste culture and tradition forms the centre around which the diversities of castes, ethnicities and religions are accommodated. The second idea of India is cultural nationalism constructed around Hinduism or Hindutva—represented by the BJP-RSS. Hindutva is nothing but a code name of militant brahmanism: its valorization of Veda-Purana and Varnashrama Dharma and its pretence of ‘Hindu unity' against ‘alien' Muslims and Christians are basically oriented to keep the dalit-bahujans in traditional subjugation. (For illustration of these points, see my Debrahmanising History .) The third ideological-political formation—not as powerful as the first two, and confined to specific regions and states—is represented by the fragmented communist, socialist and regional parties, and can be termed cultural federalism. This is an ideology of seeing the Indian nation a confederation of various ethnicities, languages and subcultures. More liberal and open-ended than the first two, it lays stress on decentralization and federalism as a necessary condition for national unity.
Political parties dominated by the dalit-adivasis and OBCs—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, and so forth—neither have a coherent cultural – national formulation nor an all-India presence; willy-nilly, they follow one of the three dominant formations. We may quibble on this or that, but the stark reality is: dalit-bahujans do not as yet have a competing national vision for the future of India.
It has been correctly observed that Congress is not a party but a system (we should be grateful to Rajni Kothari for this insight); and that whichever party comes to power looks like Congress. Indeed, if we see closely, the BJP, sans its Muslim-phobia, looks like the B-team of Congress, and vice versa. Between them, they have developed a communal – secular discourse that subsumes all national space, eliding or evading real issues concerning education, health and empowerment of the vast majority. Within this binary opposition, all other sources of conflicts, contradictions and social inequalities are glossed over, and the perspective of dalit-bahujans (represented in the ideas of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar) given a quiet burial. As both (the Congress and BJP-RSS) share an innate hostility to the Phule-Ambedkarite visions of politics, culture, and a casteless reconstruction, the Congress' brand of secularism (which is little more than a façade for the soft brahmanism) never fails to foster the invidious Hindutva of the RSS-BJP. (The Congress opens the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid-Ramjanma Bhumi and the BJP demolishes the mosque; the Congress butchers the Sikhs in Delhi and the BJP organizes the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat; one exalts the Gandhian Hinduism and the other swears by the Savarkarite Hindutva.) Beyond the secular – communal quibbling, there is no genuine policy competitiveness between them: both stand by the status quo of polity and the privatization – corporatization of economy. This ‘national politics' serves the entrenched upper-caste interests very well as it keeps hidden their politics of discrimination in every institution and structure like governance and administration, legal and judicial system, political economy and infrastructure, management of natural resources, education and culture, thereby denying life with dignity to the majority of Indians.
The point is, the non-emergence of a viable dalit-bahujan vision for social reconstruction is one of the main reasons for India's huge democratic deficit. Earlier, Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar dared to construct a dalit-bahujan ideology for egalitarian change. But that could not evolve due to various reasons, including the crucial contradictions of castes and regions, into a unified all-India ideology. One can surmise this in the Gramscian terms thus: Dominance through political – moral leadership of the traditionally privileged castes from Ram Mohun Roy and Dayananda – Vivekananda to Gandhi – Nehru became after Independence almost hegemonic through the state power and procedural democracy. Resistance from below represented by the likes of Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar—through war of positions and movements against the upper castes as the primary source of injustice and exploitation—could not evolve into a revolution or counter-hegemony.
‘Cultural nationalism' forged in resistance to British rule gave the upper castes a unique opportunity to present their petty interest as national interest. Hidden behind the deceptive labels of traditional Hinduism or modern secularism, the new brahmanism was equated with nationalism and the shaper of Indian unity. Thus, a brahmanic-bourgeois cultural revolution accompanied the freedom that came in 1947, though the mainstream social science keeps this aspect hidden by keeping the focus exclusively on the external—colonial—sources of oppression.
The Betrayal by the Dalit-OBC leadership
After Independence, the Congress reigned supreme and the social justice movement of dalits and OBCs revolved around reservation and electoral politics. At the best, the politics of dalit-bahujans remained tethered to group representation, not structural transformation. Despite the anti-caste rhetoric and name-dropping of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar, their social radicalism and passion for cultural transformation were seldom renewed or pursued. ‘Empowerment' took place in the mould of Sanskritization or Gandhianization at the cost of broader alliances, ideological as well as organizational. Despite the felt need for transcending divisiveness, inherent as well as promoted (by the Congress, BJP and other brahmanic parties), the dalit-bahujan leadership could not thwart the upper-caste designs (through promoting sectarian interests and attitudes) to sow and strengthen the seeds of discord so that the possibility of larger unity got destroyed. Social mobility, economic uplift, and political empowerment of a section of dalit-bahujans took place without threatening the existing hierarchies—as the fundamentals (the kernel of the caste system that reproduces hierarchies) were left intact.
The dalit-bahujan assertion in 1990s, especially in the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, soon lost its steam. The leaders who rose on the crest of reservation politics were not interested in changing the established order but anyhow clinging to their newfound power and pelf. Their politics did not attack the hierarchical order but merely caused a shift in status and privileges. This empty struggle against caste allowed the upper castes to retain, even strengthen, their dominance in the changed socio-political set-up in the wake of liberalization and privatization with the charade of ‘deepening democracy' and economic trickle-down.
Contrary to the popular notion of ‘democratic upsurge' of the marginalized majority, the fundamental objective of dismantling the caste system (that earlier animated dalit-bahujan movements)—was ‘given up in the wake of the crumbs dropped to them in the form of material benefits.' As T. K. Oommen has pointed out in a recent article, ‘While this certainly did facilitate limited upward mobility in the secular context, the status system anchored in the iron law of the ritual hierarchy remains intact even now. Unless this is interrogated and smashed the ultimate emancipation of dalit-bahujans will remain aborted.'
This is the crux of the matter. Hindu society, as we saw earlier, is a caste society and caste denies the idea of status equality. Moreover, caste is a system of graded inequality (not just inequality) and exploitation. Many castes among a single class (occupying a similar position within the division of labour) fragment and divide that class, making unity impossible. Graded hierarchy and graded exploitation embody a built-in mechanism, which guarantees the perpetuation of the social system and prevent the rise of united discontent against discrimination of caste and class. Thus, the most glaring contradiction of dalit-bahujans is the same thing that they share—caste-class discrimination is also the thing that divides them.
As there are important and rampant contradictions even among the subjugated castes, especially between dalits and OBCs, the lowered castes have to honestly recognize and resolve them. In this the lead for reconciliation and unity for a joint struggle must come from castes higher in hierarchy; thus, the OBCs must reach out to dalit and more exploited castes and communities. But most of OBC politicians, obsessed as they are with petty power politics, don't want to grasp the complexity and contradictions of caste, let alone resolve them. They do not even have the vocabulary to reach out to more suppressed communities.
On the whole, the OBC politicians have shown little imaginative commitment to egalitarianism and democracy in the sense of making society more just and sharing dignity and power with dalits, adivasis and Muslim masses. The dalit politicians hardly fare better. The pitfalls of blind identity politics, competitive indulgence in corruption, and bitter fragmentations along caste-subcaste lines among the dalit-OBC parties are now out in the open. The SP-BSP bitter parting of ways, Kanimozhi-Laloo's imprisonment in the corruption cases, and the shameless silence of entire dalit-bahujan leadership over the acquittal of all the accused of Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre (in which 61 dalit-subalterns were brutally killed by the upper-caste goons), to take just three telling examples, make this abundantly clear.
The urban middle class (which consists mainly of upper castes) often accuses dalit-OBC politicians of perpetuating caste-based politics. But what hides and festers behind the caste politics is little more than amoral familism —treating the family as the only realm of trust and empowerment: concentrating and centralizing all power in the family. Karunanidhi, Mulayam, Laloo, and Ramvilas Paswan do not trust their own caste people, let alone the larger communities of OBCs or dalits; they do not trust anyone beyond a tight family circle. (When Laloo was implicated in the fodder scam and had to resign as the chief minister of Bihar, he did not bring in any OBC or even a fellow Yadav stalwart, let alone an able Muslim or a dalit leader, to succeed him, he brought in his apolitical, semi-literate wife and gave her the ‘throne'. But why blame only the ‘clowning glory of Bihar'? Are the sinister dynastic sagas of Mulayam, Karunanidhi and Paswan any less disgusting?) Their venal power politics, ideological bankruptcy, and a complete lack of empathy for the suffering dalit-bahujans now stand thoroughly exposed. It is these gentlemen (and their counterparts everywhere) who have given national politics on a platter to the Congress and BJP which represent two sides of the brahmanical politics at the highest level. Denial of all this and defence of their perfidious politics profit no one except the most corrupt and the most compromised.
The upshot of all this is: dalit-bahujans are still absent in the contest of ideas, policies and visions—the fundamentals on which democratic competition takes place. There is no intellectual-political framework in sight within which dalit-bahujans can come together. The project of critiquing and dismantling the caste system—started by Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar—has practically been given up for crumbs from the state and its institutions. There is no serious engagement with the new matrix and mechanism of dominance in the wake of massive material-technological changes brought by modernization, urbanization and marketization. There is no attempt to create a new political imaginary that can challenge the seductive myths of meritocracy, equal opportunity, and upward mobility. As a political critic underlined recently, the bijali-sadak-pani discourse—lauded in the media as an antidote to the regressive caste politics—entirely elides the issues of larger policy or perspective. Similarly, in this age of privatization, obsession with some rag-tag welfarism, narrow reservationism, and cultural tokenism is proving counter-productive. The extremely unrepresentative character of judiciary, bureaucracy, the army, the media and academia continues. Affirmative action in private sector remains a pipe dream. In the realm of education, its increasing privatization and commercialization are reinforcing a new caste-class system, whose worst victims are none other than the dalit-bahujans.
Imperative of fresh cultural – political imaginary
Summarizing, there have been ideas and movements in history from the days of Buddha to our own to cast away the chains of subjugation (which has resulted in some social mobility and changes), but the subjugation—multiple and cumulative, hidden or reflected in the contemporary surveys and statistics—remains. Unless the dalit-adivasis and OBCs grasp the reasons behind this—especially the bi-dimensional (secular as well as religious, and thus all-pervasive) nature of Indian status system anchored in the graded caste hierarchy and its nexus with gender hierarchy and other forms of inequality such as class which divide them from within and from other marginalized communities—and interrogate the entire system from a liberating perspective, they cannot forge an effective ideology and struggle for an exploitation-free society.
Arguably, the greatest obstacle in the understanding of systemic domination and reproduction of caste and class, despite the incendiary role of some dalit-bahujan minds, is the lack of critical education among the disadvantaged majority, and their continued and near-total absence from the process of production and dissemination of knowledge. The roots of cumulative dominance and cumulative demoralization can be traced to the historical exclusion of the shudra and atishudra castes from receiving any education and its manifold consequences. We cannot grasp the paralysis of the mind of dalit-bahujans without grasping their systemic cultural, social, intellectual and spiritual destruction under the system of caste and untouchability. Without reference to history we cannot find even poor answers to the extremely complex problems we face today. A cutting-edge understanding of the larger dominant paradigm—the long-standing political and intellectual dominance of caste and its consequences—remains the challenge. This cannot be done without overcoming the internalization of caste values and the closed mindset of the dalit-bahujans, especially the OBCs. The imperative to be clear about the dalit-bahujan fundamentals and priorities of politics cannot be overstressed. There is a burning need to renew and reconstruct a dalit-bahujan ideology—nurtured in the earlier era by the likes of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar—that can pave the way to a broad-based unity for social reconstruction.
Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History: Dominance and Resistance in Indian Society (2005). Manohar has recently published Mani's important new work Knowledge and Power: A Discourse for Transformation .
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