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Caste And Democracy In India

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

13 June, 2009

At the outset of my presentation, I would like to congratulate International Humanist and Ethical Union and fellow humanists for taking initiative to address the issue of untouchability from a non religious view point.

I always believed that the emancipation and liberation of humanity is not in the so-called liberation theologies but liberation of minds of human being. When we talk about India and see its diversity, we will find that most of the revolt movements in India spoke against the hegemony of a particular caste and the systematization of rituals and imposition of farcical values in the name of divinity.

India became a nation under the British regime. 400 years of Mughal rule and then British Raj, brought a lot of changes in India, whether administrative reforms or institutionalization of democratic process yet one thing that remained unchanged was the caste discrimination. Prior to British, the stream of Sufi saints rejected the brahmanical system and injustice meted to Dalits but their focus was more making people aware of themselves and tried to take shelter in a seemingly egalitarian religion by terming God does not discriminate, he is one and omnipresent and omnipotent.

But the real changes came when in the 19th century, when the approach of the leaders of deprived castes became not only of a of a revolt against the values and thoughts imposed by the High Caste Hindus led by the Brahmins but an assertion in the belief of modernity which resulted in the democratization process in Europe, United States as well as Eastern European Countries, which many of you might not like at the moment.

Democracy is essentially a practice of alliance building. And the first such grand alliance of farmers, marginalized communities and the deprived communities was forged by Jyoti Ba Phule, as he termed these communities as ‘Bahujan’ and felt that those ruling India were really minorities leaders of the high caste Hindus.

But Dr Ambedkar who got educated in United States, UK and Germany did not really feel the same way. His concerns were really about the constitutional provisions for the Dalits. He realized that Democracy was a broadly a majoritarian concept and cannot really be confined to electoral exercise and therefore a mere political alliance of communities which lead to political power can not be the only objective of a democratic exercise. Instead, he felt that our institutions should be strong enough to protect the constitutional provisions made for the most marginalized communities. He knew that the communities that he was leading did not understand much about discrimination and rights as it was thoroughly disempowered one. He knew that communities which remain in enslavement and hunger because of various rituals and ideologies and philosophies injected in their minds that they would not be able to understand what their rights are? Many of them still feel that what they have been doing was perfectly divine and no body has a right to stop that. The theory of karma, that what you are today because of your bad karmas in the previous birth hence to undo that one must stick to his/her duties. Ambedkar said that Karma theory did the maxmimum damage to the rights of the depressed classes most commonly known as Untouchables or Dalits.

We must not forget that Ambedkar approached the Dalits problem through a minority view point. He wanted to ensure constitutional rights so that the Dalits do not become victim of majoritarian assertion during the elections. That is why he fought for the separate electorate for them in 1932 and which was justifiably awarded by the British that time known as communal award. In all his life time, Ambedkar addressed the issue of the untouchables from the view point of a democratic polity and not just politics.

After India got independence and Ambedkar led the drafting of the Indian constitution, Dalits got 17.5% seats reserved in parliament and state assemblies. Actually Ambedkar never asked for this reservation as he feared that the leadership that would emerge after this would be serving more to the high caste Hindus who form the majority than the Dalits. And this resulted in defeat of Ambedkar in the very first election he contested from Mumbai, Maharastra as all the high caste Hindus ganged up against him and got him defeated.

Ambedkar could not live more but the Dalis became vote bank of the ruling party. Many leaders were elected and became ministers and governors and chief ministers of the state but the over all condition of the Dalits was a matter of great concern. However, there were a few symbolic exceptions which were utilized to mobilize the Dalit opinion for a particular political formation.

Let us first come to what Ambedkar said about Indian democracy in an interview to Voice of America on May 20th, 1956. He asks this question whether there is a democracy in India and he says: ‘Democracy is quite different from a Republic as well as from parliamentary Government. The roots of democracy lie not in the form of Government, Parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is more than a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between people who form a society.’

And to further his cause he points out: “The Indian society does not consist of individuals. It consists of innumerable collection of castes, which are exclusive in their life and have no common experience to share and have no bond of sympathy. The existence of caste system is a standing denial of the existence of those ideals of society and therefore of democracy. An Indian cannot eat or marry with an Indian simply because he or she does not belong to his or her caste. An Indian simply can not touch an Indian because he or she does belong to his or her caste.” Ambedkar questions the political system and how Congress party field its candidate and how they are selected carefully on the basis of their caste. Ambedkar says : “How does an Indian vote in an election? He votes for a candidate who belongs to his own caste and no other Further he considers caste system as a bane to democracy. ‘ Castes are not equal in their status. They are standing one above another. They are jealous of one another. It is an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt. The feature of caste system has most pernicious consequences. It destroys willing and helpful cooperation.”

Unfortunately, after Ambedkar death his legacy was claimed by certain leaders for their own purposes. Ambedkar ideals were kept in books and what was projected his themes and views which were suitable to various political leaders. What they failed to understand that Ambedkar grew up over a period of time and many of his views changed. If he had bitter experience on the issue of questioning the religious text with Gandhi and on the issue of empowerment of the Dalits, he joined the constitution making process to empower the community leaving his bitterness aside. Post 1940s he was more into positive action and send many Dalit scholars abroad at his own expenses.

Never in his life did Ambedkar resorted to identity of caste for political purposes. He formed Indian Labour Party. He formed Depressed classes League and he formed Republican Party of India, all showing his concerns and ideals of how he wished to fight the question of discrimination. To eradicate the caste identity of different Dalit communities or Scheduled Castes, as they are called constitutionally, Ambedkar redefined Buddhism in a radical humanist way and termed it as Navayana. I am not going to discuss the issue here.. The point I want to make it is that Ambedkar’s quest for a progressive Dalit identity beyond caste has not been properly followed up by those who claim his legacy purely on the basis of his caste.

For the parties claiming his legacy he was ‘their’ leader only. For the Hindu upper caste parties, he became a ‘Dalit leader’therefore relegating him to the confinement in urban slums and Dalitwadas of the villages. The irony was that a modern man like Ambedkar whose democratic spirit could have been the meeting ground for the forces of change, became victim of caste identities in India.

In the parliamentary democracy of First Past the Post System, which Ambedkar himself actually felt inadequate to protect the interest of the Dalits, the politics is fast turning into a game of identities where the minority identity have no meaning. It is fast merging with the broader majoritarian identity as the slogan grew up in the air ‘jisaki jitani sankhya bhari uski utni sajhedari.. the more numbers you have, the bigger the share in power structure. Nowhere, it has any insurance for the minorities. It claims to reserve seats for them according to their number but the fact is that the concept of this kind of politics has fragmented the Dalit politics further, with more and more leaders focusing on their primary caste identities to get into vote bank politics. Hence, those whose castes have more numbers get the leverage of power and those who do not have suffered in this process despite their efforts. We have seen many Dalit leaders who have focused on their issues more than any other political leaders and getting marginalized in the process because the sheer number of their castes. What is this? I call it depoliticisation of the Dalits and their issues which is very dangerous as those who really do not work and are expert manipulators can get elected in their names. More so because, the democracy is actually going in the hands of those forces which are anti democratic and have no faith in it. Dalits who got their legitimate rights through democratic means today feel betrayed by this. As we use symbol to tell the world that the Dalits have been empowered in India, it is time to look into the ugly realities of the process.

We can see the process of political changes in two most populous states of Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar. Both were the first one where the National parties got thoroughly marginalized and a large number of the Dalit-OBC ( the Other Backward communities, artisan-peasantry) dominated the political process since 1990. But this broader unity of Dalit-Bahujan could have changed the entire polity in India but because the individual leaders and their egos became bigger than their political parties which became one man/woman show and no internal democracy in these parties resulted in collapsing these forces. Added on this was the attempt by the intellectual and leaders of these forces equating every one who is a non Dalit-or OBC as Manuwadi-or Brahmanical while purely ignoring or conspicuously side tracking the issue of their political leaders hobnobbing with right wing Hindu Nationalist party BJP.

Anti Brahmanism and anti ritualism is the quintessential central theme of the Dalit-Bahujan theory but this does not apply to the High Caste Hindus only, it applies to the leadership and communities themselves. Unfortunately, whether it is politics or so-called social movements, except for a few, most of the Dalit-Bahujan politics became a rhetorical agitated one harping on the victimized politics while clearly failing to address the issue of inter community dialogue and clarity of ideological perspectives. Hence a broad movement which had the power to change power equations in India became an instrument to keep their flock together by abusing the High caste Hindus during the day and dine with them in the night and strategizing things with them, to monopolise the power structure with one particular community. As I said earlier democracy is essentially an alliance building exercise based on ideology but here alliance building was a criminal alliance of one particular community with other one ( both stronger ones and numerically powerful one) resulting in the marginalization of the other communities among the Dalits and backward castes who were numerically non existent. This happened in Bihar where a backward leader made alliance with Muslims. His Yadav and Muslim community made a lethal alliance and ruled the state for nearly 20 years but without any developmental work. Similar thing happened in UP where the chief minister Mayawati combined her caste strength i.e. Chamars with the Brahmins much to resentment of the other Dalit communities. There again the government forgot basic Dalit agenda of governance like land reform, education and health sector focus or any new scheme for the poor. The result was that, the Chamars themselves got fed up with the government where they were just fodder to give the Brahmins a power and fell out of the government. In Bihar also, the other marginalized and mostly Dalits revolted and allowed a new government in power.

The continuous assertion and democratization process in India will continue. Every community which has been left in the race want political representation and can not be satisfied with our romantification of a broad Dalit-Bahujan concept to give a few elite to capture power in their name and become dictator and use state tools as a fancy for their personal wills. People will question leaders and thrash them if they fail to deliver. India’s transition to democracy is still in process and the Dalits and other marginalized communities its biggest asset. The democratization process will bring new leaders from the marginalized communities. One phase where the middleman masquerading politicians came to power structure in the name of identity but mere identity does not work. People want to development, people want their voices... and they are not ready that some one in the name of their identity, grab power structure and use it for his/her personal gains which was widely perceived. The political leaders will have to democratize themselves and address the basic issues the community. India has one of the best constitutions but it is rarely implemented fully. Dalit-Bahujan power polity need to first stick to its basic preambles and lead from the personal example. How can they ignore the rich legacy of Ambedkar-Phule and Periyar, each one of them person of high integrity and deeply committed to the cause of oppressed communities? It is time that this legacy is carried forward by the current leadership with basic principals by becoming modern, democratize yourself and with a humanist perspective. Dalit Bahujan politics can not be exclusive in nature but more broad, open minded and inclusive and should provide an idea which did not exist in the brahmanical mind set, the idea of freedom and humanism its basic tenants, as it lead those communities which were victim of the caste system in India. The Dalit movement can not be a movement of caste identities but beyond that providing alternative political theory in India. May be the beginning could be made with giving representation to different marginalized communities with in the power structure of the political parties that they care for the numerically lesser communities who do not matter much in terms of vote or who can not become vote bank. Our current parliamentary system does not do justice to these most marginalized communities and hence Dalit empowerment will only be of a particular individual with political heritage of the family. It results in hegemony of one family or individual by destructing the monopoly of others. Idea of governance remain a far cry in this entire scheme as the entire focus revolve around identity turning the entire community as apolitical and making leaders much bigger then the political parties and movement. Such a situation is dangerous for the communities. But fortunately, the current Lok Sabha election while springing some surprises also sends a stern message to these political parties that they can not take people for granted in the name of identity... now time is to deliver to them. You can not have an identity without good education, economic conditions and social change for equality. Unfortunately, those who harp more on caste have lost their idea of how to annihilate it.

Caste can not be simply strengthened to market a few individual and their megalomaniac vision about themselves. The issue of caste and Dalits is actually need to be addressed as the civil rights movement in the United States. It is important that it is not become a few seats in parliament and empowerment of the elite leaders in the name of communities. It has to be broad movement for human rights and human dignity. It has to be a movement against the religious rituals and holy texts which kept them subjugated for centuries and enslaved their minds. Humanists have that capacity to deliver it as they believe in that today’s dalits have the capacity and democracy has provided them alternative. Only a modern democratic theory with republican ideas as envisioned by Dr Ambedkar can be their true emancipator otherwise, caste based identities are threatening basic Dalit unity in the country and it is fast becoming a self defeating exercise.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a secular humanist based in Delhi and working with Social Development Foundation, Delhi. His writings can be accessed at and he can be contacted at [email protected]

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