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The Dalit Question

Dalit liberation is essential to the liberation of all the Indian people, and impossible without it.

Most political struggles do not result in a decisive upper hand for either side; elements of success and failure are intertwined; there are, after all, no positives without negatives. In this sense, 2016 was a significant year in the struggle for Dalit liberation. The year marked 10 years since the barbarism of Khairlanji in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra, where four members of a Dalit family were lynched on 29 September 2006 in a most gruesome manner by persons who belonged mainly to the politically-dominant, “backward caste” Kunbi–Maratha jati. In the face of a short period of governmental, civil society and big media indifference to what had happened, Maharashtra’s Dalit community took awhile to react defiantly, but when it did, the government came down on the demonstrators with a very heavy hand. After all, the dispute at Khairlanji had a lot to do with land and a pending case against some Kunbi–Marathas under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Early 2016 witnessed the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, at first deprived of his fellowship because the authorities could not countenance his politics under the banner of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). Two particular campaigns of the ASA in which Rohith was in the forefront raised the level of intolerance of the authorities even more, especially when the ASA took on the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP, the student-wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party). ABVP’s false complaint to a BJP Union Minister, Bandaru Dattatreya (a prominent member of the “backward-caste” political establishment), was forwarded to the then Union Human Resource Development Minister, Smriti Irani, and onward to the university’s vice chancellor, P Appa Rao, which led to Rohith’s suspension. The Dalit-Lives-Matter kind of movement that followed, and especially the role of persons like Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, in that campaign, has indeed been remarkable.

But for Dalits, more kicks in the teeth and smacks in the face were in store. In July 2016, under the pretext of protecting the cow, in the vicinity of Una town in Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, four young Dalit men were stripped and beaten with chains by Hindutvavadi gau-rakshaks for allegedly killing a cow when they were only skinning the dead animal for their livelihood. Proud of what they had done, the gau-rakshaks put a video of the thrashing on social media, but this sparked off a wave of Dalit protests in Gujarat and other parts of the country, backed by the left.

Despite the lofty ideals of the Indian Constitution, the upper- and “backward”-caste establishment, with the latter having internalised the Brahminical culture, still does not seem to think that the Dalits are human beings. However, there is a definite change from the past that is striking, if one recalls the Kilvenmani killings of 1968 and the Dalit massacres of the late 1970s in what was then central Bihar. More than ever before, there is also a Dalit establishment in place—ministers in the union and state cabinets, members of Parliament and the state legislative assemblies, backed by Dalit officials in the civil bureaucracy, the police and the judiciary—that seems to have no fundamental political differences with the status quo.

The dominant-caste Marathas, including the Kunbis, have come out aggressively demanding amendments to the Prevention of Atrocities Act and reservations for themselves in the context of other such dominant castes also gunning for reservations—for example, the Jats in Haryana and the Patels in Gujarat. The atrocities against Dalits must be seen in the context of such political consolidation of dominant, landowning, “backward castes” since the 1970s. Given the “graded inequality” of the hierarchically structured caste system, fragmented at every level, which also shapes access to economic and intellectual resources, the most acute contradictions are no longer between the upper castes (the foremost beneficiaries of the system) and the Dalits (the foremost victims), but between the latter and the jatis in the middle or even those more adjacent to them.

The caste system, of course, took shape in “India” in pre-historic times, and even the underdeveloped capitalism that has taken shape since the colonial period, although it did considerably undermine the very foundation of castes, could not weaken the caste system’s ability to stabilise and rigidify some of the structures of Indian society. Caste, thus, remains a profoundly unequal and oppressive socio-religious institution that determines access to the means of production and also structures the relations of production significantly. Indeed, both exploitation and caste discrimination are rooted in the very structure of India’s underdeveloped capitalism. Caste as a social institution is antithetical to a sharing of society’s resources and opportunities on equal terms.

Predictably, the academic establishment is so divided over the caste question that arguments are—more often than not—not met by counter-arguments but with a vocabulary almost bordering on insinuation, innuendo and abuse as witnessed in this magazine too (18 June and 3 December 2016). Need one remind the academic establishment that besides its obligations to the powers that give it its authority and pelf, and funds its research, it also has obligations towards the people whom it studies, its colleagues and the sciences it pursues, and its students who, we are delighted to find, are once again questioning that establishment’s goals, commitments and ethics?

We, of course, hold that nobody—Ambedkarites included—has a monopoly of the truth about caste; we should be open to a process of mutual learning. The Dalit question is all about Dalit liberation. Such liberation is essential to the liberation of all the Indian people, and impossible without it.

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