ASSERTION OF DALITS AND BACKWARD CASTES
During the past few decades there has been an assertion of the dalits and backward classes in
India. The latter are also known as the other backward classes (OBCs). Through such assertions
these groups have seek to strive for social and cultural autonomy, self-respect and dignity, and
demand a share in the political power. They are playing very dominant role in politics of several
states. In the recent past they have become a formidable components of the power structure in
the national politics. In this unit you are going to study the assertion of dalits and backward
castes in India, the reasons for it and its impact on the politics and society in India.
15.2 SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
Dalits is a term generally used for the ex-untouchable castes, which have been identified as the
Scheduled Castes by our constitution. They form a large number of castes and have been
involved in the low ranking occupations like leather work, scavenging and agricultural labourers.
Land reform measures did not benefit them. However, a large number of welfare programmes
have had varying impact on them in different parts of the country. Despite the handicap in
benefiting from the welfare policies of the state, there has been improvement in their conditions.
Reservation in the educational and political institutions have given rise to the emergence of an
articulate group among them. This group articulates their problems. This also indicates towards
a process social transformation, which has taken place in India. But the social transformation
has shown uneven patterns in the country. In large areas of the country, especially the rural
areas, dalits continue to face indignities and humiliations.
Despite the comprehensive provisions in the Constitution of India, the fight against dalits’
discrimination is yet to be won. Dalits continue to suffer from the menace till date. Marc Galanter
laments: ‘‘ The Constitution sets forth a general programme for the re-construction of Indian
Society. In spite of its length, it is surprisingly undetailed in its treatment of the institution of caste
and existing group structure in Indian society.”
Even the provisions provided by the law of the land have proved ineffective in most of the
cases. Article 17 of the Constitution had abolished “Untouchability”. The provisions of affirmative
action contained in the Constitution have become redundant in some cases. The entire private
sector is under no obligation to do social justice to dalits. Dalits’ demand for reservation in the
private sector faces stiff opposition from several powerful and articulate groups.
15.2.2 Backward Castes
Backward Castes are also known as backward classes or the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
Our constitution identifies those social groups as OBCs, which are educationally and socially
backward. This categorisation includes those groups among the OBCs, which are not necessarily
backward politically or economically. That is why a large number of the castes identified as
OBCs are quite influencial in politics and economy, especially agriculture in different states of
India. Unlike dalits, OBCs is a more differentiated category. It includes the intermediary land
owning castes as well as the landless service castes. The land owning middle or intermediary
castes are mainly Jats, Yadavs, Gujars, Lodhs, Kurmies in the north India, Marathas and Patels
in Maharastra and Gujarat and Reddies, Kammas, Vokaliggas and Lingayats in South India. It
is these castes which are the most assertive among the OBCs. Socially belonging to the middle
or intermediary castes, they have benefited from the land reforms and green revolution. They
also own the maximum resources and land in rural society. Some of them have even diversified
into non-agricultural economy. Thus their sphere of influence cuts across the towns and the
villages. They form significant component of the market economy relating to agriculture.
15.3 ASSERTION OF DALITS
Post-independence period in India has seen assertion of dalits in India. This assertion can be
divided into three phases – the phase of Republican Party of India; the phase of Dalit Panther
and the phase of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Since this assertion took place after the death of
Ambedkar all these phases belong to the post-Ambedkar dalit movement. The focus of dalit
movement in the preceding period had been on the temple entry, restoration of self-respect, and
getting reservation for the dalits in the political and government institutions. The post – Ambedkar
dalit movement took the multiple forms —- socio-cultural, economic and political. Due to their
assertion dalits have been able to get the recognition as a distinct social and political group.
Their assertion is reflected through various ways i.e., foundation of social, cultural and political
organisations, conversion to other religion and increasing political participation.
A number of factors account for the assertion of dalits. The most important of these are the rise
of an educated and articulate group among them, the expansion of mass media and most
importantly the impact of ideas and life of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on them. The process which
denotes the impact of life and ideas of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has been conceptualised as
Ambedkarisation by Jagpal Singh. The sub-sections 15.3.1, 15.3.2, 15.3.3 and 15.3.4 deal
with dalit assertion with the examples of the Republican Party of India, Dalit Panther and the
Bahujan Samaj Party, and left and dalit question.
15.3.1 The Republican Party of India
A few years before his death Dr B.R. Ambedkar founded the Republican Party of India (RPI).
This party aimed at amelioration of the socio-economic conditions of dalits and the poorer
classes and to enable them to capture political power. After Ambedkar’s death the RPI was
strengthened by an emergent educated middle class of dalits. The RPI became popular mainly
in Uttar Pradesh and Maharastra in the 1950s and 1960s. In Uttar Pradesh it even contested
elections in 1960s and became a force to reckon with. In UP the RPI forged an alliance of
dalits, Muslims and the OBCs. But it lost its popularity after 1960s as some of its prominent
leaders got accommodated in the Congress party. In Maharastra the RPI was split into several
groups, marked by ideological and personal differences.
It is important to note that the RPI worked among dalits on two fronts – political and cultural.
The political front included mobilisation of dalits to participate in elections. Though the RPI
ceased to exist as a significant political force after the 1960s, the work done by it had its impact
on the cultural field. Influenced by Ambedkar, a large number of his followers converted to
Buddhism. Those who were influenced by Ambedkarism and Buddhism played significant role
in spreading Ambedkarism among dalits. In fact, the process of Ambedkarisation was initiated
at that time. This contributed to the assertion of dalits in following decades.
15.3.2 The Dalit Panther
Influenced by Marxism Ambedkarism and Negro literature a group of dalit intellectuals founded
Dalit Panther in Maharastra in 1972. It was basically a movement of dalit intellectuals, which
contributed to generating consciousness among dalits to a significant extent. It attacked the
Hindu Caste system through literary activities, debates and discussion in homes, offices and
public places. An incident was the main cause for setting up the Dalit Panther. Dalit Panther was
named after the Black Panther of USA. The incident was related to a controversy published in
by dalit writers in a magazine Sadhna. Dalit Panther also launched a movement for renaming of
Marathwada University after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was constrained by the confinement of its
base to Urban areas. It also suffered multiple splits on the ideological and personal bases.
15.3.3 The Bahujan Samaj Party
The rise of BSP in last two decades of 20th
Century in north India, and becoming Chief Minister
of its leader Mayawati thrice in Uttar Pradesh symbolises the empowerment of dalits in India.
The rise of the BSP is part of the process of dalit empowerment, which started in the post-independence period. Founded by Kashi Ram, on April 14, 1984 the Bahujan Samaj Party
aims to empower the majroty section of the society or bahujan samaj – dalits, OBCs tribals and
According to the understanding of the BSP, the minority high castes in India – Brahmins, Rajputs
and Banias have exploited the bahujan samaj. The former have used their votes to rule over the
bahujan samaj. The bahujan samaj should capture political power as it forms the majority of the
population, and in democracy the majority should rule. When the bahujan samaj captures the
power, it will not need help from the minority high castes. Rather it will condescend the help to
the high castes. Before the formation of the BSP, Kanshi Ram had mobilised the middle classes
employees belonging to the scheduled castes, other backward classes and minorities through
All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF). He changed it into DS4.
In Uttar Pradesh the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to mobilise the bahujan samaj in
collaboration with the Samajwadi Party in 1993 assembly election, which enabled it to share
power with its alliance partner, the Samajwadi Party. Following its estrangement with the
Samajwadi Party, the BSP allied with the BJP thrice in Uttar Pradesh to head the government.
The governments headed by the BSP leader Mayawati identified Ambedkar villages where
dalits formed a substantial population, in Uttar Pradesh. Special programmes were introduced
in the Ambedkar villages for the over all development of these villages, with main focus on
Dalit assertion through BSP is, infact, continuation of a process which had started in the late
1950s and 1960s. However, the BSP’s initial strategy to forge an alliance of the bahujan samaj
could not succeed. All major constituents of the bahujan samaj, which formed the social bases
of the BSP initially – the OBCs, the Muslims and a section of the non-jatav- dalits got separated
from the BSP within a few years of its having shared the power. The first instance of the
disintegration of the social base of the BSP was the split within the BSP and SP alliance.
Though the major constituents of the bahujan samaj which formed the social base for the BSP
have got separated, the BSP has become strong political force. Through the BSP dalits can
bargain to share the political power on their own terms and conditions. Besides, the BSP has
changed its strategy of caste mobilisation. It no longer adheres to its earlier strategy of mobilising
the bahujan samaj. It now believes in mobilising the sarva samaj (all castes inducing Brahmins,
Rajputs and Banias). That is why the BSP gives its tickets to the high castes also. With its strong
base among dalits, it is able to get additional support of high castes as well by allotting tickets to
15.3.4 Left and Dalit Question
Dalit assertion has also taken place through the mobilisation by the left especially the in Bihar,
Andhra Pradesh and parts of some other states. The naxalites have taken up the issues of dual
exploitation of dalits – caste exploitation and class exploitation involving issues related to self-respect, exploitation of woman, wages and land reforms. The naxalites are not averse to using
the violent means to get their demands conceded. PWG (People’s War Group), Party Unity,
Indian People’s Front are some of the naxalite organisations, which work towards dalit assertion.
They are countered by the high castes and landlords’ organisations like ‘Lorik Sena’ or ‘Bhoomi
Sena’ in Bihar.
The major left parties – the CPI(M) and the CPI did not feel, till recently, special the need
to mobilise dalits on the caste question. For them dalits were constituents of the poorer classes,
which face economic exploitation. These parties felt that improvement in the economic
conditions of dalits will also result in the abolition of social discrimination. The CPI(M)’s Party
Programme in para 5.12 clearly mentions: “The problem of caste oppression and discrimination
has a long history and is deeply rooted in the pre-capitalist social system. The society under
capitalist development has compromised with the existing caste system. The Indian bourgeoisie
itself fosters caste prejudices. Working class unity presupposes unity against the caste system
and the oppression of Dalits, since the vast majority of the Dalit population are part of the
labouring classes. To fight for the abolition of the caste system and all forms of social oppression
through a social reform movement is an important part of the democratic revolution. The fight
against caste oppression is interlinked with the struggle against class exploitation.” However, in
the context of assertion of dalits and backward classes, even these parties have reconsidered
their position. Like others, they also feel that along with the class issues, the caste should also be
given special consideration while devising the policies for dalits.
15.4 ASSERTION OF BACKWARD CLASSES
15.4.1 North India
Assertion of backward castes in North India is basically assertion of middle or intermediary
castes, i.e., Jats, Yadavs, Gujars, Kurmies, Lodhs, etc. in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and
Haryana. The lower backwards – the artisans and service castes do not show the kind of
assertion which the intermediary castes have shown. However, Karpoori Thakur, who belonged
to the service castes, barker, had become chief minister of Bihar twice. But his catapultation to
the chief minister’s post was not indication of the assertion of service castes and artisans. He,
infact, represented the intermediary or the middle castes. During the first two decades following
independence, the representation of the backward castes was much less as compared to the
latter period. From the 1970s these castes have come to dominate the politics in Uttar Pradesh
and Bihar. They not only constitute the larger number of the legislators and ministers in these
states, they also now play decisive role in formation of the government at centre.
The credit to mobilise the backward castes in north India during the post-independence period
actually goes to Charan Singh. Though his caste, Jat was not categorised as an OBCs in Uttar
Pradesh till 2002, he identified himself with other backward classes like Yadavs, Kurmies,
Lodhs and Gujars. He understood the political significance of these castes. While he was a
member of the Congress, he carved out a special place for himself as the leader of the backward
classes. He chalked out his strategy for this purpose meticulously. During the 1950s and 1960s,
he visited the districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh quite frequently to address the peasants belonging
to backward classes. He apprised them of the role played by the Congress, in which he had a
decisive role, in making them the proprietors of their land as a result of zamindari abolition; he
attended and addressed the meetings of the backward classes; he opposed the Nehru’s idea of
cooperative farming and imposition of cess on agriculture etc. Apart from the land reforms,
these groups also benefited from the green revolution introduced in the 1960s.
Charan Singh’s strategy to mobilise the backward classes displeased some high caste leaders
within the Congress. The latter accused Charan Singh of favouring the backward classes and as
a result alienating the high castes from the Congress. The differences within the Congress resulted
in the defection of Charan Singh from Congress in 1967 and formation of the Bharatiya Kranti
Dal by him in 1969. This happened at a time when Congress was defeated in eight states, and
formation of the government led by the non-Congress formations.
This enabled Charan Singh to emerge as an independent leader of the backward classes in
north India. For the first time he gave maximum representation to the backward classes in his
ministry. Along with efforts of Charan Singh, the socialists influcned by Ram Manohar Lohia
also mobilised the backward classes. The coalition of backward castes came to be known as
AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gujars and Rajputs) in north India. Similarly the backward caste coalition in
Gujarat was known as KHAM (Khartiyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims). The merger of the
Bharatiya Kranti Dal and the Sanyukta Socialist Party in 1974 brought the Gandhians, Socialists
and Charan Singh together. These gave ideological cover to the backward class mobilisation
and assertion in north India.
Backward classes formed an important section in the Janata Party. Issues of backward classes,
rural sector and agriculture got special focus of the Janata Party government during 1977-1980. One result of the backward castes’ assertion was appointment of Mandal Commission,
for identifying the backward classes. The implementation of Mandal Commission Report by
V.P. Singh’s government in 1989 shows the culmination of the process of backward caste
assertion. The criterion of including among the other backward classes those classes which are
socially and educationally backward, and timings of its implementation resulted in the anti-mandal agitation.
These developments indicate towards the assertion of the backward classes. The backward
classes are accommodated in different political parties: some parties like the Rashtriya Janata
Dal in Bihar and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh are largely identified with the backward
15.4.2 South India
Backward castes’ assertion in south Indian States —- Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra
started much earlier to that in north India. It had its root in the non-Brahmin movement or the
self-respect movement which was led by E V Ramaswami Naickar popularly known as Periyar
in the 1920s and 1930s. The legacy of Periyar was carried forward by C.M. Annadurai and M.
Karunanidhi and several of his followers. It aimed to demolish the Brahmins’ domination in
culture and public institutions. It attacked cultural symbols identified with Hinduism or Brahminism,
preached atheism against the belief in God.
The backward classes’ aspirations and ideology were articulated through the political parties
like the Justice Party, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kaghgam), ADMK (Anna Dravida Munneba
Kaghgam) and AIDMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kaghgam). Besides, there exist a
large member of smaller parties of the backward classes in south India: the DK, forerunner of
the DMK, was the first in the post-Independence India to begin a major agitation for backward
caste reservations in the erstwhile Madras province in 1950. During the 1950s – 1960s the
backward class assertion assumed the form an ethnic movement, which demanded a separate
state for the dravidians. The Madras government issued the first such order in 1951, which
ultimately led to the appointment of the First Backward Classes commission after a long period
when DMK government came to power in 1967. The commission was appointed in 1969 and
submitted its report the following year. The DMK accepted the Commission’s recommendations
to raise the existing reservations for the backward castes and the Scheduled Castes and
Unlike in the north, the backward caste assertion in south India has included all sections of
the backward classes – the intermediary castes and artisans and service castes. The
backward classes are divided among different political parties, which seek to espouse the
backward class causes. They dominate in politics and economy of the south Indian
states. Their assertion has eroded the influence of the high castes. That is why unlike north
India, the south India did not evoke any opposition to the implementation of the Mandal
15.4.3 Organisations of Backward Castes
A large number of backward class associations appeared in the post–independence period.
Marc Gallenter observed that by 1954, there were 88 organisations in India, which articulated
the interests of the backward classes. The most important of these existed in North India. These
were UP Backward Classes Federation and Bihar State Backward Classes Federation. These
two organisations merged on 26January 1950 to form All India Backward Classes Federation
(AIBCF) by the efforts of Punjab Rao Deshmukh. The AIBCF had split into two groups – one
adhering to the Congress ideology and another Lohiaite socialism. The former was represented
by Punjab Rao Deshmuk and the latter by R L Chandpuri. R L Chandpuri formed Indian
National Backward Classes Federation (INBCF) on 10 November, 1957.
These organisations sought to get the reservation for the OBCs and empower the them in order
to overthrow the ‘Brahmin-Baniya Raj’. The organisations contributed to the rise of consciousness
of the OBCs. This consciousness, coupled with the result of land reforms and adequate numerical
strength led to the assertion of the OBCs. However, AIBCF had become defunct by the 1970s.
But a generation of the backward classes had already emerged on the political scene, which
became more effective during the Janata Party regime (1977-80). It wad due to efforts of this
section of the OBC leadership that the Janata Party government had appointed the second
backward class commission, known as Mandal Commission named after its chairman B P
Mandal. The implementation of Mandal Commission Report in 1989 in seeking to introduce 27
per cent reservation for the OBCs in the government jobs changed the contours of Indian
The present phase of backward classes assertion is a sequel to their assertion in the years
surrounding the achievement of independence of the country from colonial rule. This had led to
the appointment on January 29, 1935 of the first backwards classes’ commission known as the
Kalelkar Commission, which was headed by Kaka Kalelkar. Purpose of Kalelkar Commission
was to determine the criteria to identify socially and educationally backward classes in India, in
order to enable the government to introduce policies for their betterment. But there were
differences among the commission members on the criteria which was to be followed to determine
the backward class status of a community; one section supported the caste as a criterion,
another class. The Kalelkar report was presented to the central government. But the government
decided against introduction of reservation to the backward classes. Kalelkar report, however,
occupied a prime place in the agenda of the backward classes’ organisations. They demanded
appointment of another backward class commission. The appointment of the second backwards
class commission, i.e., Mandal Commission, was a result of it.