DALITS in india


Last few decades have seen a spate of dalit movement in various parts of the country. This is reflected in their social, cultural and political activities at various levels, i.e., state, local and all India. A large number of social and cultural organisations of dalits, their political parties and leaders have emerged in various parts of the country. Though in most parts of the country they are not able to assert themselves, yet in the areas where favourable situation exists dalits are asserting themselves. They have becomea decisive force in the social and political processes of the country. The contemporary dalit movement is taking place along with the social and political movements of various other social groups like women, tribals, environmentalists, workers and peasants.

Dalits are those groups of people who havefaced social discrimination including the untouchability. They largely belong tothe economically disadvantaged groups of our society. They are placed in the Scheduled Caste categories in our constitution. The category of dalits  was first used by Jyotiba Phule in the nineteenth century. It was first popularly used by the Dalit Panther in the 1970s. But it has come in currency quite recently – from the 1980s onwards. It has almost replaced the category of harijans used for the dalits or Scheduled Castes. The term Scheduled Castes was in common use till the term of dalit became more popular from the 1980s onwards. There are special provisions for the protection of their interests in our constitution – reservation in the public jobs, scholarships, legislative bodies, etc. Universal adult franchise and other constitutional rights have enabled them to participate in political activities. Dalit movement raises issues of caste-based discrimination and economic inequality. It is a struggle for social justice. The issues on which dalit movement is launched are: self – respect, harassment of women, payment of wages, forced labour or begar, disputes over land, implementation of the reservation policy, promotion in the job, denial of democraticrights like casting ofvotes, disrespect to Dr. B.R. Amebedkar/his statue, etc. Dalits protest and agitate on these issues in various ways which include mainly informal ways, at individual basis, through the organised ways, satyagraha and litigation,by getting these raised either in the parliament or in the legislative assemblies. Dalit movement/agitation is also expressed through collective action like demonstration,rallies, procession; through signature campaign, protest literature, etc. Some times their agitation result in the clashes between dalits, police and the those elements in the society who are inimical to the interests of dalits

 Dalit Movement in India
Dalit movement in India is taking place at various levels such as those of villages and towns, state and all India (nation). It is taking place in those areas where dalits are in a position to agitate, as still in many parts of the country they are not able to raise their voice. Therefore, certain trends can be identified in the dalit movement in the country from the regions where it has been taking place. Dalit movement in India can be divided into two periods; pre- Independence period and post – Independence period.

Dalit Movement in the Colonial Period
During the pre-Independence period, there were dalit movements at both levels in India – the national and the provincial. At the national level M K Gandhi and Dr. B R Ambedkar attempted to take up the problems of dalits. But Ambedkar and Gandhi followed different approaches to solve them. Gandhi found untouchability as a corrupt form of Hinduism, and suggested that it can be solved by moral reform of the Hindus. He coined the term “harijans” with the purpose to say that dalits or untouchables were also “people of God” like those of the high castes. Ambedkar on the other hand saw the real cause untouchability in the very nature of Hinduism and suggested that only solution to the untouchability or caste discrimination lay in abolition of Hinduism or conversion of dalits into other religion, preferably Buddhism. Before  actually questioning the tenets of Hinduism or advocating conversion Ambedkar had tried to eradicate untouchability within the fold of Hindu region. Regarding this he launched the temple entry movement. The most important incident which drastically changed attitude Ambedkar about the Hindu religion was the Mahad Satyagrah of 1927 in Maharastra. In thisincident Ambedkar led a large number of dalits to enter into the Chowdar water tank which was banned for the untouchables by the orthodox Hindus. Ambedkar’s move was opposed by the orthodox Hindus, who ritually purified the tank. The reaction of the orthodox Hindus forced Ambedkar to burn the Manusmriti, and remark in 1935 “ I have beenborn a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu“. He realised that the basic problem lay with the Hinduism and for dalits to be liberated from the menace of untuchability, conversion was the only panacea. This conviction of Ambedkar resulted in his conversion to Budhhism in 1956 with a large number of his supporters.

There were leaders at the provincial levels also who were involved in combating the problems of dalits. There were also single caste movements in different parts of India – of Nadars, Pulayas, Ezhavas in South; of Namsudra movement in West Bengal; Adi Darm movement led by Mangoo Ram and Adi Hindu movement led by Acchutananda among the Chamars of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh respectively, Narayana Guru led movement among the Ezahavas in Trivancorer and Ayyakali- led movement among the Pulayas of Kerala. These movement were committed to self-reform in the rituals, advancement of their education, gaining access to employment under state. Dalit movement of Pulayas traced their origin to the pre-Aryan period and described them as the original residents of the country – Hindus or the high castes had come later on. Mangoo Ram traced the religion of the untouchables prior to the Hindu religion. According to him the untouchables were the original inhabitants (Adi) of India; they had their own religion – the Adi Dharm. The Adi Dharmishad been pushed to the subordinate positions by the later arrivals. He tried to revive the Adi Dharm. By the mid-1930s the movement had petered out. Sri Narayana Guru (1857-1928) developed a critique of Hinduism in Travancore which had influence beyond his own Ezahava community to Pulayas, etc. His philosophy was “one caste, one religion and one God for man”. With the emergence ofAyyakali (1863 – 1941) Pulayas also became effective. Pulayas were later attracted towards the Marxists and Gandhians in Kerala. In Hyderabad princely state, P R Venkataswami attempted to mobilise the untouchables. The main plank of his mobilisation were self-reform, education and equality. Dalit movement in South and West during the 1920s and 1930s also focused on permission to enter the temples.

The provincial level dalit leadership also responded to the social reform movements of North India which took place in the early decades of the twentieth century like the Arya Samaj. But finding the leadership of these movements belonging to the high castes, too patronising and their notion of equality too restricted, they parted company with these movement. This was followed by their independent course of action. It happened in UP and Punjab. Similarly in Madras MC Raja found the Non-Brahmin Justice Party inimical to the interest of the untouchables.

Apart from these, the dalits, especially the Chamars, of Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh) had already been under the influence of the Satnami movement since the 18th century inspired by the legacy ofthe leadership of Guru Ghashi Das. The Satnamis questioned the notion ofsocial and ritual hierarchy in two simultaneous ways: by rejecting the Hindu gods and goddesses, and by rejecting the puja and purohit within the temple. The was in line with the Bhakti tradition. With the entry of Ambedkar and his conflict with Gandhi over separate electorate to the untouchables, catapulted Ambedkar to national level politics of the untouchables in India. From the 1930s onwards – Amdedkar started his movement with the issue temple entry.

A major area of difference in the earlier years of the twentieth century between Congress and Ambedkar was regarding the issue which had be given priority over the other in the programme of the Congress. Ambedkar believed that the Congress should accord the social issues priority over the political issues. He felt that political rights can notbe enjoyed without establishing social equality. Congress on the other hand believed that once political rights have been given to the people, social equality can be established. Dalit politics in the following period was marked by the conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi. The occasion when the differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi came to the fore was Round Table Conferences of 1930-31. By then having understood the futility of the temple or tank entry movement, Ambedkar focused on the need for giving representation to dalits, as a separate and minority community in various public bodies.

Ambedkar sought into national prominence following his differences over the nature of electorates at the Second Round Table Conference of 1931 in London; the conference had met to discuss the Simon Commission Report which had suggested joint electorate and reservation for the Depressed Classes. Ambedkar was one of the two Depressed Classes representatives invited to the Conference. Ambedkar demanded separate electorate for the Depressed Classes. Ambedkar’s claim was supported by another representative of the Depressed Classes from Madras – MC Raja. But Gandhi opposed Ambedkar’s proposal for the separate electorate for the Depressed Classes. Raja changed his position and entered into an agreement with Munje, President of the Hindu Mahasabha tosupport the joint electorate. Raja – Munje pact divided the leadership of the untouchables. Ambedkar was supported by the Mahar leaders from Maharastra, Adi Dharm Mandals from Punjab and one of the organs of the Bengali Namsudras. Raja’s supporters included prominent Chambhar leaders from Maharastra. Gandhi on the other hand set on fast unto death on September 20, 1932 against the Communal Award of the British which advocated the separate electorate. In order to avoid unpalatable situation which could result following fast of Gandhi, Ambedkar relented and entered into a Pact with Gandhi known as Poona Pact. According to it separate electorate was removed and instead reservation was introduced in the legislative bodies for the untouchable castes. The recommendations of Poona Pact were incorporated inthe Government of India Act, 1935. As a result there was reservation in the legislative assemblies during the election of 1937. Ambedkar’s party Independent Labour Party contested this election. He later converted ILP into the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF). Later on, Raja had become supporter of Ambedkar. After his death, the supporters of Ambedkar formed Republican Party of India (RPI). On the other hand, Congress and Gandhi were patronising towards the untouchables; Jagjivan Ram emerged from such patronage.

Dalit Movement in the post – colonial Period
Dalit movement in the post – Independence period in India can be divided into three phases, i.e., phase I (1950s – 1960s),phase II (1970s –1980s); and phase III (1990s onwards. There has been a common feature of dalit politics through out the post – Independence period, especially from the 1960s onwards, e.g., to strive to have a party of their own or a party led by the dalits. The shift in dalit support from the Congress to RPI inthe 1960s, to the Janata Party in 1977, the Janata Dal in 1989 and to the BSP in the 1990s onwards are examples of this desire of the dalits. Several factors have contributed tothe rise of dalit movement, especially from the 1980s onwards. These include emergence of a new generation among dalits, which is conscious of their rights,explosion of mass media and the impact of the ideas of Dr. B R Ambedkar.

Phase I (1950s – 1960s)
Implementation of the universal adult franchise, reservation in educational and political institutions, and in jobs for the Schedules Castes as per the provisions of the constitution enabled a large numberof them to take advantage of these facilities in the period following independence. Along with these the state in India introduced several programmes for the betterment of the disadvantaged groups of the society, especially the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Though in Most parts of the country the Scheduled Castes could not benefit from the measures introduced by the state due several practical reasons, yet these did help them wherever suitable conditions existed for them. Besides, the political parties,especially Congress party attempted to mobilise them as its vote bank. Despite the difficulties in availing of their right to vote in many parts of the country, politicisation of the dalits took place to a considerable extent. Such process made them conscious of their rights. The policies and strategies of the Congress helped it create its social base which consisted of Dalits as major social group. The politicisation of dalits during this phase took as a constituent of the social base of the political parties, especially the Congress. Meanwhile, there emerged the first generation of dalit leadership borne after independence, which included educated middle class professional as well. Thisgroup became critical of dominant political parties and the cultural ethos, especially the Congress and the Hindu belief system. They started feeling that the Congress was using them as the vote bank; the high castes were holding the leadership of this party and not allowing dalits to get the leadership. On the cultural front they felt that the Hindu religion does not provide them a respectable place. Therefore, in order to live respectfully they should discard Hindu religion and convert to Buddhism. The advocates of this opinion were influenced by the ideas of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. They formed Republican Party of India (RPI) based on the ideas and principles of Ambedkar.

In the late 1950s and 1960s RPI launched a cultural and political movement in UP and Maharastra for achieving political and cultural autonomy form the dominant formations. A large number of dalits got converted to Budhhism. The RPI emerged one of the important political parties in the assembly and parliamentary elections held in UP during the 1960s. But the RPI could not remain a force in UP after the 1960s because its main leadershipgot co-opted into the Congress, a party against whom it had launched movement in the preceding decade.

The Second phase (1970s – 1980s)
This phase was marked by the combination of class and caste struggles. In the rural areas of West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh the naxalite movement launched a struggle against the caste and class exploitation. In the cities of Bombay and Pune, the Dalit Panther launched the similar kind of movement.

Dalit Panther Movement
An educated group of dalits – young dalit writers and poets, in two major cities of Maharastra set up an organisation known as Dalit Panther in 1972. Influenced by Amedkarism, Marxism and “Negro literature”, they aimed at rejecting the caste system, which according to themwas based on the Brahmincal Hinduism. Spreading their ideas through the media and communication network, through thediscussions and debate in the public space,i.e., offices, houses, tea shops, public libraries, dalit writes and poets providedthe critique of the Hindu caste system and exploitative economic system.
The origin of the Dalit Panther can be traced to a controversy which centered around the articles and poems written by dalit writers in a socialist magazine, Sadhana. Raja Dhale’s writing was most controversial of these writings. The controversy centered around two points; his comparison ofa fifty rupee fine for molesting a dalit woman with hundred rupees – fine for insulting the national flag; another point was repetition of the points which were made earlier at the publication ceremony of the collected poems – Golpitha, of Namdev Dhasal, another noted dalit – Marxist writer. The Golpitahpoems were also related to the exploitation of women.

The high caste middle class felt outraged by the articles and demanded banning of the issue of Sadhna which carried the article by Raja Dhale. Dalit youths in reaction also organised a defence march holding a red-on-black Panther flag. In order to give up the conventional organisational nomenclature, they gave a new name to their organisation Dalit Panther. The activists of Dalit Panther belonged to first generation educated youth, whose parents were poor peasants and labourer, who had inherited the lagecy of Ambedkar movement.

Initially the movement proclaimed to have an alliance of exploited people – dalits, backward classes, workers and peasants. Its programme centered around the problems of women, rejection of Brahaminical principles of purity and pollution, and fight against all kinds of political and economic exploitation. In the tradition of Ambedakarism, they aimed at achieving the political power.This movement grow in the wake of the failure of the Republican Movement of the 1970s which suffered because of the personality differences of its leadership.

With its main leadership having joined either the Congress or any other formation, the RPI movement had become almost an insignificant force. But the seeds sown by this movement resulted in the formation of Dalit Panther and its movement. But like the RPI movement, it had to suffer from the split. Two main leaders of the Dalit Panther Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal developed differences on the ideological ground. The former an ardent Ambedkarite accused Namdev Dhasal, a marxist of ignoring the caste problem and helping the communists to peneterate the Dalit Panther movement. This ultimately resulted in expulsion of Dhasal from Dalit Panther in 1974. Raja Dhale formed a separate group of Dalit Panther. In 1976, the younger members of Dhale group led by Arun Kamble and Ram Das Athavale formed a new organisation Bharatiya Dalit Panther, in an attempt to give it an all India face. It took up the issues relating to education system, facilities to the Buddhist converts,renaming the Marathwada University at Aurangabad as Ambedkar University, and “nationalisation of basic industries”. But this also could not make any dent. The Dalit Panther could not be able to makean alliance of all exploited. It got divided between the Ambedkarites and Marxists, particularlyafter the 1974 by election to the Bombay parliamentary constituency.

Naxalite Movement in Bihar
Unlike the dalits of west UP or Maharastra, those of Bihar did not experience anti-caste movement in the colonial period. While the non-dalit peasantry was mobilised by different peasant or caste organisations in Bihar, dalits largely remained the vote banks of political parties. Jagjivan Ram did not make any efforts to mobilise them excepting for getting their votes. It was only since the late 1960s that dalits of central Bihar were initiated into the political movement. But it was not the exclusively on the caste lines; it was on the mix of caste and class exploitation. In Bihar there seemed to one to one relationship between caste and class to a considerable extent. The landlords formed their caste senas (private armies) in order to protect their class interests. The dalits got organised there on the caste and class lines. It was a backward class leader a koeri, Jagdish Mahto who made first attempts to mobilise the dalits of Arrah district. Influenced by the dual ideologies of Marxism and Ambedkarism, he started a paper called “Harijanistan” (dalit land) in Arrah district. He believed in the violent methods, including murder of the landlords in fighting the cause of the dalits. He raised the issues of low wages to the land less workers, protection of izzat  of dalit women and social honour. He was murdered in 1971.

Dalit mobilisation in Bihar got momentum again in the 1980s following the spade of attacks by the private army of the landlords such as “Bhoomi Sena” (of the Kurmis), “Lorik Sena” ( of the Rajputs) ondalits. In reaction to this the labourers formed “Lal Sena”. As the larger number of the victims of the landlords sena included dalits, they formed the larger chunk of the supporters of the naxalism. The naxalites attempted to unite the middle caste and the middle peasants. Theyset up organisations like “Liberation”, “Party Unity” in Patna and Jehanabad districts. Party Unity set up an public organisation Mazdur Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS) in collaboration of ex-socialist Dr. Vinayan. The MKSS along with another organisation (Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabaha – BPKS) which was formed at that time organised demonstrations in1981. These two organisations formed underground armies and fought against the gangs of the landlords. They also fought among themselves. In 1983 the Liberation group formed another public front, The Indian Peoples’ Front (IPF). The IPF contested 1985 election. This showed a change in the perspective ofthe naxalite groups, which changed from emphasis on the “agrarian revolution” to “taking state power”.

Dalit movement in Karnataka
In Karnataka also dalits organised intothe Dalit Sanghasrsh Samiti (DSS). It was an organisation which was set up in 1973 and set up its units in most districts of Karnataka. Like Bihar it also took up casteand class issues and attempted to build an alliance of diverse groups of the exploited classes. It alsobrought dalits of different persuasions – Marxism, socialism, Ambedkarism, etc, under the banner of a single organisation. During 1974 and 1784 it took up the issues relating to wages of the agricultural labourers, devdasiand reservation. It held study groups to discuss the problems ofdalits. The DSS was formed following the resignation of a dalit leader Basavalingappa, who was asked to do so by the chief Minister Devraj Urs. This leader referred to the literature of the high caste with Bhoosa (cattle fodder). This outraged the students belonging to the high castes, leading to the caste rights between the high castes and dalits. Incensed by consequences of the remarks of the minister the chief minister had asked him to resign. The Bhoosa controversy set a strong anti-caste tendency, which was represented a journal  Dalit Voiceset up by a journalist Rajshekhar. Dalit Voice attacked Brahmins as “Nazis” and the left movement as “ Brahmo–Communist” and termed dalits as “born Marxists”. According to the editor of Dalit Voice the main issue in the dalit-OBC mobilisation is notthe alliance between the dalits and the OBCs, the leadership of dalitsover the OBCs.

Phase III ( 1990s onwards)

The 1990s have seen the proliferation of dalit organisations in in different states of the country. The case of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh is most important. Though the RPI had been influential in Uttar Pradesh like Maharshtra since the 1950s, the rise of the BSP has been the most striking feature of dalit identity and politics in India. It has been able to lead the government in Uttar Pradesh thrice with a dalit woman Mayawati as the chief minister. The BSP was founded on April 14, 1984 by its president Kashi Ram. Before forming the BSP Kashi Ram mobilised dalits under the banner of two organisations, i.e., the BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation) and DS4 (Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti). These were social and cultural organisations with their focus on the mobilisation of the dalit middle classes. With the formation of the BSP, Kashi Ram changed the social and cultural organisations into a political party – the BSP.

The BSP aimed to mobilise the majority other sections of the society, the Bahujan Samaj, consisting of the dalits, backward class and religiousminorities which excluded the high castes like Brahmans, Rajputs, and Banias. The BSP believes that the minority high castes have been using the votes of the majority communities or the Bahujan Samaj. They did not let them become the leaders or the rulers. As in a democracy it is the majority who should rule, the Bahujan Samaj should become the ruling class. There was a need to reverse the pattern of power game in the country; the Bahujan Samajs hould no longer allow the minority high castes to use them as the vote banks. Rather the Bahujan Sama jshould be the rulers. With this perspective the BSP contested the assembly and parliamentary elections in several states in the country from 1985 onwards. The BSP made its present felt in North Indian states, especially Punjab, UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The BSP has been able to consolidate its position among dalits mainly for its strategy of electoral alliances and the public policies. The most important case of the BSP’s electoral alliance has been in the state of UP, though it has attempted electoral alliances in other states as well . From the 1993 assembly election of UP onwards, the BSP has entered into alliances with the major political formulations like Congress, the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in UPor the Akali Dal and Congress in Punjab, which could help it win the assembly and parliamentary elections or in the post-poll alliance which help it form the government. The first alliance which the BSP made was  with the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party in UP in 1993 election.. The this alliance was considered as an example of the unity of the Bahujan Samaj– the BSP identified with the dalits and the Samajwadi Party with the backward classes and the minorities. This alliance, however, continued only till the BSP withdrew support from the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led SP-BSP government in 1995. The fall of Mulayam Singh led-government was followed by its alliance with the BJP, which enabled Mayawati to become the first dalit woman Chief Minister of any state. Immediately after becoming the Chief Minister, Mayawati declared that her party serve the serva samaj; it was shift from her earlierposition where she vowed to fight for the Bahujan Samaj. It was beginning of the BSP’s change in the electoral or alliance strategy. In the subsequent elections, contrary to original principles, it gave tickets even to the high castes Brahmins, Rajputs, Banias and Kayasthas gave them representation as ministers in her government.

However, during her Chief Ministership, Mayawati introduced special policies for dalits. The most important of these included: – Ambedkar Village Programmes consisting of the special programmes for the welfare of the weaker sections in the villages identified as the Ambedakar Villages on the basis of the substantial dalit population in such villages, and naming of the public institutions after the low caste historical personalities.It also took prompt action against those who involved in the discriminatory activities against the dalits. The rise of the BSP has imparted a sense of pride and confidence among the dalits in the country. Especial focus of the BSP-led coalition governments in UP on the dalis in its policies has created caused resentment among the non-dalits both the high castes as well as the backward classes. The BSP has been able to counter this by change in its alliance strategy. Unlike its initial  strategy, the has been giving tickets to high castes.

In fact in the elections heldin 2002 to the UP assembly election, the largest group of the MLAs in the UP legislative election belong to the high castes. The main criterion for forging alliance seems to be the ability of the candidates to win the election, which could made possible by an alliance of dalits and high castes candidates who are given tickets by the BSP. Though the BSP contributed to the politicisation of dalits to a large extent, it could not maintain the unity of the Bahujan Samaj.The main reason for its success lie in the electoral strategy of the BSP.


2 thoughts on “DALITS in india

  1. Dear sir
    It is a matter of great importance that this historical information to make aware millions for their rights and prepare them to fight ii out . I wish you great success.

    Dr Mohan Lal

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