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“Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers.”
- Dr B.R Ambedkar
It goes without saying that the caste system is one of the crudest manifestations of inequality embodied in Hinduism. Very often the word 'Dalit' is used in ordinary discourse to refer to a certain group of people, carrying various connotations. But who are Dalits? What does it mean to be a Dalit in India? How do they become Dalits? and What is Dalit Movement? To understand the various intricacies linked with the term 'Dalit', let us dwell deeper to understand the functioning of the caste system and try to the birth of the Dalit movement.
According to the ancient Hindu scripture Rig Veda which is revered by the practitioners of Hinduism, the society is made up of four groups which owe their origin to the sacrifice of 'Purusha' or the primaeval man. The four classes originated from his mouth, arms, thighs and feet and are ranked in hierarchical order - the Brahmins Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras However, some groups—commonly referred to as the "Dalits"—were left out of this hierarchy because they were viewed as "outcastes" or "untouchables." Dalits are referred to as Scheduled Castes in India's legal and constitutional terminology. The long-standing practices of prejudice emanating from the Hindu society's heritage of caste hierarchy have led to the subjugation of Dalits in every sphere and a brutal crushing of their spirits.
Change and Revolution are the true symbols of the Dalits in the present times. In response to the long-standing injustices committed against the Dalits, the Dalit Movement in India started in a quest to attain social equality. It aims to challenge the socio-cultural predominance of the higher castes. It is a movement of the masses that aims to establish a society based on justice and equality. The Dalit movement has used various means to attain their objective like speeches, writings, dramas, songs, forms of organizations, political representation and all other potential measures. Dalit movement has evolved over a period of time, beginning from its nascent origins under the strong and visionary leadership of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar to a more radical form under the ‘Dalit Panthers’ and assuming a political nature under the leadership of Kanshi Ram who centred the Dalit movement around attaining political power. In the present times, the Dalit movement is being revived by young and radical leaders, symbolising the anger of the Dalit youth who have decided to come forward and fight for themselves because of the inhumane treatment they are subjected to, just because of their birth in a particular community even after 75 years of independence.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Origin of the Dalit Movement
Dr B.R. Ambedkar is revered as the father of the Dalit Movement in India. Having faced the stigmas of caste discrimination throughout his early life, he worked tirelessly to evoke caste consciousness among the Dalits and to secure constitutional safeguards for them. Through his writings in periodicals, including Mook Nayak, Vahishkrit Bharat, and Equality Janta, Ambedkar established a movement against Dalit prejudice, he vehemently opposed the oppressive ideas enshrined in the Hindu scriptures and tried to evoke a consciousness among the Dalits to rise and fight for their rights. His slogan 'Educate, Agitate, Organise' encapsulates his message to his followers. He urged for a separate electorate for Dalits while representing the Dalits at the Round Table Conference in London so as to ensure that representatives from the Dalits could have a fair chance to come to the legislative assemblies. Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi signed the Poona Pact in 1932 to ensure that seats for members of the untouchable class would be reserved in provincial legislatures among the general voters.
Hindu imperialism, in Ambedkar's opinion, was to the untouchables what British imperialism was to India. He urged Dalits to adopt Buddhism to liberate themselves from the oppressive caste system. In order to provide a strong philosophical basis for the Dalit cause, he wrote about the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. B.R. Ambedkar in the capacity of the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constituent Assembly ensured the inclusion of the Positive Discrimination or Reservation Policy for the Dalits in the Indian Constitution. It was due to his persistent efforts that the abolition of untouchability was enshrined as a Fundamental right in the Indian constitution. Dalits were increasingly aware of the social issues associated with untouchability and caste prejudice as a result of Ambedkar's efforts to educate them about these issues. Ambedkar's initiatives to promote equality and alter the social order structurally have left behind an indelible impact on the Dalit movement in India. Owing to his relentless struggle to build an egalitarian society and liberate the Dalits, Dr Ambedkar is widely addressed as “Babasaheb” or “Respected Father” among the Dalits.
Dalit Panthers - A Radical Uprising
Babasaheb passed away in 1956 leaving a huge void in the Dalit movement. The post-Ambedkarite Dalit movement is characterised by various initiatives taken by Dalits in different parts of India to carry forward the legacy of Ambedkar. One of the most striking and noteworthy of them is the “Dalit Panthers” which marked a new phase in the Dalit movement, wherein the Dalit youth adopted a radical stance to assert their identity and fight for their rights. Dalit Panthers was a militant organization started by Dalit youth on 29 May 1972 in Mumbai which channelised their anger at the unfair and inhumane treatment meted out to the Dalits even after the adoption of the Constitution, embodying the ideals of equality and the principle of non-discrimination against the vulnerable groups.
Dalit Panthers was founded by young JV Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale. The impetus to form this organization came from the Elayaperumal committee report which was presented in the Parliament in 1970, which exposed the failure of the government to prevent atrocities against the Dalits. The Republican Party of India established by B.R. Ambedkar to mobilise the Dalits lost track and failed to attain its objective. The party was fragmented into numerous factions and thus lost its relevance. The bias of the Congress government against the Dalits infuriated them and highlighted a need for an organisation to fight for Dalit rights, in these circumstances Dalit Panthers were born.
The Dalit Panthers were inspired by the Black panthers of the USA who fought for securing the rights of the Blacks in the USA. The panthers acted as a pressure group, organised protests, marches, and hunger strikes whenever an atrocity was committed against a Dalit and ensured quick dispensation of justice. They acted as a civil policing group and instilled a sense of security and confidence amongst the Dalits. Even if the police would not listen to them in distress, the Panthers would surely pressurize the police to pay heed to their problems. Whenever there were cases of a Dalit woman being raped and tortured or of Dalit men who casteist goons had murdered, the Dalit Panthers acted swiftly to ensure that justice was delivered. In their struggle, the Panthers received the support of some factions of the Republican Party who voiced their issues in the state legislature and demanded an answer from the then Chief Minister, Vasant Rao Naik in 1974, who had been silent over the issue of Dalit atrocities.
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The Panthers did not contest the elections and declared that until the provisions of the Indian constitution were fully implemented, they would boycott the Independence Day celebrations and observe each independence day as a ‘Black Independence Day'. The Panthers extensively used the literary medium to disseminate their message far and wide. They had some influential writers and poets including Namdeo Dhasal whose most famous work on poetry was 'Goplitha'. Raja Dhale wrote an article criticising the attitude of the government by saying that the national flag which was a piece of cloth, was respected far more than a Dalit woman in flesh and blood. The Panthers wrote in magazines and periodicals like ‘Nav Kal’ and ‘Sadhana’ highlighting the plight of the Dalits who had been suppressed to such an extent that their spirits were crushed brutally. These literary pieces depicted the anger at the injustices committed against the Dalits. In the mid-1970s, the Dalit Panthers expanded the organisation to states like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and so on. The appeal of the Dalit Panthers was massive and their activities inspired the Dalits in England to establish ‘The Dalit Panthers Of India’ in London. Likewise, The Black Panthers were equally impressed by the struggle of the Dalit Panthers and tried to bring attention to their work in the USA as well. (Dalit Panthers - An Authoritative History, By J.V. Pawar, 2017)
The Dalit Panthers went as far as to say that if the Dalits can’t be assured a safe and dignified existence in India, then they should be given a separate country ‘Dalitstan’. They received immense support from Bhaiyyasaheb Ambedkar, the son of Babasaheb Ambedkar and a Republican leader. Despite its great successes, the Dalit Panthers couldn't exist for more than a couple of years, and cracks began to appear in the Dalit Panthers as there was a tussle over the issue of Communism. They got split into factions -, the major faction was led by Dhale who was against communism and in favour of Buddhism, and the other faction was led by Dhasal who was a pro-communist. The factions of the Republican Party whose political relevance was threatened by the rise of Panthers popularised the narrative that Dalit Panthers were a threat to the unity of the Dalit movement. The Republican leaders also criticised them for acting as mafias and goons. There was an atmosphere of negativity and confusion amongst the Dalit Panthers who were disillusioned by the factionalism and so the leaders of the factions decided that the Dalit Panthers which had lost their track and coherence, should be disbanded. Even today, when an atrocity is committed against a Dalit, people talk about the need for the revival of Dalit Panthers.
BSP- A Political Movement
In 1984, BSP or the Bahujan Samaj Party was established by Kanshi Ram in a bid to give the Dalit movement a new political identity. ‘Bahujan’ is a broader term than Dalit and includes the SCs, STs, OBCs, Women and the religious minorities as well, Kanshi Ram believed that 15 per cent of the society is ruling over the 85 percent (the Bahujans)-and exploiting them. For this to change, he wanted the 85 percent to capture political power and become the ruling class. BSP emerged as a formidable force in Uttar Pradesh while in other northern states its presence was not significant enough to make an impact.
Kanshi Ram was succeeded by Mayawati as the supremo of BSP and under her leadership, the BSP came to power in Uttar Pradesh in 1993, 1996 and 2002 forming alliances with the Samajwadi party and the BJP, thereby compromising its ideology. But this compromise was justified, since Kanshi Ram believed that this was the only way through which the condition of Dalits and Bahujans would improve, and a mere social movement will not be fruitful if it didn't have real legislative and political power. Though the BSP came into power alone in 2007 in UP, over the years the party has seen a severe decline in terms of its electoral performance; its supporters, especially the youth have lost faith in the party and have switched to other options like SP, BJP and Azad Samaj Party. One of the main reasons for BSP's downfall has been its leadership. It is ironic that the party which was formed to challenge Brahmanical dominance in politics is now being led by upper caste leaders like Satish Chandra Mishra, currently the General Secretary of the BSP. This is certainly not the BSP that Kanshi Ram had envisaged.
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The Dalit youth have lost faith in the BSP as there has been no significant improvement in their living standards even when the BSP was in power and with BSP's supreme leader Mayawati receding into the background, the supporters have become disillusioned. Mayawati has not participated in any ground-level movement for a long time. Further, her omission from the Hathras gangrape case protest came as a big surprise for everyone, it seems as if she has lost interest in fighting for the Dalits and is only eyeing another term as the Chief Minister of UP, which was evident in her statement wherein she said, that to defeat the Samajwadi party, her party was ready to ally with 'any party' which was an indication of her being ready to join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party to fulfil her selfish interests. The rise of radical leader Chandrashekhar Azad is also one of the reasons for a shift in Dalit youth from BSP as they are attracted to a leader who is fighting for them on the ground.
The seemingly inevitable end of the party was evident in the recent 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections where the party managed to win just 1 seat. It remains to be seen whether the BSP would be able to regain its former glory or not. However, it would remain an undeniable fact that Kanshi Ram and his BSP played a pathbreaking role in awakening the political consciousness of the Dalits and transforming them from being a mere vote bank to a politically active, if not a dominant class.
Contemporary Phase - A Radical Revival?
Since the decline of the BSP, the Dalit Movement has been waiting for new leadership and a revitalised identity. In the present times, young radical Dalit leaders have emerged, dreaming to carry forward Babasaheb’s legacy. Foremost among them are leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad alias Ravan, Jignesh Mevani and so on.
Azad and his social organization ‘Bhim Army’ have posed a significant challenge to the hegemony of the upper castes in Uttar Pradesh, a state renowned for notorious casteist activities. His rise has instilled confidence in the Dalits, especially the youth who look up to him as their ‘messiah’, Bhim Army can be compared to the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra who also had their support base predominantly amongst the youth. The symbolic acts of keeping moustaches and riding motorbikes are an attempt to challenge the hegemony of the upper castes who consider keeping moustaches as their prerogative. This 'Sanskritization' attempts to instil a sense of confidence amongst the Dalits. The youth supporters of Azad emulate him in these symbolic activities and feel a sense of pride and dignity as even today, in some areas Dalits are beaten to death for riding a motorbike, or horse and for keeping a moustache. Following the footsteps of the Dalit Panthers, whenever a caste-based atrocity is reported against a Dalit, the Bhim volunteers immediately organise themselves even in remote areas and act as to ensure the dispensation of justice to the aggrieved. Azad and his followers have resorted to mass action like protests, road blockades, gheraos, strikes etc. on several occasions like the demolition of Ravidas temple in Delhi, Anti-CAA protests, in demanding justice for the survivor of the heinous gangrape case in Hathras, UP and so on. Azad considered Kanshi Ram as his guru or role model, and like Kanshi Ram, he too realized that the fight for Dalits needs to be carried from the roads to the Parliament. Owing to differences with Mayawati, Azad established his own political party - Azad Samaj Party (Kanshiram) and contested state assembly elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Though the party has not been able to secure any significant electoral victory yet, there is a hope amongst the Dalits, particularly the youth that Azad could emerge as their political leader in the future which is all the more needed at a time when BSP under Mayawati has completely compromised its ideology for electoral gains. It would be interesting to see whether Azad will be able to mobilize the Dalits and fulfil Kanshi Ram’s dream of making Bahujans the politically ruling class, or his struggle becomes yet another failed movement.
The Dalit Movement has evolved since its onset under Babasaheb Ambedkar and has still not been able to fulfil its objective of altering the social structure and establishing an egalitarian society. B.R. Ambedkar once said to his followers “Go and write on your walls, that you have to become the ruling class of the society.” Well, to fulfil his dream many people have joined the Dalit Movement and various initiatives have sprung up including the likes of Dalit Panthers, BSP under Kanshi Ram, and the latest being Azad and his Bhim Army. But the Dalit Movement will remain weak as long as its thrust is mainly in terms of demands made on the state for jobs, rather than attempting to undertake the transformation of civil society and the nature of the state. The pressure on the leaders from the grass root ought to be strong enough to keep them in check and they should not be raised to a pedestal where they start seeing themselves as above the ordinary man. The major roadblock in mobilizing the Dalits lies in the fact that the Dalits are a heterogenous body and are divided into thousands of castes. The inter-caste differentiation amongst the Dalits is very strong which is explicitly evident in the way other Dalits treat the Valmiki community despite the fact that they are also Dalits. Babasaheb Ambedkar faced this problem of mobilizing the Dalits, which was later faced by Kanshi Ram as well and it continues to persist to date. The future of a vast majority of Dalits hinges upon the fate of the Dalit movement, and it remains to be seen whether Babasaheb’s dream of the Dalits living with pride and dignity would be fulfilled or will remain a distant reality.
By Milind Shekhar Singh
Milind Shekhar Singh is a second-year student of Political science honours at Hindu College. He has a keen interest in Geopolitics and International relations and loves to keep up with the happenings in the global arena. His hobbies are reading non-fiction books and playing cricket and football.