• [Transcript of the Discussions]The Political Economy of The Dalit Struggle

    May 20, 2017

    Following is a summary of the discussions on The Political Economy of The Dalit Struggle. This discussion, organized by The Maharashtra Sanakritik ani Rannaniti Adhyayan Samiti & Working group on Alternative Strategies, was held on 1 May 2017 at India International Centre, New Delhi.
    The transcribing has been done as faithful to the essence of the discussion as possible. 
    However, certain parts (such as the responses by Dr. Smita Patil and S. Bathula at the end of the sessions) could not be recovered due to technical difficulties. The coloured title in bold match against the sound-clip from which the text has been transcribed. 

    For a brief of the discussion read Analysing the Political Economy of the Dalit Struggle .

    (1) Inaugural Session and Dr. Srinivasu Bathula 

    17-year-old Kalpit Veerwal, the recent IIT-JEE Mains Examination topper from Udaipur who belongs to the Scheduled Caste category, was paid tribute in the inaugural session. Suhas Boker, the Chair of the event, said “Dalits have to surmount mountains of oppression, yet they get such a high score.” Saying that Veerwal’s achievement is remarkable, Boker reminded the audience of rising discrimination and injustice against SCs and ST. 

    The panel discussion, following the inaugural session, consisted of four speakers. Each of the speakers provided different perspectives to the topic of Political Economy of Dalit Struggle. The speakers were –  
    •    Dr. Srinivasu Bathula (Associate Professor for Department of Economics, Jamia Millia Islamia), 
    •    Dr. Pradeep Shinde ( Assistant Professor, Centre for Informal Sector & Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University), 
    •    Dr. Smita M. Patil (Assistant Professor, School of Gender and Development Studies, IGNOU), and 
    •    Prof. Y.S. Alone, Professor (School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University)   . 

    Alluding to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reports, the first speaker Dr. S. Bathula spoke of the deteriorating economic conditions of the Dalits. He said that seven decades of freedom has not resulted in better conditions for the Dalits. Boker’s comments on the few instances in which a few Dalits have shone in certain aspects of life highlighted in mainstream media, such as the cases of the academic successes of Tina Dabe and the more recent Kuljit Veerwal, obscures the objective fact that a staggering proportion of Dalits are not even at the level playing field for achieving such feats, according to Bathula.  

    He looked at the evolution of the political tags Dalits associated with themselves, for which he stated that in the Pre-Mandal period there was glamorization over being a Marxist as opposed to being an Ambedkarite. He said that this was a period when there was an active silencing of the Ambedkarite ideology, where the emphasis of class struggle took precedence over contending with caste realities. Bathula observed, however, that in the post mandal period with the emergence of the Bahujan concept, the dalit struggle became more organized and scientific. The coming of political parties such as BSP and organizations such as National Dalit Forum reflected this. His emphasis however was on the Post-reform period which paved the new economic order that adversely affected and divided various Dalit Movements in many fronts. 

    Bathula said that the corporatization of Education, healthcare, agriculture and many other sectors have formed a stumbling block to equality in access, for which he states that the Dalits stand to lose the most. Prior to the reform period, he said, the state’s role in protecting the interests of the marginalized resulted in the rise in the living standards of Dalits. Now, this role is being reneged in the face of rampant privatization. He stated that this has deepened the Rural-Urban divide, particularly so when seen from the standpoint of education where, for instance, the use of English as a medium has gated off a majority of Dalits who lacked access to such communication skills. Higher education is also being stifled as grants are being cut down drastically. Instead, private institutions have been allowed to mushroom and take precedence which again closes off Dalits from entering higher education. 

    According to Bathula, the implementation of Academic Point Indicators (API) for the purpose of promotions in academic positions is also disadvantageous to Dalit academicians as they have lesser chances for scoring a better API as compared to their upper caste colleagues. He went on further to say that representation in education and business also reflects the abysmal conditions of the Scheduled Caste (SC)/Scheduled Tribe (ST).  In IITs and IIMs, there are 233 SC/ST faculties all over India. Of the total number of entrepreneurs in the country, he states that the ones representing the SC/ST category constitute only 7%. There has been an erosion in the traditional occupations of the people as well and the Multi-National Corporations (MNCS) have had a hand in this. Bathula stated that land reform measures need to be given the utmost care since; more than 90% of the Dalits live in rural areas involved with land in some way or the other. As far as improvement of Dalit lives goes, he says that there will be a need to focus more on better implementation of affirmative action schemes, a reworking of the land reform programs , and more emphasis on the Micro-Small-Medium enterprises. 

    (2)  Dr. Pradeep Shinde

    Dr. Pradeep Shinde spoke on the confluence between Caste and Capitalism where he said that although caste is a pre-modern value, it has maintained its appeal among the people and became predominant to the effect that it has embedded itself in the working of our institutions which eventually reproduces themselves. So the question of discrepancy in terms of equality, representation, and empowerment can be understood from this premise, according to him. 

    He stated that the Welfare state which have looked after the interests of the marginalized, and which allowed for the Dalit middle class to become a reality, have largely been dismantled after the liberalization period in the 1990s. 

    On the question of the existence of ‘Dalit Entrepreneurs’  which he regards as an oxymoron, he says that the term has misled a section of the dalit community into believing that they can be part of the job creation process. He says there is no evidence to support such a claim. Shinde echoed Bathula’s concerns with Privatization stating that the so called Dalit Capitalists haven’t benifited from it, rather the trading castes have, even if the work concerned is one which Dalits are traditionally accustomed to handle. 

    Similarly, he feels just as Bathula does that the state has relinquished its protectionist role towards the Dalits, owing to the embedded values of caste that is reproduced at the institutional level.

    (3) Dr. Smita M. Patil

    The feminist angle to the dalit struggles was provided by Dr. Smita M. Patil. She stated that the contributions of Dalit feminists to the narrative on the movement as a whole have not been given its due importance for a long time. She said that the woman’s role as a caregiver and homemaker are being taken for granted as something that is naturally ordained. On the question of economic equality, she quoted B.R. Ambedkar’s who said “ We have taken care to see, and this is an important point, that women shall be paid the same wages as men. It is for the first time that I think in any industry, principle has been established of equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex.” She mentioned that the contributions Ambedkar made to the rights of women have not been widely recognized even in Indian feminist circles

    Patil goes on to say that there are two opposing fronts that they face against, as stated by B.R. Ambedkar, that of Brahmanism and Capitalism. She said that there are several issues dealing with dalit women’s engagement with the political economy such as the debate in the Indian feminist circle about the legitimacy of sex work given that it consists mostly of Dalit women selling their bodies. She mentioned that the mainstream feminist movement had advocated for non-engagement with caste which is what neo-liberal ideology pushes for. On the otherhand, she said that the Dalit feminist are of the view that sex work, Veshya (Ambedkar Vol. 18), is not something Dalit women must engage in for according to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar livelihood must be attained with self-respect and dignity. She states that there is a caste hierarchy which impinges on Dalit women who engages in sex work (called as the Devdasis) through religious considerations to enter sex work. The debate of agency and choice also comes to the fore since most women who are engaged in this work are bereft of much choice in the matter, which then raises the question of social-location and status of the proponents of the different views in the said debate. 

    The question she is grappling with is the nature of the Dalit feminist’s point of views vs. that of the mainstream Indian feminists. Even in enterprises like Surrogacy, the majority of women involved are from the marginalized sections which begs the questions of the role the state plays in protecting the rights that women have over their bodies in face of traditional notions of their being  child-bearers, which could be manipulated by the nexus of market-state-and economy. 

    Alluding to Bathula’s arguments, she mentioned that the issue of land reforms is quite pertinent to dalit women’s economy for which she cited the example of Gobindpura Village where hundreds of acres of land was forcibly taken by the Punjab govt. from the villagers for the purpose of bringing in power projects (click here for the full story), in spite of there being discrepancies in the law regarding such acquisitions as well since the consent of the villagers must be taken into account, especially so if the land in question is fertile soil that has agricultural value. The incident, which lasted for more than 6 years, resulted in a huge number of landless dalit labourers.

    (4) Prof. Y.S. Alone

    Dr. Alone asked what the criteria are for a nation to achieve ‘developed’ status. He identified four general markers i.e. access to sanitation, education, healthcare, and the position of women. How much we, as a nation, have progressed in these four criteria, he asked. According to him the state is the agency of change which can bring about equitable wealth distribution. He cited B.R Ambedkar’s opening line in the Draft plan, which predicated the Planning Commission, to back the claim. In this he said, it is mentioned that the benefits of development must first go to the affected population. This later resulted in institutions such as RBI. The point to be stressed here, he says, is on the indication that B.R. Ambedkar was pushing for equality of access. Without equality of access, there can be no talk about equality. This, he said, is sad because the general notion in the country is the penchant on merit and quality without the equality of access. On the question of alternative entrepreneurship, he says political means becomes an important instrument for its realization in spite of the fact that every citizen has equal rights ideally speaking. He cited the incidence of construction companies throughout India whose proprietors mostly have a political background. 

    According to Alone, the private sector thrives on the government’s money and protection without bearing any of the corresponding responsibilities. He stated that the governments through the years have been waiving off interests on loans by corporates which goes into the 65,000 crores of rupees. This he said has been possible because of the state of political access and empowerment, which is a vicious cycle since these two concepts reinforce the caste entry perceptions which are embedded in institutions. Embedded hate and anger, which has become a normative at the social and institutional level, is another problem which he thinks is the biggest stumbling block in the progress of the nation. The people at the helm of the state have an attitude of apathy towards this. So from this he says that the narrative of nationalism and that of the state is one dictated by Brahmanical sensibilities and ideology which have been subjected to the citizens irrespective. 

    On the question of Labour, he says that it has not been considered as a contributing factor to the economy. The access of Dalits to the organized labour sector has been mostly through reservations. The unorganized sector is never taken into account as a contributing factor to the economy which he states is a poverty of mind of the economists and the people in this country. 

    (5) Questions and Respondents

    In the question round, a person identifying as Mr. Gautam raised questions with regard to the effectiveness that reservations and other forms of affirmative actions had on Dalit emancipation, that the views presented by the panelists are polemical ‘harpings’ at best to malign the state. He says that the state has been doing its bid as far as education is concerned. He says that the private sector will provide employment opportunities inasmuch as people have the capability for it. The fact that most Dalits haven’t been able to organize themselves is one of the reasons why they couldn’t have this so called access. The ones who did, and he cites the example of the Republican Party of India, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, and the Dalit Panther movement, faced a different reality as they did quite well in their respective regions. The Dalits aren’t the only ones who are marginalized in India. Other groups such as the Tribals and the Other Backward Class are just as marginalized, if not better off. And so he says if anybody is to be blamed, it is the Dalits themselves and their inability to organize not the state.

    The second person in the question round, Ms. M. Gupta who is a former teacher in Delhi University talks of her experience with the scheduled tribe group, the Meenas, who were numerous in her class. She says that in spite of their getting admission into the institutions, through ST quota, the fact that they cannot shed their labels as being Dalits, as them being people who would amount to nothing, and who would continue to be seen as such owing to their getting admission through ST quota, is part of the reason why things wouldn’t improve. She had told them to stop thinking of themselves as such since they too are meritorious students and had to compete with the others. They would do best if they thought of themselves as non-Meenas. They produced the best essays in Hindi, and in her teaching them she got to learn Hindi just as much as they learned English precisely because they refused to think of themselves as Meenas anymore. She is of the notion that Dalits cease to be Dalits once they enter into institutions, whether through quota or not, because they have to compete with the other ‘meritorious’ people then.  

    The third person T. Mahesh states that not only have things improved, but people from the marginalized section have been doing quite well in examinations such as UPSC, and some even qualify in the general category each year. Development is happening, but at a gradual rate, which needs to be hastened. On the question of law enforcement, he states that it is not only the laws associated with the marginalized that have not been enforced to the full effect and spirit. He pointed out that Indian society is blatantly prejudiced having varying levels with regards to how different groups of people are percieved; which, in one way, has manifested itself in subtle forms at higher levels of institutions.  

    The problem of political reservation has produced ‘domesticated brahmins’ who have been co-opted and when atrocities are committed against the marginalized, the political class have remained silent largely because the representation from the marginalized section in power are lackeys who cannot question and object  injustices meted out to such people. This is the reason why Ambedkar talked about a communal electorate system. He opines that there is a need for an inner party democracy in the country to address the problems of the marginalized section because capturing political power is the only way to change the economic conditions. He questioned what the backward caste leaders have done for the status of education and health when they held power. 

    Ashok Bharti, founder and chairman of National Confederation of Dalits and Adivasis Organizations, said he was oblivious of the existence of such strategy groups since in the past permissions to hold such events at the same place have been denied. He stressed that such programs need wider publicity. He reiterated Ambedkar’s concern for improving the status of rural population which he voiced at the 1956 Agra Conference. Up until then, the dalit intelligentsia, academicians, leadership, and struggles have always been urban centric.

    Bharti said that to understand the political economy of the struggles, one has to understand the demands set forth. The worldview that has been painted by the Indian intelligentsia before the dalit masses has rendered dalit collective experience to be largely excluded from the mainstream. The Dalit worldview continues to remain on the fringes of society, and the words of the Indians at the centre is considered as conventional knowledge. Has the latter world fostered the knowledge of the Dalits accumulated throughout their shared history? Bharti cited the example of the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Agra, he stated, is predominated by Dalits and lower caste Muslims because people from these communities were drawn at the time of its construction, rather than from other sections. Upper Caste people were very few. But accolades for the architectural wonder that is the Taj has been accorded mostly to Shah Jahan who commissioned it rather than the people who made it. 

    The program and agenda that has been advanced by the Dalit Intelligentsia is very miniscule, Bharti said, and it is limited to a small section of the people. The larger population of Dalits who are mostly illiterate couldn’t access this agenda, and it benefited mostly the urban middle class. The worldview presented by the Dalit intelligentsia couldn’t challenge the dominant ideas that blanket their narrative largely because of this.  Bharti then stated that according to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Indian society is at war, with the different factions occupying their own compartments characterized by Caste, creed, class, and community. The process of engagement between the warring factions in Indian society is something that must be understood.

    Bharti said that he word ‘discrimination’ has been imposed on the Dalit Intellegentsia by the Brahmanist ideology. The Dalit struggle is a positive struggle for ‘dignity’ rather than against ‘discrimination’.  Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has mentioned the word ‘dignity’ countless times in his work, and it even made mention in the Preamble to the Constitution.Leadership has been the Achilles’s Heel in the Dalit struggle. It has been sold out in the past, and will continue to be so as long as it follows a model other than that which is Ambedkarite in essence. Even Mayawati’s model is styled around Indira’s model rather than Ambedkar’s. 

    S.S. Bhakri Institute of United Nations and UNESCO Studies talked about the findings of the Sengupta Report set up by the Manmohan Singh government, it’s take on unorganized labour, and if the recommendations from the same were implemented viz-a-viz the Dalits. He also remarked, that about 30 years back, one deputy speaker G. Murahari in the Lok Sabha remarked about the party that has ruled for decades, the Congress, that it has a vested interest in maintaining the illiteracy and poverty of the country. He asked if the panelist can comment on how far the statement is right. 

    Arvind Kumar, a political science teacher at Satyavati College, commented on the practice of surrogacy. He brought in a critique coming from the Aryan school of political philosophy that there is something problematic in surrogacy because there is loss in normative ideas such as motherhood, and that it destroys the community values. He asked Dr. Smita Patil if she criticizes the practice because of the reason he provided or because of the socio-economic and ethical aspect of the practice.  

    (6) Alone and Shine's Response 

    Alone agrees that Affirmative Action policies has indeed brought certain transformations in dalit society, and that the share in the employment and governance has improved. The larger question to be pondered upon is that of social transformation given the set rules and conditions that is laid down by the state backed by the constitution. He said that for the state to fulfill its role, as conceptualized by Dr. Ambedkar, the one’s at the helm must have commitment to political morality i.e. a politics not divorced from commitment to the people, the nation, and yourself. In India, the constitution is the guiding principle for people as far as movements are concerned in spirit and practice. People coming out in protest is a constitutional recourse for justice as a result of the feeling of exclusion from the state.   

    In response to the second respondent, he said that while it is true that one has to compete as equals in institutions, however, it is all about a cultural struggle rather than intelligence as far as entry in to institutions and competing within them is concerned. According to Alone, in his experience as an academician there is no such thing as intelligence as far as academics is concerned, rather it is your socio-location which determines whether you can compete or not.  According to him, if intelligence is to be the marker of merit and ability to compete, then it is an absurdity. He states that academicians from India have not produced any theory but just derivations from already existing knowledge. There is no stress in pedagogy to stress on critical thinking and interrogation rather there is an obsession with making language complicated with jargons.
    In his response to the third respondent, he said even the people who came in the merit list came in categories other than the general category indicating that there is something wrong.
    The entire program, one have to think about the functioning of the human mind in India. The sympathetic imagination will not lead to change. Only the empathetic imagination will empower change. To achieve a good, human oriented organization by the state is the goal according to him.The bureaucracy, he admits, is not kind to innovative ideas set forth by well meaning government functionaries. As far as political leadership is concerned, he says that without the Phule-Ambedkarite consciousness there can be no expectations about political morality among the concerned community, the Dalit community in this case. This is becasue the 'Mythic Tradition' will overide all other rational concerns. With all the ongoing madness meted out to the Dalits, not by the law, but by society itself, is it that solutions must be through violent and coercive means? In this case, don’t they  have the right to butcher the caste hindus as well? This is not the case as it has always been a non-violent struggle. The appeal has always been to change the consciousness dictated by violence and subjugation to that dictated by respect and dignity for all.  

    Shinde stated that the Dalits are not ethical relativists in the sense that they do not proclaim that what they assert is right. He also said that Dalits do not cease to be Dalits once they have entered into public or private institutions. As far as embeddedness of caste goes, Shinde says there have been a few number of examples where perpetrators of Dalit atrocities are ever persecuted owing to the bias from the state. He cited the incident where Kerosene was poured into the well where Dalits get their drinking water from in Agar Malwa district in Madhya Pradesh (click here for the full story). The institutions of the Indian State have not disembedded themselves from Caste.


    Kitdor W. is a member of the editorial board at Indian Cultural Forum

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