The twin crisis of Dalit politics and Dalit discourse
Is Dalit politics in a crisis? This question is often asked due to the underperformance of Dalit parties over the past several years. The most influential of such parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has suffered a steady decline over the past decade, and its organisation is in a shambles. Dalit parties in Maharashtra have split, making them irrelevant. And while other Dalit parties never acquired similar political significance in other states as they did in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, their power to influence local elections and agenda has steadily eroded. It’s not just the Dalit political parties, even the hold of Dalit organisations on their own communities is diminishing. And despite some new sparks such as the Bhim Army, or the increasing presence and assertiveness of Dalits on social media, the overall trajectory is directionless.
So what are the factors behind this crisis? The question opens up an investigation into a vast spectrum of the social, political and economic dynamics at play. But for the sake of brevity, we will focus only on one of the factors: The crisis of the Dalit politics is actually a crisis of the Dalit discourse. The fact is that there has never been any pan-India Dalit politics. What we have are regional movements and specific caste assertions, responding to the local context, in search for equality and socio-economic mobility. There is nothing that can be called “The Dalit politics”. It is only BR Ambedkar and his legacy, which serves as the common meeting point for all these groups and parties, as they all try to derive their legitimacy from him.
The crisis in the Dalit discourse is due to the increasing assertion of the heterogeneity of the Dalits, where every caste is mobilising to become visible to the State, and stake a claim for a share in the power structure and resources of the State. This has upended the Ambedkarite discourse, which was till now seen only through the prism of the numerically stronger castes who were also the first movers in the politics of social justice.
With this increasing heterogeneity comes different narratives, cultural moorings, immediate concerns and aspirations. And the prevalent structures of Ambedkarite politics have failed to accommodate the new entrants. This inability to accommodate heterogeneity has only been matched by the increasing coercion to impose a monolithic neo-Buddhist worldview upon the masses.
It is this adherence to the bland rhetoric rooted in racist theories like that of “moolnivasi” (indigenous) and the anti-upper caste bigotry that is now more important than the everyday issues. The competitive puritanism of an increasingly Wahhabi version of neo-Buddhism is creating a joyless world of permanent victimhood and iconoclasm. Forget participating in Holi or Diwali, even celebrating birthdays should be avoided to resist the Brahminical-capitalist conspiracy, says this school.
It increasingly aims to uproot the Dalit youth even from their subaltern customs and traditions, and convert them into a fanatical version of what is now being preached as Buddhism. And this version of Buddhism is a negative construct built on perpetual opposition to the “other”.
This uprooting of the Dalit youth from their everyday “little traditions”, because they are seen as too Hindu, is creating a crisis of identity and a void that is leading to extremism, nihilism, and ultimately disillusionment with the Ambedkarite discourse. And due to the heavy influence of the Ambedkarite discourse on Dalit politics, the crisis is being transmitted to Dalit politics as well.
More and more people are finding it difficult to associate with this Dalit politics, which is now trapped in endless and increasingly failed cultural wars of de-Hinduising Dalits, rather than tackling the everyday questions of the people. Dalit parties and organisations are unable to decide whether they are a religious missionary group, a social reform movement, or a political party. While, in theory, one may argue that they can be all at the same time, it just doesn’t work in practice. Why would followers of the Nath sampradaya (community), rooted in the anti-caste tantra movement of medieval India, discard their faith and tradition to join a political party that demands surrendering to rigid and alien neo-Buddhism? Why would someone from a smaller Dalit caste join a Dalit organisation if he can’t see his leaders and concerns reflected in the party structure? If nationalism and Hinduism are accused to be the discourse of the upper-castes, then whose discourse is this new brand of Ambedkarism and neo-Buddhism?
This is what that lies at the heart of the present crisis of Dalit discourse and Dalit politics in India.