Dalit conference charts an agenda of upliftment
The conference underscored the absence of a popular Dalit movement like that in JV Pawar’s time and spoke of reviving it
MUMBAI: “In the 1970s, caste atrocities were a common phenomenon. Namdeo Dhasal and I were writers, but we felt it was no longer enough to make a difference. So we took to the streets and took matters into our own hands,” said Dalit poet-writer J V Pawar, speaking about the time he co-founded the Dalit Panthers with the fiery Dhasal.
Pawar was speaking at the daylong Dalit Agenda conference on Saturday at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar East—the first Mumbai gathering after the formation of the All India Independent Scheduled Castes Association (AIISCA) in October 2023. The conference underscored the absence of a popular Dalit movement like that in Pawar’s time and spoke of reviving it. The Dalit Panthers themselves disbanded in 1977 due to internal fissures.
“Such a movement no longer exists because people are scared,” continued Pawar, giving the example of the central government imprisoning scholar-writer Anand Teltumbde among others. Echoing another symptom of the larger malaise, Rahul Sonpimple, president of AIISCA, said that Dalit politics was in decline in Maharashtra and all over the country. “This is why we felt the need for an autonomous Dalit movement which unites all the scheduled castes under one agenda,” he said.
“AIISCA aims to be a pan-Indian social movement—political but not electoral,” said Sonpimple. “What we are doing is building a Dalit agenda—by first detailing the need for one, collating the different issues faced by the SC community and discussing how to go about solving them.”
Like with the previous conference, a variety of academics, researchers, activists and student leaders, largely from Maharashtra, were called for a series of panel discussions. They talked about their perspectives and experiences, emphasising areas that they considered important in the fight. “What we envision is a cadre-based grassroots organisation which will unite all scheduled castes across states, genders and ages,” said Sonpimple.
The Dalit Agenda, as it stands right now, has several demands. Some of these are equitable land distribution, an end to atrocities on Dalits (Maharashtra saw 2,743 atrocities as per the Crime in India report, 2022) and rehabilitation for workers and their families engaged in manual scavenging. Education was another significant topic, given the poor literacy rates among Dalits—even in Mumbai, school dropout rates among Dalits were high, said Sonpimple. While there were demands to improve these statistics, there emerged a demand for Dalit-led educational institutions too.
The scarce faculty positions given to Dalits was another issue. Abhijit Waghre, AIISCA’s Maharashtra treasurer and IIM-B researcher, said that despite talk of diversity within institutions, he had encountered few others from SC communities in them. “Discrimination happens at the level of recruitment too,” he said. “Dalits are interviewed but considered inadequate for the job.”
A particular focus of the conference was the economic conditions of the SC community. Sonpimple remarked that despite the union budget having a fund allocation for the welfare of SCs and STs, to be used solely for this agenda, it was being used for general welfare schemes. As this separate allocation is only a scheme, its disuse and misuse is not enforceable by law. “This should change,” said Sonpimple. “The allocation should be made a law so that not using it for its purpose becomes an offence.”
Related to this was the demand to extend reservations to the private sector. A speaker remarked that this was not a new demand. “But as many government sectors, like banks, are being privatised, the pool of jobs designated for the social and economic upliftment of Dalits is getting smaller,” he said. “As a result, most people from the scheduled castes have insecure jobs in the informal sector and remain poor.”
Combining all these issues and demands was an underlying thread of Ambedkarite philosophy, emphasised writer and former professor Asha Lata Kamble. “The Ambedkarite philosophy is needed for progress so that the mentality of superiority among castes can be dismantled,” she said.
For a movement with such grand goals, reaching the fervour attained by the Dalit Panther movement will take a lot of work. “There are three levels to such movements,” said Surekha Paithane. “One is events like these where one sits in halls and forms the agenda. This is then carried forward by us ordinary people, by keeping the conversation alive. But what is most essential is the work at the grassroots level, reaching every little house in every gully. This is where the movement ferments.”
In this vein, the next step of the movement is to embark on a yatra in Maharashtra. Plans for this will be sketched out on Sunday, said Sonpimple, where others working in the area will be consulted, keeping the many disparate movements united.