Dalit movements across India will be a front against hegemonic nationalism
Once again the debate on caste has collapsed into a predictable numbers game. The recent Supreme Court ruling to curb certain provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to prevent possible misuse has elicited protests from Dalit communities. Almost all major political parties have pledged their love and loyalty to the Dalit cause by rallying against the apex court ruling construed as a dilution of the PoA safeguards.
Given that Dalit demonstrations and protests have largely happened spontaneously, without any kind of institutional party support, this post-facto waxing eloquent for Dalit interests is all the more troubling.
Indian politics has entered a phase of political correctness with regard to Dalit issues that often amounts to little more than public posturing. Political parties are scrambling to appropriate Dalit identities and their various struggles, without necessarily changing the nature of their hegemony. Liberal, Left- and Right-wing discourses have, while gesturing for nominal inclusion, remained insular to real-life Dalit practices, values and ideologies. These parties have historically neglected/failed to embrace ‘Dalitness’ in all its forms. Because Dalit narratives, in all its sway, is too awkward and too uneasy to be mainstreamed. To mainstream it is to tame it, to tame its most contentious impulses, to suppress and erase its inconvenient practices. And this mainstreaming often takes the form of emancipatory politics in all its manifestations.
Postcolonial India has seen a continuous reinvention of upper caste hegemony through ideological forms masquerading as emancipatory politics. That the rhetoric for dismantling privilege has often managed to perpetuate and reproduce privilege in various guises of savarna consensus. The din of political correctness surrounding Dalit claims and contestations, once again, threatens to co-opt its dissent, making nominal solidarities a norm without invoking any major restructuring.
The Hinduising of Ambedkar or appropriating Dalit icons and deities in narratives of national/communal unity represents such mainstream erasures at work. By systematically hollowing the position of difference and dissent that they embody, Dalit identities are often subsumed in projections of seamless unities, vastly different from the world of inferiority and violence that Dalit bodies inhabit and experience every day.
Identity struggles and politics has its limits, but pushed against the immense cultural hegemony that savarna rule represents, their identities are the only weapon left for Dalits to fight back with. To merge the ‘Dalitness’ of their identities for the sake of an imagined unity — Hindu, Indian or otherwise — is to completely negate the fight for dignity and life that their struggles represent.
Thanks to decades of affirmative action programmes, the emergence of a significant Dalit middle class has meant that their political assertions and articulations will have a definitive impact on electoral endgames. Dalit protests against the court ruling is only the latest in a series of Dalit assertions in the past few years that include the NCERT cartoon controversy or the lynching of Dalits by cow vigilante groups in Una, the Rohith Vemula incident or the Bhima Koregaon clashes — all of which point firmly to Dalit politics and narratives coming of age.
In spite of the diversity of sites, situations and struggles, these instances reaffirm the desire for alternative pedagogies, politics and narratives that animate the many moments that characterise the Dalit movement in India. Dalit mobilisation is at an all-time spontaneous high, and this is the time to foster lateral pan-Indian networks of Dalit resistance.
Dalit identity politics is fast churning out an expansive axis of emancipatory struggle, and with all its ambiguities, perhaps the last few formidable sites that could resist and refigure the cultural hegemony on which the various edifices of Indian nationalism rests. If the diversity of Dalit movements occurring in the last few years is any indication, the emergence of an assertive and articulate Dalit middle class rallying around Ambedkar will provide a major front against the imposition of hegemonic nationalisms, and no amount of statue-breaking can take that away.
Somak Biswas is a doctoral student of Modern South Asian History, University of Warwick, UK
The views expressed are personal