Dalit politics in UP slums
When they are a sociological community, Dalits are easily enough thought of as a subject of caste discrimination as a permanent class discrimination.
Badri Narayan, the eminent scholar on Dalit history and politics in Uttar Pradesh, has made a few interesting observations on the political behaviour of the Dalits who live in urban slums in Uttar Pradesh. He saw their political culture undergoing a major shift. In the not so distant past, they had been supporters of the Blue, that is, of the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party. Of late, however, they appear to be responding positively to aggressive political indoctrination by the RSS and some other, more extremist, Hindu cultural formations.
Narayan makes a distinction between the mobilisation styles of these two types of organisations. The RSS shakhas are training Dalits to be conservative Hindus. While they do preach a distinctly Hindu identity, the latter is presented more as a matter of pride and celebration and less as a desirable counter to all other religious or ethnic identities. The Hinduness taught is somewhat large, accommodative and generous. It is said to predate and enfold all other religious or ethnic identities and cannot, therefore, be seen to suffer any threat or competition. But there are other, harder core, Hindu formations. They are run by former members of the RSS and mobilise a more explicitly aggressive Hindu identity in opposition and active challenge against the Muslim identity, for instance.
This is a fascinating insight on several counts. Narayan himself mentions that it is a counterpoint to the common-sense liberal assumption that caste tends to wither away in an urban setting. But this is a relatively minor point. By now, it is almost universally understood that that assumption is valid only in a particular and limited sense. It probably means that the exact form or even strictness in the enforcement of caste discrimination as either a local hierarchy or violent untouchability is more likely to be visibly or uncontestably practised in a rural setting. It certainly does not mean that individuals, especially those who recently migrated from the countryside to the cities, by some inexplicable magic forget all trappings of caste as soon as they cross the administrative boundaries of the countryside and enter within the city limits. Caste, or what people think its function is, survives rather vigorously in the city, even among those who do not much care for it.
This is not the occasion to show how caste survives in the city, and that anyway requires an entire column. A simple example, however, is useful to flag the issue. To this day, marriages in India are still largely regulated by caste compatibility. That is only the most ubiquitous mode of survival of caste in contemporary India, as regulation of legitimate mating and reproduction. Many among those who actively oppose caste as untouchability or opportunity discrimination often submit to indirect domination by caste as a marital compatibility regulator. They accept that people who come from roughly similar backgrounds are more likely to live together longer and so forth. In this mediated middle-class perverse rationalisation of caste, the latter morphs into a benign marker of a loose cultural compatibility. It appears, deceptively, to be a world apart from physical enforcement of untouchability or manual scavenging, the two most violent and condemnable forms of caste discrimination in practice in India. Yet, the most obvious reason why caste does not disappear is that we delude ourselves that it has disappeared when there is no explicit practice of violent untouchability or manual scavenging right in front of our eyes.
The major import of Narayan’s little piece lies elsewhere, in the domain of political mobilisation. It repeats a fundamental question about the political behaviour of Dalits as an imagined community. Here I use the term imagined community in the sense Benedict Anderson used it for nation nearly forty years ago. In a sense, this is true for all modern political communities, to the extent that they are forged employing the circulation of a common set of assumptions about who or what they are or stand for and who they are not, or who they should, or must not be. This formulation has to say less about what a modern political community actually is, or has been, in a transcendental sense, as though they defy time or space. Rather it has more to say about how such communities are always about how they are made or remade because they cannot exist beyond time or space.
What happens when that perspective is brought to bear on the Dalit as a political community, as distinct from a sociological or an experiential community? When they are a sociological community, Dalits are easily enough thought of as a subject of caste discrimination as a permanent class discrimination. It means that the dominant social structure is so formed that it always forces collective condemnation to a set of individuals because they are considered low born and unfit for high order living or accomplishments. This unbending social stricture, run by a set of accidentally ‘high born,’ who believe they somehow deserve their high birth, forever pushes the Dalit to a life of indignity. This sociological imagination, loosely speaking, is useful as a means of critique at best to collapse the social structure with those seen to run it. It can help, for instance, to claim that Brahmans, or Savarnas, have so designed the inflexible social structure that it permanently keeps the Dalit in physical and psychological submission. But it will never be clear as to whether an annihilation of Brahmans as people or of Brahmanism as an idea will eventually lead to an annihilation of caste. It will forever fall prey to a dilemma between whether Brahmans manufactured Brahmanism or Brahmanism produced Brahmans, irrespective of how Brahmans or Brahmanism are defined.
When Dalits are imagined as an experiential community, they are seen to be united in suffering, or in physically and psychologically experiencing an injury imposed by an unfair prior system which limits their physical or human potential only to a universally contemptible station. The form of this experienced injury may vary. It may be coming as enforced untouchability, or manual scavenging, or even murder as retribution for claiming access to a symbol or marker of authority or humanity. There is an essential core here of what is called experientiality, or of an intuitive sensibility capable of transmitting a common experience of structural and structured injury. This understanding may potentially unite a ‘low born’ and ‘low living’ Dalit individual, who form an overwhelming majority, with members of a modestly rising Dalit middle class, who may not have physically experienced similar structural injuries, or experience them later in life, or in a somewhat diluted form.
The sociological or the experiential imagination of the Dalit may inform their political behaviour. It is possible to offer elegantly worded definitions of political Dalits. Basically though, for a majority of Dalits, who happen to be poor and lack access to enabling life opportunities in almost all respects, being political involves choosing through elections a party which they hope will bring them immediate physical security and material resources with which to make a life of dignity.
Here is a major dilemma for the political Dalit. If they need immediate physical security and enabling material resources, how much should they bother about who delivers them and at what cost? There are two kinds of political parties which can possibly deliver them. There may be pro Dalit political parties, where the leaders themselves are Dalits and presumably privilege Dalit interests more than that of any other sections of the population. Whether or not that always really happens is beside the point. It is eminently possible nonetheless to think about pro-Dalit parties, such as the BSP, in this way. Then there are political parties such as the BJP, Congress or even Communists, for who the Dalit interest is at best a substantial concern and at worst a token concern.
In an ideal world, the Dalits should, and do, always choose pro-Dalit parties, because it embodies Dalit political agency more than any other party. Agency here means a conscious drive to desire and realise it by means of enacting performances that turns those desires into an accessed resource. In plain English, it means that pro-Dalit parties are more likely to ensure access to enabling life opportunities for Dalits. More importantly, it will be Dalits themselves as their leaders who make available those life opportunities to their fellow constituents.
That, however, is the best-case scenario. It is not a fantasy and has happened several times in the past and may well happen again in future. A BSP government has several times in the past ruled Uttar Pradesh, and another pro-Dalit formation, as in not just for the Dalits, but also by the Dalits, may well in future come to rule the state. But at present, it is ruled by the BJP, which is not a pro-Dalit party in the sense that its ideological or material agenda is not primarily driven by essentially Dalit interests or it is not founded or currently led by a Dalit supreme leader. There are vocal charges, in fact, that it is an anti-Dalit party, that it stays silent when Dalits are visibly oppressed or even brutally lynched, raped or murdered. This is not the place to arbitrate on the merit of those charges, but it is well known that they exist.
It is time now to return to the poor Dalits living in slums in urban Uttar Pradesh. In the past, they had the choice of receiving delivery of physical safety and basic material resources by a pro-Dalit party and government. Also, it provided them with some pride and prestige, since they hypothetically saw one of their own as the Chief Minister of the state. In other words, they had the vicarious luxury of imagining as if they were ruling the state by proxy. But this favourable turn of fortune changed a few years ago and the BJP came to power. Moreover, it was accompanied by a consistent string of losses and political emasculation of the BSP over the same period.
What do the poor Dalits in urban slums do now? In a polity where most useful welfare services are delivered by the state, what choice does this turn of events leave the poor Dalits with? Here it is important to make a distinction between a majority of poor Dalits and a handful of middle-class Dalits. In this context, their material interests cannot be seen to converge, even if they share a common experiential sensibility of structural injuries as a collective memory as politics.
The choice before the poor Dalit in urban UP slums is stark. The BSP workers and publicity have suddenly disappeared and they feel somewhat unsafe. The empty space left by the disappearing BSP mobilisation has been quickly taken over by the RSS, which has been around for a long time but occupied a relatively marginal position until recently and their purportedly more aggressive ideological cousins. Since the BJP has taken over the reins of power in UP, the Hindu mobilisers have practically acquired a veto over the provision of welfare services too. What does the vulnerable slum-based Dalit do under the circumstances? Do they wait for a millennial messiah who shares their political subjectivity beyond all possible ideological dispute? Or do they make a compromise with those who hold the levers of effective and dominant social or political power? This strategy might provide them with sufficient resources to survive the waiting it will require for an ideal ideological force to finally make itself visible and deliver the long aspired annihilation of caste as a life opportunity inhibitor.
The changing political culture of the slum-dwelling Dalits of urban Uttar Pradesh must be seen against this basic context. Ideology or ideal political subjectivity can at best be imagined, or dreamt of, on an empty stomach. It cannot be turned into a reality.