A good yardstick to measure the success of any democratic system is to check the extent to which it gives voice to its most marginalized citizens. So, when Dalit politics announced its presence as a national force in the 1990s and the 2000s, it suggested that the vital signs of Indian democracy were strong. The world’s largest and the most longstanding marginalized group that was religiously condemned to be outcaste, was democratically empowering itself to govern.
Marked by political opportunities accompanying party system fragmentation in the wake of Congress decline, electorally successful and prominent Dalit parties and leaders emerged across India. Dalit parties had appeared and competed earlier, but in the era of Congress dominance their performance and stature were constrained. In the Bahujan Samaj Party and Lok Janshakti Party, Dalits had propelled their own political vehicles to prominence in large and electorally consequential states. In Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan, they had found independent leaders with national recognition.
Today, the electoral fortunes of the Dalit parties have declined. Stalwarts of this era like Kanshiram and Paswan have passed away, and Mayawati appears to be a spent force. The Republican Party of India in Maharashtra and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in Tamil Nadu have miniscule vote shares. And even when in power, Dalit parties have struggled to convert group representation into tangible gains and social justice for Dalits. Acts of violence and humiliation against Dalits persist. The consolidation of the party system in the aftermath of the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP has begun to reduce the political space for the rise of small parties, including Dalit parties. In this context, as we look towards 2021, are we witnessing the death of Dalit politics? I argue that Dalit politics continues to live. Born and bred under conditions of social hostility and state indifference, Dalit social and protest movements possess a strong survival instinct. These movements, and not Dalit parties, are the true flame-keepers of Dalit politics.
Dalit mobilization represents the politics of the marginalized. It is therefore always contingent on the availability of political opportunity and constrained by material and organizational resources. The scale for successful electoral mobilization in Indian parliamentary and assembly constituencies is substantial. It is therefore incredibly difficult for marginalized groups to mobilize through their own parties. At 17 percent, Dalits are a sizable minority; however, they do not form a majority in any one of India’s 543 parliamentary constituencies. Dalits are also fragmented into 400 jatis or subcastes with distinct and sometimes conflicting interests. So, in a first-past-the-post electoral system, the electoral fortunes of Dalit ethnic parties will always be precarious. Dalit parties will appear and disappear. But the fluctuation of the fortunes of Dalit parties does not imply the disappearance of Dalit politics. Because Dalit politics lives and breathes in Dalit social and protest movements.
Dalit social mobilization is made up of stories of resistance that parents and elders tell their children, then passed on and amplified in protests and agitations, in theater, in literature and music, and in community gatherings during festivals and prayer meetings. It offers a crucial vehicle for this historically marginalized group to develop and express their political voice. The threshold for successful social mobilization is smaller and more flexible, compared to electoral collective action. Even at this smaller scale, Dalit agitations are able to give voice to demands, draw attention to group concerns through disruptions, and make the Dalits visible. Importantly, Dalit movements represent the group’s agency.
Movement politics enable them to practice independent and autonomous political assertion in ways that is often not possible through electoral contests. As members of multi-caste parties or coalitions, or multi-caste broker networks maintained by politicians, the agency of Dalits is deeply constrained because they remain dependent on more powerful actors to achieve electoral successes. A BSP official summed up this situation to me: “To succeed, any party needs the support of the three M’s—money, media, and mafia. We (Dalits) are without the three Ms.” Dalit political actors seeking public office are thus dependent on stronger and wealthier partisan organizations for physical protection, financial resources, and access to state officials and news media.
Today, Dalit protests ground the roots of Dalit politics. Dalit activists see protest politics as an ornament of democracy; “Loktantra ka gehna”, as they call it. Protests are an increasingly popular form of politics across the world. According to government data, India clocks above 300 protests per day. In an analysis of caste-based protests at Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s most prominent state-designated protest site, between 2016 and 2019, Rajkamal Singh and I find that out of the 333 caste-based protests, close to 50 percent of protests were organized by Dalits. The significance of this finding cannot be overemphasized in this political moment.
Parallel to Dalit street politics, a live Dalit digital public sphere has also appeared. Dalits from across India and abroad exchange ideas, share information, and present perspectives on issues on prominent Dalit online forums, websites, and YouTube channels. There are also a number of Facebook groups as well as Twitter accounts that share commentary and news on Dalits, highlight Dalit experiences, commemorate histories and leaders, discuss Dalit literature and cultural materials, and mobilize Dalit opinions. Numerous Dalits have joined WhatsApp groups to share, discuss, and learn about Dalit social and political concerns. These platforms act as safe spaces for Dalits to express opinions they are otherwise reluctant to share directly with higher caste friends or colleagues. The effects of this connectivity are strengthening a national Dalit consciousness and democratizing Dalit politics.
Social media exposes Dalit youth to online Dalit discourse from different parts of the country, and enables them to imagine themselves as a community across language and cultural boundaries. Social media makes coordination for protests easier, amplifies the message of these protests, and facilitates the creation and distribution of content on Dalit assertion. By highlighting acts of atrocities and discrimination against Dalits, digital Dalit activists put pressure on both Dalit and multi-caste parties as well as mainstream news media.
A vibrant Dalit street articulates Dalit demands, alerts political parties to these demands, shapes Dalit electoral mobilization, announces the presence of Dalit voices in the public sphere, and acts as a nursery for Dalit political and social entrepreneurs. Some of the most prominent Dalit leaders in the modern era, including Kanshi Ram, Ram Vilas Paswan, Thol. Thirumavalavan, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Jignesh Mevani, came up through mass agitation politics. And movement politics have had a powerful impact. Modi’s BJP, unlike its predecessor led by Vajpayee and Advani, is forced to woo Dalits in the name of Ambedkar not Ram, and as Dalits and not Harijans, largely because of Dalit movements.
Dalit protests provides social vigilance. Through small and large protests, Dalits voice their concerns; claim their entitlements; protest their neglect; and monitor the quality of public services provided to them. Of course, large protests by thousands and backed by a political organization are more effective than small ones. Still, the value of small protests to put pressure on local and district-level government officials should not be discounted. “Even if thirty to forty people protest on a highway or outside a government office,” a Dalit activist in Tamil Nadu explained, “it can create a law and order situation.” He was referring to the threat of escalation of a protest into a violent standoff, a prospect that government officials are eager to avoid. A protest can turn into a spectacle if it draws police and journalists, not to mention rival politicians.
For its critics, Dalit mobilization reinforces caste identity and social divisions. But as Gopal Guru has pointed out, for Dalits, organizing against caste has required organizing on the basis of caste. Dalit self-mobilization is a reminder that the path to sustain and protect democracy is much larger than electoral participation.
Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements is shortlisted for the NIF Book Prize 2020.