On the margins of the margin

Badri Narayan, The Hindu, June 210, 2102

COUNT THEM IN: Lesser Dalit groups need to counter their disembodiment by developing their own politics. A February 2012 picture of supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party at an election rally at Sitapur, near Lucknow. Photo: AP
COUNT THEM IN: Lesser Dalit groups need to counter their disembodiment by developing their own politics. A February 2012 picture of supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party at an election rally at Sitapur, near Lucknow. Photo: AP

Dalit politics must embrace less powerful caste groups

When Kanshi Ram emerged on the political scene, he developed himself as a leader of all Dalits as a whole and tried to create a homogeneous identity for the diverse Dalit castes who comprise the lower castes of the social system. He ensured that each and every Dalit caste had respect by providing representation to them in democratic power. Through his efforts, a large section of Dalits, who were earlier excluded from the democratic processes of the country, have succeeded in obtaining political empowerment in Uttar Pradesh through the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). However out of the 66 Dalit castes, only four including shoemaker (cobbler) caste — called Ravidasi or Harijan in some parts of India — Pasi (watchman of feudal lords/toddy tappers/some of them tame pigs), Dhobi (washerman) and Kori (weaver) have become visible in democratic politics. The rest are invisible. Even among the more visible Dalit castes, the cobblers and Pasis have grabbed most of the space.


But in the ever-evolving politics of U.P., the invisible and unseen communities are unable to demonstrate their presence. While democracy has helped in empowering many erstwhile marginalised communities, it has also led to the disempowerment of many other smaller communities because marginalised communities which have gained power do not want to share it with their less fortunate brethren. Thus are dominant communities born.

The cobbler caste, the largest Dalit community in U.P., constitutes 56.20 per cent of the total Scheduled Caste population, which is 21.1 per cent of the State’s total population (2001 census). It has emerged as one of the dominant castes among Dalits.

The caste took to education in a big way in pre-Independence years. That helped its members find jobs in cities, in turn helping in their rise as a political caste after Independence. When Kanshi Ram emerged on the scene, the caste already had a middle class, community leaders and the makings of an intelligentsia. They were a ready-made cadre for the party in its initial phase. The cobbler caste thus made up a chunk of the BSP, and succeeded in cornering the benefits of Dalit political empowerment. However many other Dalit castes like Jogi, Nat (wanderer), Musahar (who make items out of leaves), Kanjar (mat weaver), Dom, Domar, Hela (sweeper), Basor (basket weaver), and Bansphor (bamboo basket maker) are so insignificant despite their numerical strength that they cannot make their presence felt in U.P’s vote bank politics and continue to face exclusion.

Aside from these castes, there are others found in lesser numbers like Bahelia (bird hunter), Khairha (woodcutter), Kalabaaz (songster), Balai (farm labourer), Majhwar (musician), Hari (basket maker) and Sansiya (musical instrument repairer). They are not visible in any political or governance strategies, and lack a presence in the political sphere. While conducting research, it was observed that communities which are not educated, and which do not have leaders, caste histories and heroes are unable to create their own identities which can make their communities assertive in democratic politics.

Vocabulary of exclusion

Within Dalits, the term ati-Dalit (lowest of the low) has become a part of the vocabulary of the Dalit intelligentsia as a result of this exclusion. In its election manifesto for the U.P. Assembly elections, the Congress party had promised to give respect, representation and status to these castes. More recently, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar created a new category, Mahadalits, to offset the exclusion of certain Dalit communities. Commentators saw this move as a step by Mr. Kumar to line his own vote-bank, but it served to establish that exclusion among Dalits exists. Not much was mentioned about these margins in the election manifesto of the Samajwadi Party (SP), nor is it apparent in their policies.

As the Congress did not win the elections in U.P. and Kanshi Ram is not alive to fight for the rights of the marginalised Dalit castes, the most marginalised communities would benefit by adopting the road map provided by the major and dominant Dalit castes. They need to acquire visibility, possible only by building capacity to desire change through the same means that empowered the other Dalit castes. These lesser Dalit groups need to counter their disembodiment. To do that, they need to develop their own politics. The dominant Dalit groups who now have control over scarce resources should act as agencies to help distribute these resources more evenly. In fact, for Dalit politics to become sharp and dynamic it is necessary that all smaller and lesser Dalit groups who are now invisible and unseen, are included within its socio-political matrix.

(Badri Narayan teaches at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Jhusi, Allahabad, and is an analyst of Dalit issues. His latest book published is The Making of the Dalit Public in North India: Uttar Pradesh 1950–Present, from Oxford University Press.)