Of failures and foibles
By Venkitesh Ramakrishnan
Ambedkar’s political legacy has evolved both thematically and organisationally over the 68 years of independent India. On the face of it, the thematic stream would have to be rated as being more successful than the organisational stream on account of the fact that almost all political formations in the country, from the Far Right to the extreme Left, claim to be adhering truly to the Ambedkarite philosophy and its principles. It is a different matter that a closer inspection of these claims would unravel the hollowness in them, albeit in varying degrees. The organisational stream, however, is more open to concrete evaluations because they are measurable in terms of electoral numbers and in terms of political and social reach and impact. The regions where the Ambedkarite organisations took relatively deep roots included Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu in southern India and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh in northern India. By far, Uttar Pradesh is the region where this stream gained most in terms of electoral gains and socio-political influence. This happened basically because of the rise and growth of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.
For Ambedkar, political representation and capturing power were the means of annihilating caste and ending the Brahminical value system that legitimised socio-economic inequality. That is exactly why he sought to build up the biggest political organisation he launched, the Republican Party of India (RPI), as a continuation of his social gesture of converting to Buddhism in 1956. The RPI that he founded continues to this day, although in several disparate factions, but Ambedkar’s journey in terms of building a political organisation began with the founding of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936. He later converted the ILP into the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Both entities contested elections. While the ILP did make limited electoral gains, the SCF could not register even this limited impact. The ILP contested the 1937 Bombay election to the Central Legislative Assembly for 13 reserved and four general seats and won 11 and three seats respectively. Nine years later, the SCF was so thoroughly marginalised in Bombay that it was not in a position even to get Ambedkar elected to the Constituent Assembly of India. Finally, Ambedkar was helped by the SCF’s Bengal leader, Jogendra Nath Mandal, who worked out an understanding with the Muslim League to send Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly. The Muslim League was the ruling party in Bengal at that time and its coming together with the SCF is rated by many observers as the first instance of Dalit-Muslim unity, an idea that has found expression both in thematic discourse and in organisational manoeuvres.
Even in the first elections of independent India in 1952, after Ambedkar had played a stellar role in formulating the Constitution, success eluded him; he lost to Congress candidate Narayan Kajrolkar. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, however. It was during this stint that he formed the RPI, with yet another advancement of the Ambedkarite thematic discourse. This new advancement—the development of a Dalit Buddhist movement—was triggered by his own conversion to Buddhism. The Dalit Buddhist movement was essentially a social movement propagating religion and Buddhist values, but its political connotations were evident. In its early years, this helped the RPI register its presence.
But it did not develop a distinct and powerful political identity on account of a number of factors, the most important among them being the demise of Ambedkar himself before the second general election of 1957. Thus deprived of a clear leadership, the RPI started adopting desperate tactics to remain in the political mainstream and overlooked core issues such as building a political base that included Muslims and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The urge to somehow remain in the political mainstream found manifestation in opportunistic alliances with the Congress too in later years. In other words, the RPI leadership that followed Ambedkar failed to establish themselves as the true heirs of the Ambedkarite political legacy and its philosophy.
The consequence of this at the national level was the self-styled presentation of the Congress as the heir of Ambedkar’s political legacy. Indeed, this worked most effectively when the Congress was under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, especially during the period when she advanced apparently pro-poor slogans such as “Garibi Hatao”. There is little doubt that vast sections of the Scheduled Caste population still perceive Indira Gandhi as a pro-Dalit Congress leader who tried to use government to do good to them.
Following Indira Gandhi’s death, the Congress’ claim to being the true heir of the Ambedkarite political legacy suffered, first under its own regime led by Rajiv Gandhi and later under governments led by opposition parties such as the Janata Dal. The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1989 by Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh in the Janata Dal-led National Front government played an important part in the disintegration of the Dalit support base of the Congress. In scores of villages across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this correspondent has heard eloquent descriptions from members of various Dalit communities as to how the V.P. Singh regime opened their eyes to the “camouflage and blindfolding politics” played by the Congress over many decades. According to these voices, the announcement regarding the Mandal Commission recommendations by V.P. Singh showed how an important pro-downtrodden initiative was kept under wraps by the Congress.
Rise of the Bahujan samaj It was with the emergence of this political climate in the late 1980s and 1990s that the BSP came up as the primary inheritor of the Ambedkarite political legacy. Indeed, the party had been functional since 1984 when Kanshi Ram converted the Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) that he led into a political party. The BAMCEF was founded in 1971 as an organisation of government employees, but by 1984 Kanshi Ram was convinced that merely campaigning for employees’ rights would not be enough. Appropriating Ambedkar as well as Ambedkarite icons and symbols, he argued that the fundamental power imbalance in Indian society, where 85 per cent of the population (the majority, or Bahujan Samaj), was dominated by the other 15 per cent represented by the upper castes, would have to be changed by the electoral power of the Bahujan Samaj.
In keeping with this premise, the BSP had originally adopted a radical and blatantly anti-Brahmin stance in politics. This campaign evoked widespread response in the post-Mandal climate of the late 1980s and the early 1990s and drew large segments of the Dalit population of Uttar Pradesh to the party. This line was pursued steadfastly until 1993 when the BSP joined hands with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)—having the OBC Yadav community as its core support base—to stop the BJP from winning the first election it faced after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992.
However, the party’s ideology as well as the social composition of its vote bank has undergone significant changes since then. In 1995 and 2002, it joined hands with the upper caste-oriented BJP to assume the reins of power in Uttar Pradesh. Its leader, Mayawati, became the first-ever woman and Dalit Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh through these manoeuvres. In 2007, the BSP even managed to appropriate a large chunk of the BJP’s upper-caste base by forging a social alliance through its Dalit-Brahmin Bhaichara (Dalit-Brahmin brotherhood) slogan. However, five years later, the BSP was not able to retain this vote base and lost to the S.P. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was trounced further when it failed to win even a single seat. The decimation of the BSP does indeed place the organisational manifestations of Ambedkarite political legacy at the crossroads.
Of course, smaller organisational representatives of this legacy, such as the Lok Janshakthi party (LJP) in Bihar led by Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan as well as smaller organisations in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, continue to operate in different parts of the country, but none of them commands the space once occupied by the BSP.
A number of common characteristics have pulled down almost all the organisations claiming to be the inheritors of the Ambedkarite political legacy over the past six decades. These are an irrational hurry to get into power structures, easy susceptibilities to the charms and wiles of this power structure, quick desertion of political and moral values and subversion of the organisation’s own core ideals to clamber into positions of power.
In such a context, the right-wing BJP has taken new initiatives to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy by putting up a jamboree on his latest birth anniversary. The party as well as the larger Sangh Parivar leading it first made these attempts in 1993 when it faced an electoral reverse from the S.P.-BSP combine. However, at present, these efforts are more organised and supported by far superior resources. By all indications, BJP president Amit Shah wants to acquire the kind of hold that Indira Gandhi had on the Ambedkarite legacy. It remains to be seen how far this will succeed and if so for how long. However, this attempt itself underscores the failures and foibles of Dalit-assertive organisations that lay a claim to Ambedkar’s political legacy.
Divide and despair
By Lyla Bavadam
In any discussion on the state of Dalit politics in Maharashtra, the word tragedy will inevitably come up at some point, and rightly so, to describe the state of Dalit politics in general and the Republican Party of India (RPI) in particular.
In 1956, the Scheduled Castes Federation, as a member of which B.R. Ambedkar fought India’s first general election, was dissolved and the RPI was formed in its place to represent Dalits. Ambedkar’s vision of forging social alliances with other caste groups could not be realised in his lifetime (he died in December 1956), and Dalits in Maharashtra, rather than take it forward, narrowed the RPI to a one-caste party, primarily of Mahars or neo-Buddhists.
The RPI has, to put it plainly, had its heyday. Its once-charismatic leaders have either died or been enmeshed in power struggles. The RPI now is all-India only in name and even Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, who is a career politician, has parted ways with it. Political representation of and for Dalits is negligible at the moment. But the tremendous boost that the community received from Ambedkar meant that until about two decades ago there were agile minds propelling it forward. It lost this momentum over the years but so much was imbibed by the community that Dalits in Maharashtra continue to be self-motivated. However, this in no way means that they have outgrown the need for political influence and in this respect Dalit political leaders have let down the community in Maharashtra.
The present situation shows that Dalit parties have performed poorly in the last Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Neither the RPI nor the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won any seat in Maharashtra. It would be reasonably safe to say that this is an indicator of the waning political energies of Dalit parties and politics at least in Maharashtra. Contributing to this premise is the fact that Dalit parties in the state have for long not been able to stand on their own feet and have attached themselves to major political parties, which automatically means that Dalit issues will be sidelined.
In the decades following the formation of the RPI, the party was gradually beset with internal wrangling resulting in the formation of splinter groups. At one point, there were close to 50 factions of the RPI. Of course, only a handful were relevant, namely the ones led by B.D. Khobragade, R.S. Gavai, Ramdas Athavale and Prakash Ambedkar. Apart from Prakash Ambedkar, all the others have at some point had electoral alliances with larger parties. In fact, the very first alliance was in the 1960s when RPI leader Babasaheb Gaikwad entered into an alliance with the late Yashwantrao Chavan of the Congress. Since the RPI was essentially anti-Congress when it was formed, this alliance was one among the many political ironies that would dog Dalit politics in the State. Through the years, the various alliances resulted in seats and even ministerial berths for Dalit leaders, but these were personal achievements and served little purpose for the community at large.
Ramdas Athavale even did the unthinkable, ally with the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine, because his alliance with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party benefited them more than it benefited him. In its early days, when the Maharashtra RPI became Mahar-centric, it repulsed other backward castes with its heavy Hindu ideology bashing. Naturally, Athavale’s alliance with two right-wing Hindutva parties did not go unnoticed.
Perhaps the only leader to maintain some connect with Ambedkar’s vision is Prakash Ambedkar. Though he broke away from the RPI and formed his own Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), Prakash Ambedkar stuck to building bridges with other backward classes and in a limited way he was successful in Akola district where his party once held sway.
There is no doubt that Dalit leaders have let their personal ambitions overpower their responsibilities to their community, and this is certainly one reason why Dalit politics has become ineffectual in the State. The other reason has to do with numbers and also explains why, partly at least, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati were more successful with the BSP in Uttar Pradesh than the RPI was in Maharashtra. In the Indian electoral system, if 30 per cent of the vote goes one party’s way, then it can be assumed that that party will dominate the election. In Maharashtra, the neo-Buddhist vote is about 15 per cent. If the Maharashtra RPI was not fragmented and if it had not alienated the other backward classes, then it would have been possible for it to inch closer to that magical 30 per cent. This is what happened in Uttar Pradesh, where the BSP worked in a more inclusive manner and commanded about 26 per cent of the vote, putting that extra 4 per cent within its grasp.
Ambedkar had also placed great emphasis on education. His followers assiduously educated themselves and many, in doing so, found themselves naturally moving into professions and away from politics. Prakash Ambedkar explained their evolution saying, “The educated ones mainly focus on supporting their immediate family and relatives. The third generation of children from Scheduled Caste families are now entering the open [non-reserved] fields like banking, setting up small enterprises, social service and so on. On the whole, the community is turning around.”
Intellectually, the Dalit community is very alive. They have spawned their own deeply resonant literature and poetry as well as the Dalit Panthers. This revolutionary and militant movement of the 1970s and 1980s was a creation of passionate writer-activists such as Namdeo Dhasal and Arun Kemble. While the Panthers have faded away and the literature is not as throbbing as it once was, the intellectual self-exploration of Dalits remains. And they frequently play devil’s advocate when discussing themselves. In the context of the “turning around” mentioned by Prakash Ambedkar, there are many who say this could also be read as losing sight of the larger fight, which is the uplift of the community. Some believe that education and a profession result in individual gain and an abandoning of the commitment to community. Others say that those who have progressed can use their skills, influence and finances to pull up the less fortunate. Yet others accuse the educated Dalits of disassociating themselves from the community. With the community still in flux, all this is true to some extent but there are also efforts like the Dalit Chamber of Commerce, which gives a helping hand to small businesses started by Dalits.
Success is too often judged by electoral victories and not enough by social development. This perhaps can be the counter argument for those who say that Ambedkar’s home State has fallen far behind while Uttar Pradesh is held up as the new flag-bearer of Dalit advancement. But to counter this, it also has to be noted that Ambedkar believed that politics was a vital tool for uplift. If so, then perhaps Maharashtra’s waning Dalit political force can be looked upon as a natural evolution, that is, that the community here has used politics to reach a certain level and is now taking the next logical step. Perhaps this reasoning will play itself out in due course, but unfortunately at this point in time it is not so even though issues in the State are shifting from reservation and caste concerns to matters relating to economic development. Though Dalits have worked hard at improving their lot the community is at a crossroads. What is required is a dedicated, strong Dalit political voice and force. Sadly, this is missing.
In a political trap
By Ilangovan Rajasekaran
In Tamil Nadu, Ambedkar is perceived more as a unifying factor than as an iconic symbol of Dalits. Uniquely perhaps, in Tamil Nadu, Dalit subsects, like their Other Backward Classes (OBC) counterparts, idolise sons of the soil from their communities. Pallars glorify the heroic deeds of Veeran Sundaralingam, the Dalit chief in the army of King Veerapandia Kattabomman, who fought against the British, and the martyrdom of Immanuel Sekaran of Paramakudi, who was killed in the Mudukulathur riots in 1957, while Paraiyars revere Rettamalai R. Srinivasan, their ideologue, and Murugesan, the panchayat president of Melavalavu village in Madurai district who was murdered by caste Hindus in 1997.
The mobilisation of Dalits on the basis of their subsects has largely benefited the OBC-dominated Dravidian political majors, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). If the emergence of the two major Dalit parties, the Puthiya Thamizhagam (P.T.) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), was a necessity in the social history of Tamil Nadu, their inclusion in the alliance led by either Dravidian party was a compulsion of electoral politics.
In fact, VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan is candid about this. Once, in an interview, he said the Dalit parties were always at the receiving end. “We do not have the bargaining power. We have to be satisfied with what they give us,” he was quoted as saying. “This is the problem when you disown your social responsibility for the sake of other issues and political aspirations. Today they relate Ambedkar with Periyar and spend their energy on anti-Brahmin rhetoric, which should not be their agenda” said the Madurai-based Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam.
Even the strong assertion of the oppressed against the landed OBCs on the social front, especially after the Mudukulathur riots in 1957, did not ensure for them the political bargaining power or empowerment. “They should have continued their social interventions and mobilised the people. Big parties would have approached them. Instead they fell into the trap of the identity politics that Dravidian parties do,” points out Rajangam.
The reason for this incongruity lies perhaps in the content and context of Dravidian politics despite Dalits comprising 19 per cent of the State’s population, which is higher than the national share of 16.6 per cent and about 2 per cent less than that in Uttar Pradesh, where Dalits wield enormous political power.
If no single caste group has been able to hold a monopoly in politics in Tamil Nadu it is because of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, which was a unique attempt at social engineering to achieve the goal of establishing an egalitarian society. Though the Dravidian parties are in the lead, they cannot be complete without forming alliances with the Dalit parties.
V. Arasu, Tamil scholar and former professor of the University of Madras, says that on the social front the Dravidian movement played the role of a catalyst in moulding the Tamil psyche to pursue progressive ideals. “When the Dravidian parties chose to ignore the Periyarist pursuit of an egalitarian society, caste-based politics made its presence felt and has come to stay,” he says.
The Dravidian movement, he points out, has sacrificed its principles at the altar of populism. “Unfortunately, the radical Dravidian identity in today’s electoral politics has narrowed down to a mere caste identity,” he says and adds: “Periyar’s movement was based on culture, language and race. It was a movement that advocated self-respect, rationalism and the emancipation of the oppressed. It was the first movement that took up the reservation issue.”
The irony, political analysts point out, is that though the leaders of the Dravidian political parties assiduously maintain their “caste neutral image”, which alone can ensure their sustainability in electoral politics, they do not hesitate to form alliances with caste-based outfits such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its Hindu majoritarian orientation, was not an untouchable for them.
Political alliances in Tamil Nadu have always been marriages of convenience, and the Dalit parties are no exception. While they hate the OBC domination in the social arena and challenge it to provide a new edge to their mass movement against discrimination, they falter and compromise with the OBCs in the political field.
“In another 50 years, ‘Caste fascism’ will take over electoral politics wherein even the struggle for Dalit liberation might be treated as a caste-based exercise and not a social-engineered responsibility,” says Arasu.
The claim that Dalits, if mobilised successfully, can turn into a decisive political force is met with scepticism. Political analysts point to the gamble the DMK took in the 2001 Assembly elections. With the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the PMK deciding not to ally with the DMK, the DMK roped in the P.T. and the VCK to compensate for the probable loss of the votes of Mukkulathors, who are believed to support the AIADMK, and Vanniyars, who back the PMK.
At that time many political analysts had pointed out that it would be “political suicide” for the DMK to rope in the two major Dalit parties into the alliance. In support of their argument they said the caste clashes in the southern districts were still fresh in the minds of OBCs and Dalits. Besides, they pointed to the bitter experience of G.K. Moopanar when his party, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), aligned with the two Dalit parties in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and was routed. The DMK also suffered a similar fate in the 2001 Assembly elections, losing to the AIADMK-led alliance, which banked on its OBC support base.
In fact, prior to the emergence of the Dalit outfits, the Dravidian parties used Dalits as mere vote banks. The Dr K. Krishnaswamy-led Devendra Kula Velalar Federation (DKVF), taking advantage of the Dalit uprising in the aftermath of the police violence at Kodiyankulam village in Tuticorin district in 1995, contested 11 seats in the 1996 Assembly elections, both as independents and on the Subramanian Swamy-led Janata Party’s symbol. Surprisingly, they fared reasonably well in most of the constituencies, coming close to the winning candidates in the southern districts. Krishnaswamy emerged the winner in the Ottapidaram seat.
The win boosted the morale of not only Krishnaswamy, who converted the DKVF into a political outfit called Puthiya Thamizhagam, but also Dalits as a whole. By that time, the decade-old caste riots in the southern districts had subsided. Meanwhile, the P.T. also contested the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Taking its cue from P.T., the Dalit Panthers of India (now renamed Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), predominant among Paraiyars in the northern districts, also jumped into the electoral fray in 1999. Its leader, Thol. Thirumavalavan, contested the Chidambaram Lok Sabha on the TMC symbol.
While all this made it possible to establish a Dalit identity in the political arena in Tamil Nadu, many analysts charged the Dalit parties and their leaders with betraying Dalits. The charge was that they compromised on the ideology of social emancipation and traded the trust of lakhs of vulnerable people for paltry gains through electoral alliances with the DMK and the AIADMK.
“For instance, Thirumavalavan takes up Tamil nationalism, Tamil Eelam and anti-Brahminism to gain a Tamil identity. It is unfortunate that these Dalit leaders have compromised on ideological issues. It has corroded the Dalit movement and diluted its social objective. Political aspiration seems to be the main objective,” says Rajangam.
The Dravidian parties seem to have effectively neutralised Dalits both politically and socially. The desire of the Dalit parties to align with a big party to gain a toehold in politics has led to a rat race among them to grab even the little space that alliances offer. “Dalit movements in the 1950s and 1980s took pride in their culture and language while taking forward their struggle for the eradication of castes,” says Arasu.
A few see it as a temporary setback and blame it on “foreign interferences”. They also accept that an alternative political platform with the Left as their partners could be a more comfortable and effective option. Until the 1960s and 1970s, it is true that the Left played an enabling role in the social uplift of the downtrodden and agricultural labourers, predominantly Dalits.
“The emergence of Dalit parties in the 1990s held promise for those living on the margins and forced even the Left parties to redraft their ideology of class struggle and include caste-based struggles in order to remain relevant in Tamil Nadu politics. The Left is more concerned about Dalit issues than the Dravidian parties are. Dalits and the Left can forge a natural alliance,” says Rajangam.
While new Dalit voices of dissent have started sprouting up, Dalit outfits seem to have diluted the radical activism they were once identified with. The P.T. experienced it and survived it. The VCK is struggling to stay aloft. With Assembly elections due next year, if the Dalit parties continue to flounder, the Dravidian majors may just abandon them. “The Dalit movement should transcend language and regional barriers to forge a common unity to fight against the oppressive mindset of society. That is what Ambedkar also expected,” says Rajangam.
Now it has become a challenge for them to stay relevant in today’s neoliberalised political and social spheres.