The Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) comprise around 25 per cent of India’s population. The majority of them are poor, engaged in precarious labour, and lack the basic entitlements needed for dignified living. In mainstream society, they are often ill-treated because of their social location, and face violence if they challenge the conventional authorities. Although their concerns and issues are often raised and defended by major political parties, they remain peripheral to political deliberations, at a distance from powerful capitalist and social assets, and with marginal influence over electoral battles.
The newly formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) offers various regional and national parties a dynamic new space to change this status quo ahead of the 2024 general election. As Dalit and Adivasi political consciousness is groomed by the ideological values of social justice, secularism, and socialism, it is expected that parties such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi will be natural participants in such a political alliance. Historically, they have played a crucial role in challenging the communal and Brahmanical order, and it is believed, therefore, that in the future battle against the Hindutva brigade, the Dalit-Adivasi combine will act as a crucial force.
The question of Dalit-Adivasi political mobilisation need not be dependent upon a certain political context (such as the need to defeat the BJP). Instead, a demographic mapping of the Dalit-Adivasi communities shows that although they represent a significant portion of the population and have been overt supporters of nationalist-secular forces (especially the Congress), they remain underrepresented in democratic deliberations and marginalised in positions of power, with their issues and concerns presented at the end of any political manifesto.
I argue here that to ensure an effective participation of the Dalit-Adivasi population in the battle against the right wing, the INDIA bloc should ensure primacy to Dalit-Adivasi issues in its political programme, elevate their leaders to key positions of power, and promise substantive economic welfare and social protection.
The British colonial regime identified Adivasis and Untouchables as distinct social groups and provided institutional facilities (such as the right to education), enabling their participation in modern public life. In the making of independent India’s new Constitution, Jaipal Singh Munda and B.R. Ambedkar emerged as the most articulate and poised voices of Adivasis and Dalits. These groups believed that under the new welfarist-socialist state their marginalised social location and economic backwardness would be transformed and they would be welcomed into the democratic process as equal citizens.
After Independence, various measures of capitalist development and inclusive democratic processes were announced, but they helped only a meagre segment of the marginalised. The most powerful public institutions, the major capitalist assets, and the nation’s sociocultural life was still dominated by the social elites. In response to the continued domination of the traditional elite over the structures of power, the aspiring class among Dalits and Adivasis announced independent political assertions to raise demands for economic and social justice.
The JMM, BSP example
For example, the JMM in Bihar/Jharkhand and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh emerged to represent the claims and political objectives of the socially marginalised groups. Both reprimanded the parties led by the social elites for their policies of neglect. Both parties succeeded impressively in elections and formed governments in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, raising the stature of Dalit-Adivasi groups in democratic institutions. However, both parties failed to offer a unified political bloc at the national level that could challenge the conventional political establishment. Instead, the political and social claims of both communities remained distanced from each other and the possibilities of a Dalit-Adivasi political manifesto for social justice never materialised.
In the north-eastern States, there are various tribal and ethnic parties that represent the political concerns of Adivasis. However, in other States with significant tribal population, such as Madhya Pradesh (15 per cent), Maharashtra (11 per cent), Odisha (10 per cent), Chhattisgarh (8 per cent), Rajasthan (9 per cent), and Gujarat (9 per cent), their political presence and social mobilisations are insignificant.
Similarly, it is only in Uttar Pradesh that Dalits have witnessed an impressive political assertion. The Dalit population is above average in Punjab (32 per cent), West Bengal (24 per cent), Himachal Pradesh (26 per cent), and Haryana (21 per cent), but Dalits here are not a significant political bloc or an assertive social force.
Interestingly, in certain States, the total strength of the SC and ST population is above 30 per cent. For example, in Odisha the combined SC-ST population is 41 per cent (SC 18 per cent and ST 23 per cent), in Chhattisgarh 45 per cent (SC 13 per cent and ST 32 per cent), in Madhya Pradesh 38 per cent (SC 16 per cent and ST 22 per cent), and in Rajasthan 32 per cent (SC 18 per cent and ST 14 per cent).
Similarly, in Gujarat their combined strength is 23 per cent (SC 7 per cent and ST 16 per cent) and in Maharashtra it is 21 per cent(SC11.8per cent and ST 9.4 per cent). However, the most cursory enquiry will show that they are the worst represented in the power structures in these States.
On major indicators of development (such as higher education, health, employment and entrepreneurship, media, and cultural presence), Dalit and Adivasi groups figure at the bottom. In many States, among them Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has dominated the political scenario but has hardly provided primacy to the Dalit-Adivasi agenda. At the national level, parties such as the BSP and the JMM could have formed an alliance to provide a robust political intervention and to ameliorate the depressing socio-economic conditions of Dalits and Adivasis. But the parties and the intellectual class that often vouch to protect the principles of social justice stay away from such deliberations.
- Although the concerns and issues of socially marginalised groups are often raised and defended by major political parties, they remain peripheral to political deliberations, at a distance from powerful capitalist and social assets.
- The newly formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) offers various regional and national parties a dynamic new space to change this status quo ahead of the 2024 general election.
- To ensure an effective participation of the Dalit-Adivasi population in the battle against the right wing, the INDIA bloc should ensure primacy to Dalit-Adivasi issues in its political programme and elevate their leaders to key positions of power.
An existential crisis
With the rise of Hindutva forces nationally, social justice politics is facing an existential crisis. The Bharatiya Janata Party proclaims that it represents the Hindu majority, including Dalits and Adivasis, and criticises any independent political assertions of socially marginalised groups as “unity breakers” and as challenging India’s rich civilisational glory.
Under electoral compulsions, the BJP engages with Dalit and Adivasi issues. By simultaneously promoting Hindutva’s sociocultural symbols and raising issues like religious conversion and love jehad among these groups, the right wing builds a xenophobic antagonism against Muslims and Christians. In Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, the local cultural and social crises of Adivasis are manipulated to create violent communal clashes against Christians and Muslims. Indigenous Adivasi values and cultural symbols are appropriated into Hindutva’s iconography (such as promoting the tale of Shabri from the epic Ramayana) and by naming them Vanvasi (jungle residents).
The BJP often impresses and mobilises Dalit-Adivasi groups by using emotive and cultural issues and distracting them from raising substantive demands for equitable distribution of power and political assets, representation in influential state bodies, and effective implementation of social justice directives to prevent caste atrocities and social harassment. Instead, it offers tokenism in the form of the elevation of Droupadi Murmu, or Ram Nath Kovind earlier, as President of India. It does not hesitate to appropriate Dalit and Adivasi icons (like Birsa Munda and Ambedkar) in its political campaigns and utilise popular cultural and historical events to craft Hindutva narratives.
A growing section among Dalit and Adivasi groups are becoming part of the Hindutva agenda, divorcing themselves from the ideological merits of social justice and secularism. However, a large majority has also distanced itself from the BJP’s communal polarisation, choosing secular political parties that promise social and economic welfare.
The formation of the INDIA bloc initiates an impressive fight to defend India’s constitutional democracy and promote the values of secularism and social justice. However, such an initiative should move beyond the conventional political praxis of “social engineering” and engage the marginalised social groups on substantive issues of economic justice and ensure their dignified participation in the political process. It must promise that Dalit-Adivasi participation in the new bloc is not passive and tokenistic but robust and effective, sincerely representing the poor and marginalised social groups.
The failures of the social justice parties in the past to offer a comprehensive political manifesto to emancipate Dalit-Adivasi groups from perpetual social injustice and class oppression need a deeper appraisal now. Traditional policies (such as reservation) and cultural strategies (such as identity-based social mobilisation) need revaluation. In the changed climate of economic liberalisation and political development, the exclusion of Dalits and Adivasis cannot be mitigated by the state offering material doles. Instead, it is the appropriate time to imagine how the worst-off social groups can become an integral part of the new economic order and influence political processes.
Opportunities for the INDIA bloc
The INDIA bloc can direct economic policies towards reducing poverty, ensuring the dignified participation of socially marginalised groups in the market economy, and building a capitalist class among Dalit and Adivasi groups. The Adivasis’ concerns about protecting their habitats, ecological order, and cultural autonomy must be addressed while incorporating the inevitability of economic development, technological innovation, and an expanding market economy. The INDIA group’s challenge is to ensure that the liberalisation process is oriented towards ameliorating class conditions of the poor and marginalised while not serving crony capitalism.
The new group must also ensure that a new and impressive class of Dalits and Adivasis emerges in business and economy. This will allow policymakers to look beyond conventional social justice polices that address Dalit-Adivasi groups as passive recipients of state welfare. Dalit-Adivasi groups should be seen as essential components of industrial production and technological innovation, and emerge as industrialists, market leaders, and crucial influencers in the global economy.
Second, political power, public institutions, and crucial class assets should not be dominated and hegemonised by the social elites. Policies should be formed to ensure effective and equitable participation of socially marginalised groups in key institutions such as the Cabinet and the higher judiciary and in the culture and media industries. Their participation will not only democratise but bring these institutions closer to the concerns and issues of marginalised communities.
Finally, and most crucially, there is the agenda of social reform. The need to humanise Indian society to the deplorable conditions of Dalit and Adivasi groups is a long pending issue. The INDIA bloc must promise to initiate effective social reforms and constitutional amendments to ensure a life of dignity to historically marginalised social groups. The perpetual cases of caste-based atrocities, social humiliation, discrimination in public institutions, brutal violence, segregation, and ineffective justice has depressed Dalit and Adivasi groups and restricted their participation in public life. The INDIA bloc must promote effective public measures and draft constitutional means to end the atrocious and precarious conditions under which Dalit and Adivasi groups survive.
Dalit-Adivasi affairs fall under the State list, but only a few State governments have effectively implemented policies for the welfare and emancipation of socially marginalised groups. Further, the aggressive process of liberalisation has further limited the state from working effectively for their betterment. With the rise of communal right-wing politics, the social and political movements of such groups are facing brutal state repression. Even political parties that claim to represent their interests have limitations in raising the issues at the national level, or have failed to ensure any substantive social and political change.
The INDIA bloc offers a dynamic opportunity to reassess the politics of social justice. While the call for the unity to defeat the BJP in the 2024 election is an impressive objective, the political manifesto still appears rhetorical and motivated mainly by contextual electoral gains. Although the bloc’s success is visibly dependent on the support of marginalised groups, especially Dalit-Adivasi, it is yet to announce its social justice agenda. The bloc should not expect Dalits and Adivasis to support it on the same old rhetoric.
The passivity and dormant nature of Dalit-Adivasi social and political movements need a new socio-economic vision and effective political leadership. It can start with the acknowledgement that the vast majority of them are poor, removed from basic civic amenities, and perpetually face discrimination. A sincere deliberation is required to frame policies and political programmes for their effective elevation. Any new social justice politics that emerges must engage with the phenomenon of economic liberalisation and offer solutions that are set within the ongoing development processes.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.