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Tracing The Anti-Caste Movement

Dalit radicality in the name of Ambedkar is threatened of decay and cooption, thereby running the risk of receding into the landscape of caste

Tracing The Anti-Caste Movement
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Dr BR Ambedkar referred to the French Revolution, which abolished the three orders of feudal society, as an inspiration for the anti-caste movement. So, one could think that it was natural for a French scholar of India to study this movement. Paradoxically, however, as a European, I first had to come to terms with the orientalist stereotypes of India, in which the untouchables’ legendary subordination holds an important place, at least rhetorically.

Let me start by introducing my interest in the anti-caste movement in a biographical manner. I started taking an interest in caste quite early when I first visited India in 1991. I was just 20 and travelled on my own through North India. My anthropology teacher had advised me to read Homo Hierarchicus as a must-read on Indian society. He even advised me to bring it with me as a sort of user’s manual in order to open my eyes to the local social structures during my trip.

However, the hierarchical society that Louis Dumont theorised did not reveal itself openly to a young tourist. What I could witness from my own eyes was only extreme poverty. All that I could guess regarding caste was that it probably functioned in an invisible way. Did the intensity of religious activity that I also witnessed, mean that I should accept Dumont’s theory according to which so-called untouchables accepted their social status as their fate to focus instead on improving their future lives, therefore abiding by the social status ascribed to them by birth, in the name of Hindu orthodoxy?

I wondered if India could really provide a sort of ethnological exception to the paradigm of class consciousness, and thus challenge its claim to universality.

This question led me to meet Marxist students at Delhi University, whom I found to be quite elitist. I, therefore, wondered if the Indian communist party confirmed Dumont’s theory by reproducing internally the caste structure, with Brahmins occupying the leadership and intellectual positions while claiming to form the vanguard of the proletariat, including Dalits.

However, it was difficult to talk about caste in those days, even with Marxists. There seemed to be little space for Dalit subjectivity, whether in Dumont’s orientalist perspective on caste, which radically negated any possibility for an anti-caste discourse, or from an orthodox Marxist perspective.

During the trip, I witnessed frequent demonstrations of Hindu nationalists, whose vehement slogans gave me an idea of the social and religious tensions in Indian society.

In 1993, when the BSP first reached to power in Uttar Pradesh, My charismatic history teacher told us that what had happened in UP was not just historical, but truly revolutionary.

Two years later, my initial plan, which was to study Indian Marxism’s apprehension of caste, was diverted by the announcement of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) first reach to power in Uttar Pradesh in 1993. My charismatic Indian history teacher, Max Jean Zins, a French communist, made a spectacular announcement in the classroom. He seemed quite bustling, telling students that what had happened in UP was not just historical, but truly revolutionary, even from an epistemological perspective. He acknowledged that he and his “Indianist” colleagues were taken aback by this event that they never had anticipated, and which proved that they had it all wrong by taking the passivity of Dalits for granted.

Shook by this revelation, I immediately chose to re-focus my Master’s dissertation in political sociology on the Ambedkarite movement. I started working on the first BSP government in 1995 in UP for my D. Phil thesis.

At that time, outside Ambedkarite circles, Ambedkar was still ignored or, at best, considered a British stooge. In 1997, I decided to do my Ph.D. on the Dalit movement in Kanpur. Unlike the Agra movement, Kanpur’s Dalit movement still remained largely unknown, except for Nandini Gooptu’s 1993 chapter on Dalit radicalism in the 1920s.

I met some Ambedkarite leaders and intellectuals, but right from the start, my focus had been on looking at this movement from the point of view of locals. My aim was to find out who the ground-level activists were and how the idea of emancipation espoused the popular mindset. From a student of history and political science, I thus shifted towards political ethnography.

My first encounter with the Dalit Panthers took place in Kanpur during the celebrations of Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14, 1998. The local Dalit movement was divided between BSP activists and the supporters of the older brand of Ambedkarite politics, who were critical of the BSP.

In 1980, a local section of the Bharatiya Dalit Panthers was founded around the time when they started establishing their influence in North India under the leadership of Bapurao Pakhiddey, a Maharashtrian lawyer who worked in the Delhi High Court. The organisation attracted mostly educated, unemployed Dalit youngsters. It was established by activists who travelled in several states of North India and contacted local representatives of the RPI, thus functioning as the unofficial youth wing of the party, unlike in Maharashtra in the 1970s where the Panthers originally opposed the RPI.

In North India, leaders from Maharashtra who had taken part in the Long March to press for the renaming of the Aurangabad University after Ambedkar were invited to make speeches. Their display of radicality on stage, radical poetry and rebellious body language galvanised Dalit young men.

In Kanpur, a local unit was formed by Rahulan Ambavadekar, the son of a bus driver, who held a law degree. He was 27 when he, along with other activists, organised their first public demonstrations in several places in UP on August 15, 1980. Their intent was to bring a flavour of dissensus to Independence Day celebrations by organising the ‘black day of independence’.

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My first encounter with the Dalit Panthers took place in Kanpur in 1998. The local Dalit movement was divided between BSP activists and the supporters of the older brand of Ambedkarite politics, who were critical of the BSP.

In Kanpur, Ambavadekar published a Hindi leaflet titled “Swatantrta Divas ya Swatantrta Prapti ki Or? Akhir Julm Kab Tak? (Day of independence or towards independence? Until when this oppression?), in which he denounced the leaders of Independence, who “having seized power after swearing to the Constitution elaborated by Dr Ambedkar, betrayed the Dalits and Tribals for the only sake of their own selfish profit”.

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The UP section of the Panthers was officially launched on Ambedkar’s death anniversary in 1980. In their Hindi leaflet, they argued that “we must fight ourselves for our liberation since none of the political and social institutions of this country can be deemed favourable to our emancipation.”

While voicing Dalit anger, the young Panther leaders were rapidly challenged by the DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti), founded in 1982 by Kanshi Ram’s All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). Although recruiting in the same milieu of educated, unemployed Dalits as the Panthers, the DS4 remained under the control of the BAMCEF government employees, who could not directly lead protests.

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As compared to the Panthers who brought the Maharashtrian pattern of Dalit youth militancy to North India, K. Ram, a Punjabi, defied the Maharashtrian brand of Ambedkarite politics, whose limitations he experienced when he worked in Pune.

In his eyes, the Maharashtrian Dalit movement stood discredited firstly on account of the factionalism of the RPI, whose divisions led to inefficiency and cooption, and, secondly on account of the Panthers’ failure in the 1970s, whose display of radicality lacked a political strategy.

In BAMCEF’s English monthly, The Oppressed Indian, an article titled, ‘Beware of Male Prostitutes, Parading as Dalit Panthers’, (October 1982), explained the need to distinguish between “sincere” Dalit Panthers who joined the DS4, and those who arguably ended up trafficking alcohol and prostitutes with the complicity of corrupt police officers, to avoid the inevitable repression.

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In Kanpur, where Dalits came to work in the factories during the colonial period and where a Dalit petty bourgeoisie developed thanks to the leather industry, the Panthers revived the local tradition of Dalit militancy. This went back to the 1920s when Swami Achhootanand set up the headquarters of the Adi Hindu movement in the industrial city after being chased from Agra by his own Jatav community whose more conformist and less revolutionary attempts to elevate themselves in the caste order he opposed.

As against the Arya Samaj’s upper caste reformers, who actively encouraged this path of social mobility within a framework of Hindu reformism, the Adi Hindus denounced the upper castes as Aryan invaders and proudly reclaimed the Dravidian legacy of Dalits.

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My own encounter with the Panthers in Kanpur was marked by the meeting of Dhaniram Panther, an extraordinary person, like the Ambedkarite movement has produced all over India. In 1992, the Bhartiya Dalit Panthers were officially dissolved by its leaders and merged with the RPI in order to resist jointly the BSP’s growing clout among North Indian Dalits. In Kanpur, however, Dhaniram, a young street vendor who hailed from a working-class family, refused the merger and kept the Panthers’ movement alive locally.

Dhaniram was educated politically by the Ambedkarites of the slums where he sold churan paste among other things on his cart. After dropping out of school at 13, he started earning to support his family which had been impacted by the closure of the textile mills. With the Panthers, he learned the skills of pressurising the local administration to solve peoples’ problems and he could rise in the organisation. At 20, he was elected as a municipal corporator. In 1992, he refused the official dissolution of the Panthers and declared himself as the national president of the organisation, whose continuation he justified by the need to keep some level of street pressure on the administration. He insisted on the need to fight against caste atrocities independently.

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During the anti-CAA demonstrations, the Bhim Army activists supported the protest sites in Muslim localities, thus reviving the fraternal bonds between Dalits and Muslims.

Apart from a certain element of class assertion by the Dalit urban proletariat, the Panthers also gave shape to an element of popular defiance towards electoral politics.

In July 1997, after Mayawati asked district administrations to check the alleged misuses of the SC-ST Atrocities Act to save her partnership with the BJP, the Panthers burnt her effigy in Kanpur. In reaction, Dhaniram and two other important local Ambedkarite figures were jailed.

I arrived in Kanpur for my Ph.D fieldwork in this context. I realised that in villages, many former supporters of the BSP felt let down once the BSP came to power. The party often avoided solicitations for support in the local conflicts. The local BSP activists thus joined the Panthers who used the presence of the BSP governments in order to fight for Dalits on the ground.

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The Panthers’ street pressure managed to get the benefits of the BSP’s state power to trickle down to the villagers by cultivating good relations with the Dalit officers nominated from above by Mayawati and getting them to act. In contrast, most BSP MLAs and MPs, who were made to purchase their nominations as candidates, became available for local corruption and became mostly silent in cases of reprisals against Dalits. Besides, the local activists could not even dream of obtaining a party ticket that were sold to rich party outsiders.

As a local social worker, Dhaniram Panther managed to retain his local leadership, thanks to his regular street demonstrations. Later on, he also founded an NGO that collects hundreds of unclaimed corpses in the city of Kanpur each year, whose last rites he and his volunteers perform. During Covid, he managed thousands of cremations.

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From a radical anti-caste movement, the local Panthers of Kanpur paradoxically started to provide a free service to the community, thus voluntarily appropriating a task traditionally ascribed to Dalits in the caste order. Thanks to his new reputation as a man of charity, Dhaniram thus continues to command support from the local administration in favour of the local Dalit community.

In this context, the Bhim Army captured the space of Dalit radicality once occupied by the Panthers. Chandra Shekhar Azad’s prestige as a fearless opponent of Hindutva has been able to capture the imagination of Dalit youngsters in the remotest villages of UP. His organisation is now well established in Kanpur, with a large following among Dalit youngsters belonging to different Dalit castes, especially the Valmikis and the Chamars.

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During the anti-CAA demons­trations, the Bhim Army activists supported the protest sites in Muslim localities, thus reviving the fraternal bonds between Dalits and Muslims who both feel threatened by Hindutva, although less directly in the case of Dalits whom the BJP has managed to coopt to a certain extent. The concept of Dalit radicality once theorised by the Dalit Panther’s manifesto, as not being restricted to Hindu untouchables but extending to all oppressed categories, however lives on through such initiatives of the Bhim Army.

Thanks to common struggles, the revolutionary attempts to blur these communal divisions of the lower class, however, remain fragile. Dalit assertion in the name of Ambedkar is itself always threatened of decay and cooption into the symbolic order of caste.

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(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'Tracing the Movement')

Nicolas Jaoul is a political anthropologist based in Paris-CNRS. He has worked intensively on the ethnography of the Ambedkarite movement 

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