Posted by: Vikram | April 12, 2009

Is Mayawati bringing the change India’s Dalits need ?

There are two reasons for me writing the post. First, the importance of the question in its own right. I have frequently alluded to and reviewed papers about a Dalit Revolution in North India. The paper I will talk about contests this notion, and does it quite convincingly. The other reason is to contrast the legitimate criticism that the paper makes by unearthing ground realities, with the half-baked and prejudiced criticism of Mayawati one finds in India’s ‘mainstream media’.

Who will cry about our sadness ? Who will listen to us ? …. How can we complain to local state officials ? The people whom we would complain are the same people about whom we would be complaining! So in this situation, we can do nothing. The Jats, in their big houses, are drinking our blood.

In this blog, I have frequently raised the issue of the idenities and aspirations of India’s Dalits and the political processes they are engaging in to fight upper-caste domination. Many scholars have contended that a ‘Dalit Revolution’ has taken place in Uttar Pradesh, with its culmination being Mayawati’s election as CM in 2007. However three researchers from the Universities of Washington and Edinburgh, have presented quite different conclusions in their paper ‘Dalit Revolution ? New Politicians in Uttar Pradesh, India‘. In their paper they speak of the emergence of new low caste politicians in rural UP and the subsequent changes in local politics and social gains, but they conclude that the new politicians have been either unable or unwilling to bring about the deep structural changes needed to equalize society in rural UP,

In the villages and small towns of UP, educated Dalit young men have come to challenge the power of dominant sections of society, raising political awareness among marginalized populations and communicating new political and cultural ideas to their communities ….. But there is as yet little evidence that Dalit political activists have effected a substantial change in the distribution of economic, social and political opportunities in rural UP.

Ground Realities
The researcher did their field-work in Nangal, a village located in UP‘s ‘prosperous’ Bijnor district. Its population of about 5300, was 48 % Dalit, 26 % Jat and 12 % Muslim. The Jats however owned 83 % of the agricultural land, in addition they owned several shops, schools and sugarcane processing plants. On the other hand the Dalits were mainly employed as local manual wage laborers, and in most cases had to depend on Jats for employment. In terms of material goods, Dalits had few goods, with only 10% possesing TVs as compared to 70 % of Jats.

In consonance with Dr. Anjum Altaf‘s excellent essay on why South Asia fares poorly on literacy levels, the author’s note the following about education in Nangal,

Jats dominated the management committee of the Nangal Junior High School, the larger and better funded of the village’s two secondary schools. The Ambedkar Junior High School catered mainly to Dalits, Muslims and MBCs … facilities and standards of teaching at the government primary schools and Ambedkar School were particularly poor … Jats typically sent their sons to private primary schools in Nangal, which maintain a better standard of education than the schools used by Chamars and Muslims.

This raises several important points, one simply renaming government schools in the name of Babasaheb, will not change ground realities of poor state education in UP. But note how the English media constantly talks about the supposed futility of Ambedkar memorials in Lucknow, without ever highlighting the neglect of Ambedkar schools that have a more direct impact on the lives of Dalits. A parallel can be drawn here with the Indian media’s incessant fear-mongering about reservations in elite schools without highlighting the neglect of primary education in general.

New Politicians

The authors describe one ‘successful’ young Dalit politician Brijpal who embodied,

a distinguished Dalit masculinity that owes much yo the example of Ambedkar

There was a class of such Chamar netas, as the authors call them. But their actions were not adequate and even contradictory to the stated aims of the Dalit struggle. Far from challenging the existing systems of patronage and corruption in the village they,

acted as political fixers in the efforts of friends and relatives to accomplish tasks through state officials. … Chamar social initiatives falied in part because netas sometimes prioritized their own interests over those of their caste. In spite of trying to help many Chamar families, Jogender (a neta) defined himself as a profit-seeking broker (dalal) … the beneficiaries of his efforts to acquire more development resources for Chamars were concentrated among members of his extended kinship group and friendship network.

The Chamar netas have thus had limited impact on their broader communities. Many netas seem to have put personal gain first, undermining the BSP’s claims of Bahujan Samaj. Not only this, the Jat politicians have successfully countered their strategies by propaganda that makes the Revolution appear more successful than it is, galvanizing the Jat vote. The netas often emphasized Chamar progress through comparisons to the Muslims, who were often portrayed as not being interested in progress.


The authors present an ominous conclusion,

What emerged quite powerfully from our study was not just the frequency with which higher-caste dominance reasserted itself in the practices of the police, politicians, and other state representatives but also the strength of Chamar’s feeling of their poverty and social isolation. The prevailing political mood among Chamars was one of despondency, cynicism, and thinly veiled anger.

Simply claiming Dalit self-respect is a legitimate but incomplete goal. In fact for most of the Dalits in Nangal the notion of respect and improving access to resources are deeply linked. Without the right access, anger is brewing in a cynical and increasingly desperate peasantry. This anger could explode anytime and India could be in for a few very bloody decades.


  1. @ Vikram : Papers and research can only observe the situation and draw conclusions. Psychologically though lower caste people are where they are because they have ‘marginalised’ themselves. I am not saying that there is no discrimination but to a large extent they have never been able to assert themselves. Mayawati is just an opportunist who will fade away and she is good at taking advantage of this inferiority complex in that particular community. She is no different than your Hindutva people or your Muslim vote bank people.

    At the end of the day if low caste people want to get rid of their shackled existence they have to get rid of the main cause of it. Convert! Sounds drastic but that is what will cause an end to their problems because it is religion itself that is the source of their issues. Ambedkar knew it, I guess so do some other leaders in that community. Although I believe there are streams within Hinduism where a caste less existence is also possible so I am not saying that they have to convert to something else.

    As an example here in Punjab, although the caste system did not disappear after the emergence of the Sikh religion, its impact certainly has become a bit less. Although you will often see segregation in its more subtle yet interesting forms and discrimination as well.

  2. One word answer : No, opportunistic is the right word for her, she cannot be Ambedkar-esque

    The simple problem we can conclude is a general one.
    The ones incumbent with power (political, educational, money, social,, wont relinquish it to those who dont have the power

    What is needed is “brainwashing compassion” into the power-incumbent class

  3. Sir,

    It is your biased comment on media that reveals your lack of knowledge of Mayawatis coterie . A highly corrupt leader will only seek personal gain as established in her income tax accounts , also her blatant disregards for civil service norms plus highest crimminals as candidates in 2009 election is hardly endearing her to educated electorate.It is the social mores that need changing and not self serving netas like BSP.

  4. Thank you Vikram for this educational post.

  5. While I haven’t read the paper, I want to point out that just in this quite thorough post, Dalits and their political assertion is discussed without even once talking about that one reason why Dalits have special status in the Constitution, that one reason why they have reservations, that one reason why Ambedkar became what he did: untouchability. Most of us, quantative scholars especially, don’t even understand the full impact of untouchability on a Dalit mind and body. To call it ‘discrimination’ is like calling a tsunami a flood. We have to understand what the BSP has done and has been doing to the Dalit mind, first, and the question the material aspects of Roti, Kapda and Makaan. The BSP’s stated aim of using politics to unlock the gates of power, implies that the benefits will follow only once the gates of power have been unlocked. And the BSP sees itself as having reached only the halfway mark.


  6. Sonny Kapur’s comment above is a perfect example of why the Dalits need Mayawati.

  7. Shivam, I agree that the BSP has to be given great credit for following Dr. Ambedkar’s path of organize, educate and agitate. One must take these studies as feedback to decide the future course of action. Ultimately it is the Dalits of Nangal who indicted the BSP not the authors.

  8. Mayawati and BSP have done much for social upliftment for lower caste still i will claim that leaders of BSP are opportunistic in nature.The constant neglection of lower caste and Muslims by congress have bring the SP and BSP in scene.They become important parties with a grasp on social engineering.SP has became home grown property of Mulayam Singh with Yadav-Thakur and Muslim votes shifted to them.BJP and congress heavily rely on votes by higher caste mainly.BJP puts its weight behind communal division while congress share of vote was decreasing among secular voters.In this scenario,BSP was lead for the upliftment of lower caste by Kashiram and Mayawati.But previous UP election was different from all previous versions.The rise of BSP was powered by Brahmins playing as king maker and putting Mayawati as CM.She was forced to switch her politics from bahujan samaj to sarva samaj for the sake of political gains. This is a very serious threat for dalits as the whole cause of brahmin lobby is to enjoy power,not social responsibility. Sadly,after Mayawati,this party will be destroyed.

  9. […] Vikram Garg, a PhD student from Mumbai delves into the caste politics in India from an academic standpoint. In his post titled “Is Mayawati bringing the change India’s Dalits (people of lower caste) need?”, he discusses research carried out by University of Washington and Edinburgh in village of Nangal in state of Uttar Pradesh with 48% dalit population. […]

  10. […] examines the caste politics in India from an academic perspective based on conflicting findings from research carried out by University of Washington and Edinburgh […]

  11. Whichever way you might look at it, caste is just a thinly veiled version of racism. It will disappear only when “race” itself disappears. India should “discourage” intra-caste marriages. Couples with inter-caste marriages should be provided tax incentives.

    This is the only way to put an end to this menace. But good luck trying to sell this to the Indian masses 🙂

  12. @vakibs,We live in a culture where people think family and caste honor above the life of their own blood. Indians are so racist that upper class will find a way to discriminate lower class and then talk about equality or morality.And who forms the government,the representative who has leaped into parliment on the basis of social engineering if not money or family connections.

  13. Hindus are born barbaric and corrupt which you can look around your self.Mayawati will bring the change in every Indian lives including the hindus.BJP had demolished the Babri mosque,Congress had killed thousands of Shikh,another stalwart of BJP mr Modi had killed thousands of muslims.Same hindus who are killing muslims and christians in India are begging Visato enter the Muslims and christians countries.time has come all europians and muslims country should bann these hindus to enter their holy country who are milking dollar in their holy land and otherside giving share of these dollar to RSS and Bajrang dal who are killing minorities in India.

  14. Simply claiming Dalit self-respect is a legitimate but incomplete goal.

    Bang on the money, sir. I think Mayawati has seriously done a good job with the self-respect part.

    I had a friend in college from Ballia, UP who said that a Mayawati being in power made an actual difference to him. Howvere, again most of examples were to do with samman.

    And a real nice blog, man. Will read up on the archives now.

  15. Everyone, I apologize for the delay in my response.

    @ Odzer, you are partly correct. Indeed Mayawati might and eventually will fade away. But I think although she does not represent new values herself as far as corruption and integrity is concerned, but her rise does reflect new values in her vote bank. Her own fortunes are not as important as the future trajectory of Dalit politics in general.

    @ Khalil: We can do better than brainwash compassion, we can kick them out if we play our cards right.

    @ Himanshu, indeed the Brahmin’s entry is to be viewed with apprehension, I guess the results of the Lok Sabha election in UP will give us some idea.

    @ vakibs, indeed inter-caste marriages are the way to go. But attitudes are tough to change, particularly in the older generation.

    @ Hades, Thanks and Welcome. Samman is the first step in a society where it is given very sparingly, but it is only a small first step.

  16. Sonny Kapur’s comment above is a perfect example of why the Dalits need Mayawati.


    Wow. It’s so easy to influence people using an anonymous comment in an anonymous forum. 🙂

  17. The problem with the BSP is that it has a mainly lower middle class urban base in terms of membership and leadership while the voters are actually the rural poor. This means that there is an economic contradiction between their interests and so the BSP tends to follow policies which don’t necessarily benefit most of their supporters. There are large class divides within the Dalit community – which are ironically partially the result of reservation policy; leading to a class of middle class intellectuals and govt employees who are frequently alienated from both their own community and the so-called ‘mainstream’.

    The BSP for a number of reasons is also very hostile to any pure economic development programme – partly because they are aware that economic issues can potentially divide their Dalit base, partly because they are wary of losing ground to the Left parties and partly because they don’t have the means to carry out stuctural transformations on the ground.

    There is also the issue of time horizons; economic development strategies take years if not decades to push through and in the countryside you will need the kind of cadre and organisation that the Commnist parties had to make sure reforms are effective. The BSP cadre ideologically and organisationally are unsuited to this task. In all my interviews with their members and leaders; it is clear that economic transformation is not a primary part of their programme – they aren’t opposed to it, they just aren’t going to devote much of their time and energ to it.

    Vikram – you should check out Santosh Mehra’s chapter in the recent volume edited by Sudhia Par et al that looks at this in detail.

    Great post though and this is an important issue.

  18. […] Continued here: Is Mayawati bringing the change India’s Dalits need ? […]

  19. […] Are the times changing for the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh ? One of the topics that I have focused on from time to time is the Dalit movement in northern India, primarily concentrated in Uttar Pradesh. I started with a discussion of how Dalits saw the modern Indian nation, moved on to their cultural emergence in the Indian heartland and their views towards the current situation under the government of Mayawati. […]

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