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.
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.
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.