By: Anand Teltumbde
Despite their wide acceptance within the Dalit movement (and many
others), NGOs today are functioning as a diversionary palliative for
those concerned with emancipation.
The history of the non-government organisation (NGO), as a non-state
institutional initiative, might logically go back to the origin of
government itself. All the same, its role as a grouping complementary
to the ruling structure probably does not reach earlier than the 19th
century. Broadly speaking, the first NGOs were charity organisations
comprised mainly of Christian institutions, and characterised the
period of direct colonial rule. The second wave of NGOs can be termed
developmental organisations, and dominated during the Cold War
decades. Finally, the third and current wave comprises of
participatory and globalist organisations that have been active since
the start of the economic liberalisation and neoliberal globalisation
that began during the 1990s. In the Subcontinent, meanwhile, though
there has always been an interface between NGOs and Dalits, the
former's special interest in the latter has proliferated largely
during the third phase of globalisation.
During each of these three periods, the functions of NGOs have been in
accordance with the changing needs of their donors or funding sources.
In India as elsewhere, the colonial regimes first realised the
importance of NGOs as a part of civil society, and therefore as
possible agents for effectively communicating with local populations
on their behalf. It was exorbitant, if not impossible, to hold large,
alien populations in subjugation solely through force. Indeed, it was
far more economical to work among them as philanthropists, and the
missionary organisations carried out these functions through their
humanitarian work for the local communities. With the knowledge
gathered through the NGOs, colonial regimes were able to take timely
corrective actions to keep the populations' discontent in check.
The world over, it is fairly established that these missionary
organisations were complementing colonial rule, as they carried out
certain tasks that challenged many traditional relations. In India's
caste-divided society, for instance, where the 'untouchable' Shudras
and Dalits were forbidden access to education by religious statutes,
the missionaries provided modern education, proving to be catalysts in
galvanising the 'untouchables' to launch a liberation movement during
the late 19th century. Indeed, during the early part of that century,
Christian missionaries were responsible for the entire range of
educated people from these caste groups. In addition, these
missionaries helped to spread 'Western values' among the masses,
including ideas of equality.
Those involved in the Dalit movement today acknowledge the role that
Christian missionaries played at the beginning of their struggle.
Indeed, while NGOs are often denigrated as appendages of a colonial or
imperialist system, many Dalits are sceptical of this point of view.
As understood today, the Dalit movement itself can even be seen as the
unintended by-product of British colonial rule. The institutional
ethos of Western liberalism – opportunities to work in the British
Army, wield weapons, get an education, migrate to urban settings and
set up small-scale businesses – was at the root of Dalit mobilisation.
Consider the urban background of the pioneers of the movement in the
late 19th century in Maharashtra: Gopal Baba Walangkar, the military
pensioner in Konkan; Kisan Fagoji Bansode, the worker in the Empress
Mills in Nagpur; or Shivram Janaba Kamble, the butler in Pune's
military cantonment. Even B R Ambedkar came from a family in which the
men had served in the British Army for two generations. The
Maharashtrian phenomenon of Dalit leaders rising due to opportunities
thrown up by the colonial regime could, in those days, be observed in
the incipient Dalit movements that were taking place throughout the
Away from agitation
Ambedkar had been a vocal proponent of Dalit civil rights, and had
achieved enviable political stature, well before Independence.
Although he was part of the first all-party cabinet as well as
chairman of the Drafting Committee in the Constituent Assembly
post-Independence, he was soon disillusioned by the Congress
leadership and left government. All the same, after the promulgation
of the Constitution, he advised his followers to shun agitation in
favour of the document.
As their leader's legacy, faith in constitutionalism became of
critical importance to India's Dalits, even though Ambedkar himself
later reversed his position on this. Disillusioned with
post-Independence politics and in ill-health, Ambedkar increasingly
turned to Buddhism, which he embraced just before his death. Although
Ambedkar interpreted Buddhism rather radically, the popular perception
of the belief system disoriented Dalits, leading them to turn even
further away from agitation. Yet if Dalits had continued to believe in
agitational politics to achieve their emancipation, it would have been
far more difficult for NGOs later to enter into the Dalit movement.
Constitutionalism and the popular pacific version of Buddhism impelled
Dalits to seek piecemeal solutions to their existential problems, as
against the radical social transformation. NGOs, being designed to
deal with piecemeal solutions, found a perfect fit in this space.
The fit between NGOs and Ambedkarite Dalits was further helped by a
subtle transformation that the community underwent. With the passage
of time, Dalits made significant progress in education, with which
they acquired government and public-sector jobs, aided by reservation.
Slowly, this process resulted in creating a quasi-class layer of
upwardly mobile Dalits, who, being government servants, were
statutorily barred from participating in agitation. Meanwhile, many of
the educated Dalits promoted voluntary associations of various kinds,
such as setting up Buddha vihars, public libraries, tuition classes,
microcredit schemes and cooperative banks, in addition to taking up
cultural activities such as celebrations of Ambedkar and Buddha
jayantis. The emergence of 'welfare societies' among Dalit employees
and the services they provided to their brethren – congregating at
places like Deeksha Bhoomi (where Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, in
Nagpur), Chaitya Bhoomi (Ambedkar's Samadhi in Bombay), both landmarks
of the Dalit movement – also led to gravitation towards volunteerism.
NGOs, ostensibly driven by humanitarianism and benevolence, thus
remained just a short distance away.
After Ambedkar, the Dalit movement splintered into numerous factions.
Today, these tend to come alive only on the eve of elections, at which
point political 'rent' is collected by the various Dalit leaders from
the ruling parties. For the rest, there is virtually no political
activity – a vacuum that has acted as a virtual invitation to NGOs.
Indeed, these two phenomena – of election-time action and movement
away from agitational politics (and thus making space for NGOs) – have
been mutually reinforcing. After all, the 'rent-seeking' behaviour of
Dalit leaders requires that Dalit communities do not indulge in
agitation over the genuine issues that impinge upon their lives; if
they were to do so, these leaders could lose control over the
communities at large, and thus lose their credibility with regard to
the political bosses.
Yet the problems that Dalits suffer are attributes inherent in the
social system, and the surest solution would be radical politics. Such
a consciousness can only be sustained in the mode of struggle – which,
while providing for immediate needs, also pushes itself to higher
stages. In the absence of this, the entire outlook degenerates to
finding short-term solutions or reformism (the belief that there is
nothing inherently wrong with the societal structure, or that mere
tinkering is all that is required). Unfortunately, with the decimation
of the idea of radical politics in the Dalit universe, such
consciousness among Dalits completely vanished. While the decline of
radical Dalit politics cannot be said to be the sole cause for the
growth of the Dalit NGO movement, it has certainly paved the way for
Today there are more than 1.5 million NGOs in India of various sizes,
working on a wide variety of issues. Such a situation is largely a
result of the post-1990 neoliberal era, which brought new structural
importance to the NGOs in the country, premised on the ideology of
free enterprise for private individuals and a curtailed role for the
government. The state, which had long assumed a role as welfare
provider, thus began to withdraw from many of its social obligations
towards the vulnerable sections of the populace. In turn, some of
these obligations were assigned to civil-society organisations. India
formally adopted neoliberal policies in July 1991, but they had been
informally initiated in the mid-1980s, when the seventh Five-Year Plan
(1985-90) legitimated the special status of the volunteer sector.
Although this applied to all sectors intended to be vacated by the
state (health, education, etc), they were especially meant for Dalits
and Adivasis, the identifiable victims of these neoliberal policies.
Many NGOs therefore rushed in to fill what could be called the demand,
until they soon occupied every possible space in Dalit life. As per
recent research carried out by the Charity Aid Foundation India and
the Voluntary Action Network India, in 1999 there were estimated
18,000 NGOs in India registered under the Foreign Contributions
(Regulation) act of 1976, to receive foreign money without prior
permission. Similarly, another 4000 were granted temporary permission
between 1990 and 1998 to receive foreign money. By the end of 1997,
the volume of foreign contribution to the NGO sector had reached
nearly USD 568 million (INR 26 billion), a growth rate of 643 percent
over the previous decade.
Unsurprisingly, most Dalits in Indian NGOs are active at the field
level. Dalit boys and girls appear to be doing social services for
their communities, which is what Ambedkar expected educated Dalits to
do, and Dalit communities therefore perceive such workers quite
favourably – more favourably, certainly, than Dalit politicians, who
are often seen as engaged in mere rhetoric. The NGO sector has thus
become a significant employer for many Dalits studying for their
humanities degree, typically capped with a postgraduate degree in
social work. Further, as the prospects of public-sector jobs have
decreased since the government's neoliberal reforms of the mid-1980s
and later, the promise of NGOs as employers assumed great importance.
Unlike state jobs, those offered by NGOs are typically associated with
community service, without the risk of being targeted by the state.
This profile fits the need for the educated Dalit youth perfectly, as
he typically aspires to do community service while still preserving
his distinct status as an educated person among the common masses. He
wants to earn money, but without the conditionality of the government
job or without the risk of incurring the wrath of the state through
possible political confrontation associated with leftist activism. NGO
jobs thus promise the educated Dalit youth the respectability of
community leadership and even the halo of the radical left – but
without the associated risks.
There are several significant problems with this state of affairs.
First and foremost, NGOs are neither meant to nor are they capable of
filling the space vacated by the welfare state: They are mere
palliatives, not the remedy. Furthermore, if one looks at the sources
of funding that have been flowing to the organisations generally, they
would be found to be carriers of the agenda of global capital – one
that seeks to keep the masses from recognising and acting against the
core exploitative processes, as far as possible. By their
philanthropic activities, the controlled rhetoric of systemic change,
the issue-based focus and solution-focused working style, NGOs are
able to create a positive impression among the communities with which
they work. Dalit communities today have begun to see NGOs as the
solution, and have thus become worryingly depoliticised with regards
to the larger systemic problems.
Resource-rich NGOs have thus been able to either overwhelm or co-opt
much genuine activism among Dalits. During the course of this process,
the upper-caste and -class domination of NGOs has, incongruously,
tended to make such organisations increasingly patronising towards
Dalits. Yet even without outright anti-Dalit bias, in the absence of
any overt anti-caste ideological perspective in their work, the NGOs'
civil-society agenda has largely perpetuated the existing hierarchical
structures, as their division of society on the basis of 'identities'
(gender, ethnicity, area as well as caste) has resulted in the
weakening of the Dalit agenda of outright annihilation of caste. Most
significant in all of this, NGOs today continue to project the
corporate model as a panacea, thus completely decimating democratic
politics – which, in fact, holds the most significant hope of
emancipation for Dalits and other oppressed communities.
Struggles inevitably erupt when the contradictions in society are
exacerbated beyond a certain threshold level. However, if these
contradictions can be contained or alleviated, the possibility of the
struggle – and, in turn, of the radical change – is eliminated at the
root. What NGOs do is deal with the superficial aspects of these
contradictions, such that people find temporary relief; in the
process, they become distracted from the basic contradiction and the
need to resolve it through struggle. In this, the reformist work
carried out by NGOs needs to be seen as self-perpetuating: there is no
reflection of any superior goal. NGOs do not and, indeed, cannot have
revolutionary goals such as the annihilation of caste or the
establishment of socialism – their work is purposefully fragmented,
based on a single, small section of the society, and essentially
In the context of the Dalit movement, the central goal is clearly the
end of caste. NGOs have highlighted the oppression inherent in the
caste system, and to what extent untouchability and caste
discrimination are still practiced – exposing the issue in multiple
international fora, such as the nine World Social Forums. These
exposures could indeed lead the international community to exert
pressure on the Indian government to take severe measures to eliminate
caste, to shame the government into tightening the implementation of
its anti-caste legal structure, or even to sensitise the larger
society to some extent against its practices. But what is never
highlighted in such venues is that caste is structurally integrated
within Indian society itself, and hence warrants a radical change in
societal structure. This cannot come from the NGOs.
The spread of NGOs works subtly at the level of the sub-conscious, and
their patronising attitude basically inverts the anti-caste
consciousness of Dalits. Dalits begin to think that some good people
from the upper castes and classes can emancipate them from their
misery, a dynamic that thus keeps alive the traditional caste
stratification. The NGOs divide the oppressed people into sections and
identities, thereby preventing the germination of class consciousness.
They seek to obliterate and obfuscate the class divisions and
distinctions within the social groups by advocating the unity of the
oppressor and the oppressed on the basis of various identities
(gender, caste, ethnic, religion, region, nationality, etc), which in
turn does much to erase the zeal in them for their self-emancipation.
Dalit emancipation lies in the basic transformation of society, sans
caste and class. While NGOs do talk of such transformation, their work
is geared towards micro-level reformist tinkering to preserve the
status quo – philanthropy, empowerment, development, advocacy. Yet all
of this is to be done without disturbing the social structure.
Today, NGOs the world over constitute a central structural component
of the neoliberal international system. Neoliberalism pushes states to
release into the market many of the sectors that they traditionally
operated; for those who cannot comfortably participate in market, NGOs
were conceived to provide certain palliative services, and to channel
their discontent along constitutional, peaceful methods. Thus, their
myriad forms notwithstanding, NGOs function in this set-up as little
more than safety valves. In India, the degeneration of the Dalit
movement since the 1960s created easy space for the organisations to
rush in and, in the process, effectively deflect the movement from its
ostensible core goal of radical transformation of society. In order to
resurrect this goal, Dalits will have to 'de-NGOise' their movement.
Neoliberalism, while projecting a 'human face', is actually decimating
the people of India, particularly Dalits and Adivasis. However, with
the increasing heat of various crises of living, the people are slowly
waking up and rising against this imperialist machination; the Dalit
movement has a definite role in this uprising.
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