Tuesday, December 21, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The dalit contract with India


The dalit contract with India


IT was a hot May in Delhi in 2009, and listless crowds,
patrolled by the blue-capped Bahujan Volunteer force, made up the
Bahujan Samaj Party's pre-election rally in the Ram Lila Grounds.
Right up front was a large raised platform meant for the media. Its
scale was ironic as well as inevitable: ironic, because Mayawati has
made a career out of ignoring 'upper caste journalists' for
misrepresenting her politics; inevitable, because in a general
election otherwise too complex for sound bytes, the question: 'Will
India have its first Dalit woman prime minister?' had a clarifying
elegance to it. On either side of the media platform, and a good 500
metres from the podium, were her people. The distance between speaker
and spoken-to conveyed an imperium that went with Mayawati's politics
of dignity. Her rant against the conniving Congress, past holder and
current predator of her Dalit vote bank in Uttar Pradesh, also made

           What was puzzling was the speech itself. More than half of
it was devoted to details of the Constitution – from B.R. Ambedkar's
tussle with the Congress over its drafting, to the reservations and
empowerment it offers to Scheduled Castes six decades later.1
Sentences I had heard in the careful calibrations of law school, the
monotonous baritone of courts, and the air-conditioned confines of the
India International Centre were now being taught by a mass politician
to legions of her unlettered followers. I have since wondered about
the relationship between the Indian Constitution and Dalit politics.
What is the basis of this link in realpolitik; what is its
psychological character? And what does it say about India's founding
document, that sixty years on, the most prominent space it has in mass
politics is in the non-liberal articulations of former Untouchables?

           First, the obvious. The Constitution is used
instrumentally to strengthen Dalit representation in politics. Dalits
number 16.2 per cent of India's population. Since Article 330 of the
Constitution guarantees that 15 per cent of the Lok Sabha will be
occupied by Dalits only, they are adequately represented in the Lok
Sabha. Compare this to Muslims in India, who are roughly 13.4 per cent
of the population, but do not benefit from political reservations. As
a result, Muslim-centric parties (like the Muslim League) are
inconsequential; the percentage of Muslims in politics is far below
their national average. What makes Dalit politics even more impressive
is that Dalit votes tend to be split. Analyzing Dalit vote trends in
the 2009 elections, Rahul Verma found that rich urban Dalits tended to
vote for the Congress, while it was left to the poor, rural Dalits to
vote for the BSP. By contrast, Muslims – rich or poor, upper caste or
low caste – vote tactically for the same party.2 Yet Muslim electoral
politics is not able to compete with the Parliamentary quota that the
Constitution guarantees to Dalits.

           Conversely, reservations alone cannot explain Dalit
political power. Take the Scheduled Tribes, who are the only other
group allotted political reservations in the Constitution. Their
Ambedkar – the Oxford-educated Jaipal Singh Munda – was a forceful
voice in the Constituent Assembly debates. But this has not led to
tribal politics reaching anywhere near the organizational level of
Dalit politics. As Ramachandra Guha points out, 60 years after
Independence 'unlike Dalits, they [tribals] have been unable to
effectively articulate their grievances through the democratic and
electoral process.'3 One major reason why Dalits are able to organize
better is the shared experience of untouchablity, which connects Dalit
jatis scattered across the subcontinent. By contrast, there is little
to link tribals from central India (like Jaipal Singh) and tribals
from the North East. There are no shared social experiences to cause
them to vote as a block.

           Dalits are also numerous enough in several states to
benefit from India's first-past-the-post politics. In Uttar Pradesh,
for instance, where politicians typically need around 25 per cent of
the votes to win, the 20 per cent Dalit population begins with a head
start over other identity groups fighting for political spoils. But
even in areas where tribals are a majority, tribal politics is either
fragmented (Chhattisgarh) or mauled (Jharkhand). Besides, reserved
seats do not always benefit Dalit-only parties. In Uttar Pradesh, the
BJP has consistently won most of the reserved seats. Ajoy Bose, a
political biographer of Mayawati, explains it thus: 'Since all
candidates are Dalits, the Dalit vote is divided… the BJP's Dalit
candidate had the extra benefit of the party's traditional upper caste
base.'4 This is not necessarily a negative for Dalits: mainstream
parties with Dalit politicians can initiate caste compromises of the
kind Mayawati has recently attempted in UP, with her bid to woo that
state's Brahmin community. Political reservations provide a platform
to Dalit politicians for negotiating from a position of strength.

           Political reservations are only one half of the bridge
that leads to Dalit power; reservations in government jobs (Article
15(4)) and employment (Article 16(4)) are the other half.
Administrative reservations have helped in two ways. The first is that
they have created a Dalit elite whose members have gone on to stand
for political office. Mayawati's father was a (reserved) government
employee, and Behenji nurtured ambitions of writing the difficult
central administration exam (UPSC) before foraying into politics.5
Since rich Scheduled Castes can legally avail of quotas, the same
Dalit families – like Kumari Shailja's – have, in a couple of
generations, become a political elite.

           Beyond individual examples like Kanshi Ram, Mayawati and
Meira Kumar, lies yet another factor. Dalit government employees have
organized themselves within government, and this organizational
structure has formed the nucleus of a larger political movement
outside the steel frame of the bureaucracy. In 1978, Kanshi Ram formed
the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, followed
by the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samithi (DS4), which eventually
became the political Bahujan Samaj Party.

           Dalit government employee organizations and student
federations, all beneficiaries of constitutional reservations, act as
feeders into Dalit parties or SC/ST cells within national parties –
much like the Student Federation of India feeds into the CPI(M), and
the ABVP and RSS provide young leaders to the BJP. The relationship
between Dalit government employees and political parties has been
ill-studied in academia so far. Anecdotal evidence suggests a potent
cycle. Perhaps this example captures it best: Ram Vilas Paswan heads a
Bihar-based Dalit party called the Lok Janshakti Party. Between 1996
and 2009, he was a regular feature in every union cabinet. He
repeatedly won from the reserved constituency of Hajipur in north
Bihar, and once held a Guinness record for winning an election there
by the largest ever margin. In 2003, he was invited to speak at a
conference in Berlin, with the banal title: 'Dalit politics is here to
stay'. This is what the veteran Dalit politician had to say:

           'We could significantly enforce the Presidential
Directives to include proportionate numbers of SCs and STs in the
Delegations going abroad… We could also appoint Mr Birke Ram, as
Director Finance of the big Railway Public Sector Corporation. Today
it is one of the highly profitable PSUs in the country… No SC/ST was
ever allowed to become the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of

           It is telling that his speech was not about electoral
politics, but about the nitty-gritty of administrative transfers and
postings.6 That was what he saw as the true import of Dalit politics.

           While the importance of political participation can't be
understated for any community that faces historical injustice and
discrimination, increased Dalit representation in politics does not
automatically mean that Dalit interests are better articulated. Dalit
parties like the BSP are not necessarily 'purer' than mainstream
parties like the Congress, where the necessity to woo Dalit voters has
to be balanced with the impetus to form a pan-Indian majority. The
close relationship between Dalit student, occupational, and political
formations also has its drawbacks. Apart from seeing state offices in
purely instrumental terms, it also makes other forms of Dalit identity
subservient to the political. Yet, for better or worse, this nexus
between political and administrative reservations has become the hinge
on which contemporary Dalit politics swings.

           So far I have described how the Constitution has created a
Dalit political and administrative elite who work in tandem,
incubating structures in government organizations before placing them
in the rough and tumble of electoral politics. But Mayawati's May 2009
speech hinted at a psychological role of the Constitution, one that
goes to the heart of contemporary Dalit politics.

           To understand this, it is critical to see constitutional
reservations for Dalits not as an idea of equality based on first
principles, but as a historic compromise; a result of political power
play within India's freedom movement. By the 1930s, the British faced
two major claimants for nationhood, in addition to the Indian National
Congress. Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League claimed to speak for
British India's 20 per cent Muslims, while B.R. Ambedkar claimed to
represent British India's 'Depressed Classes'. As Sunil Khilnani
points out, it was in the British interest to deny India freedom by
claiming that there were too many discrete Indian groups to form a
single, integrated nation.7

           Motivated at least in part by this latter argument, the
British announced, in 1932, the creation of 'communal electorates',
i.e. separate seats and voters for Dalits and Muslims. An agitated
Mohandas Gandhi went on a fast unto death against separate electorates
for Dalits. Faced with intense pressure from popular sympathy for an
ailing Gandhi, Ambedkar compromized, giving up on the demand that
Dalit voters be kept separate, but gaining reserved constituencies for
the 'depressed classes'. This Poona Pact of 1932 became the basis for
providing reservations to the 'depressed classes' in the Government of
India Act, 1935, which in turn, became the template for the
Constitution of India, 1950.

           This power-sharing agreement ended up benefiting both
Ambedkar and the Indian National Congress. As Sekhar Bandopadhyay
points out, from 1916 onwards, Dalit political assertion was propped
up by colonial patronage. But as Independence approached, Ambedkar's
party faced annihilation from the Congress' ability to put up Dalit
candidates and win Dalit votes.8 In the 1946 elections, the Congress
could accurately claim to represent the largest share of the Dalit
vote.9 The inclusion of Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, and of
the terms of the Poona Pact in the Constitution, were thus welcome
steps for Ambedkar. For the Indian National Congress, the immediate
benefit of the Poona Pact was to put an end to the idea of a separate
Dalit nation. This might seem trifling today, but as late as 1940
Ambedkar harboured dreams of a separate country for Dalits. In his
book Pakistan or the Partition of India, he argued that 'the transfer
of minorities is the only lasting remedy for communal peace.'10

           But the most far-reaching implication of the incorporation
of the Poona Pact by the Constituent Assembly was that the
Constitution became the Dalit contract with the Indian nation. That
contract is not in sync with the liberal nationalism that Nehruvian
interpreters of India's Constitution like to extol. It is, instead, a
hard-nosed power-sharing agreement between groups, more in the nature
of the agreement between Christians and Shi'ites in Lebanon or the
Constitution of post-Apartheid South Africa. Using examples from these
two countries, Leonard Wantchekon points out that power-sharing
agreements are necessary for the transition from a state of conflict
to a state of democracy.11 The Poona Pact, that violates notions of
formal equality and contributes to what is wryly described as the
Constitution's 'asymmetric discrimination principle',12 was perhaps
necessary to avoid the alienation of the Scheduled Castes from the
Indian mainstream.

           Wantchekon's research also shows that once democracy
comes, the majority is tempted to renege on the power-sharing
agreement. It speaks of the wisdom of the national movement that in
1950 – when the Congress was not only in power in India, but had
trumped Ambedkar for the Dalit vote – it resisted the temptation to
renege on the Poona Pact. The move, instead, to appoint Ambedkar law
minister and head of the drafting committee had the symbolic value of
sealing the Constitution in the eyes of subsequent non-Congress Dalit
politicians (even if Ambedkar resigned soon after). Since then, the
Indian Constitution has been amended to provide the same reservation
benefits to a numerical majority (Other Backward Classes). The logic
of the Poona Pact, meant to protect a minority from the vagaries of
the majority, has been turned on its head. Yet, reservations for the
numerical majority ensure that the logic of the Poona Pact will never
be questioned; reservations for Dalits is unlikely to be withdrawn.

           Benedict Anderson argues that 'political symbols play a
major part in the way a nation is depicted and fed into the
imagination of its citizens.'13 The most famous Dalit totems in modern
India are the blue-suited Ambedkar statues.14 They dot entrances to
Dalit bastis in Indian villages and demarcate spaces in urban India
where Dalit politics has gained a foothold. For a group that has been
defined by physical exclusion, the power of these statues comes from
their placement. Mayawati's statue parks in Uttar Pradesh have the
same aim – capture physical space, and in doing so create history for
those who have been denied it for centuries. The political symbolism
of the constitutional reservations for Dalits also lies in their
placement. The Constitution is a mere collection of words, but it aims
to map out the geography of Indian nationhood. The symbolism of the
constitutional provisions for Dalits is that it carves out 15 per cent
of this national space for Dalits, and in doing so creates the
historic basis for shared nationhood. In that sense, its symbolism is
similar to that of the Ambedkar statues.

           Our political landscape has altered since the Constitution
was enacted. The decline of the Congress and the growth of region- and
caste-based parties have ensured that in a first-past-the-post-system,
Dalits, a significant numerical minority, have increased bargaining
power. The decline of the Congress has also led Dalits to vote for
other parties. In the run up to Independence, Ambedkar's party was
roundly defeated in the 1946 Constituent Assembly elections. By
contrast, today's Dalit parties either win power (BSP) or gain
significant vote share (LJP, RPI). The fact that the Constitution has
allowed and facilitated these electoral and rhetorical shifts speaks
volumes for its elasticity.

           In the sixty-three years since India's Independence,
diverse ethnic, linguistic or ideological groups – whether championing
language chauvinism in Tamil Nadu, separatism in Kashmir, or rebellion
in the red corridor – have questioned India's Constitution. Each of
these identity groups benefits from special constitutional provisions.
Linguistic groups, around whom the states were reorganized in 1956,
benefit from the federal provisions of the Constitution. In addition,
Article 30(1) provides ethnic, linguistic and religious groups
autonomy in their higher educational institutions. Kashmir enjoys
relative autonomy through the controversial Article 370; tribal areas
have similar rights. But these 'group rights' can still be justified
within liberal jurisprudence – they don't have anything like the
slice-of-cake logic that the Poona Pact ensured. This perhaps explains
why Dalit politicians have never criticized the Constitution, only
interpreted it their way.

           Mayawati ended up on the wrong side of the 2009 general
elections; her Delhi speech proved to be in vain. Not only did she win
fewer seats than expected, she lost out to the Congress's resurgence
in her home state of Uttar Pradesh. The Third Front on which her prime
ministerial ambition was tethered, was undone by the Congress and the
BJP. Yet while the opportunist in Mayawati has one eye on tomorrow's
elections, her other eye is on history. She continues to build statues
of herself and her Dalit pantheon, continues to sprinkle her speeches
with references to the Constitution of India. Symbols are for
posterity as well as expediency and sixty years on, the Dalit contract
with Indian nationhood shows no sign of ageing.


           1. 'Dalit' is a political term referring to ex-untouchable
castes. 'Scheduled Caste' is a legal term, which excludes Christian
and Muslim Dalits. This essay uses both phrases interchangeably.

           2. Rahul Verma, 'Dalit Voting Patterns', Economic and
Political Weekly 44(39), 2009.

           3. Ramachandra Guha, 'Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian
Democracy', Economic and Political Weekly 45(32), 2007.

           4. In conversation with the author, May 2009.

           5. Ajoy Bose, Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati.
Delhi, 2008.

           6. http://www.dalitindia.com/guest/Dalit Pol.htm

           7. Sunil Khilnani, 'Arguing Democracy: Intellectuals and
Politics in Modern India', CASI Working Paper Series 9(2), 2009.

           8. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, 'Transfer of Power and the Crisis
of Dalit Politics in India, 1945-47', Modern Asian Studies 34(4),

           9. Id.

           10. B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan, or the Partition of India.
Bombay, 1940. c.f. Sunil Khilnani, op cit.

           11. Leonard Wantchekon, 'Credible Power-Sharing
Agreements: Theory With Evidence From South Africa and Lebanon',
Constitutional Political Economy 11(4), 2000.

           12. Sudhir Krishnaswamy and Madhav Khosla, 'Reading A.K.
Thakur v. Union of India: Legal Effect and Significance', Economic &
Political Weekly 43(29), 2008.

           13. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections
on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, 1983.

           14. Nicolas Jaoul, 'Learning the Use of Symbolic Means:
Dalits, Ambedkar Statues and the State in Uttar Pradesh',
Contributions to Indian Sociology 40(175), 2006.


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