Wednesday, February 8, 2012

[ZESTCaste] In U.P. polls, local dalit histories vie with BSP's grand storyline

February 9, 2012
In U.P. polls, local dalit histories vie with BSP's grand storyline
Badri Narayan

All social communities have a history that is experienced, or
perceived, or both. Communities survive and sustain themselves on
these histories. When political forces try to mobilise these
communities, they usually do so by exploring their history and then
giving it a political meaning that suits their agenda. In the
beginning, when the political party is new, it gives space and respect
to the small histories of each community that it wants to mobilise.
Through this process, the party seeks to create unity among all these
communities for its political purpose. When the party becomes
powerful, it develops a meta or grand history in which it tries to
appropriate the histories of all the communities which it had earlier
mobilised individually. In this process, the histories of small
communities that are not politically powerful or do not have political
representation get hidden. This phenomenon can be seen in the
politicisation of the different dalit castes in Uttar Pradesh by
various political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress
and others. However, it is more forcefully apparent in the case of the
BSP, the party formed to politically empower dalits by Kanshiram
during the 1980s.

From Maharashtra to U.P.

In the initial days after moving to Uttar Pradesh from Maharashtra,
Kanshiram used the political language and metaphors popular in
Maharashtra, based on social and economic empowerment for mobilising
the dalit community as one. Later, when he realised that the soil of
U.P. was different from that of Maharashtra and people are more
influenced by cultural, mythical and identity issues, he started using
the local histories of different castes to mobilise each dalit caste

For this purpose he formed committees of local historians at block
levels to collect local caste histories which they gave to the BSP
political leaders. These leaders, who usually came from other parts of
the State, used the local histories — invariably stories about
glorious kings who were suppressed by the upper castes — to mobilise
individual communities. These small histories were then put together
to form a grand history of oppression and exploitation by the upper
castes. Through these local heroes, the party formed a symbolic
pyramid in which the first rung comprised local heroes like Jhalkari
Bai, Uda Devi and Mahaviri Bhangi; the second level comprised dalit
kings Daldev, Baldeo, Bijli Pasi; the third rung had saints of the
Bhakti movement Ravidas, Kabir, etc., and epical heroes of
marginalised communities in the Ramayan and the Mahabharat like
Eklavaya, Shambook, etc. The topmost or peak was formed of important
dalit social reformers Ambedkar and Periyar. These dalit heroes were
then used in the image-making of Mayawati, the leader of the BSP. When
the BSP became powerful, it started building a grand history around
Ambedkar and Periyar by installing their statues and developing parks
in their names. In the process, it marginalised the micro-histories of
the small dalit castes.
Political tensions

The main problem with forming a grand history of all dalit castes is
that it suppresses the uniqueness by which caste articulates its
social experiences. For this reason, a grand history and creation of a
homogeneous memory causes competition and social contestations within
the various Dalit castes, which then get reflected as political
tensions. This is the case with the two major dalit castes of U.P.,
namely the Chamars and the Pasi. While the Chamars believe that the
Pasis, who worked as stick wielders of the upper castes, oppressed
them under the orders of the upper castes, the Pasis think that
Chamars are stealing their share in the political and development pie
because of their education and social progress. It has led to
competing histories about who exploited whom more.

Additionally, in this process of grand history building, the histories
and identities of more than 50 numerically small dalit castes like the
Tatwa, the Rangrej, the Bharbhuja and others, have not been noticed by
any political force, while the histories of some bigger castes like
the Nai, the Dhobi, the Khatik, which have not got political
representation even after 15-20 years of dalit assertion, are being
ignored. It thus appears that the castes which have got political
representation have done so because they succeeded in constructing
their identities based on their caste heroes and history. In other
words, those castes which have not developed their identities and
histories have been deprived political representation.
In these elections

In the U.P. Assembly elections, although development and hi-tech
modernity appear to be the chief agenda of most political parties, a
closer look at the political mobilisations by the various political
parties shows that micro-histories of different dalit castes are once
again being used for mobilising these castes individually. Since each
caste travelled a different path of exploitation and oppression during
their course of development, the history of each caste is different
which makes it difficult to form a grand history of the dalits. In
addition, each caste has small heroes who have still remained unknown
and unsung. In these elections, the Congress, the BJP, the Apna Dali
and the Bh.S.P. (Bhartiya Samaj Party, a small party of the Rajbhar
caste popular in east U.P.) are promising to honour the heroes of
dalits who were not given respect during the BSP reign, and also give
respect to caste-based skills and identity of small dalit castes.

For instance, the Congress is trying to mobilise Most Backward Castes
(MBCs) by giving space to their identity, history, community knowledge
and skills. In its manifesto, it has promised to enhance traditional
skills and knowledge of castes such as potters, shepherds, shoemakers,
and weavers, linking such skills to their economic empowerment. It has
promised to construct cultural complexes where programmes around
jatiya sahabhao will be held and traditional skills of these
communities will be taught. Alongside, the party has also promised to
identify ati-dalit freedom fighters, and honour lesser known dalit
saints who were not honoured by the BSP like Swami Shivnarain, a
Chamar guru of eastern U.P., Sant Balmiki of the Balmiki caste, Baba
Jagjivan Das, Sant Dariyasa and so on, pledging to build memorials to

In the last few days, the party also organised an ati-pichhra (Most
Backward Caste) rally where hoardings of various heroes of MBCs who
played a role in the 1857 rebellion like Lochan Mallah, Samadhan
Nishad, Ahilyabai Holkar, Avantibai Lodhi were put up. Lochan Mallah
and Samadhan Nishad had played a role in the Sati Chauraha episode in
Kanpur where the Nishads massacred British officers. In its manifesto
the BJP has also promised to put up statues of pre-medieval dalit
heroes like Bijli Pasi who it claims were dispossessed by Muslim
invaders, in the process communalising these dalit heroes to suit its
political agenda. Thus the hidden histories of the various dalit
castes are providing space for different political parties to mobilise
them. While the BSP's effort to create a grand history and memory has
served to suppress the micro identities of the small Dalit castes,
other political parties are gleefully digging them out and celebrating
these hidden histories for their political purposes.

(The writer teaches at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science
Institute in Jhusi, Allahabad, and is an analyst of dalit issues.)


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