The language of mobilisation needs to change

The pandemic is forcing us to understand the changing nature of society. In north India, specifically, it has also reshaped the discourse on marginalisation. Dalit issues are part of this discourse but are submerged in the broader discussions on economic vulnerabilities highlighted by COVID-19.

This pandemic has brought about two important shifts in the political discourse on the marginalised. As the lockdown caused untold suffering to poor, migrant labourers, it brought them from the margins to the centre of deliberations. Second, discussions on the space for the marginalised in the public health system and their safety are in focus. However, the concerns of Dalits remain hidden under the broader categories of poor, vulnerable, marginal, etc.

Changing vocabulary
In contemporary debates, there is a reappearance of class-based vocabulary. Caste-based issues have either become invisible or are only visible as part of the wider discourse. Leaders such as Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad have not been able to engage effectively with these new shifts. They have not been able to carve out a location in these new debates for their own politics. They have to reorient their exclusively caste-based language and reshape their political discourse to be in tune with the times. There are a large number of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes among the migrant labourers. But Dalit leaders in north India have not been able to represent their concerns. Their dilemma is how to address their constituencies using class terminology such as ‘labourer’ and ‘poor’ even as a majority of the migrant poor are Dalits and OBCs. This dilemma has made Dalit leaders non-assertive. It is possible that these shifts in political debates may continue in the post-pandemic phase at least for a few years as vulnerabilities of the marginalised will increase.

The Dalit movement in north India is habituated in using caste-based binaries in its mobilisational language but has failed to respond to the changing political diction. In fact, leaders have not changed their political diction for 30 years, since the time of the Kanshi Ram-led Bahujan movement. The movement is facing a crisis of agendas and social programmes. The constant repetition of unfulfilled claims and commitments and slogans and promises create disillusionment among a section of their support base.

Another issue is that the Dalit movement in north India is grappling with a leadership crisis. This crisis has appeared due to a break in the umbilical cord tying the movement with the party. In States such as U.P., Bihar, Punjab and Rajasthan, Dalit assertions are mostly centred around the electoral politics of Dalit-Bahujan political groups and parties. Even alternative social movements led by Jignesh Mevani and Mr. Azad seem to be caught in the logic of electoral politics.

Leadership crisis
During the Bahujan movement in the 1990s, the idea was that the movement and the party could facilitate each other. But the BSP, which emerged from the Bahujan social movement, developed gradually as a party structured like a pyramid. Under Ms. Mayawati, it has stopped its reciprocal relationship with the Dalit movement. In the BSP, the emergence of political leaders of various Dalit-Bahujan castes at different levels became frozen. This caused erosion in the broader social base and ultimately weakened the Dalit movement. So, while on the one hand, the Bahujan movement allowed numerically important Dalit-Bahujan communities to have political aspirations, on the other, the freeze on the emergence of leaders at various levels smashed political ambitions, destroyed the initiatives of the cadre and hampered the natural growth of the party and movement. The Dalit movement is constantly facing new challenges but its leaders are not able to change their strategies and grammar of politics to respond to them.

Under the influences of the Ambedkarite ideology and the Dalit-Bahujan movements, an assertive and politically aware Dalit consciousness was being formed among a section of Dalit groups. In the meantime, interventions by Hindutva leaders among Dalits mobilised a section of the most marginalised Dalits under the Hindutva flag. Now the pandemic has posed a new challenge for the Dalit movement. Caste-based identities formed the ideological resource base, but now concerns have gone beyond caste and religion, thus posing a different challenge. The challenge may be temporary but it may lead to a paradigm shift for Dalit politics.

The Dalit movement has to evolve new social strategies for its expansion in order to keep up with the changing times.

Badri Narayan
The Author is Director of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

Courtesy The Hindu