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Apr 10, 2022

Review: The Ever-Evolving Political Aspirations of Dalits in India

'The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision', a collection of essays edited by K. Raju, sums up the core and emerging issues for the Dalit community.
Members of Dalit community display a portrait of BR Ambedkar during a 'Bharat Bandh' over the 'dilution' of SC/ ST act. Photo: PTI
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A recently launched book titled The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision offers a new critical framework to understand the involvement of Dalits within the Indian political, constitutional and social landscape, with a broader vision of social justice. 

Edited by former bureaucrat K. Raju, the book has a collection of essays on different themes which sum up the core as well as the emerging issues for Dalits in India. Rather than just focussing on the challenges, the book has an overarching narrative of resilience. It details the aspirations of Dalits, which have evolved with changing socio-political circumstances. This narrative has been demonstrated through an Ambedkarite perspective on the themes of constitutionalism, politics and changing social life.

The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision
Edited by K. Raju
Penguin, 2022

In a reflection on the adopted constitutional framework, the first few chapters assess the working of constitutional institutions and framework, and suggest institutional reforms to improve Dalit participation in these institutions. This is an important point the book presents, as the existing constitutional safeguards have often been invoked previously to deny further rights and safeguards to Dalits. As one chapter by Raja Sekhar Vundru highlights, the current system of reserved constituencies needs to be improved and redesigned with structural changes to improve the electoral representation of Dalits. 

The middle chapters are related to Dalit politics, where the authors have tried to analyse the reasons for the changing voting pattern of Dalits in different phases of post-Independence Indian history. The authors have reflected on the crisis in the contemporary Dalit movement, and have imagined a possible blueprint for new Dalit politics.

Dalit politics, however, needs to be understood from a lens, which may be referred to as “politics of aspirations”. The changing voting pattern of Dalits in different historical phases has been a result of their changing and evolving aspirations. These aspirations have transcended from a traditional understanding of “identity politics” – in which Dalits are forcefully pigeon-holed by oppressor caste intellectuals.

Today, Dalits demand a greater say in everything, not just welfare schemes. This can include questions of governance, nationalism, etc. For example, in Delhi and Punjab, the Dalit vote share has shifted from their traditional political parties to a completely new party which has appealed on these lines. The religious radicalisation of a section of Dalits in some states cannot be ignored, but if it has to be countered, it needs to be first understood from the lens of how their multi-issue aspirations are evolving and shaping.

Also read: To Be or Not to Be a ‘Dalit’?

Political parties also need to understand that Dalits now are politically conscious voters and should not be treated merely as a vulnerable group, who need state protection. Their assertion and struggle need to be recognised and respected. Furthermore, the aspirations of different Dalit castes may vary. The middle class and the youth among the Dalits today do not seem to have the same aspirations which previous generations would have had in the 1980s and 1990s.

The most striking part from the book in terms of social discourse is its chapters on Dalit cinema, education, entrepreneurship, and share in national economy. These are the issues which so-called leading commentators on Dalit issues often ignore, and in effect further ghettoise the Dalit identity only as victims who need to be saved. These chapters not only illustrate the resilience of Dalits in modern India, but also their daily contributions to nation-building and development.

More so, the issue of share in national economy is crucial for social reforms – as is emphasised in the book. The debates on reservation to which Dalits are forced to engage with, need to be replaced by a discussion on giving them their due share in national resources and power networks. 

Also read: Debate: How Babasaheb Ambedkar Rejected the Word ‘Dalit’

In the introduction, Raju exposes the narrative of lies against Dalits – which have often put limits on pertinent issues that ought to be taken up. Raju also highlights Dalit icons who have made significant contributions to the society.

“Dalits, even while being crushed by society and the state… apply their remaining energies to the development of the nation.” 

The ‘truth’ in the title of the book itself offers a critical lens to the current socio-political situation. However, the challenges for Dalits and stories of resilience are so many that there needs to be a sequel. For instance, there can be a chapter on the implementation of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act – what challenges are there in implementation, etc. Another chapter could be on whether political parties have done enough when it comes to social reforms.

Lastly, the book forces one to think about the extraordinary influence of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s struggle, ideas and legacy, and his iconography in contemporary Indian politics. Such has been the impact of the Dalit movement that every political party is forced to appeal in Dr Ambedkar’s name. The challenge, though, lies in preserving his legacy and ideas.

However, it is clear that without referring to Dr Ambedkar, no one can think of engaging with Dalits as citizens and as voters. Without following his ideas, there cannot be an ideal society, nation and governance.

Anurag Bhaskar, alumnus of Harvard Law School, is an Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He tweets at @anurag_bhaskar_

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