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Poverty of Philosophy within Liberals in Understanding Anti-Caste Politics

Poverty of Philosophy within Liberals in Understanding Anti-Caste Politics

om mahtao


Omprakash Mahato

om mahtaoThere are social scientists who develop their views on caste through textual means, attending conferences and seminars, observing society from a distance etc. While reading textbooks is the conventional way, some scholars tend to develop their ‘theories’ from watching Bollywood movies, reading newspapers,viewing newsroom studios debates, discussing and debating with research scholars while sitting in their chambers, all within the physical comfort of their home that many of us can’t afford.

There are others, the ‘common’ people, who understand caste and class through the ‘general’ debate about merit and perceptions manufactured in tea-stalls, pan-shops talking about the link between reservation and corruption. Separated from all these, exist the marginalized, the oppressed, the dalit-bahujans, the first generation learners in academic institutions, who articulate caste and class consciousness through their lived experience. The liberals exploit their caste privilege, publish academic articles and are in competition to establish themselves as anti-caste thinkers in the western academia. However, they fail to acknowledge the existence of caste discrimination that they do in Indian Universities like JNU, DU, Jadavpur University, Presidency College and other academic institutions. This is why it becomes necessary to lay out the ‘poverty of philosophy’ within liberals in understanding anti-caste politics.

To grasp the totality of a Dalit-bahujan community,  or to express an academic opinion on anti-caste politics, the primary task should be to locate the bodies within the context in which they exist and map the effects on that bodies through the analysis of major events occurring at that juncture. Therefore, it becomes important to see who are these bodies? Where do they come from? Which class do they belong? What is the social position of these bodies in the society? What are the aspirations of these bodies? How do they articulate their demand? How does the State look at them?

It seems that the above questions have escaped the analytical frame of the Hindu column titled ‘The Crisis of Dalit-bahujans Politics’ penned by Dr.Ajay Gudavarthy. He laments that the demand of these communities has been confined to the question of representation. This is a shallow reading of the anti-caste movement whose articulation cannot and must not be narrowed down to the question of representation. If representation is the only demand of these bodies, which BJP has taken care of, why are these bodies are agitating against Hindutva forces? Which bodies are fighting across the country against the fascist regime?

Presence in any institutions, whether academic institutions, Parliament, Legislature, Bureaucracy, Judiciary and other, are the initial premise of the struggle. Moreover, adequate representations and presence of communities in the decision making process is a political right and not a demand, which Dr.Gudavarthy fails to understand in his shallow reading of Dalit-bahujan movement. Rights and demands are not synonyms of each other and both carry different embedded meanings in themselves. Rights are guaranteed in the constitution, whereas demands are political articulations of an aspiration presented by any community. While in the former case, the state is bound to do its constitutional duty, in the latter, demand is an ongoing negotiation between the oppressed community and the State. M.N Thakur, yet another liberal political scientist and a Gandhian, observes anti-caste identity politics is a threat to the idea of Universalism. He fails to distinguish between an identity which is a source of oppression and an identity that is a source of assertion. The poverty of liberals lies in recognising Ambedkarism as universal, something which goes beyond Gandhism, and not confine it to mere identity, which scholars like Jaffrelot have argued upon.

It is interesting to note that misreading and misrepresentation of anti-caste movements have often been led by both right wing and left intellectuals to distort and sabotage the self-respect movement of the oppressed and their histories. It is better that the liberals take an introspective step back rather than doing misreading of anti-caste movements. There is nothing wrong per se in allying with the voices of the marginalised communities but misrepresentation creates nothing but suspicion and distrust towards the left intellectuals instead of building a sense of solidarity. Why is that, the mostly upper caste left liberal intellectuals, chronically suspicious of Dalit-bahujan, when they have nothing to offer to the society? What greater good or vision, left liberals has offered to the Dalit-bahujans in seven decades of independence?

Liberal scholars have obscured the nature of anti-caste politics with their intellectual jargon. While the left claims Dalit-bahujan as a suspicious being, the right wing perpetuates violence on that very suspicion created by the left. Right wing does what the left theorisation entails. This is why Kancha Illaiah (From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual: My Memoirs) says that the left in India are a ‘green snake in green grass’, a famous statement made by the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Saheb Kanshiram. Every form of politics has its own limitations and so does anti-caste politics. However, the crisis is not in the politics of anti-caste but rather the gap in leadership. The anti-caste mass movements such as Rohith Vemula, Una, Saharanpur, Bhima Koregaon, Bharat bandh on the dilution of SC/ST act, fighting the 13-point Roster system brought in by the UGC in faculty appointments are some major events that liberals fail to give space in their writings. These movements were spontaneous and later fizzled out without a proper leadership. These movements may not have brought the type of ‘revolutions’ some left-liberal scholars fancy, but it has spread the consciousness of Dalit-bahujans regarding the injustices happening in society.

Similarly, Gudavarthy in an another article published by ‘The Hindu’ titled, ‘A rightward shift in Dalit Politics’, formulates his hypothesis that “Dalits seem to have come a full circle from the agenda of ‘annihilation of caste’ to ‘secularisation of caste’, and conversion from Hinduism to actively claiming the Hindu identity, as is evident from the spate of communal riots in Uttar Pradesh in the last few months which have been primarily between Dalits and Muslims”. The hypothesis that he postulates and defends, is not backed by any factual evidences and thereby he generalises a particular event which quiet often the upper caste left liberal scholars have do. This unwarranted generalisation of particularism has often led the readers to generate misconceptions towards the Dalit-bahujan community. Contrary to Dr.Gudavarthy’s view, Rahul Sonpimple has put forth questions in an article titled ‘Dalit conversions: An act of rebellion against caste supremacy’, published in Al Jazeera, saying, “once again, India’s liberals, radical leftists and conservatives are asking, if not in one then in an analogous voice: ‘Why are Dalits choosing conversion?'” Sonpimple argues that the mass conversion of Dalits to other religions has created anxiety and anger within Hindu intelligentsia.

conversion jatha‘The Indian Express’ reported on 29th April 2018 that more than 300 Dalits converted into Buddhism after the Una incidence. It was an act of rebellion and to protest against the discrimination and caste based violence. The Indian Express has, in another article titled ‘Why Buddhism invites Dalits?’, says that Ambedkar’s own firm decision to convert had been made on both intellectual and emotional grounds, “a stab at the religion, which denied him equality and self-respect”, quoting Eleanor Zelliot. It has served as a threat to the reputation of tolerance preached in Hinduism and the political entity of Hindus.

conversion gatheringMore than 500 lower caste Hindus converted from Hindu religion to another at Veera Maidan in Shirasgaon, a village in Maharashtra on April, 2018

The claim that the imagination of Dalit-bahujan politics is confined to representation is a naïve understanding and seeks to limit the possibilities of anti-caste assertions. The politics of Dalit-bahujans talks of social transformation. Conversion as emancipation and annihilation of caste are the guidelines towards the larger social transformation, which anti-caste movements are marching towards. Even in the case of Saharanpur, the caste conflict between Savarna supremacy backed by BJP and Dalit-bahujans, was not for representation but assertion taking place for the cause of dignity. While the politics of the left is confined to material questions on paper, anti-caste politics, takes head on both the social and economic hierarchies on ground.

This does not mean to say that Dalit-bahujan politics are sacrosanct and there are no issues in it. Of course, there is crisis in leadership as often the leaders tends to become “chamchas” a term which Saheb Kanshiram used for self-seeking persons within the community, when they pursue the immediate security needs the right wing provides. This process which Gudavarthy talks about in the article, ‘A Rightward shift in Dalit Politics’ is happening at the level of leadership, and not in the entire Dalit community. Besides, the shift in leadership is not only limited to the Dalits but it is a general phenomenon. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019, there was mass scale shift of left cadres to right wing in Bengal and Tripura which CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury admitted. It is not to push that since the left has aligned with the right, there is no problem for dalit-bahujan in aligning with the right. The only point here is that branding the entire community as corrupt or anti-national by taking one exceptional example is what the right wing does to Muslims. The same method has been adopted by the left intelligentsia to portray Dalit-bahujans as masses with no principles and reduce them to almost nothing, refuting their day to day contributions in making society egalitarian and democratic.

However, it is important to note that the untouched bodies, the bodies that were considered to be polluting are the bodies that are fighting fascist forces across the country. The touchable bodies have the privilege to theorise on untouched bodies and portray these bodies as suspicious. Their caste status provides the authenticity in doing so. But there is a clear lacuna in this theorisation, about the exploitation carried out by touched bodies on untouched bodies by the touchable caste hindus. Why do caste hindus not write about the privileges they have gained as members of the upper castes? Why don’t they theorise on the upward mobility they have gained because of their caste/s? What stops liberals from standing against caste discrimination that is perpetuated on their colleagues and students that belong to particular communities? If the liberals turn to be silent on these questions or anything that stops them from expressing themselves, it is nothing but caste.



Omprakash Mahato is the President of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA). He is a PhD. Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email:

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