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Problematic Dalit Middle Class

Problematic Dalit Middle Class

Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao


Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao

Dr. Y. Srinivasa RaoDalits in India are mostly poor. However, there is a sizable middle class and very few rich. Poor and rich categories are not the point of discussion here, and neither is the entire Dalit middle class. The focus here is on the ‘Educated Dalit Middle Class’, that has failed to become a Dalit middle class in the real sense. Like other communities, Dalit middle class in India emerged from various processes and is drawn from different religious communities and numerous sub-castes within the larger Scheduled Castes. Among all these processes, it is through education that a majority of the Dalit middle class emerges.

Education works for Dalits in two important ways. Firstly, it transforms them into a rational, progressive and humanistic category of human beings, and secondly, it also promotes Dalit consciousness. These two which reciprocate each other are naturally supposed to transform the educated Dalit middle class into a special category that distinguishes itself from the middle classes of the caste Hindus and other religious communities. The functions such a Dalit middle class can perform are enormous at various levels.

On one hand, it is quite essential to build narratives on history, culture, discrimination, and atrocities. On the other, they can continuously fight against discrimination and atrocities, and through their efforts promote Dalit consciousness among Dalits of all classes and castes, and evolve various methods and mechanisms through this process. Last but not the least, they can contribute to the transformation of general society as well. However, leaving the other sections of the Dalit middle class aside, the section that emerged through education seems to keep itself away not only from acquiring the basic characters of such a class but also from Dalit identity itself. One would want to know why such a class has emerged and what factors have contributed to it.

Given the discrimination against Dalits that is primarily inbuilt in Hinduism and to a lesser extent in the rest of the religions as well, the educated Dalit middle class is expected to have acquired characteristics that are positive for the community. Yet, it contains a large section that does not differentiate itself from the character of the caste Hindu middle class. It locates itself in the Dalit middle class just as a community, while its culture, social behaviour and ideologies remain in line with the caste Hindus.

In other words, this class, despite being educated, is deeply religious, ritualistic and socially and culturally orthodox. Such a middle class naturally works against the very idea of conscious Dalits and ‘Dalit consciousness’. What are factors for the emergence of such a problematic educated middle class among Dalits? One general reason that is applicable to all middle classes irrespective of their caste and religion, is that not every person who goes through modern rational education emerges as rational, secular and progressive. Though these qualities are assumed to be naturally inculcated in anyone who goes through modern education, it is that kind of education that determines the nature of the citizens that emerge from it.

In India, most of the educated in literature and social sciences seem to be rational, secular and progressive, while most of those educated in the sciences, technology, and engineering do not acquire any of these, despite engaging with reason and logic that are integral to their education. Perhaps their education does not teach them to be secular and progressive but it does teach them to be rational and logical. Yet, they terribly lack it. However, unlike their counterparts, the educated Dalit middle class from the sciences is supposed to be progressive, secular and rational because their life experience as Dalits is not different from those who come from social sciences and literature.

This class has been immensely benefiting from the special constitutional entitlements which are the result of a long line of struggles, sacrifices and hard work of scores of Dalit leaders of the past. Yet it is selfish, careerist, irresponsible and does not agree with or subscribe to the concept of ‘payback to the community’. The kind of education this class goes through may not help it possess the intellectual capital that the Dalit middle class emerging from social sciences does, but if interested, with its decent economic resources, it can make immeasurable contributions for the betterment of the larger Dalit community. Instead, it unfortunately and ironically makes conscious efforts to distance itself from its basic identity and even goes to the extent of denying the existence of the caste system, untouchability and discrimination.

In other words, it works as a counter to the interests of Dalits in two ways: one, its perceptions, religious orthodoxy, its conformity to discriminatory social customs and norms in Hinduism provide needed armoury for the caste Hindus and Hindutva ideologies to counter the anti-caste and anti-religious criticism by conscious Dalits (most of which is the product of such Dalits in the intelligentsia). And second, its perceptions and social behaviour could also be used by the Manuvadi ideologues to justify their viewpoint that Dalits are an integral part of Hinduism and that anti-Hindutva criticism is the conspiracy of a small minority of middle-class Dalits influenced by foreign ideologies. Distancing itself from the responsibilities of paying back to the community or even from the basic identity may not be a problem to general Dalit society. But its comfort with religious orthodoxy and conformity to social customs that are against Dalits is quite dangerous, and it does not realize this. At a time when Hinduism and Hindutva are becoming a greater danger, its religiosity and its submissiveness to orthodox Hindu social norms need to be examined for the purpose of making this category a more responsible and positive one.

When religious preacher and ‘human god’ Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced to jail, I observed knee-jerk responses from some of the Dalits on social media. Though Dalit feminists were quite quick in condemning the sexual exploitation of women in his ashram, educated Dalits saw the swiftness of his conviction as a discrimination or as a conspiracy of the upper caste Hindus against a god of Dalits and other lower castes who sought solace from Dera Sacha Sauda, since upper caste Sikhism was keeping them away from essential spirituality. The arguments ranged from discrimination against Singh to the comparison of other Hindu Human Gods against whom cases were pending in the court for a long time.

This quick support to Ram Rahim from educated middle-class Dalits makes sense from only from one angle, i.e., in a country where upper castes are building religious empires and dominating the sphere of spirituality – neither of which are accessible to Dalits, his ability to offer them spiritual solace was something to be appreciated. Yet, their carelessness in seeing the unsuitability of such spiritualism in its most corrupt form to Dalits, who are already victims of such corrupt forms, is a quandary. Yet, their rashness in supporting Ram Rahim Singh exposes the fact that this Dalit educated middle class does not distinguish itself from the rest in seeking the solace from fraudulent Good men/women.

In the new era of Dalit consciousness, using rejection and assertion as forms of resistance against the continuity of religious exclusivism of caste Hindus and the untouchability of Hinduism, the leaders of the anti-caste movements came up with various alternatives. These alternatives ranged from various theologies to rationalism. There are two broad categories of alternative theologies for Dalits: religions that came from outside (Christianity and Islam), and theological alternatives proposed as a response to orthodox Hinduism (Buddhism, Dera Sacha Sauda and Narayana Guru’s Dharma).

While foreign alternatives, with the absence of caste, began to offer immediate respite, the local alternatives being a result of rejection of and assertion from Hinduism, could not present themselves as completely different alternatives from Hinduism. Yet, as reformed theologies, they were temporarily providing required spirituality. But in course of time, while most of the local alternatives could not withstand the onslaught of Hinduism as an organised religion and its continuous efforts to reconnect itself with the broken branches, and were forced to adopt mysticism and rituals, the foreign theological alternatives locating themselves within India’s caste system could not stick to their original character for long.

To survive, they went through the process of acculturation in which they were forced to adopt upper caste Hindu cultural norms and practices. This so-called acculturation was to broaden the base of foreign theologies. These developments have been working against Dalits. Buddhism, as a natural/rational spiritual proposition, has become mystic in its course of development. Narayana Guru’s alternative, a product of asserting equality of religion, seems to have largely located itself in Hinduism. After all the struggles and building of alternatives in contemporary India, caste Hindus seem to have not changed much.

Religious equality for Dalits is still a given, but not taken. Recently, the appointment of six Dalit priests by the Kerala Devaswom Board has been hailed as pathbreaking and revolutionary. Given the inhumane character of Hindus who never feel guilty of their social crimes, these appointments which are supposed to be normal are seen as revolutionary and as the greatest sacrifice made by caste Hindus. This is being celebrated as a symbol of progressivism in Kerala. The very idea of ‘permitting’ Dalits to be priests itself indicates that a particular community owns the Gods, temples and reserves priesthood. That itself is the biggest failure of the Indian society and its democratic governments.

Moreover, it was in the 1920s that Dalits fought for temple entry, if not for priesthood. After a nearly century, a state has made up its mind to offer priesthood. Now, the question is: is the priesthood what Dalits are expecting? What would such priesthood mean for them? Symbolically, it may be cited as a first step towards religious equality. But religion for Dalits has never been an agency of emancipation.Land, education, employment and political power have been the factors that transformed the lives of Dalits. Demanding these is what is essential.

After the Una lynching, the movement led by Jigesh Mewani called for land distribution. Dalits are quite clear about what they want. Hindu Priesthood for Dalits never offers the same holiness or respect enjoyed by Brahmins. After six Dalits took over as priests, one was attacked in Palakkad district and the caste Hindus have stopped going to the temples where they were appointed. In fact, Dalits ought to be atheists, rationalists, humanists and progressives. If they are priests and religious, none of these are possible. Rejection of religion is the only way out for Dalits. Ambedkar knew that it was impossible to be religiously and socially in Hinduism. Therefore, he converted to Buddhism declaring that, “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity”.

It is quite important to ask some questions on the issue of religion as an essential/non-essential part of the life of Dalits. From Charvakas to Dera Sacha Sauda, Dalits have been experimenting with different denominations of religious and rational propositions, varying from pure materialism and atheism, to natural, egalitarian and democratic theologies. However, within India, all these propositions have been terribly failing in becoming alternatives, as they are unable to keep the notorious caste system and non-essential ritualism from Dalits.

However, this failure cannot be attributed to their proponents and followers alone, though they are responsible for the compromise they made in order to survive, spread, maintain social status, and gain control over religious and ritualistic ‘knowledge’, while also suffering from the inability to do so. If they become capable of negating religion and rituals, then most of their social, economic and cultural problems would be solved. Instead, Dalits have been fighting for entering Hindu temples, seeking equality in conducting temple festivals and expressing desire in becoming priests at temples. Of course, religious, ritual and spiritual equality are constitutionally guaranteed rights. So is the abolition of untouchability. But the fact is that in practicing untouchability, Indian society does not show much difference between ancient, medieval and modern times. They neither respect the law nor feel guilty of the practice from the set standards of humanism.

Similarly, religious and ritual equality guaranteed to Dalits in the constitution has been violated all through from the day the constitution was adopted. Violence and atrocities were severe when Dalits attempted to claim such equality through action. This should naturally result in the giving up of Hinduism, its rituals, social customs and traditions. Instead, Dalits are even more determined to fight for religious and ritualistic equality. Dalits terribly failed in rejecting Hinduism as a religion that ill-treats them instead of giving an identity. For the innocent, ignorant and helpless Dalit masses, it may be difficult to reject (Hindu) gods and (Hindu) religion and its customs and traditions.

However, it is the educated and Ambedkarite Dalits who are worse, being more religiously and socially orthodox than the ignorant Hindu Dalits. From the 1950s to 80s, apart from being influenced by Ambedkar’s ideas, Dalits have also adopted brahmanical customs and traditions as a means of claiming social and cultural equality. This is known as Sanskritisation. This, rather than helping Dalits get away from undemocratic and burdensome Hindu traditions and customs, has brought them closer to them. In other words, Sanskritisation, instead of helping Dalits attain equality, made them the deeply religious, deeply emotional, and sentimental about the same customs and traditions against which Jothiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, E.V.Ramasamy Naicker, Ayothi Thass, Ayyankali, Bhagaya Reddy and Guru Swamy fought.

For me it is Sanskritisation, under the guise of reform and democratisation of Hinduism, which has Hinduised Dalits who were just looking for theological alternatives. It has worked effectively than Ambedkar’s ideology on Hindu Dalits. Sanskritisation was not just the adoption of upper caste names but was primarily the adoption of orthodox Hindu rituals, social customs and traditions. Had the process stuck to just adoption of names which symbolically carried social respect and kept the Hindu customs and traditions at bay, then Dalit Hindus could have transformed themselves into an appreciable civil society. Therefore, one can safely argue that Sanskritisation had blocked the absorption of Ambedkar’s ideology, that is naturally against Hinduism, with Buddhism as a theological alternative to Hinduism.

If Dalits had not gone through the process of Sanskritisation (Hinduisation), they could have successfully adopted Ambedkar’s Buddhism and Periyar’s Radical Rationalism. When one examines the way Sanskritisation process worked on Dalits, one has to conclude that it has performed two functions: one, it has presented Hinduism as a democratic and inclusive religion which was kind enough let the Dalits, despite being declared to be impure, to be part of the organised pure Hindu religion and borrow all that they can, if not allowing them to be the priests of the temples.

Second, it has worked as counter to Ambedkarism, if not control it. If Ambedkarism and his Buddhism were not countered, it could have resulted in furthering the critique of Hinduism, and Buddhism would have become a popular alternative for Hindu Dalits. If Dalits failed to adopt Buddhism as a natural theology that is less religious and less ritualistic, and if they failed to adopt Periyar’s rationalism, it was because of a strong sentimental and emotional relationship that has been re-established with Hinduism through Sanskritisation.

I argue so because, if we look at middle-class urban Dalits, it is among them that orthodox Hinduism is stronger, than among the uneducated innocent and ignorant rural Dalits. It is they who are the strict followers of orthodox Hindu customs and traditions. For an urban middle-class Hindu Dalit family, aping and conducting the rituals, customs and traditions of caste Hindu middle-class neighbours might mean – to them at least -that they are in no way different from the caste Hindu families. This, in their understanding, would automatically allow them to declare social equality. But it is always a self-declared social equality, i.e., it is taken but not given.

Whether taken or given, adopting once rejected Hindu discriminative or irrational forms of rituals, social customs, traditions or even social values and ethics and claiming social justice by arriving at a compromise that keeps the discriminative or oppressive Hindu religious/social structures alive, is meaningless. The ‘given’ will have to mean, when it is given because there was an attitudinal change or because the law of the land forced caste Hindus to give. The ‘taken’ will have meaning when it is taken by force, or at least, making the violators of natural justice come to a realisation through the means and methods employed by those who are fighting for natural and social justice, or by the same means and methods employed by progressive forces that work for the transformation of general society. These are the only respectable methods for achieving social respect and social justice.

Quite contrary to this, urban middle-class Dalits are under the impression that when caste Hindu families participate in their social or religious occasions, it means that they are being treated equally. This sort of social mingling does not mean that casteism is absent among the caste Hindu families. They are more social not because their attitudes have changed, but because they are well informed about the consequences of ill-treating, misbehaving, discriminating or ostracising them.Yet, urban middle-class Dalits believe that it is only through adoption of orthodox Hinduism and living in conformity with Brahamanic Hinduism that they can enjoy the social status of a caste Hindu family.

For these Dalits, being a part of orthodox versions of Hinduism or taking part in the pan-Indian Hindu and local Hindu festivals becomes an obligation and a responsibility. If not all of them, most of them are educated and employed. Most of them (if not all) witness and participate in the general and specific discourse on caste-based discrimination. Their education gives them greater ability to comprehend the problems faced by Dalits in daily life.

Yet, what I have observed is that their intelligence is invested in compartmentalising their life into two: ‘conscious educated Dalit family’ and ‘orthodox Hindu Dalit family’. In the logical sense, these two are antagonistic and incompatible with each other. But it is on eliminating this incompatibility that the middle-class Hindu Dalits invest their intelligence. They consciously weaken the inherent power inbuilt in ‘Dalit consciousness’ that is quite natural to all educated Dalits. However, it may be wrong to argue that all educated Dalits are equipped with Dalit consciousness in its real sense. At the same time, it is also wrong to argue that not all educated Dalits are conscious of being a Dalit and the problems inherent in the very idea of being Dalits.

Moreover, every educated and even uneducated Dalit, through various direct and indirect ways and means, comes to know about the meaning of Dalit. In fact, they and their Dalitness are continuously in engagement with the general society. It always keeps reminding them through caste-based discrimination, atrocities, humiliation, and insult.Therefore, both the educated and uneducated Dalits are aware of their Dalitness. Yet one can see great variations in Dalit consciousness among middle-class Dalits.

Individual selfishness, fear of oppressive social structures and systems, social taboos that are inbuilt in the identity of Dalit, social aloofness as an individual choice, political opportunism, middle class arrogance (due to newly acquired purchasing power and social status offered by state employment) and social irresponsibility, lack of collective social responsibility to the community they belong to and to the general society as well, opposition to progressivism, natural humanism and rationalism, and inadequate understanding of anti-caste and anti-Brahamanic ideologies of all their reformers, and last but not the least, their daily confrontation with general caste Hindu society, are the factors that determine these variations.

One would be surprised to see these variations, but it is quite natural to Dalits as they are also humans. There are rich and middle-class Dalits who even go to the extent of denying the caste system and untouchability. The set of factors mentioned above can be broadly categorised as negative and positive. If the Dalit middle class, against the very idea and logic of the Dalit, is influenced by the negative factors, they are bound to be deeply religious and socially irrational. The Dalit middle class that is as orthodox as the caste Hindus would be more vulnerable to any attempts of (Sanskritisation and Gharvapsi) Hinduisation or Saffronisation, and that could prove dangerous to them. Some of them even become soldiers for the fascist ideology. For instance, there is a Dalit Morcha in the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

If such is the situation of middle-class Hindu Dalits, what could be the solution to keep them away from religious orthodoxy and social irrationality? Can they be reformed by the intellectual, progressive, secular, rational and atheist Dalit class drawn from across the Dalits of various religions and sub-castes? Is it possible to build a movement that can transform the Dalit Hindu middle and lower classes into a community that is less religious and less ritualistic? Should educated Hindu middle-class Dalits in this country be part of the pan-Hindu culture that expresses itself in pan-Hindu religious festivals?

As a permanent form of protest against the continuing discrimination of Dalit Hindus in Hinduism, can a self-imposed boycott on rituals and religious festivals at individual, family and community level be proposed as a method of self-respect? Will such a proposal result in social chaos among Hindu Dalits since rituals and festivals are necessary methods for connecting the helpless/distressed Dalits Hindus with God and spirituality from where they supposedly draw emotional/psychological strength? It is not easy to answer all these questions. But in these, there is an element of possibility. Dalit Hindus do not have to be part of pan-Hindu festivals and rituals. They can use permanent boycott as a weapon of continuous struggle against the continuity of religious and spiritual inequality. And a non-religious and godless Dalit community would not fall into social chaos and decadence.

De-Hinduising the middle-class Hindus seems to be a workable reform or action plan to keep them away from the Saffronisation, and needs to be initiated urgently. This would automatically transform them into less religious and less ritualistic people, which is the first step towards a rational Dalit society. These two can be simultaneously carried out since they are mutually interconnected. A reform of de-Hinduisation, i.e., rationalisation and secularisation of middle-class Hindu Dalits’ thought process, would naturally work against Saffronisation of Dalits. The history of religious conversions quite clearly proves that emotional and psychological attachment of Dalits with Hinduism is a farce.

From Ambedkar’s conversion to the present, Dalits in various pockets of the nation have shown the courage of rejecting a religion that does not respect them. When the first conversions to Christianity happened, it was a way in which Hindu Dalits asserted against caste Hindus for limiting or restricting religious/ritualistic freedom in worshiping mainstream Hindu gods/goddesses, and their desire to participate in or to conduct festivals. Whenever caste Hindus attacked Dalits, they have converted to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism quite easily as a response to such atrocities. Therefore, since it is easy for troubled Dalits to leave Hinduism and the whole package of its culture for another religion, it should also be easy for them to be less religious and less ritualistic, even if they have to stay within Hinduism or totally renounce it as a way of life to chose rationalism as its replacement. Yet, the Hindu educated Dalits are, unfortunately, not exploring the possibility of these two options.

For an educated Dalit, rationalism should have been the only way of life. But if they failed to choose it, then at least, it is expected of them to be the followers of a reformed one. One that is less religious and ritualistic, and not given by someone from outside. It should be the product of an internal reform, carried out initially at the individual level as an experiment, and then proposed as a non-problematic rational alternative to Dalits. For me, these experiments by the educated Dalits should be quite natural, if their education has performed two main functions: one, it allows him/her to cultivate original thinking and two, such original thinking results in rationally examining the position of him/her as deprived citizens.

Both these are inter-linked and the second would assist in understanding who Dalits are. If that happens, Dalit consciousness should naturally lead to the critique, reform or rejection of all the factors that have been responsible for their deprivation. Ironically, even after becoming conscious of being a Dalit and the problems around it, Dalits are still comfortable with the same religion in which they are humiliated, and that does not make any sense.How do we understand this comfortability of Dalits with Hinduism, its rituals and social customs, many of which are devised to keep Dalits in a lower position in the social hierarchy? Despite realising that their social, economic and political inequality is a result of upper caste social conspiracy normalised through innovative social, religious and ritualistic customs, why do educated Hindu Dalits not only adopt the same but also feel pride in strictly observing such customs?

If Brahminisation or Sanskritisation are seen as one of the ways to claim cultural, social, religious and ritualistic equality, and yet such a thing had never actually been the case, then such a self-declared equality is just symbolical. If its failure as a provider of equality could have been recognised earlier, that would have led to the exploration of other possibilities. In the logical sequence, next comes less-religious and less ritualistic Hinduism, or Rationalism. While the earlier is self-produced, the latter was already available for Dalits. E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar) had proposed radical rationalism, which could have been adopted by Dalits and Shudras (OBCs) all over the country. Unfortunately, Dalits seem to be more comfortable with Sanskritisation than Ambedkar’s theological alternative or Periyar’s rationalism. This is their social inability, which is keeping them vulnerable as social group at the mercy of others.



Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao teaches history at Bharathidasan University, Thiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu.