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The Dalit liberation Movement in Colonial Period (Part II)

The Dalit liberation Movement in Colonial Period (Part II)

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Gail Omvedt & Bharat Patankar

Continued from here.

The Rise of Dalit Movements

Though attempts were begun by the dalit castes from the late 19th century to organise themselves, the various sections of the dalit liberation movement really began to take off from the 1920s, in the context of the strong social reform and anti-caste movements which were penetrating the middle-caste peasantry and the national movement which was beginning to develop a genuine mass base.

The most important of the early dalit movements were the Ad-Dharm movement in the Punjab (organised 1926); the movement under Ambedkar in Maharashtra mainly based among Mahars which had its organisational beginnings in 1924; the Nama-shudra movement in Bengal; the Adi-Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu; the Adi-Andhra movement in Andhra which had its first conference in 1917; the Adi-Karnataka movement; the Adi-Hindu movement mainly centered around Kanpur in UP; and the organising of the Pulayas and Cherumans in Kerala.[10]

In most of the cases the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms provided a spark for the organization of dalits but the crucial background was the massive economic and political upheavals of the post-war period. The movements had a linguistic-national organisational base and varied according to the specific social characteristics in different areas, but there was considerable all-India exchange of ideas and, by the 1930s, this was beginning to take the shape of all-India conferences with Ambedkar emerging as the clear national leader of the movement.

The founding of the Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942, and its later conversion into the Republican Party, gave dalits a genuine all-India political organisation — though this remained weak except in certain specific localities and did not by any means constitute the entire dalit movement.

The social reform and anti-caste movements played an important nurturing and facilitating — though often an ambivalent — role in relation to the dalits. Thus the movements in Maharashtra and Madras to a significant extent came out of, and were influenced by the non-Brahmin movements in those areas, especially their radical sections — the Satyashodhak Samaj and Self-Respect movements.

The Punjabi Ad-Dharm leaders had nearly all been previously in the Arya Samaj. Brahmo Samaj upper-caste reformers helped to instigate and aid the Nama-shudra movement and the Adi-Andhras. Dalits in Kerala were influenced and helped by the Ezhava-based movement under Sri Narayana Guru.

In nearly all these cases, the ambivalence in the relationship and the reason why dalits in the end found it necessary to organise on their own, came from the fact that the caste-Hindu-based movements failed to create a really radical anti-caste unity among dalits and lower-middle caste Hindus. The Arya Samaj and non-Brahmin movements in particular aspired to create such a unity and did succeed to an extent in establishing a basis for radical action among sections of the middle caste peasants. But this, proved insufficient.

Even here, there was an important difference: the northern-based Arya Samaj never really challenged the ‘Aryan’ notion or ‘chaturvarnya’ as such; rather, it sought to ‘purify’ the lower castes, whereas the non-Brahmin movements mounted a thorough-going ideological challenge to the whole notion of caste hierarchy as such and sought to create a mass unity on the basis not only of modern secularism and scientific thinking but also in terms of being once-united original inhabitants of the country (the ‘Aryan theory’ turned upside down).

Thus, whereas the Punjabi Ad-Dharm movement broke with the Arya Samaj both organisationally and ideologically (though the Arya Samaj itself continued to foster some anti-untouchability activities), the dalit movements of the south and west accepted and even carried forward the general ideology of the broader non-Brahmin movements but criticised the middle-caste non-Brahmins for betraying this ideology and falling prey to Brahmanic culture as well as to pure self-interest in gaining government jobs and posts.

And this criticism was not wrong. For, the middle position of the non-Brahmins — in particular those whose claims to land and access to higher education gave them the potential of becoming the privileged classes in the developing capitalist society — made their opposition to feudalism an ambivalent one. Thus they became ‘anti-Brahmin’ more than ‘anti-caste’. And, in the important case of Maharashtra, by the time the non-Brahmin peasant movement joined the national movement it did so by almost surrendering to the upper-caste and bourgeois leadership of the National Congress, not by maintaining its own social radicalism or any separate peasant organisation. The isolation and ‘separatism’ of the dalit movements was thus forced on them.

Thus, in Maharashtra, Ambedkar’s movement developed with support from leaders such as Shahu Maharaj and with many activists coming from the Satyashodhak movement and out of schools founded by non-Brahmin leaders. Ambedkar frequently referred to himself as a ‘non-Brahmin’ (not simply an ‘untouchable’) scholar, and became a spokesman in the legislative assembly for all the non-Brahmin (‘backward’ and ‘depressed classes’ in British terminology) groups. His Marathi speeches often used the shetji-bhatji terminology of the Satyashodhak movement. Yet he consistently criticised the opportunism of non-Brahmin leaders and, in the end, after the non-Brahmin movement was absorbed into the Congress party under Gandhi’s leadership and its radical elements forgotten, the separatism in Ambedkar’s movement came to dominate.

In Madras, educated dalits were part of the Justice Party; but a rift grew after the party won power, partly stimulated by disputes in a textile mill strike and partly due to charges that the Justice Party was not giving sufficient representation to them but was monopolizing posts for higher caste non-Brahmins. M C Rajah, the most prominent untouchable leader, withdrew with his followers; though after this many participated in E V Ramasami’s Self -Respect movement which represented the more radical thrust of the non-Brahmin movement.

In Punjab, the young educated Chamars who founded the Ad-Dharm movement had first been in the Arya Samaj, attracted by some of its ideals which held open the promise of purification (shuddhi) to the low castes, then became disillusioned by the control of upper castes in the movement and rejected completely the paternalistic implication of shuddhi that untouchables needed to be ‘purified’. The pattern of these regional configurations needs to be more thoroughly studied.

But, in contrast to the ambivalence of the dalits’ relations with caste-Hindu-based anti-caste movements, their relationship to the national movement was, even worse, an antagonistic one. The fact was that, with the notable exception of Kerala where the Congress leaders themselves undertook anti-caste campaigns, almost everywhere the Congress leadership was in the hands of upper-caste social conservatives who were often not simply indifferent to dalit demands but actively resisted them. Thus dalit spokesmen were inclined to argue that “British rule was preferable to Brahmin rule” and to look for any means — special representation, separate electorates, alliance with Muslims – that might prevent them from being swamped by caste Hindu nationalists.

It has to be stressed that this alienation from the organised national movement (the Congress) was not just the result of the self-interest of a few leaders but was a widespread opinion wherever dalits were organised on militant lines, and that the Congress leadership up through the time of Independence did almost nothing to heal the split and build up dalit confidence and unity. Though dalits under Ambedkar did take a nationalist position, it was as a result of their own conviction that Independence was necessary.

Ideologically, in spite of their very diverse origins, it is remarkable how many themes the dalit movements shared in common. Central to their thinking was the ‘adi‘ theme, a definition of themselves as the original inhabitants of the country, a claim that their own inherent traditions were those of equality and unity, and a total rejection of caste (chaturvarnya, varnashrama dharma) as the imposition of the conquering Aryans who used this to subjugate and divide the natives. Very often, this went with a rejection of Hinduism as the religion of the invaders and the main support of caste society.

Ambedkar’s movement was the most important one that did not stress such an adi identity, yet the theme was still a strong one among Mahars. Ambedkar himself, in initiating the later conversion to Buddhism was in a way doing the same thing — rejecting Hinduism and attempting a return to an ‘original’ and equalitarian Indian religion. Along with this went a strong secular and rationalist stress on equality, the necessity of modern education, the rejection of traditional superstition and traditional ritual subordination.

These movements then organised struggles in various ways over the rejection of all the forms of feudal bondage imposed on dalits. The most spectacular mass campaigns in the 1920s were efforts at the ritual level, i e, to break down the restrictions barring dalits from use of common temples and water tanks. The biggest, and very carefully planned, campaigns took place in Maharashtra (the Mahad tank satyagraha of 1927 which culminated in the burning of the Manusmriti, the Parvati temple satyagraha of 1928, and the Kalaram temple satyagraha in Nasik of 1930-35) and in Kerala (the Vaikom temple road satyagraha of 1924-25 and the Guruvayoor satyagraha of 1930-32).

(The differences here are crucial too: the Kerala satyagrahas were planned by radical Congressmen of varying castes and met with some success with the Travancore temple entry declaration of 1930; the Maharashtra satyagrahas were planned primarily by dalits though with some caste Hindu support, met with no success, and were finally halted by Ambedkar on the grounds that he had no wish to integrate into Hinduism any way.)

But it seems that, wherever dalits organised militantly, there was always some direct action or threat of it: after Ad-Dharm rallies “people would swarm into the village bathing tank and use it in defiance of upper caste prohibitions” [11] and, during early Adi-Andhra conferences caste Hindus closed temples completely for fear of entry attempts.[12]

Also at a symbolic level was the adoption of particular forms of dress in defiance of feudal ‘consumptionary’ rules in which the upper castes tried to prohibit untouchables from wearing fine clothes: the followers of the Ad-Dharm wore red turbans and sashes which, up to then, had been only a high-caste colour; low castes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala claimed the right to cover their breasts which they had not been allowed to do previously, and so forth.

In terms of economic relations, the movements and struggles centered around two themes. On the one hand was the growing refusal to perform the traditional caste duties, carrying away dead animals, playing music at funeral ceremonies, performing forced labour for village headmen and government officials, a battle that was fought in countless ways under varying auspices in countless villages and never totally won. Ambedkar’s long struggle to abolish the Mahar watan was an expression of this. This was the direct fight against feudal forms of bondage within the village.

Related to it was the struggle for education and employment; for, by and large, dalits saw their opportunity, the positive alternative to the negative fight against feudal bondage, in escaping from the village to ‘modern’ industrial and service employment. (Why this was true is usually understood in terms of the middle-class nature of dalit leadership, but just as true was the weakness of the general peasant movement and its inability to pose the land question in such a way that dalits could see a real possibility of gaining within the village.)

Thus the movements were highly involved in founding schools, hostels, and other educational associations; and they consistently demanded fellowships, positions in existing educational institutions and reserved government jobs. The final outcome of this was the system of ‘concessions’ which has become so controversial today. It is important to note that such concessions were necessary, because existing caste discrimination (caste and kin-based recruitment pattern and the cultural as well as economic disabilities of the low castes) had resulted in a heavily divided working class.

Breaking down this division, fighting the feudal relations that had stamped themselves on the emerging classes of the capitalist system, was necessary to build the unity of the working class and of the Indian people in the fight against colonial rule. But the nationalist leaders and the working class leaders (the communists) rarely saw it this way. As a result, rather than the class itself fighting to build its unity, or the people organised under national leadership taking up consciously the fight against feudal relations, the dalit movement was isolated and, instead of becoming a vanguard part of the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist movement, fell into the position of asking for concessions from the nationalists as well as from the British.

This, then, brings us to the relation of the dalits to the national and communist movements, and the related question of how the issues of power and land were posed in colonial India.

Dalits and the National Movement: The Issue of Power

“We want to become a ruling community”, was a saying of Ambedkar, and in fact the drive to achieve power or a share in power was seen by him and by many not simply as the negation of the extreme feudal subjugation of dalits but as the basis for achieving any other kind of gain. But, because the national movement did not consciously organise to build alternative revolutionary systems of power in which dalits would find a place, this demand for a share in power became expressed in the demand for special, separate representation within the bourgeois parliamentary forms being institutionalized in India.

An additional motivating fact was the strong feeling among dalits that they must represent themselves, that caste Hindus could not be trusted to represent them (nor for that matter could the British government), that the nature of caste and class conflict was so great that no caste Hindus could speak for their interests.

The conflict took specific form in the dalit demand for separate electorates (constituencies only of dalits choosing dalit representatives to the parliament) versus the original nationalist unwillingness to concede anything until finally a ‘compromise’ of reserved seats (dalit representatives chosen by general, i.e., caste Hindu plus dalit, constituencies) was forced on them.

The issue here was different from that of separate electorates for Muslims because there was at no point a dalit demand, or the possibility of a demand, for a separate homeland. Rather, the question was one of how to achieve the unity of the Indian nation. Gandhi’s firm opposition to separate electorates, too, had nothing to do with the threat to Indian unity but rather the threat to Hindu unity and came from his religiously motivated insistence that dalits were part of the Hindu community.

It might also be added that the idea of separate electorates, or “functional’ representation of specific social groups or classes, was one that went beyond bourgeois democratic forms entirely and in a sense could be seen as an aspect of proletarian democracy, whereas reserved seats not only allowed caste Hindu control of dalit political representation (as Ambedkar so bitterly and effectively established in “What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables”) but also proved an ideal method for the bourgeois State to absorb and negate the dalit movement, giving dalits some semblance of power within the bourgeois framework but at the cost of giving up militancy.

The issue, however, was very rarely seen in this way. Instead, considerations of power prevailed (the upper class/caste drive to control the legislatures through control of Congress, and the fact that dalits did not simply have the same political clout as Muslims); the demand for separate electorates was seen by most non-dalits as one leading to separatism and disunity.

Since the conflict between dalits and the Congress nationalists was embodied in the relation between Ambedkar and Gandhi, especially over the issue of separate electorates climaxing in the ‘epic fast’ of 1932, it is worth examining this in some detail. Ambedkar, unlike most dalit spokesmen, was not throughout a proponent of separate electorates. Though, along with nearly everyone else, he called for them in 1919 in testifying before the Southborough Committee, during the 1920s he turned away from them. Apparently believing they would lead to disunity, he argued against them before the Simon Commission.

The 1920s, it should be noted, was not only the decade of the real upsurge of dalit movements as mass movements; it was also the greatest period of co-operation between Ambedkar and caste Hindu social radicals (i e, the non-Brahmin movement). This may well have given Ambedkar some confidence that separate electorates were not necessary. The Nagpur Conference of Depressed Classes in 1930, just before Ambedkar left for the first Round Table Conference, was in a sense a landmark; here Ambedkar became the first major dalit leader to state forcefully the need for Independence as the minimal basis for solving dalit problems, and he stated publicly that he would be satisfied with reserved seats as long as there was adult suffrage.

Then, at London, he completely reversed his position and asked for separate electorates (at this conference too, it should be added, with the Congress absent he was the most forceful spokesman for Indian Independence). By the time of the second Round Table Conference this attitude had hardened to produce the major confrontation with Gandhi. Why?

Two reasons that have been suggested are that the unanimous dalit opinion, aside from Ambedkar, was in favour of separate electorates, and that Ambedkar felt bound to represent this; and Ambedkar’s personal experience of Gandhi’s hard-line and even arrogant attitude [13] which rejected not only separate electorates but even reserved seats. To this it may be added that, by 1930-31, the mass of the Maharashtrian non-Brahmins were moving into Congress in a form that meant an essential abandonment of their own independently based social radicalism and a (temporary) acceptance of upper-class, upper-caste Congress leadership. What then of Gandhi?

Here it is worth noting that, when Ambedkar and Gandhi met for the first time in 1930, Ambedkar not only felt he had been treated rudely, but Gandhi himself admitted that he had not known that Ambedkar himself was a dalit but thought rather that he was a Brahmin social reformer aiding the untouchables! In other words, Gandhi had not only done substantially nothing himself on the issue of untouchability up to this time, but he betrayed a crucial ignorance of the movement which had been going on for over a decade and of its leadership. Indeed he unwittingly betrayed his assumption that dalits themselves were incapable of doing much on their own or of producing their own leadership, Ambedkar, therefore, insisted on separate electorates.

Gandhi insisted equally adamantly that dalits were Hindus and must be represented by Hindus as a whole (and was met on his return from London by a black-flag demonstration of 8,000 Bombay dalits).[14] The British Communal Award gave Ambedkar his separate electorates; and Gandhi undertook his fast-to-death in protest. Here again it has to be stressed that this first fast over the ‘issue’ of untouchability was not a fast against the British for nationalist causes or against the oppressive caste system, but was a fast against dalits themselves to force them to give up their demands. Ambedkar conceded—knowing that if Gandhi died there would be massive reprisals on his people throughout India-— and the result was the Poona Pact of September 25, 1932, which as a compromise gave dalits the reserved seats that Ambedkar had demanded in the first place For dalits and for Ambedkar, the lesson was clear: not a faith in the ability of satyagraha to ‘change the hearts’ of caste Hindus, rather that only by fighting for their rights would dalits win anything at all.

After 1932, Gandhi made ‘untouchability work’ a major programme of the Congress and for many a crucial moral part of the Indian national movement. And yet Gandhi’s essential paternalism and insistence that above all dalits were Hindus remained in the choice of the term ‘Harijan’, in the insistence that caste Hindus and not dalits should control the Harijan Sevak Sangh.

However ‘radical’ Gandhi’s own views on caste became (in approving of inter-dining and inter-marriage, for example), he never dropped the belief in chaturvarnya or the idea that children should follow their fathers’ professions, themes that stood in direct contradiction to the anti-feudal principles of the dalit movement. Even worse, anti-untouchability became identified with the Gandhian, that is the conservative wing of the Congress and remained a distraction and diversion to the radicals within Congress (and for that matter the communist Left) who never developed a programme of their own on the issue of caste.

It seems fair to say that, essentially, the British raj did nothing to transform caste feudalism or to alleviate the worst aspects of untouchability. Whatever steps were taken came in the transition period between the wars when concessions were being given to Indian nationalists. And whatever steps the Indian nationalist leadership took came as a response to dalit struggles.

In 1917 — alter the first depressed classes’ conferences were organised in Bombay, and dalits as well as non-Brahmins made proposals for separate electorates—the Congress reversed its policy of excluding ‘social reform’ and passed a resolution urging upon “the people of India the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all disabilities imposed by custom upon the Depressed Classes”.

In the 1920s, the governments of Madras and Bombay (controlled or influenced by non-Brahmin organisations) passed resolutions confirming the rights of dalits to equal use of government facilities, schools and wells; so did several progressive princely stales. These did little, however, to provide reinforcement, and remained almost totally ineffective. In 1931, the Karachi Congress session propounded a programme of fundamental rights which called for equal access for all to public employment etc, regardless of caste, and equal right to use of public roads, wells, schools, and other facilities.

Temple entry bills were introduced between 1932-36 in the Central Assembly, Madras and Bombay legislatures and generally met with opposition from both the government and conservatives in Congress. Baroda and Travancore states proclaimed temple entry in 1933 and 1936. In 1938, after Congress legislatures were elected, temple entry bills were passed in Madras and Bombay.[15]

But the full and formal ‘abolition of untouchability’ had to wait until Independence. In 1946, the Scheduled Caste Federation fought for the reserved seats but lost heavily to ‘Congress Harijans’ in strongly nationalist and caste-Hindu-dominated constituencies. As a result, the movement suffered a blow and dalit demands were ignored in the final settlements and in the traumas of the Hindu-Muslim holocaust.

The Scheduled Caste Federation then launched satyagrahas in Bombay, Pune, Lucknow, Kanpur, and Wardha, demanding that the Congress make known their proposals for giving rights to dalits; the satyagraha forced the abrogation of the Pune session of the Bombay legislative assembly and a compromise meeting with Ambedkar in July.

Against this background, the Constituent Assembly met. Its resolution that “Untouchability in any form is abolished and the imposition of any disability on that account shall be an offence” was in line with the development of the Congress movement in the last 25 years.[16] But the system of ‘protective discrimination’ — i.e., reserved positions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in government service and educational institutions — was not at all in line with Congress (or Gandhian) thinking and so was, even more clearly than the nationalist response to dalit struggles, a result of the dalit movement itself.

Dalits and the Left: The Issue of Land

The relation between the dalit movement and the emerging communist and Left movement was, unfortunately, little better than that with the national movement. The Left evolved no programme of its own, regarding the abolition of caste. And, in regard to working class organizing, a history of antagonism was built up. The major exception was in fighting feudalism in agrarian relations where the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) programme did make an important contribution. This, however, remained partial and isolated from the organised dalit movement.

In terms of the working class, the position of dalits as unskilled workers in the most dangerous and difficult to organise jobs put them in the position of potential antagonism to other working class organizing — in the sense, that they were often ready to act as strike-breakers in the hope of getting higher-level jobs (the same phenomenon could be seen elsewhere where groups were excluded and so given no opportunity to develop working class solidarity, e.g., among US blacks prior to World War I), and in the sense that they were inclined to form separate unions.

Thus dalit willingness to return to work first in a dalit-caste Hindu 1921 mill strike in Madras provoked violence and a conflict with the Justice Party. Dalits were part of the major 1928 Bombay textile strike which brought communists to the leadership of the working class movement. But when a second strike was called in 1929, Ambedkar not only opposed it but attempted to actively organise dalit strike-breakers. His reasons were the special hardships imposed on the economically weaker dalits by the earlier strike and the fact that the working class leaders had taken no stand regarding the banning of dalits from the better-paid weaving department. [17]

On the other side of what proved to be an enduring hostility between Ambedkar and the communists, it has to be emphasized that the communists concentrated their attempts on militant economic gains, on organizing the working class in its fight for survival, rather than attempting to put it in the leadership of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles. The latter, as we have emphasized, meant not simply that workers should give leadership to a peasant movement but that the working class itself should fight to break down the feudal within it that held dalits down. Yet nothing was done by AlTUC on the caste issue and in the Bombay textile industry, where “the red flag was planted in the Indian working class” 50 years ago, dalits remain barred up to the present from (non-automated) weaving departments.

The most central aspect of the anti-feudal struggle for dalits and for other toiling peasants was, however, the land issue and village economic relations. Here, the work of the Kisan Sabha becomes crucial. By the late 1930s and 1940s, the AIKS had become a force in several areas—most especially Bihar, Andhra, Kerala, UP (in a sense, for, Kisan Sabhas here remained outside the AIKS for a long time) — and made a conscious and revolutionary effort to evolve an all round anti-feudal programme that would be in the interests of poor as well as middle and rich peasants.

But the gaps were crucial. The top AIKS leadership was almost entirely of non-peasant origin; even though peasants came to be crucial as cadres these were overwhelmingly drawn from caste Hindu middle-rich peasants even at a time when the AIKS was attracting more and more poor and low-caste peasants; partly perhaps because of this and partly because of the strenuous pace of organising, there was little formulation of the Indian problem in Indian terms and abstract class categories were simply borrowed, usually from European thinking.

The AIKS did not pass a resolution on untouchability until 1945,[18] and never really considered cultural level struggles of importance (this applied also to the role of women). Opposing feudal ‘forced labour’ was a major element of Kisan Sabha programmes but this was never analyzed in its specific expression through caste bondage. This, in itself, may not have been of overwhelming significance. After all, the fact that forced labour was actively opposed was of crucial significance to the dalit toilers who took part — and were apparently a major part of the Telangana rebellion. This may be one of the reasons for the enthusiastic mobilization of dalits, who reportedly provided the major element of the armed squads.[19]

The most important failure of the AIKS was at a different level: It lay in the way it formulated the land question itself. For the AIKS, ‘land to the tiller’ was the central anti-feudal demand, and it was expressed mainly in terms of abolition of landlordship (zamindari, taluqdari, khoti, jenmi, malguzari, etc). Along with this, ryotwari peasants were to be freed from indebtedness to money-lenders and from government over-assessments. Lower-level feudal relations within the village seemed to be invisible to the AIKS.

A category of ‘agricultural labourers’ was identified and this presumably included almost all dalit toilers, but they were seen in European terms as peasants dispossessed of the land. The Kisan Sabha leadership was ambiguous about their inclusion, but where they argued for unity of interest between ‘kisans’ and ‘agricultural labourers’ it was in terms of the fact that middle-poor peasants were rapidly becoming impoverished, losing lands, and becoming landless labourers. The special, traditional, position of dalit field servants with their hereditary connection to the land was simply not taken note of.

A 1947 AIKS resolution on the abolition of landlordism stated: ”All agricultural labourers must have a minimum wage. All other tillers of the soil must get proprietary rights in it under their direct cultivation, and cultivable waste land must be distributed among poor peasants and agricultural labourers”. [20]

Thus, while, dalits here were somewhat ambiguously seen as ’tillers’ they were not considered to have any rights in the land at all; only their wage interests were to be protected and their land hunger satisfied by leftover — i e, ‘waste’ — land. Thus, in spite of the participation of poor peasants and landless toilers in Kisan Sabha agitation, it is not surprising — because only middle-caste cultivating peasants were seen as having rights in the land —that the end result was land reforms which even in their most radical version (e g Kerala) have benefited rich peasants. ‘Land to the tiller’, then, systematically excluded dalits.

On the other side, the dalit movement itself also took up the issue of land, but in an equally partial way. Campaigns against veth-begar and specific menial and degrading caste duties (carrying away dead cattle, serving officials) were, as noted above, an important part of the movement and were, of course, equivalent to the AIKS opposition to ‘feudal forced labour’. But generally these were undertaken by the dalit movement in such a way that the alternative was seen, not as revolutionary land reform in the villages or transformation of the villages, but rather as moving from the villages altogether to new jobs in industry and service. The inability to see any real opportunity for advance within the village was, of course, realistic in the absence of a revolutionary movement.

No direct struggles for land for dalits were apparently taken up before Independence, but as far as Ambedkar at least was concerned it seems the issue of land was always present. Again, though it was a question of looking beyond the village, in one of his earlier meetings he argued that dalits should look for land for colonization. In later meetings, he considered the possibility of settlements in Sind. [21]

The climax of this, however, came in 1942 at the conference which founded the Scheduled Caste Federation when a resolution was passed on separate village settlements. This was a demand that dalits from all the villages in one area (later sometimes specified as a taluka) should be given land (to be provided both from unoccupied government land and from land bought up by the government for the purpose) so that they could form independent settlements of their own. [22] This has come to be known as the ‘dalitstan’ demand.

But the term is something of misnomer for it is not really a demand for a dalit homeland but rather a way of posing the land question for dalits. In contrast to the Kisan Sabha here it is implicit that dalits do have rights to land, and not only to ‘waste’. But the emphasis is still on moving away from the villages; and, because this land demand was not linked to a proposal for agrarian revolution, it served instead to pose the interests of dalits against those of all caste Hindus and appeared as a totally utopian proposal around which it was impossible to organise struggles. Yet the continual survival of the idea undoubtedly lies both in the land hunger of dalits and their continued feeling of insecurity as a village minority.

Ambedkar’s final thoughts on the land question, however, were on very different lines. Urging State Socialism, he argued that “Neither consolidation [of land holdings] nor tenancy legislation can be of any help to the 60 millions of untouchables who are just landless labourers. Only collective farms can help them. … Agriculture shall be a state industry. Land will belong to the State and shall be let out to villagers without distinction of caste or creed and in such a manner that there will be no landlord, no tenant, and no landless labourer.”[23] For an avowed anti-communist and a stern critic of Indian ‘socialism’ it was an impressive programme. What was lacking, of course, was an idea of how it might be achieved.

In the end it seems that, however anti-communist or anti-nationalist dalit leadership might be, the dalit movement remained consistently radical on the land question. It was Ambedkar who proposed a bill and led a march in 1936 for the abolition of the khoti system in the Konkan, and attempted to arouse Mahars in opposition. In Bengal, the Namashudras allied with Muslims against the Hindu bhadralok nationalists — not simply on opportunist grounds but on a programme of which the central feature was abolition of zamindari, and the Scheduled Castes withdrew their support when this programme was reneged upon. [24]

The organised dalit movement was inevitably a radical force for agrarian revolution and not just for the abolition of ‘cultural’ aspects of caste bondage. But, in the absence of integration into an all-round peasant movement, this force could have little impact in the rural areas before Independence.


One of the most striking features of the anti-feudal movement in colonial India was its fragmentation — a fragmentation which reflected the divisions among the exploited sections that were so characteristic of Indian caste feudalism.

While social reform and anti-caste movements arose throughout India, and all provided some kind of ground for dalits to begin to move ahead, the non-Brahmin movements of south and west India posed a genuine possibility of a radical movement against caste traditions that could unify both caste Hindu toilers and dalits. Their ideology itself and the principles of their most radical organisations — the Satyashodhak Samaj and the Self-Respect movement — posed a thorough challenge to caste hierarchy and in fact provided the central ideological themes for the dalit movements. But such unity did not materialize as the more conservative wing of these movements gained strength among caste Hindu peasants and educated sections.

It might have been expected that a national movement, dominated by bourgeois and upper-caste forces would prove resistant to dalit demands and respond only in a nominal and co-opting way. Most serious really was the failure of the Left to provide a radical and unifying anti-feudal alternative. The communists organised the working class in its struggle for survival and at points this organisation aided the lowest sections of that class, but they failed really to put the working class politically in the leadership of the anti-feudal movement and as a result the class remains divided and the organisation benefited mainly its skilled and more upper-caste sections.

Kisan Sabha organizing, in its areas of strength, benefited dalits more directly. The fight against feudal forced-labour struck at bondage within the village; the organisation of agricultural labourers, which had its beginnings in the 1940s, also involved a challenge to feudal servitude: as a Kerala landlord put it, “His body and his father’s body are my property and he dares to ask for wages. Is it right?” [25]

The demand for giving cultivable waste land to agricultural labourers and poor peasants, though a partial one, proved to be the main form around which dalit struggles for land took place, particularly after Independence. And yet this was insufficient. In failing to pose the land issue in a duly revolutionary and thorough going way, the Kisan Sabha gave no defence against the real alternative programme to what became an essentially bourgeois land reform and offered no way to prevent its most militant agricultural labourer unions from being caught in the trap of economism in the post-Independence period. The connection between agrarian revolution and the wage-based organising of labourers remains problematical.

Indian communists thus failed to formulate a programme for a revolutionary anti-feudal movement which could unify the exploited, which could take up cultural and political as well as economic issues, and which could pose a real alternative to bourgeois land reform (‘abolition of zamindari’), bourgeois notions of ‘uplift’ of depressed groups, bourgeois separation of ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ factors, and bourgeois strategies of creating and absorbing an educated elite among the downtrodden sections.

This was not simply a case of being relatively weak, or of being unable to take leadership of the national movement away from bourgeois upper-caste nationalists. It may well have been impossible to organise a struggle for a full-scale agrarian revolution or do more than fight on partial demands linked to it. The problem was that the agrarian revolution was never really posed. The Left was unable to appear before the people as anything more than devoted organisers of the working class on economic demands and (with the exception of 1942) more militant anti-imperialists.

It was in this context that the dalit movement developed before Independence as an isolated revolt of the weakest and most oppressed sections of the population. The isolation had serious consequences; for it meant that, instead of organising as the most revolutionary section of a unified movement, dalits developed separatism in which they made demands of nationalists as well as the British. A hostility developed to communism and class analysis (which was put forward in such a way as to appear to dalits to exclude considerations of ‘caste’ as such), which continues to have serious consequences today.

Still the achievements of the dalit movement are impressive, and are too often overlooked. They have given birth to a tradition of struggle in many areas, not only on cultural and ritual issues but on breaking feudal bonds. They have mounted powerful pressure on the national movement resulting in constitutional provisions for reservations and laws making untouchability an offence; unsatisfactory as these have been, they have still provided weapons in the hands of low-caste organizers. They have created a deep-seated conviction of equality and self-confidence which is inevitably making itself heard. If this has not yet achieved a revolutionary transformation in the life of the most exploited sections of society, it is because of the incompleteness of the revolutionary and democratic movement itself. If this is to go forward, the dalit movement will inevitably be a part of it.



[We would like to thank those who have contributed to this initial formulation in particular Datta Chakre]

I. There are still limited studies of the existing dalit movements and some existing works have been unavailable to us. But among important sources are the ‘tribes and caste’ studies of the British period (Thurston, Blunt, Enthoven etc) which give some ethnographic data on the various castas. Contemporary village studies which give detailed data about social relations in the villages studied are also very useful; whatever may be the theoretical bias of the authors.

The most useful collection on dalits, though somewhat dated, is I. Michael Mahar, ed, ‘The Untouchables in Contemporary India” Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1972.

Among these, in terms of the dalit castes studied, can be included: I. Michael Mahar. ‘Agent’ of Dharma in a North Indian Village’, in Mahar, “The Untouchahles . . .”; Oscar Lewis. “Village Life in Northern India”. Vintage Books, 1975: M C Pradban, “The Political System of the Jats of Northern India”, Oxford University Press, 1966 (all on the Chaman): Andre Beteille, “Caste. Class and Power”, Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1969: Kathleen Gough ,’Harijans in Thanjavur’ in Gough and Sharma, ed, “Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia”, New York: Monthly Review Press. 1973, and ‘Colonial Economics in Southeast India’.

EPW March 26, 1977 (both on the Pallas in Tamil Nadu): Joan Meneher, ‘Continuity and Change in an ex-Untouchable Community of South India’ in Mahar. “The Untouchables”, and The Caste System Upside Down, or The Not-‘ So-Mysterious East’ in Current Anthropology December 1974; and Marguerite and Stephen Barnett, ‘Contemporary Peasant and Post-Peasant Alternative in South India: The Ideas of a Militant Untouchable’ in Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 1973, (on the Paraiyans in Chingleput district, Tamil Nadu); T Scarlett Epstein, “Economic Development and Social Change in South India”, India: Manchester University Press, 1962 (on the Holovas or Adi-Karnatakas).

F G Bailey, “Caste and the Economic Frontier”, Manchester University Press, 1957 (the Pans of the Kondmal Hills, Orissa); and Jan Breman, “Patronage and Exploitation”, University of California Press. 1974, and ‘Mobilisation of Landless labourers: Halpatis of South Gujarat’ in EPW, March 23, 1974 (on the Dublas or Halpatis of Gujarat).

Studies of Specific dalit movements are still rare, but include Eleanor Zelliott’s many works on the Mahars; a forthcoming book by Mark Juergensmeier on the Ad-Dharm movement in the Punjab and Owen Lynch, “The Politics of Untouchability”, Vintage Books, 1966, on the Chamars/Jatavs in Agra.

2. See Louis Dumont. “Homo Hierarchicus”, 1970. and McKim Mar-riott and Ronald Inden, ‘Caste Systems’,”Encyclopedia Britannica”, 1974.

3. For a useful discussion see Eric Stokes, “The Peasant and the “Raj” (Cambridge University Press, 1978), Introduction and Chapter 2.

4. These types were often modified, however; for instance, as Frank Perlin shows for 17th century Maharashtra, feudal states were often organised by big families buying up various types of watan and inam rights; it is thus crucial to look beyond the purely formaldefinition of rights for any complete analysis.

5. For an excellent description of such a system see Gongh, ‘Colonial Economics in Southeast India’.

6. See e.g. Swami Mitra, who records over 100 villages where two-thirds of the population were Rajbanshi and Pods who were not only sharecroppers but also jotedars; this, of course, is not a ‘dalit’ type of situation; ‘Sonarpur: A Peasant’s View of the Class War’ in South Asian Review. October 1975. The situation in Bengal in many ways seems anomalous and needs closer study.

7. Marc Galanter. ‘The Law and Untouchability’ in Mahar, “The Untouchables”.

8. Quoted in Dhananjay Keer, “Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission” Bombay; Popular Prakashan, 1954, p. 150.

9. Ibid, p 142.

10. See Mark Juergensmeier, ‘Ad Dharm: Origins of a Revolutionary Religion’ and ‘Myth and Mobilisation: The Religions Symbols of Untouchables’ (part of forthcoming book, University of California Press); Eleanor Zelliot, Learning the Use of Political Means: The Mahars of Maharashtra’ in Rajni Kothari, ed, “Caste in Indian Politics”, Orient Longman, 1970, and ‘Gandhi and Ambedkar’ in Mahar, ed, “The Untouchables”; C B Khairmode, “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar” (Bombay: Baudhjan Panchayat Samiti) (Marathi biography of Ambedkar); J H Broom-field, “Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal” (University of California Press, 1968) (contains limited information of the Namashudras) and V R Shinde. ‘Purva Bangalyantil As-prushya Vargachya Uce Shikshanaci Pragiti‘ in “Shinde Lekhangraha” (Pune 1963; Marathi)! Marguerite and Stephen Barnett, ‘Contemporary Peasant and Post-Peasant Alternatives’; Uma Ramaswamy, ‘Scheduled Castes in Andhra: Some Aspects of Social Change’. EPW, July 20, 1974 and ‘Self-Identity among Scheduled Castes’ November 23, 1974; V R Abbisavalu ‘Scheduled Caste Elite’. (Hyderabad, 1978); and Francis Houfart and Genevieve Lemereinier, ‘Socio-Religious Movements in Kerala..’, Social Scientist. June 1978.

11. Mark Juergensmeier, ‘Ad Dharm: Religion of the Untouchables’, Times of India, October 12, 1975.

12. Abbasavalu. “Scheduled Caste Elite”, “pp 35-37.

13. See Zelliott, ‘Learning the Use of Political Means . . ‘. On the evolution of Gandhi’s views of caste see Dennis Daliton. ‘The Gandhian View of Caste and Caste after Gandhi’ in Philin Mason, ed “India and Ceylon : Unity and Diversity” (Oxford University” Press, 1967).

14. Keer, pp 191-2.

15. Galanter, ‘Untouchability and the Law’.

16. Keer, pp 375-391 and Leela Drahkin. ‘Scheduled Caste Polities’, in Mahar, “The Untouchables”.

17. Khairmode, Volume III, Keer, pp 128-9.

18. MA Rasul, “A History of the All India Kisan Sabha”, Calcutta, May 1974, p 123. Also on the Kisan Sabha see Maiteya Ghatak, ‘The Agricultural Labourer: A Case Study from Bengal’. National Labour Institute Bulletin, May 1977; D N Dhanagare, “The Politics of Survival: Peasant Organisations and the Left Wing in India’, Sociological Bulletin, March 1975, ‘Peasant Protest and Politics — The Tebhaga Movement in Bengal’, Journal of Peasant Studies, and ‘Social Origins of the Peasant Insurrection in Telengana’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Number 8, 1974.

19. Dhanagare, ‘Social Origins .,.’, p 112, 128.

20. Rasul, p 147.

21. Keer, pp 63, 127.

22. For the full resolution see Vasant Deshpande, “Towards Social Integration”, Pune; Shubhada-Saraswat, 1978, pp 167-69.

23. Keer, p 389.

24. Broom field, pp 295-310.

25. Quoted K C George, “Immortal Punnapra-Vayalar” New Age Press, pp 17-18.


Please read the previous part of this article here.

[Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly, Annual Number, February 1979]