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Today's Topics:

   1. When Jai Bhim meets Lal Salaam (Asit Das)
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When Jai Bhim meets Lal Salaam

   - G. Sampath the hindu 14th october2016


   "Sheer political logic dictates that Dalits look for allies who share
   their social, political, and material predicament — in other words, look
   beyond identity politics." The Dalit Asmita Yatra in Una, Gujarat.

Dalit politics cannot move forward unless it is willing to articulate the
material aspirations of the dispossessed. Similarly, Left politics has no
future unless it recognises that annihilation of caste is vital for any
progressive politics.

On September 16, Parliament Street near Jantar Mantar witnessed a Dalit
rally that was unlike other such events in the recent past. What set it
apart was the number of speakers from the Left. Sharing the stage with
Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and Jignesh Mewani were the likes of
Sitaram Yechury, Sudhakar Reddy and D. Raja. And surprisingly, for a
gathering that self-identified as ‘Dalit’, the rallying cries of “Jai Bhim”
were accompanied by a slogan rarely heard outside Left circles, “Lal

Such an alliance of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam, if translated into a political
programme, could mark a significant departure for both Left and Dalit
politics. The recent Dalit agitations in Gujarat offer a glimpse of what
may be possible if a fusion of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam were to go beyond
sloganeering into the realm of praxis.

*Lessons from Gujarat*

The *mobilisation in Gujarat*
following the Una incident, in which Dalit youth were assaulted by cow
vigilantes, has already achieved two substantive victories. First, the
protesters successfully pressured the State administration to initiate the
process of distributing 220 bighas of government land to *115 landless
Dalit families of Saroda village*
in Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district.

The second success came from the 6,000 safai karamcharis (sanitation
workers) of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), who went on strike
for 36 days. Their demands included regularisation of contract workers,
provision of provident fund (PF) scheme and health benefits, guaranteed
minimum wage, safety equipment for all workers, job for kin in case of
accidental death or injury, and clearance of PF arrears from 2011. Every
one of these is a material demand, and they were all accepted by the AMC.

These are two instances where Dalit anger was channelled into pragmatic
political projects by identitarian outfits such as the Rashtriya Dalit
Adhikar Manch and Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, as well as trade unions
such as Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions and Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha, along
with civil rights bodies such as Jan Sangharsh Manch. While the
beneficiaries of this mobilisation were Dalits, the demand-making was
premised not on identitarian but a material basis. Land ownership and
permanent employment with social benefits make a big difference to the
material existence of Dalits. But a militant articulation of material
demands has rarely been a consistent feature of Dalit politics.

This lacuna finds an inverse parallel in Left politics as well, which has
never seriously taken up caste issues — neither atrocities against Dalits,
nor casteism in general. It has restricted itself to class politics without
challenging the caste underpinnings of class exploitation. A major reason,
apparently, was the fear of dividing the working class along caste lines.

But the Indian working classes were already split along multiple
identitarian axes, most prominently caste. The Left’s failure to counter
this caste-based division is one of the reasons for its marginalisation in
Indian politics. Ambedkarite critics blame the upper-caste domination of
Left leadership for its blindness to caste exploitation. Indeed, there are
few Dalits, if any, in the political bureaus or central committees of the
Left parties.

At the same time, the Left’s criticism of Ambedkarite identity politics is
not without substance. This critique was best expressed by Anuradha Ghandy
in an essay on the “caste question”, where she writes that “the ruling
classes have consciously sponsored an elite among the Dalits who have
consciously appealed to Dalit solidarity and a sectarian approach, while
denying any unity with other exploited sections and parties representing

*Limitations of identitarianism*

Ms. Ghandy’s fundamental point that Dalit-OBC unity is “practically
impossible to sustain” due to class contradictions has been borne out by
recent events. In different parts of the country, the dominant agricultural
castes have begun to mobilise — not against the upper castes who own land
or capital, but against Dalits. After the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan,
Jats in Haryana, and Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra have now
taken to the streets demanding reservations. Plus they have another demand:
dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Not surprisingly, there is a creeping realisation among a section of Dalits
— most visibly in Gujarat, where they constitute a minuscule 7 per cent
minority — that identity politics can only take them so far. This
realisation entails grappling with three painful truths about the Indian
political reality.

First, within the electoral system, identity politics can only yield
brokers of Dalit votes, who can, at best, extract minor concessions for
Dalits without challenging the caste order, and at worst, pass off personal
aggrandisement as empowerment of the community. Leaders like Ramdas
Athawale and Udit Raj exemplify this phenomenon. As for Mayawati’s Bahujan
Samaj Party (BSP), its political potential has been curtailed by an extreme
concentration of power in one individual — a disease endemic to political
parties in India.

Second, Dalit-OBC unity — a minimum requirement for identitarian Dalit
politics to gain critical mass — is a non-starter due to class
contradictions. A glance at the castes of the accused in atrocity cases
would be enough to put the idea to rest.

Finally, with public sector disinvestment and privatisation becoming
official government policy, reservations can no longer be the answer for
the vast majority of Dalits. This is a reality that other dominant castes
agitating for reservations are yet to come to grips with. But they, too,
will have to, sooner than later. If we think beyond reservations, what else
can identity politics promise, let alone deliver?

Sheer political logic therefore dictates that Dalits look for allies who
share their social, political, and material predicament — in other words,
look beyond identity politics. For, on their own, they do not have the
numbers — either to retaliate in kind against their caste oppressors or to
avoid being reduced to vote banks for parties controlled by their caste

To take a recent example, the violence sparked by cow vigilantism targeted
both Muslims and Dalits. It even prompted calls for Dalit-Muslim unity. But
Muslims are a minority identity too. This alliance is fraught with not just
class but also caste contradictions that could easily undermine it, as the
failed attempts to forge Dalit-Muslim unity in Uttar Pradesh show.

Dalit politics at the moment does not have an answer to class collaboration
between their own elites and their caste oppressors; nor to caste
collaboration between the poor and wealthy classes of their caste
oppressors. It cannot move forward unless it is willing to articulate the
material aspirations of the dispossessed — not only among the Dalits, but
also the OBCs and the upper castes. These would include the landless, the
contract workers, indebted farmers, and migrant workers.

Similarly, Left politics has no future unless it serves the democratic
aspirations of the socially oppressed, and recognises that annihilation of
caste is the condition of possibility for any progressive politics. In a
semi-feudal, partially modernised nation like India, anti-capitalism has
little transformative potential without anti-casteism. Such an
understanding would entail the Left joining hands with Dalit forces, and
attacking casteism with the same kind of energy it reserves for condemning

*Natural affinity of interests*

A convergence of Left and Dalit politics is hardly new though. Marx and
Ambedkar have come together before, especially in the 1950s when Ambedkar,
together with the Communist Party of India, led struggles for distribution
of government land for landless Dalits. Then in the 1970s came the Dalit
Panther movement in Maharashtra. It took a combination of state repression,
upper caste violence (led by the Shiv Sena) and co-option through prizes
and electoral tickets to neutralise this wave of militant left-wing Dalit

Today, a confederacy of casteist forces with control over capital and the
state apparatus are on one side, and a mass of socially oppressed and
economically marginalised are arrayed on the other. The ruling elite, as
ever, are conscious of their class interests cutting across caste lines.
But the working classes, especially the Dalits and OBCs among them, stand
divided into a great number of identities that are locked in mutual
antagonisms, designed to ensure that their identity as a class remains

The Dalits need the Left because there is no other political formation that
programmatically raises working class issues such as a living wage, job
security, pensions, and abolition of contract labour. As for the Left,
sheer survival requires it to raise Dalit issues. Given that the
overwhelming majority of Dalits are working class, there is a natural
affinity of political interests.

Of course, the two have fallen out in the past, and Dalits have bitter
memories of betrayal by the Left. Past disappointments notwithstanding, in
the current vacuum of political representation vis-à-vis Dalit-working
class interests, a partnership between Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam may yet be
an experiment worth revisiting.

* <>*

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