'Dalits are concerned with non-issues and not the real ones'

Written by: Shubham Ghosh

Despite adopting a democratic constitution with emphasis on noble ideals like secularism, socialism and republic, the Indian nation-state still finds a vast majority of the downtrodden in the dark, struggling to cope with the new forces to earn even a decent living. We vote Dr B R Ambedkar as the greatest Indian today, raise a storm over a cartoon while several thousands of Dalits still fight for justice against social atrocities and deprivation. The mainstream tends to overlook the masses while iconising Ambedkar. Here, OneIndia News speaks to Dr Anand Teltumbde over a series of questions related to Dalit politics in India, the caste factor and other issues. (See: 'Neoliberal mantra has left Dalits in a miserable state')


Dr Teltumbde is a scholar-activist associated with various peoples’ movements for over last three decades. He is also associated with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR). He has written extensively (mostly in English, all of his 18 books are translated widely into many Indian and some foreign languages) in newspapers, magazines, organizational pamphlets, and booklets as an aid to struggling masses, and lectured widely in India and abroad. An alumni of IIM, Ahmedabad, for living he worked in corporate sector reaching the top position of CEO. He currently teaches management in IIT, Kharagpur.

OneIndia: Has political manipulation fragmented the Dalit base in India? The better-off Dalits have thrived by manipulating issues like 'Ambedkar as icon' and 'protesting cartoons in school books' while the vast majority has been left ignored excepting poll times.

Dr Teltumbde: Right. The political manipulation of Dalits goes back to the 1960s when they, under the leadership of Dadasaheb Gaikwad, a close aide of Dr Ambedkar, agitated demanding land to the landless. The ruling Congress was shaken by this and it adopted a cooptation strategy by offering Rajya Sabha membership to Gaikwad. The latter was not a man who would easily succumb but compelling circumstances (divisive tendencies in the Republican Party of India) made him go for it. The man ostensibly stood his grounds but it paved way for others to join the Congress bandwagon.

The RPI was soon left ineffective and by the late 1960s, a new generation of university-educated Dalits, who were disappointed with the prevailing condition, formed the Dalit Panthers on line of the Black Panthers in the USA. But the Panthers, too, were splintered by the cooptation strategy of the Congress besides their own inherent contradictions.

During the Emergency, when the entire nation criticised Indira Gandhi, Namdeo Dhasal, the noted Panther leader was showering praise on the leader. In the 1980s, when Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Dr Ambedkar, was emerging as a Dalit leader, Sharad Pawar made a shrewd move in making former Panthers leader Ramdas Athawale a cabinet minister in Maharashtra. This strategy marginalised Prakash Ambedkar and gave a blow to the Dalit movement in the state.

'Iconisation' of Ambedkar has been a key instrument behind such manipulation. Dr Ambedkar was a charismatic leader who was adored like god by the Dalits and he, along with Lord Buddha, occupied the psycho-social space of the Dalits following mass conversion into Buddhism.

The ruling elites had ignored Ambedkar for long. But as the electoral politics became increasingly competitive making even small vote-blocks extremely valueable, they began seeing importance of Ambedkar as emotional anchor of Dalits to woo their votes. They skillfully started promoting his icon (distinct from his historic persona) for emotionally manipulating Dalit masses. This strategy worked as they could play with icon as they liked and distance the masses from real Ambedkar. Through iconisation, the radical aspects of the real historic Ambedkar could be obscured and he was deformed into a non-threatening symbol.

The better-off Dalits facilitated this process, for: first, they were absolved of any critical thinking they were ill-equipped to undertake; secondly, they earned recognition in the community as the devote followers of Ambedkar and thirdly, they could utilise this intra-community recognition to stake claim for state positions. Iconisation facilitated already prevailing statist orientation among Dalits: Iconisation leading to state position; state position leading to more intra-community recognition which in turn, resulting into more iconisation. A vicious cycle thus comes into play.

The cartoon controversy is an example of this. I wrote in my EPW column that it is not important to dissect the quality of the cartoon for it was there for the last six years and no voice was raised by either student or a teacher. The cartoon was complex to comprehend and hence it could have been avaoid at the first place. But it was besides the point. The actual question is: Why the Dalits are only concerned with such non-issues and not gross injustice that pervades their lives? Incidentally, the court judgment acquitting all Ranvir Sena members accused of massacring Dalits at Bathani Tola in Bihar surfaced around the same time of the cartoon controversy but the latter attained more importance.

In the past also we have seen that insult to an Ambedkar statue irks Dalits more than crimes against their own girls. The cartoon controversy, formation of a review committee on it and the removal of the cartoon gave the Dalits a false sense of victory and made heroes out of those who played to the gallery.

The agenda is to ignore the vast Dalit masses. The visible section of better-off Dalits -the educated, politically and economically well-placed, the so-called Dalit bourgeoisie - only account for around ten per cent of the entire Dalit people while the rest continues to remain backward as they were during Ambedkar''s times. Rather, they have been cornered more, thanks to neo-liberal policies. Reservation has only helped in shaping out the better-off sections and left the majority of Dalits lagging behind. Neo-liberal programme of the government had multidimensional attack on them. It has adversely impacted them in terms of basic things like nutrition, quality education, health care and jobs.

All this is essentially a part of the dynamics of electoral politics. Political parties can ensure support of the entire Dalit mass by just manipulating the Ambedkar-icon. The problem is even this game has become competitive and in turn, has made the iconisation process more complex.

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