Caste in a new mould

Law and justice may still prove elusive, but powerful new voices are transforming Dalit politics.

By: Editorial | Updated: October 6, 2016 2:13 pm

When four members of the Dalit Bhotmange family in Khairlanji were murdered by a group of people belonging to an OBC caste from the same village, the state and its institutions refused to accept that it was a caste crime. A fast-track court sentenced eight of the 50 accused to death for the murders and the high court reduced it to life — while rejecting the charges made under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. State institutions and the law continue to fail Dalits. But, 10 years later, powerful new voices are emerging from within the community, forcefully articulating a politics of rights and justice. It reflects an ongoing churn in society, where new social, economic and political forces are shaping a modernity that challenges the old caste order even as they are set in it.

Watch| Rohith Vemula Not A Dalit, Neither His Mother: HRD Commission’s Findings


The Khairlanji violence also had a lot to do with Dalit assertion. The Ambedkarite politics of the 20th century had radicalised and empowered Dalits, threatening the very foundations of the caste-centric feudal hierarchy of rural Maharashtra. Political mobilisations, then and now, in the state reflect the deep unease among the caste elites with Dalit empowerment, reflected in community members gaining education, employment outside the “traditional” caste occupations, and acquiring material assets. Maharashtra’s political narrative is not exceptional. At the heart of the anti-Dalit violence reported from across India, be it in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, seem to be non-Dalit anxieties about losing social and economic dominance as Dalits increasingly access modern education and assert their rights as citizens. The life and death of Rohith Vemula mirrored the Dalit upsurge and the extreme reactions to it. Vemula’s layered articulation of identity and emancipatory politics unnerved the establishment, which sought to first isolate, and then, penalise him. He chose death to assert his self, and his suicide roiled campuses across the country. Similarly, the attack by “gau rakshaks” on Dalits in Una has triggered a political response that has resonated across the country. Vemula, even after his death, and Jignesh Mewani in Gujarat, represent a new language of assertion of the marginalised and disprivileged that transcends the exclusive character of Dalit identity politics.

The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 1980s as a political movement and an electoral force could be seen as the big breakthrough in Dalit politics since Ambedkar. The post-Vemula mobilisations indicate a new exciting phase. The political establishment has no option but to engage with these large transformations.

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  1. Raman Govindan
    Sep 29, 2016 at 1:53 pm
    the leaders of castes, both lower, OBC and forward castes , and ethnic and linguistic communities want to advertise their backwardness, poverty. for their own benefits or political gain. if an individual is disciplined, hardworking, practices thrift and at the same enterprising, the is no limit to his advancement. the same applies for communities. too. several communities had advanced on that plane. few violations do not make the rule.
    1. R
      Sep 29, 2016 at 6:28 am
      Dr Ambedkar visualised these kind of problems in the rural India and had appealed the Dalits to migrate to the cities where Caste Prejudice is less or negligible. If the Dalits wish to live with 'Self Respect and Pride', they should dispose off the property and migrate to cities or abroad if possible. However the situation does not appear to be grave in the country because so far not a single person so far has sought ' Political Asylum ' in any of the foreign countries. Moreover it is wrong to generalise the problem of atrocities. Only a selected section of SC/ST communities especially who show defiance to hegemony of the upper castes and the perpetrators are none other than their own clan from OBC communities and no Upper Caste people ever indulge in such acts. In Maharashtra there are about 60 Scheduled Castes but only Mahars who have been converted to Buddhism and progressed are being singled out and targeted. In fact these people should come out of the cocoon of Dalits but for the paltry benefits they cling to Dalit tag.
      1. S
        Sep 29, 2016 at 9:01 am
        Atrocities are not reported. Dalits dare not go to wells of upper casts. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt; Their females are abused.