Updated: August 10, 2021 5:56:32 pm
Who wants to be called a Dalit? A young student from an Uttar Pradesh village, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste, asked me this question. He said, please don’t call us “Dalit”. He explained that it is an insulting term that produces an inferiority complex and that they prefer to be called by their “caste names”. These have a glorious history as the communities have produced kings and seers.
The student further said that one of their main struggles is to acquire an identity that may give them social confidence. This is the post-Bahujan social truth that one observes in a state like UP. There are many Twitter handles and Facebook pages run by youngsters from various marginalised communities arguing for, describing and asserting their caste identity as a form of social glory. They are engaged in inventing their caste heroes, histories and icons and creating various social groups to disseminate this information and forge a caste-centred public sphere. In another conversation, a few educated youngsters from these communities explained that those who see them from the outside, such as people from non-SC social groups, politicians, academics, media and many civil society organisations, call them “Dalit”. On the other hand, many people from SC communities who are mainstream Ambedkarites also call themselves Dalits and, while using this term, they seek to project themselves as an assertive community struggling for social empowerment.
The term Dalit is not so popular in states like Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Among a sizeable section of the marginal communities in Punjab, asserting oneself as “chamar da puttr” (son of a leather worker) is preferred. The verdicts of various high courts and Supreme Court commissions also discourage the use of the term “Dalit” in official communication.
In the villages of UP, very few people from the marginalised communities use “Dalit” to define their social and political identities. Most of them use their caste names or the governmental term, “SC”. However, some politicians frequently use “Dalit” in their political discourse, thus showing the gap between political language and the people’s language. Many social activists, civil society groups and NGOs use the term “Dalit” without understanding the ongoing reconfiguration of the communities’ sense of identity.
Kanshi Ram may have recognised the problem in using “Dalit” while addressing the rural marginalised communities of UP, which is why he preferred to use “Bahujan” in his political discourse. Mayawati also preferred to use “Bahujan”. Kanshi Ram’s project of invoking caste identities among the marginalised and their conversion to a broader Bahujan identity is almost non-functional in UP now. When the Bahujan movement was stronger in the state, the emphasis on separate caste identity-based glory and pride was almost invisible. Now, when Bahujan assertion seems to be weaker, the assertion of caste pride and dependence on caste glories appears among marginalised communities. They claim their own icons and are reshaping Dalit public discourse in urban and rural north India. Where the sense of caste glory once worked as a socio-psychological resource for the production of the Bahujan public, it is now also working to facilitate the formation of the Hindutva public.
The growing trend of asserting caste identity among the marginalised is a replication of the “graded inequality” of the caste system diagnosed by B R Ambedkar. It may cause the production of a new set of multiple inequalities. This emerging phenomenon may also hurt the Ambedkar-initiated project of the annihilation of caste in Indian society but it needs to be documented and discussed to understand the mobilisation of marginalised communities of north Indian society. We also need to understand what Michel Foucault meant when he opined that identity is not fixed but, rather, is a discourse mediated by our interactions with others. “Dalit”, which was once an empowering term for a section of the marginalised, is now considered insulting by other sections.
In fact, changes in identity also denote changes in aspirations. Managing this new sense of identity requires the crafting of new electoral and mobilisational politics and political diction. Let’s see which political group comes up with a new craft to mobilise the support of various castes and communities under the Dalit-Bahujan-marginalised categories.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 10, 2021 under the title ‘Not just a Dalit’. The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad
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