The continuing atrocities against Dalits are creating conditions for a new and explosive Dalit movement. There has been a long history of violence, humiliation and atrocities against Dalits, as there is a growing history of resistance. But that in itself produces a certain kind of complacency in certain sections: We have seen all of this before (recall Khairlanji) and after a little eruption, we will all settle back into that grindingly oppressive equilibrium that characterises Indian society. But it would be morally appalling and politically foolish to underestimate what is at stake at this moment.
The violence in Gujarat or the misogyny against Mayawati has been analysed in two frames. One, there is the contingent political frame: The vigilantism that the cow protection movement has spawned and the general coarsening of language it has licensed will inevitably find their most hideous expression against the Dalits and the minorities. This is a reality which the ruling dispensation obtusely fails to understand, let alone acknowledge. While some BJP leaders have tried to work for Dalits on issues like temple entry and education, they are deeply discomforted by the thought that Dalits might want to define themselves rather than be defined. As much as they appropriate Ambedkar, they are also uncomfortable with his radicalism on the character of Hinduism. So the BJP will put up with Dalit assertion so long as it follows its script.
The second frame is a long-term sociological story. These events are a reminder of the larger failure of the Indian state, its inability to create the conditions for what Ambedkar had called social endosmosis: A mixing of communities through education, marriage and economic mobility. There is a truth to both of these diagnoses; one speaks to an immediate trigger, the other to a long-term social process. But there is a risk that these miss out on the specificity of the current challenge.
The specificity can be captured by the three paradoxes. On the one hand economic and social change has transformed Dalit lives in many contexts. But the one thing we know from comparative sociology is that conflict increases precisely at the moment where social conditions might be getting slightly better. Economic advancement alone will not diminish the psychic traumas of caste; it may actually create more conflict. Even as the experience of race in the US has shown, the psychic resistance to accept formerly subordinate groups as equal comes from depths and anxiety that is hard to fathom; indeed privileged groups fear those whom they have oppressed far more than other powerful competitors. The empowerment of these groups rather than becoming a celebration of justice becomes a sign of fatal concoction of guilt and loss of power, resulting in periodic attempts to “show them their place”. Some of the current atrocities against Dalits seem to be rooted in this sentiment. It will take a very imaginative politics to overcome this fear.
The second paradox is this: At a very high level of abstraction the normative arc of history is moving in the right direction. There is less visible legitimising of atrocity, even as its incidence increases. Even if there is an element of political expediency in this, the fact that almost every political party thinks of incorporating the Dalits is a welcome change. But the paradox is that the more Dalits get politically empowered, the more it is possible that there will be disenchantment with constitutional politics as a mode of redressing their problems. For that politics is successful in dividing, redirecting social conflict in ways that do not challenge the stability of the system; that politics is not capable of providing a transformative trajectory.
What should worry the political class when they see the Dalit agitations in Gujarat is how much behind the curve they are in spotting social resentment. Even Dalit political leaders are caught off-guard. The grammar of social protest is no longer being defined by the political parties, but will be directed against them. The sign that Dalit voting is more footloose as it were, with different subcastes prepared to consider different alternatives depending on the context, is a sign of tactical fluidity in politics. But that tactical fluidity may hide a deeper disenchantment with the limits of politics.
The third paradox has to do with protest in an age of media. In a hyper mediatised age, the political invisibility and loneliness of those who experience atrocity, is often likely to be reinforced rather than redressed. Again, there is a paradox: The media will rarely bring the atrocity to attention; even when it does, there will be no follow up, or the focus on Dalits will pale in comparison, with more important murders. But this invisibility will only add to the deep sense of alienation, of being marginalised. There is a sense of a new kind of invisibility being inflicted on Dalits, even in the process of focussing on them; the large numbers of attempted suicides are a kind of testament to a literal death being a means of protest against a form of social death, to use the phrase Orlando Patterson made famous in the context of slavery.
That disenchantment is made more palpable by the patent insincerity of politics. For instance, why has police reform become such a holy cow in Indian politics that no political party is willing to touch it? Mayawati gained some political traction on the issue of law and order, largely to ensure that police was not an instrument of atrocity against Dalits. The crime records bureau recorded more than 42,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits in 2014. This data is methodologically problematic, but it is indicative of the potential lack of protection by the state. Dalits are also likely to be disproportionately victims of our slow justice process as evidenced in the number of trials. But the law and justice system is where all these different lines of social conflict will intersect. That system is a paradoxical combination of abdication and violence. Yet no political party will touch it. So we are creating the conditions where the normative shifts, will not be articulated in any institutional thinking; they will float untethered in the politics of symbolism and personalities.
The Gujarat agitations are a canary in the mine: There is deep social conflict bubbling from below. The fact that the “Gujarat” model has left this social legacy should also be a wake-up call about how superficial our assumptions are about the relation between economic and social change.