The Dalit debate in India today has multiple layers. It is no longer viewed from the lens of affirmative action, politics of patronage and symbolism. Dalit thought has evolved with ever-changing social narratives and political landscapes. There are two vectors through which to decipher the Dalit imagination in the present context. One is contoured by aspirations and assertion and the other is well-defined within the paradigms of aggression and accommodativeness.
The emergence of Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrashekar Azad in western Uttar Pradesh is one strand of the manifestation of assertion while the stories of Milind Kamble, Tina Dabi and Kanishka Kataria represent the aspirational component of the contemporary Dalit struggle. Every story is noteworthy and the field to capture the Dalit mind is competitively open.
These are individual examples but a profound history is being created at an institutional level. Milind Kamble deserves special mention as he has single-handedly woven a network of more than 5,000 micro, small, medium and mega Dalit entrepreneurs from across the country through his organisation, Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DICCI). He has been inspired by the American idea of Black Capitalism and is often found commenting on how there were a hundred business Obamas before the rise of one Barack Obama. His is indeed a huge achievement, bearing in mind the inertia and dependence of Dalits on state support and conventional model of constitutional safeguards like preferential treatment in education and employment.
The Mudra scheme, for example, has been a game-changer in this regard. As per the available data, SC beneficiaries from the scheme are 61.14 lakh and ST beneficiaries are 16.78 lakh; total accounts of SCs and STs are 77.92 lakh. These beneficiaries form 22.34 per cent of the total and the disbursement amount is Rs 19,433 crore under the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana. Kamble asks the Dalit youth to “be job givers, not job seekers”. He is inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar, who also was an ardent supporter of entrepreneurship. His immense scholarship in economics is a testament to the idea of how capital can be instrumental in defeating caste.
Representation is another significant cornerstone of the new Dalit imagination. Representation at critical decision-making leadership levels that is well beyond the symbolic “tick mark quota”. That not a single cabinet secretary or a foreign secretary in the 70 years since Independence has been from the SC category cannot just be a matter of coincidence — it indicates institutional apathy. The number of vice chancellors, professors, think tankers and authors is another sad story. The resistance over the roster system in universities was evidence of this struggle for representation. The government finally had to bring in an ordinance to contain the damage done by the Supreme Court. The higher judiciary is yet another destination that scores extremely low on the scale of representation. There has not been a single Dalit judge in the apex court since 2010. Apart from the statutorily-mandated reservation in the lower judiciary, there is no mechanism to ensure space for the marginalised on the bench. The media, both print and electronic, show a dismal presence of Dalits. The absence of Dalits in newsrooms ought to be a matter of collective concern. Diversity of perspectives is significant in such places, where opinions are created.
The next generation’s struggle will be defined by the demand for representation at various levels. This is not going to come exclusively through the Constitution, but also from a gradual evolution of consciousness and self-corrective measures. DICCI and Tata corporations have together, for example, come out with a plan of affirmative action through which they handhold, support and create Dalit entrepreneurs. It does not stop here. Once they are trained, they are provided with a seed fund support to commence with their own ventures until they eventually join the Tata business ecosystem.
The New Dalit is now readying for the battle to become a stakeholder and an active participant in the New India story. She will not be bullied. The old structures of power are crumbling. The fresh wave of energy and enthusiasm will guide the Dalit narrative in a positive direction and articulate ideas of integration.
(The writer, 32, is an assistant professor at Patna University and fellow at India Foundation)