Caste Oppression, Land Struggles

Question of Alternative Leadership in the Dalit Movement

Dalits are the most oppressed and exploited sections of India’s society and stand at the lowest rung. The word Dalit is usually used for the oppressed castes of society, a very rigid division of society specific to the Indian sub-continent. This caste system is social division of society in form but its essence is class division. All the castes generally known as Dalits are that section of society which is devoid of means of production, which, in rural areas, is mainly land. This is the common chord uniting them though are divided into many castes and sub castes. They are mainly dependent on labour. A small section of Dalits in rural India has attained the status of lower middle class but by and large, they are labourers. It is their class which is the basis of their unity. Among Dalits, caste is the dividing factor whereas class is the uniting factor. Without understanding this crucial essence understanding Dalit question is next to impossible.

But this is also a very important fact that whenever there is some Dalit movement, it is more widespread and more militant on religious and caste issues but not so massive and militant if it is on class issues. So, while discussing the Dalit movement, one cannot ignore the predominant position of caste. But it is equally important to note that on caste issues, reaction of all Dalit castes is not same. For example, we can see two recent movements. Temple of Shri Guru Ravidas was demolished by Delhi Development Authority in Tughlaqabad area of Delhi. In this case, the reaction of the Ravidas caste (Jatav) was more wide spread and more furious and militant while reaction of other castes was not such. In another case there was protest against a serial on Color channel which supposedly was insulting to Rishi Balmiki. Balmikis were protesting on this issue whereas Ravidasias were almost silent. This is a clear reflection of the dividing role of caste. We have to keep both the factors, both the sides in mind while dealing with Dalit movement.  Though the concept ofDalit has come into vogue, but the various castes included in it are divided on caste basis and they are not a consolidated whole. In context of rising movement of Dalits in Punjab,Gujarat, UP and other states,this factor has to be kept in mind and unity of all Dalit castes is a task still to be achieved.

The word Dalit was popularized bya movement called Dalit Panther. This movement emerged in Maharashtra in early seventies and got its name from the Black Panther movement of black people in Africa. Some left forces were also working in this movement, Sunil Dighe, who became state secretary of CPI(M-L) later on, was one of the ideologues of Dalit Panthers. Its project was to unite all oppressed castes on a single platform under one banner. Advocate Santokh Lal Virdi ,who has been associated with Dalit Panthers, in his book, “ History of Dalits of Punjab “ writes “ Dalit Panther considers  socially, economically, politically and culturally oppressed scheduled castes, backward people, minorities, women, landless labourers, poor peasants, tribals and all people devoid of means of productions.” (History of Dalits of Punjab) So, the concept of Dalit came into vogue with the Dalit Panther movement and it has wider connotation than any specific caste.

Babu Kanshi Ram, who latter emerged as a tall leader of Dalits, built his political project on caste basis and presented the concept of “bahujan” which was much wider than of a single caste. He considered that all castes are oppressed castes other than Brahmin, Rajput and Bania castes. As they constitute the overwhelming majority of the society, so they are bahujan. His political project was to attain power through elections by uniting all the bahujan castes. He was a purely parliamentary politician and was opposed to struggle on the streets. He utilized the statement of Dr. Bheem Rao Ambedkar that political power is the key that unlocks all the locks, in his own way. He was firm in his conviction that struggles bring repression and hardships for Dalits, so he criticized communists for leading struggles of Dalits and causing repression on them. He tried to unite all bahujan castes but could succeed to some extent in UP, because of special condition there. He could unite a number of middle castes around Dalits and Muslims, who are a large chunk of population in UP, because these were disillusioned with Congress and pinned hope on BSP. BSP could form government there, but it was never stable. This project did not succeed in any other state. His successor, Kumari Mayawati, realized that she cannot attain power and make it stable without coming out of the shackles of “bahujan”. So she has come forward with the concept of “sarvajan” which is the total negation of Babu Kanshi Ram’s political project.  BSP is just another regional ruling class party,its leadership making a big fortune from Dalit politics andhence being afraid of those in power. She has now surrendered before the fascist Sangh government. BSP supported the Central government on crucial bills in parliament including the one on Jammu & Kashmir which dissolved the state into two union territories, rendering article 370 and 35A of the Constitution redundant, which is completely unconstitutional. RSS BJP Central govt. has not only unleashed fascist terror in Jammu & Kashmir but also dealt a big blow to federalism to whatever extent it exists in India. Thus Mayawati has supported the fascist government which demolished the temple of Shri Guru Ravidas in Tughlqabad of Delhi. In this she completely exposed her anti-Dalit character.

Why could the political project of Babu Kanshi Ram not succeed is a question which the Dalit movement should ponder over. Its main reason is that Kanshi Ram could understand only formal aspect of caste system but failed to understand its essence, that is class. Many of the castes which Kanshi Ram included in the category of Bahujan were those who own means of production, which is mainly land in the rural area, whereas Dalit castes are devoid of means of production and are largely dependent on labour. For example, Jats in north India, especially in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, are a land owning community. Some of them are landlords and some others are rich peasants. Similarly, there are some other castes, such as Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra who are in similar position. Actually, they are the oppressors of Dalits.In Punjab they are resorting to social boycott of Dalits. Dalit women have to face humiliation at the hands of rowdy elements among the Jat community. Dalits stand in contradiction with landlords and rich peasants belonging to Jats in objective life. Any political project of any leader and any party has to conform to the objective reality of life. Life has no compulsion to conform to any political project. Kanshi Ram planned to unite those castes which stand in contradiction with each other in production.Unity between them has only one meaning and that is thatDalits should surrender before their tormentors, and that is impossible.

Dalits are asserting in many states, particularly in Punjab, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh in recent years. More and more reflections of Dalit assertion are surging forward. In Punjab, the epicenter of Dalit assertion is the Doaba region, a region between river Sutlej and river Beas. Some years back an incident took place in village named Talhan near Jalandhar which resulted in a flare up of Dalit anger in the entire area. There was a dispute about the management of a religious place which was managed by mainly Dalits earlier. As very large number of people migrated to Europe and North America,a myth circulated that offerings at this religious place results in getting visa. Thus offerings increased hugely, so dominant caste people tried to dislodge Dalits from the management. There were huge protests; traffic was disrupted at many places. Another big eruption of Dalit anger was witnessed when the head of a Dalit dera (a religious centre of Dalits in village bllan, that too near Jalandhar) was killed by Khalistani elements in Vienna, Austria. Protests erupted at many places in Doaba region. It was on quite a large scale. Mainly Dalit youth were active in these protests. This movement spread to the villages, whereas earlier though people from rural areas participated, but centres were cities. Anger was high but there was no leadership to channelize it in proper direction. It was completely a spontaneous movement. Trains were torched, vehicles including private ones, were damaged and shops were attacked. Third big struggle was on the very recent issue of demolition of Guru Ravidas temple in Tughlqabad in Delhi and after that was one against a serial on Color channel. This struggle was massive but this time Dalits did not resort to damaging property. Total bandh was observed throughout the state protesting the temple demolition. BSP gave a separate call of bandh but the response was very poor. Head of dalit deras (religious place) which are plenty in Doaba, usually called saints, were leading the protests. A dharna at Delhi was also held where people from Haryana and UP also participated, apart from Punjab. Dalit leaders belonging to different parties handed over the leadership to these deredars. These deredars reached an understanding with Delhi police and decided not to step out of Ramlila ground. (Programme was to hold dharna at Jantar Mantar). But Bheem Army leader, Chandra Shekhar and his followers marched toward Tughlqabad, where force was used and nearly 100 people including Chandra Shekhar were put behind the bars. Thus crisis of leadership came into sharp focus.

When eruption of anger on religious issues were making headlines, a different type of Dalit movement was emerging in some districts of Malwa region of Punjab, mainly Sangrur, Patiala, Mansa and Barnala, under the newly formed organization named Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee. This organization was formed in 2014 to focus on the issue of land, a very basic issue of this socioeconomic system. Punjab Village Common Lands Act provides that “in leasing the village common land is to be given to Dalits only.’’But in practice this act was never implemented throughout the state. Influential people of villages used to take theDalit share of common land by putting up some Dalit as leasers. As panchayats in Malwa region have large tracts of land, and Dalits in this region were closely linked with agriculture, they were interested in their share of panchayat land. Struggle on this issue started in village Bald Klan andspread to more than a hundred village in district Sangrur .This class struggle climaxed in village Jaloor where landlords succeeded in mobilizing the upper caste people and attacked the Dalit conclave and injured a number of people, resulting in the death of an aged lady, the mother of a local ZPSC leader. Houses were damaged and Dalits’ belongings were destroyed. This struggle also took up the issue of Nazool land which were given to Dalits Nazool societies but were under the occupation of influential people of the villages along withissue of house sites and mgnrega. Struggles on land issue have come up in some other states too, like Gujarat etc. It should be borne in mind that in several states Dalits are important participants in the struggle for land as a part of general struggle of the landless poor peasants.

These struggles for land by Dalits are confined to the respective states and do not have any viable and meaningful co-ordination. Similarly, apart from the traditional and parliamentary leadership of BSP and various sections of RPI in Maharashtra, Bheem Army and various organizations under the banner of Ambedkarism are active in various states. In this situation of rising Dalit struggles, a viable leadership capable of leading these struggles is need of the hour.

After RSS coming to power led by Modi-Shah combine, fascist danger is growing day by day, especially after Modi came to power for asecond time. It is not simply a growing danger of fascism but the fascist offensive has become crude and sharp. Fascist offensive is not uniform throughout the country but different in selective areas and selective section of populace. There is already fascist dictatorship in Jammu and Kashmir, it is sharp against resistance struggle in tribal areas. Similarly, Muslims and Dalits are the prime target of the Sangh fascist offensive. Dalits are being beaten and killed in the name of cow protection. In this situation, Dalit leadership should be capable of facing the fascist offensive. BSP leadership has completely surrendered, whereas Athawale section of RPI is already in coalition government with Singh fascists. These forces are not capable of leading the Dalit movement.

In the recent movement on the issue of demolition of Ravidas temple in Delhi, a different type of leadership came forward and that is of so-called saints or Deredars, who are courted by political parties as they have large followings. In this situation they have come to acquire the leadership of these movements. But they are not capable of leading the movements. They are used to very easy and luxurious life, are not prepared to face the hardships of jail life and repression of state. This is crystal clear from their role in the Delhi dharna on temple issue, where they struck a compromise with the Delhi police and betrayed the movement. This incident further brought it into focus the need of alternative leadership.

Where is such leadership? is the question. We feel that such a leadership is not available at present. But there are elements of such leadership in various areas. Bheem Army led by Chandra Shekhar is such an element. Several local organizations in Gujarat and ZPSC in Punjab are also among such forces. There some other elements in other states too. There is no uniformity among these forces as yet, but it can be achieved through interaction and joint and co-ordinated struggles. The first thing is, what is to be the minimum basis for the emergence of such a leadership?

Experience of the past amply shows that Dalit leadership which was confined to the limits of parliamentary arena was co-opted by the ruling classes, right from Babu Jagjivan Ram upto Mayawati. They individually enjoy power, improve the fortunes of their near and dear ones but have hardly done anything to change the lot of Dalits.Mayawati has collected crores of rupees, but has done nothing credible to improve the lot of Dalits. Exclusive dependence on parliament reflects ignorance about the nature of the caste system. That is why Babu Kanshi Ram, who tried to unite all “Bahujan” castes, could not succeed, because he could not understand the typical nature of caste division in India. It is not spatial but is like a ladder, where every caste stands below some caste and above certain caste.This makes their unity just a nearly impossible task. That is why BSP largely remained confined to Ravidasia caste and could not bring even Dalit castes into its fold. Secondly, Kanshi Ram failed to understand the class content of caste. The unity of ‘bahujans’ was only a figment of imagination. Does this mean that their unity is impossible? No, there is no such absolute case. Their unity can be achieved and should be achieved,seeing the wider prospective. But this unity can be achieved in the arena of struggle against the feudal and corporate, Indian as well as foreign. Unity can be achieved through united struggles only and for that one has to understand the class content of caste. Any viable alternative leadership must understand this point.

We are not opposed to the struggle in parliamentary arena but it should supplement the struggles on streets. Leadership has to be aware of the limitation of parliamentarism. Unity of castes constituting majority of people i.e. Bahujans, can be achieved through a prolonged struggle and by isolating the feudal and pro corporate among those castes. Alternative leadership has to bear this in mind for the liberation of Dalits.

Secondly, we are living in a situation where forces with fascist ideology have captured power and are in control of executive as well as legislative agenda of the country. Media, which is a powerful weapon of rule and has colossal influence upon the people, is in the hands of corporate houses whom this government is faithfully serving. Hence media is completely in the service of government and has become a propaganda department of the government. Highest judiciary, trampling all the basics of jurisprudence, has completely surrendered before the Sangh. It is evident from its attitude towards petitions filed on dismemberment of Kashmir and downgrading of its status from a state to a union territory and making section article 370 and 35 A, redundant. It has held that individual freedoms granted in the Constitution are subject to national security. This is a decision which reminds us of the decision of Jabalpur court, which was reverted by higher court, later on, and which held that during Emergency even right to life also stands suspended. The Judiciary now has postponed even habeas corpus writs, where delay of one day can be fatal, for weeks. Fascist offensive is in full swing, and its prime targets are Muslims and Dalits apart from communist revolutionaries and national liberation struggles. Other targets are Tribals, women and other minorities.There can be no worthwhile movement without fighting against this fascist offensive. Mayawati has virtually forfeited her claim to leadership of the Dalit movement by surrendering before the offensive of Hindutva fascism.

It is crystal clear that Dalit movements are surging forward, but are facing a crisis of leadership, a void. We have outlined above the conditions necessary for the leadership to succeed. But the problem is that if in some areassome alternative leadership emerges,efforts are made to discredit that leadership by making wild allegations by traditional and established leadership. For example, with the emergence of Bheem Army and its leader Chandra Shekhar Ravan in Hindi belt, he was labeled as a BJP agent by Mayawati, but when BJP government put him in jail, and did not release him from jail even when his health condition was serious, this propaganda lost steam. Nowadays a propaganda is going on that he is working for Congress. Such propaganda can be blunted by consistent and militant struggle. Second weapon of ruling class parties is to lure emerging Dalit leaders into parliamentary mesh. They succeeded in luring Jignesh Mevani who emerged as a young and educated Dalit leader in Gujarat after the Una incident. He could not resist the temptation, joined hands with Congress and contested for Vidhan Sabha election with Congress support and became an MLA. But he lost all his relevance in this process and is not seen in the arena of struggle. Ruling classes tried to drag Chandra Shekhar too into the quagmire of parliamentary politics and tried to put him as a candidate from Varanasi constituency in Lok Sabha election, but he could save himself. Emerging Dalit leaders must avoid the allurement of power sharing at the cost of Dalit interests.

Different forces are active in different parts of the country which have potentials of providing capable leadership. Those forces should persist in militant struggle, keeping doors open for uniting maximum forces that can be united on a particular issue. They must understand the class content of caste, understand the limitation of parliamentary activities and fight against the fascist offensive of fascist Sangh. These forces should not remain confined to the issues emerging from time to time but should fight for share in the means of production, taking it as a basic issue. Such forces should co-ordinate their struggles, support each other in struggles,and come forward for joint struggle on the basis of issue based minimum understanding. Such forces in process can come into a position to provide leadership of emerging Dalit movements.