Dalit Identity and Politics : Ghanshyam Shah

Dalit Politics: Dalits have acquired the center position in contemporary politics. In past, they were thrown out of the political arena and the power game of government. But when we talk about present times, their presence no longer can be avoided. Not only have they gained everything they have striving hard for, also their voices cannot be taken for granted. No political party can ignore their existence. They raise questions on the present socio-economic position of the country. We are here to discuss the Dalit politics and challenges it faces in India.

dalit identity

Who are the Dalits?

Dalits are mainly poor and underprivileged. In administration, they are termed as scheduled castes (SC’s), scheduled tribes (ST’s) and other backward classes (OBC’s). In day to day life, schedule caste is used in broader senses. Dalit is basically the caste defined by President of India under article 341, put as scheduled castes. SC was first used by British in the Government of India Act, 1935.

Some classes were categorized under Depressed Classes. It was the category which was first used in the times of 20th century. Conventionally they are put at the last in the caste order, mainly known as Ati- Shudras or Avarna and they were also called as untouchables. Every caste belonging to schedule experienced untouchability at an unequal rate. Talking about the numbers, in 1991 there were 138 million SC, contributing to 15.8 percent of the Indian population mainly residing in UP, Bihar, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

According to B.R Ambedkar, the origin of caste is Shastras. There was no life which was not affected by this grade of inequality. Followed by Dr. B R Ambedkar, Thorat and Deshpande suggested that the social order has failed miserably and contributed to poverty and economic inequalities, especially the ones at bottom of caste order. The discrimination prevailed and it was evident from the land ownership pattern as 84 percent of SC people lived in rural areas. 11 percent SC were landless and the ones belonging to 84 percent were marginal farmers.

When we talk about bonded laborers, they were in credit against debts and they cleared it with either marriages or day to day expenses. Sever cases involved working with schedule caste person for the same person for years or sometimes even for life. Their life was always under the master. Theoretically, bonded labor was abolished under Bonded Labour System Act, 1976 but in reality, the system still prevails at a small rate. Although many bonded labors were freed by activist sooner or later they again got themselves in the claws of bondage.

The discrimination still continues in small spheres, not wholly because of the capitalist development and competitive politics. When we talk about present times, not all SC households are small and marginal farmers. A few of them have definitely improved their condition as compared to past decades by using development programmes.

The vast proportion of Dalits has continued their caste occupations like weavers, scavengers but at the same time, it is not true for all the community. In urban areas, many of them work in industrial sites, having white collar jobs mainly in public sector or starting a startup. Here is an example where Chamars of Agra has improved their economic condition but their profession is looked down by other castes. It has not changed their social status.

Although it is stated that untouchability has vanished but its presence can be felt in many instances. Non- Dalits never liked when Dalits were given land under various welfare programmes leading to murders, quarrels, rape etc. There were clashes on resources such as forest, water, wages etc.
In spite of whatever happened with them, they managed to rise in literacy rate through at a slow pace. They made it possible to claim their dignity and share in political offices with Non- Dalits.


dalit politcs and identity

Mahatma Gandhi was also adamant about removing untouchability from India. He called untouchables as Harijan- a man of God. This term led to the argument between Gandhiji and BR Ambedkar as Ambedkar wanted to represent Dalit as a separate community, while Gandhi was in favor of nationalism. Gandhi asked Non-Dalits to use Harijan instead of Antyaja. He described Harijan in a broader sense as.We Non- Dalits are the Durjana( men of evil) who have found pleasure in demeaning them. They have dirtied their hands so that we can stay in leisure and comfort. We are responsible for the failures and we can only repent by improving our attitude. The Congress party too used Harijan term for untouchables during the freedom movement. Even SC were in hope that the other castes will start giving them respect, but only a few of SC started practicing Sanskritization to attain upper-class culture, so the respect they wanted was not received due to less number of people. Thus B.R Ambedkar and his followers did not find any change no matter whatever nomenclature was used, as it did not change the social order.

Ambedkar believed that saints like Narsinh Mehta carried campaigns were for the relation between man and god instead of establishing equality between man and man. Afterward, leaders of SC took the term Harijan as an insult, leading to rejecting the term. B.R Ambedkar was having different philosophy and his aim was to make an egalitarian society which he believed was not possible with Hinduism due to Chaturvarna system. The possibility of establishing equality was impossible becauase for this first Varnavashtha was needed to abolish leading to discarding the Shashtras. Many marathi writers started using the Dalit word instead of Achchuta in their poems, essay and stories expressing their aggression and aspirations. It gained popularity during SC caste Hindu riots in Bombay in 1970. Afterwards, the term included exploited a section of the societies. It showed how the cultural and way of living was suppressed. Gangadhar Pantawane quoted that Dalit is a notion of change and revolution. The Dalits believe was humanism instead of sacred books, heaven, and hell as it made them a slave to other castes.

Dalits attacked the ideation of Brahmanism. There were Dalit Bahujan movements which led to building up an anti-caste ideology.
Many people also did not want to be called as Dalits as they thought it would be a wrong term to use. They believed it to be secular in nature. Its aim was to cut the religious and linguistic barriers. The new face was evolved through the Political process and B.R Ambedkar was the leader and is widely known for his work towards the untouchables.

RS Khare found that Hindu’s ideation excluded and dominated the weak. Dalits was no exception when it came to getting transformed and it was no doubt that no matter how elite or cross-section, they preferred to be named as Dalit instead of Harijans or SC or untouchables. Also, the new identity can’t be made overnight. The tiff between Malas and Madigas in Andhra Pradesh over the issue of reservation is an example. The issues are that the former emphasized on Dalit unity whereas the latter focuses on traditional jali identity. Madigans think that Malas wanted to be in dominance and have a bigger economic advantage. The conflict is not on the grounds of a cultural level; instead, it is because of material interest. The major cause of tension is if the situation prevails, the Dalits may form a new cultural symbol. And this will lead in weakening the Dalit movement.


Undoubtedly Dalits comprising Christian, Muslim and all other social groups are stratified from the earlier and silently they have also bowed down to Hindu ideology of Purity and Pollution. Scholars have agreed that Dalits are on the same page with upper caste Hindus for cultural consensus.
Michael Moffatt quoted under his theoretical framework that untouchables were neither alienated nor given ill treatment. Instead, they themselves have invented their cultural consensus which makes them extreme low. This view was tussled by many scholars. Kathleen Gough said that low caste does not contribute much to the society. John Mencher gave an example to prove this statement right. He said Paraiyars has better materialistic views whereas the ones at the bottom did not have any view. The theory of Karma was not accepted by Dalits on a major portion, Karma meant doing great things in this lifetime to sow for the next birth. Had this been in Dalit’s mind, they would not have protested again high caste people.

Dalits never showed any interest in caste-based hierarchy, unlike Brahmins. Dalits preferred Kshatriyas or Shudras in Sanskritization. N. Sudhakar Rao wrote how Dalit felt that it was better accepting cultural and power relation of Dominant class rather than accept its religious values and called as impure. This fact itself tells how each and every belonging to lower castes was not in unity as some of them followed Sanskritization, BR Ambedkar felt that this upgradation thing will never unite the lower castes against the Hindu caste system.

He tried to make the alliance with OBC in 1930 but failed miserably. Later on, the Dalit and OBC realized that B.R Ambedkar is right on unity matter. For gaining political power through elections, Bahujan Samaj Party under Kanshi Ram made efforts to bring both communities together and to some extent, he succeeded too. But it was majorly political fight than fighting against Brahamanism.


There were protest and struggles by Dalits and Shudras against the exploitation and discrimination. Throughout the time, many instances can be find and Dalits never accepted that their situation is a result of their previous birth. Kancha Ilaiah and Sudhakar Rao have fought with this point. Their protest was in many forms. Some converted their religion but it did not change their socio-economic position magnificently. In fact, the discrimination arose in churches between Non- Dalit Christians and Dalit Christians. Logo argued that people evaluated more on ritual rather than moral principles. It was true some of them get their socio-economic condition better by Sanskritization but many suffered from disabilities by dominant classes. 


It is a fact that those who were dominance and enjoyed social and political power always wanted to follow Brahamanism and never gave in to the demands of Dalits for dignity and justice. In fact they were suppressed with brutal force. Although the situation changed when British entered in power. They introduced the Western legal system in India inspired by movements in Europe in the 19th century. With this the Dalits began to demand their rights, like admission in school, entering temples and walking on public roads like Hindu caste. The dominant classes did not gave in and took the complaint in courts and asked Dalits to pay 500 as a penalty for a purification ceremony.
Dalits started feeling that their security can be ensured by state and they started pressurizing British officials for public sphere spaces. Slowly and steadily their participation increased in political areas.

It was during 1880 and 1890, social reformers of the National Social Conference came with the discrimination of Untouchables in front of National Congress. Firstly they did not take any action but in 1909 during Morley Minto reform many reformers and political head thought this matter to very important. They were alarmed by the situation and knew things should be done immediately. In 1917 the congress for the first time expressed his concern over the untouchability problem. But then also it did not pass any ammendment for the depressed classes. Although the franchise committee of 1918-19 permitted the nomination from Dalits but their leaders were not that happy with the mere nomination. They wanted a separate electorate. Also, Bahiskrit Hitarini Sabha under the leadership of BR Ambedkar opposed this nomination. Their point was that for political education, ministery was the most important facility. M.C. Rajah, a member of Madras Legislative Council asked for reservation of seats for Panchamas in government schools and colleges. It was during 1920 the reservation of seats and a separate electorate gained motion. The commission rejected separate electorate but granted permission for reservation of seats. Also, many leader were not in unity for the separate electorate, they joined hands with Hindu Mahasabha and made its alliance. This alliance is popularly known as Rajah- Moonje Pact, a well known substitution for the separate electorate.

Later in 1932, the British government started giving Communal awards. It also provided a separate electorate for Muslim, Sikhs, and Christians but not to the Dalits. They were given a special power i.e. double vote. They had the power to cast one vote as Hindu, the other as a depressed caste. And the ones who were over qualified were given a special power to vote with Hindu in general constituencies. They were given an extra vote in special depressed class.

Gandhi and many Hindu leaders were in contrary to this award section as they felt it would destroy the unity of Hindu society. Simultaneously, there was no treaty between B.R Ambedkar and Gandhi after two round  table conference. Gandhi finally took a fast unti death against communal awards. There was political tension and charges against Ambedkar and finally, he gave up for a separate electorate. Gandhi on his side reserved 148 seats for the depressed classes for 10 years. This is popularly known as Poona Act.

Poorna Act of 1935 gave reservation to schedule castes in various legislatures of India. It safeguarded rights against discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion etc.


B.R Ambedkar was no doubt a leader for each and every sub-caste of Dalit. In 1933 he said
You have many ways of bringing the change and improvenent in your socio-economic condition. Your lifestyle can be changed for good. It is possible through political action and laws. The government will provide you the basic rights like food, clothing, education, shelter which you have strived hard upon. Instead of praying you should take political ways that will bring you freedom and liberty. The conflict is not between Indian and British government. The conflict is between advanced classes and backward classes. You must unite and organise yourself to claim your rights.
There were two different ways for Dalits. The first one was to follow riots and massacres under agitational politics and show their anger. Another method was to participate in parliamentary politics through elections. It was evident that to form an egalitarian social order, there was need of political participation.

During 1920 there was the huge movement for the entry to temples and water sources. Dalit literature movement took place post-independence collecting Dalit from every corner of the country. The message went well and was reflected in electoral mobilization.
In 1936, B.R Ambedkar formed the Independent Labour Party making an alliance of peasants, workers and SC’s. But soon it got dissolved in 1942 and All-India Schedule Caste Federation was made. It did not performed well in electoral politics. Again in 1957, B.R Ambedkar associates formed Republican Party  but gradually it failed too. It managed to win only three seats in 1962 Lok Sabha Election and one seat in 1967. Bahujan Samaj Party was the only party which succeeded as a party but sooner it turned into a manipulative party which led to its failure.

Initially, only a decade reservation was given and under articles 330 and 332, 578 and 540 seats were allotted to SC in the Lok Sabha and State assemblies. But the representatives did not represent or solved its community problems. The studies show that this representative were not a serious and maximum time they were not even a part of debate covering issues of deprived communities in Lok Sabha or state assembly. Even the chief ministers of schedule castes have done very little for the betterment of suppressed communities.

However, it is true that through an election process, the community came together. They had their effect in Lok Sabha but not upto the expectations of their community. The number and participation of Dalits increased on a fare rate and they were no longer the slave of any mainstream political party.

But the condition of Dalits in villages continued to shrink as there was no channelised power. Representatives did nothing when it came to village affairs and problems. For example, in Gujarat, the government has Social Justice Committee at all level of Panchayati Raj to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. But this did not make any difference in the condition of Dalits in the state. Thus seeing and predicting the future, BR Ambedkar wanted Dalits to make political democracy as social democracy. And by social democracy, he meant liberty and freedom. He asked for how long we are going to ignore the equality part and comfort lifestyle just because of Caste-System. He also quoted that if this inequality prevails, the day is not that far when someone who suffered from brutal inequality will blow up the structure and fundamental of political democracy.


Our country has completed almost half a century after independence but the prediction of Ambedkar about contradiction still relies on. The equality regarding social and economic position is a far dream. However, it is also true that with years Dalits have become politics conscious and are looking forward to make their future better. And the Jali community has come altogether and at least challenged pollution and purity stigma of high class on the various note. And if we talk about Dalits there are two positive changes which are recorded. The first change is that the discrimination has become very low as compared to past years. Of course, it has not diminished, but at least on the public sphere, it is not practiced. The second change is many Dalits has upgraded themselves from poor families to the middle class. They have surely improved their economic condition.

There are namely four factors which have contributed in making this possible.

  1. The very frequent term equality served its purposed on many grounds. The technical development and the philosophies and debates helped in achieving a position in the society. Conversion of many Dalits under Ambedkar guidance, challenging the social order i.e. Chaturvarna system also helped in seeking equality. Also, Dalits now works in non-traditional areas, thus sharing everything with other castes too.
  2. Secondly, the British colonies have somehow diminished the effect of casteism on people. Although caste remains but its order and form are different now. Now the Dalits are earning and they are present in new-nontraditional occupations. They are doing white collar jobs, through education they have become professors too. Globalisation, liberalization has its own effect and it led to the betterment of Dalits.
  3. Reservation in government jobs and colleges has paved a road for them to enter the middle class. It has given them hope that it is not necessary to die poor because of their caste and they can be seen in the same page with others. But at the same time reservation has managed to put skilled non-Dalit students under pressure and frustration. They are unable to find suitable jobs although they are skilled. It is a matter of concern which is raised by the sociologist at a regular rate. Also when we talk about a political framework, there is differences in middle class SC and poor SC. The middle class SC chose BJP whereas BSP and Janta Dal was favourite of poor and BPL SC.
  4. When the reservation is granted, the rate at which the competitive feeling in SC can be seen at a major rate. They have failed miserably when it came to improving their community strata but they have a feeling that they can occupy a seat in political offices. They have great ralleys and movements and they have given tough competition to ruling party but when we talk about the change at a national level or community level, it is a long way to go. It is needed to be more than revolts and protests to bring a social transformation. The present condition is that the Dalit leaders feel that Gandhism is irrelevant and B.R Ambedkar or Marxism is inadequate to lead for equality. Dalits who have been deprived of basic rights and after 50 years, there are still some traces, in such situation, Dalits have to deal with strategies which will yearn them social order, liberty, same economic position( as quoted by B.R Ambedkar).


Shah, G.,2001, Dalit Identity and Politics, New Delhi: Sage publications, Pp 17-43

Also, Read

The Centrality of the Middle Class: Indian Sociology

Annihilation of Caste by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, Arundhati Roy

Women’s Movements: From Chipko to Sati-The Contemporary Indian women’s 

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