Dalit Capitalism: A Brief History

With the advent of globalisation and new economies of desire, when the Indian subcontinent witnessed the process of nation-building and emerging capitalism, caste became a prominent subject of discussion for scholars, historians and activists. Legally and politically, the historically marginalised communities who formed the bulk of Indian proletariats were gradually claiming their spaces and rights. It was a process of deconstruction and restructuring. Dalits, the most oppressed caste in India, soon found themselves alienated amidst the emerging politeness, educational backgrounds and political strongholds of the Upper Caste who dominated the corporate world and procured the maximum wealth. Hence, they started challenging positions of power and authority. The term ‘Dalit capitalism’ was coined by a prominent activist and scholar, Chandra Bhan Prasad during the early 21st century, which led way to a new era of Dalit upsurges in corporate sectors.

what is dalit capitalism

What is Dalit Capitalism?

With the advent of neoliberalism in 1991 that dismantled public sector enterprises, Dalits started losing their grounds. It was a factored consequence of one of the policies proposed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He put forward a policy of reservation for the historically marginalised communities in job positions in government-owned sectors. Several institutions, in order to resist caste based reservation were privatised. The Dalit intellectuals, then, shared Marxist viewpoints and were against globalisation and emerging capitalism to hamper the process of privatisation. However, it seemed to be a lost battle. Hence, Prasad claimed that if the Dalits couldn’t fight against the unjust privatisation of the corporate sectors, they must make space for themselves in those very sectors to thrive and survive. Citing examples from the United States where even private sectors positive discrimination in favour of colour of people, Prasad questioned its viability in India. He stood against the objectives of the Dalit movement, which were anti-globalisation and anti-US. Hence, “reservation in the private sector” was proposed and later transformed into reality by Prasad. He argued that it wasn’t mandatory for the Dalits to always be the proletariats fighting against the bourgeoisie. He suggested that the Dalits should now start owning property and have a share in commerce, trade and industry. In other words, he put forward the idea of “Democratization of capital”.

Prasad welcomed the onset of foreign institutions like IBM for the simple fact that it was easier for Dalits to negotiate with foreign capitalists as they were free of the idea of caste hierarchy, unlike every Indian. While Dalit intellectuals like Anand Teltumbe still opposed the idea of globalisation coupled with capitalism, scholars like Kancha Ilaiah, who, too, was initially against it, finally accepted and promoted it. Ilaiah referred to the process as “cultural globalisation”. This would allow the Dalits entry into various economic sectors which would lead to the creation of Dalit bourgeoisie.

What Led to Its Emergence?

The Upper Caste Hindu Liberals and radicals were against the concept of Dalit bourgeoise. Menon and Nigam (2007) say that such disposition was visible through the media coverage of Uttar Pradesh’s first Dalit Chief Minister, Mayawati’s birthday party in 2003. In other words, the Upper Caste Indian population had set a way of doing politics and presenting oneself. This very much reflected the Indian emphasis on the ascribed identity that fails to consider individuals beyond their caste position. Hence, when the oppressed or marginalised communities climb higher up the rungs of the social ladder, they are religiously disciplined by the others.

On December 23, 2005, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a young charismatic Dalit (emerging) intellectual and journalist, almost a cult figure, organised a party in a modest apartment in Eastern Delhi, “to celebrate capitalism”, precisely “Dalit capitalism”. The invitation letter that he sent out was a two-page document justifying and clarifying what ‘Dalit capitalism’ meant in a way unconventional to how it was perceived as an oxymoron. The left had religiously viewed Dalits and capitalism as contradictory and “socially incorrect”, as claimed by Prasad who, initially, was a Marxist. He talked about the importance of “defrosting” their status of being Dalits by “dissolving into the emancipatory world of capitalism”. Inspired by Marx and Engel’s views on capitalism as a “new revolutionary force which builds a world in its own image”, Prasad went on to justify the boons of capitalism and industrialisation which could be a way out for the Dalits to escape the feudal or pre-modern social evils like casteism. According to him, capitalism became “Indianised”, or in other words, “brahminical”. The only way to de-Indianize capitalism, he said, was the acceptance of capitalism by the Dalits. It was only when historically marginalized communities accounted for major wealth, had access to scarce resources and privately owned properties, that they could be truly emancipated.

Bhopal Conference

The Bhopal Conference of 2002 provided Dalit Capitalism with an international dimension. It was organised by the Indian National Congress and the Bhopal Document focused on the liberation of Dalits from the clutches of ‘job-reservation’ framework which had so far dominated the movement. The movement now demanded democratization of capital and land distribution which meant that the state should not only allow job reservations for the Dalit caste in private sectors but also give a push to businesses owned by them. This received sharp criticisms from many prominent personalities, including historian Ramachandra Guha who called it an unpatriotic demand. Udit Raj, a renowned Dalit rights activist replied to Guha’s comment by recognising the boons of British imperialism and colonisation that emancipated the Dalits from the rule of Upper Caste Hindus and their oppression by providing Dalits with reservation in politics and government services. Raj went on to praise the emergence of the diversity programme in the United States because of which the country had 75 black CEOs in major companies and Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman billionaire in America. Raj concluded his argument by stating that if anyone was unpatriotic, it was the casteists and business houses who resisted reservation.

To conclude, I’d reiterate Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam’s criticism of Prasad’s fascination for the American model. By comparing and equalising the American system with that of India’s, he subsequently ignored that it has been due to years of struggle against racism in America that made recognition of diversity a value. Moreover, race in the West and caste in India are different from each other based on the fact that caste structure is much more complex and layered. In a country like India, the emergence of Dalit bourgeoise might make them oppress other historically marginalised or backward caste proletariats, or simply, it might transform the oppressed into an oppressor and growing antagonisms between various groups of historically marginalised castes in India serve as the best example.

References

  1. Menon, N. & Nigam, A. (2007). Globalization II: New economies of desire. In Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam’s Power and Contestation (pp. 83-102). Zed Books: London, United Kingdom.

Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.