Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956
Untouchable politics during the era of Congress dominance
Earlier we suggested that the attachment of Untouchables to Congress during the 1930S and 40S was far less than is sometimes assumed. In the years after Independence Untouchable support for Congress clearly strengthened. From 1952 until 1989, with the exception of the post-Emergency election of 1977, Untouchables tended to function in both national and State elections as a ‘vote bank’ for Congress. Their vote for Congress was a vote for the party of government, a party that had committed itself to a program of action on Untouchability and poverty. In rational terms and here their situation was similar to that of the Muslims there was little electoral choice open to Untouchables in most parts of the country. If the Left had developed more strength outside what became its strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala, the Untouchable attachment to Congress might have been less. Thus in the very first post-Independence election of 1952 the Socialists won a good part of the Scheduled Caste vote. But this was the highpoint of their electoral experience in that State. It is only in the nineties that the logic of class (albeit often dressed in the garb of caste) is again being asserted across large parts of India, particularly the north.
While the Untouchables were a crucial Congress vote bank in India as a whole and in a majority of individual States, even before the recent flux they did not cling to Congress in regions where another party or move-ment rose to dominance. The major examples of long-term non-Congress dominance are West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Untouchables in the former two States have for a number of years had a strong identification with the Communist Party in its several divisions – in recent years predominantly with the dominant Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)). A number of Ezhavas associated themselves with the fledgling Communist Party from the early 1940S, but with increasing prosperity the caste vote has been split along class lines between the Communists and Congress (Jeffrey 1974 59). As to the other and poorer Untouchable castes of Kerala, these have been far less influen-tial in the councils of the Communist movement. But in conformity with the class divisions of Kerala politics, the Scheduled Castes have tended to gravitate towards the parties of the Left. In West Bengal, the Communist movement was slower to gain control of the State: the first United Front Government came to power in 1967, a decade after the first such govern-ment in Kerala. Support for the CPI(M) in West Bengal has been broadly based and not confined to particular castes, but again the party has done particularly well among poorer voters and therefore among the Scheduled Castes. In short, the Untouchables of Kerala and West Bengal have behaved according to the logic of their class position within a polit-ical culture more directed to considerations of class than anywhere else in India. But from another perspective the Untouchables of these two States have been doing little different from their counterparts elsewhere in India. They have simply aligned themselves with the majority party – it is doubtful that most of these Untouchables have been affected with any special passion for Marxism.
In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh regional parties have come to dominate State politics. The non-Brahmin movement of Tamil Nadu spawned a succession of parties – first the Justice Party and after Independence the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Anna DMK. Anti-Brahminism has been joined with Dravidian nationalism to produce a highly distinctive political and popular culture. For decades State elections have largely been fought out between the DMK and Anna DMK, each of which lays claim to the common culture. The Untouchables were relatively slow to embrace the culture, given their break with the non-Brahmin movement in the early 1920S and their subsequent attraction to Congress. But with the dominance asserted by the DMK and then the Anna DMK from the late 196os, the Untouchables have been rolled up into the prevailing politics of the State. But since Congress has often been able to engineer electoral accommodations with one or other of the three dominant leaders over the last three decades -Karunanidhi and the film star politicians M. Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayalalitha – many Tamil Untouchables have voted for the DMK or Anna DMK at State elections and for Congress in national elections. If we turn to Andhra, the emergence of a dominant regional party is more recent. The Telegu Desam party of Andhra has been built around N. I Rama Rao, the charismatic Telegu movie star. NTR’s style, like that of the Tamil leaders, was best described as populist, and his party attracted Untouch-able voters as it moved into a position of dominance. But Telegu Desam has not been so dominant even in State elections as have successive regional parties in Tamil Nadu. In short, and unlike the position in the Communist States, in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra the Untouchables have not been wholly lost to Congress.
Within Congress the importance of the Untouchable vote did not translate itself into great influence for individual Untouchables in either the organisation or the ministry. In particular, the building of the com-pensatory discrimination system arose more from the arithmetic of elec-tions and the goodwill of sections of the elite than from the efforts of Dalit parliamentarians. Jagjivan Ram was alone as a Scheduled Caste politician in becoming a genuinely national figure through Congress. There have been a couple of Chief Ministers – one of them was Bhole Paswan Shastri, who three times held this position in Bihar for very brief periods in the 1950s. Bhole Paswan was respected for his modesty, dignity and probity, but he made no deep mark on even State politics: his life and career are discussed in the next chapter. A small number of other State and national politicians have gained a measure of ministerial seniority, but none has had either a long period at the apex of ministerial service or any sub-stantial political base. Just why this is the case may require an answer at several levels. Perhaps it is to be expected that a collection of castes dis-tinguished by their overall subordination would not produce the highest crop of educated, experienced and generally talented politicians. Over time the gap in education and sophistication between Untouchables and, say, Brahmins has diminished, and the depth of talent among Untouchable aspirants for high office is no doubt growing. But it will not help the Untouchable cause to deny that there has been a gap at all. On the other hand, issues of talent and preparation for public office can scarcely constitute the primary explanation for the low representation of Untouchables at the highest political levels.
There are persistent suggestions that Dalit politicians have not thrived within Congress if they have too strenuously promoted the cause of their own people. This is an explanation sometimes offered in relation to Yogendra Makwana, a talented and energetic Minister of the early 19805 whose career did not prosper under either Indira or Rajiv Gandhi. Makwana can be contrasted with Buta Singh, a Mazhabi Sikh (converted from a Sweeper caste) who rose to the position of Home Minister under the same Prime Ministers. Buta Singh (later relegated to a junior portfo-lio under Narasimha Rao) was known for his political savoir-faire and his loyalty to the Nehru family, rather than for any particular zeal for the problems of the Scheduled Castes. Of course, as a category Prime Ministers tend to distrust colleagues of whatever community if they have a political base or agenda independent of their own. Yet it remains an important truth that the ideological and social makeup of Congress has made it less than welcoming to highly assertive advocates of the Untouchable cause. Low social standing has also made individual Untouchable spokesmen relatively easy targets for political demolition. Untouchables have therefore tended to construct their political careers as dependants within factions led by high-caste politicians. It is impossible to think of a single example of a substantial multi-caste faction leader who is/was himself a Dalit.
Something more needs to be said here about the career of Jagjivan Ram. Under the patronage of the Nehrus Jagjivan Ram rose to the posi-tion of Defence Minister. He climbed a rung higher to the post of Deputy Prime Minister under Charan Singh in 1979, a position that rewarded him for ostensibly having delivered the Untouchable vote to the Janata coalition in the extraordinary election of 1977. Jagjivan Ram’s career is notable for its extraordinary longevity, a consequence of both his compe-tence and also his carefulness not to engage in dissent and controversy. On both counts he was the ideal Untouchable for Congress to promote through its ranks.
Jagjivan Ram was the only significant Untouchable to have played a strong part in Gandhi’s Harijan movement of the 1930s. He became President of the All-India Depressed Classes League formed in 1935, and was elected to the Bihar Assembly for Congress in the election of 1937. In 1946 he was appointed Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, and from then (with a short interregnum during the Kamaraj Plan) he held Cabinet positions in successive Congress Governments and later the Janata Government until its electoral defeat in 1980. Once he became a Minister he seems not to have made Untouchability a central preoccupation in either speech or action. His most extensive public comment is to be found in a small book published in 1980, Caste Challenge in India. This book is neither novel in its analysis nor specially hard-hitting, though clearly its author believed that he could be more expansive now that his career had come to an end. Thus despite the book’s mild tone, the preface contains the propitiatory remark that his views are offered ‘not to hurt any class or caste but to provide a brief historical account of the Hindu social system… and the miserable condition of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes’ (Ram 1980: 5-6).
It is difficult to estimate the power that Jagjivan Ram wielded within Congress. He played an important role at several critical moments in the post-Nehru era: he supported Indira Gandhi’s candidacy for Prime Minister in 1966, stayed with her when Congress split in 1969, and quit the party in 1977. Paul Brass observes that he was ‘always thought to be able to control 40 to 6o votes in Parliament and was deferred to in the Congress for that reason’ (Brass 1990: 208-9). But the quality of this ‘control’ is not self-evident. It seems likely that he had more power than anyone else in selecting Scheduled Caste candidates for Congress from the reserved seats in Bihar, and he may have exercised some power in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and perhaps other States too; his qualifica-tion was not only his long career but also the fact that his own Chamar caste was by far the largest Scheduled Caste of north India. Presumably Ram’s role in the selection of candidates invested him with some influ-ence in relation to the MPs who depended upon his continued support. Thus it is possible that he was able to deliver votes to Indira Gandhi in the succession contest after the death of Prime Minister Shastri and in the Congress split of 1969. But when he left Congress in 1977 he failed to persuade any of the Party’s other Scheduled Caste MPs to accompany him. And more importantly, there is no evidence that he either sought or was able to mobilise a bloc of MPs in order to make policy gains for the Scheduled Castes within Cabinet. Any part he may have played in either the development or maintenance of programs and policies favourable to Untouchables was for the most part hidden. It is suggested that when he was Minister for Railways he was successful in rapidly building up the Scheduled Caste (allegedly mainly Chamar) component of the railways workforce. And in his other portfolios too he may have exerted pressure for the legal quotas to be filled. But by far his most potent moment came when he left Congress on the eve of the post-Emergency election in 1977, since his departure seemed to crystallise the first large anti-Congress vote among north Indian Untouchables. This vote was of major signifi-cance to the outcome of the election. But the limits of Jagjivan Ram’s electoral appeal and the special nature of the 1977 election were revealed when he failed to prevent the return of these same voters to Congress in 1980.
There is no single set of characteristics common to the leadership of Congress over the last half century, but a glance at the background of those at the very apex of Indian politics is instructive. All five Congress Prime Ministers have been Brahmins, including three from the Nehru family. In the non-Congress Governments of 1977-9 and 1989-91 two of the Prime Ministers were Rajputs, one was a Brahmin and the third was Charan Singh, a Jat, and till then the only Prime Minister from a background other than that of a twice-born (upper) caste. Now Deve Gowda, short-lived Prime Minister after the 1996 election, shares that status with Charan Singh. While it is not possible to extrapolate from the caste background of Prime Ministers to the background of Congress leaders in general, high-caste and particularly Brahmin domination of the most senior positions has been characteristic of Congress throughout its long history. Nor is this phenomenon confined to Congress. Atul Kohli has produced figures to show that both Congress and Communist Party dominated Governments in West Bengal have had a strikingly skewed caste composition. The caste of Ministers in Congress Governments in West Bengal between 1952 and 1962 was 23 per cent Brahmin, 31 per cent Kayastha, 24 per cent Vaishya, and only 2 per cent Scheduled Caste. In the case of Governments led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) between 1977 and 1982 there were even more Brahmins than in the Congress Governments, over 35 per cent; the number of Kayasthas (:3′ per cent) and Vaishyas (23 per cent) was almost the same as in Congress Governments, while Scheduled Caste representation was marginally lower at 1.5 per cent (Kohli 1990: 374). These figures must be read in the context of a State which has the highest concentration of Scheduled Caste people in the country – now almost 24 per cent (Census 1991). Demonstrably, the many Scheduled Caste members of the West Bengal Assembly have almost no chance of rising to the position of Minister. Their representation is even lower if inferior Ministers – Ministers of State and Deputy Ministers – are left out. In the Governments formed after the elections of 1952, 1957, 1962, 1977 and 1982 there was not a single Scheduled Caste member of the Council of Ministers, Of course, it is not merely the Scheduled Castes that have been grossly underrepresented in West Bengali Cabinets – the same is true for Scheduled Tribes, Muslims and lower-caste Hindus.
A similar, if less pronounced, pattern is true of the organisational wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and given the ideological orientation of the party it is worth attending to this phenomenon more closely.4 In both Kerala and West Bengal Untouchables are scarcely represented at the highest levels of the Party. In Kerala, those who have risen to leading Party positions from poor backgrounds have almost always come from ‘proletarian’ unions of the towns. The Ezhava domi-nated bidi workers union is one such example. Scheduled Caste workers in Kerala still tend to be agricultural labourers, and they have found it impossible to rise to the top of the Party hierarchy. In West Bengal, until the late sixties the Party was essentially an urban and high-caste organisa-tion. With the later focus on agrarian problems there has been a growing membership drawn from the villages. Scheduled Caste membership is now in double figures, most of it rural in origin (though not usually drawn from the ranks of agricultural labourers, the lowest agrarian category). But even if such people are as likely as anyone else to rise to the top of the Party – a questionable assumption – it would take considerable time before their presence might be felt.
It is not open to infer the whole character of a government or a political party from the caste composition of its senior members. The Communist governments of West Bengal and Kerala have been among the best State governments in India in terms of both probity and service to their poorer citizens. But even these governments are vulnerable to criticism for their insufficient attention to those at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. For example, both governments have frequently been attacked for their failure to meet job reservation quotas. Presumably this failure can be said to arise from an ideological antipathy to programs constructed on the basis of social primordialism (caste). But it can also scarcely be irrelevant that reservation is adverse to the interests of large proportions of the castes that predominate within the government.5 Even in less intensely caste conscious West Bengal it cannot be assumed that Communist Ministers are effectively without caste (or class). This is not to propose the existence of a caste conspiracy or even a lack of goodwill towards the underprivileged. It is merely to recognise that it is difficult to induce and sustain a sense of urgency about the claims of out-groups in the absence of their own advocates.
A deeper criticism of the Communist governments can be levelled at their agrarian programs. Thus Kerala has one of the poorer records of land reform among the various States. There has been only a slight amount of redistribution of agricultural land, and agricultural labourers (many of them Untouchables) have had to be content with gaining own-ership of the land on which their ‘hutment’ is built within the village. Kerala has done far better in the matter of fixing minimum wages for its agricultural labourers, though here there have been some unfortunate consequences. Partly because of the resulting high cost of labour there has been a radical reduction in the amount of work available to Kerala labourers: mechanisation, leaving land fallow, and employment of out-of-State workers have been options preferred by many employers. The West Bengal experience on the same two issues has been the reverse of that of Kerala. West Bengal has done much better in the area of land redistribu-tion, and it has also accomplished significant reforms for sharecroppers. But the CPI(M) Government has paid little attention to the interests of the army of agricultural labourers in the State. A large proportion of these labourers are, of course, from the Scheduled Castes, and their rates of pay and general living conditions are at the poorer end of the national scale. Nor is Operation Barga (see above, p. 155) beyond criticism. These reforms were abandoned at the highly incomplete point when further action would have directly injured the interests of small, usually absentee, landlords. Many of these mainly high-caste people have been supporters of the CPI(M) regime, and the decision can therefore be painted in tones of political pragmatism. Moreover, in an ‘encircled’ polity such as West Bengal there are undoubtedly limits to just how much redistribution is a possibility. Clearly we must be careful not to repackage the whole huge problem of Indian poverty and inequality into the receptacle of caste -this will make no analytical sense, nor indicate a way out of the practical condition. Nonetheless, we doubt it can be said that ties of caste and com-munity, wrapped up in positions of class, are of no relevance to the policy and performance of the Government of West Bengal.
The above question can be crystallised by reference to Ambedkar’s description of Indian Communists as ‘a bunch of Brahman boys’ (Harrison 1960: 191). He was referring not only to the number of Brahmins within the Party, but also to discriminatory attitudes and blind-ness to the problems of the Untouchables. If we discount the hyperbole, the observation contains a (slippery) grain of truth. On the one hand we should not subscribe to the false proposition that only the representatives of a particular community are capable of working for the good of that community. But we must also recognise that a community or a people needs to speak for itself if its interests and potential are to be realised to any great degree. This is the dialectic embedded in the issue of Untouchable representation in contemporary politics. Thus it is reason-able to assume that greater Untouchable representation at the highest levels would produce outcomes more favourable to their own people than occurs through government dominated by the high castes. The benefits would no doubt range from individual allocations (such as jobs, licences, contracts) to broader policy. To give one small but important example of possible policy, greater Untouchable presence in government could conceivably lead to the application of more pressure towards the exten-sion of affirmative action into private- and not merely public-sector enter-prises. This is exactly the sort of non-revolutionary but quite far-reaching change that is potentially within the realm of government action in India.
The Ambedkarites and the Dalits after Ambedkar
Until the recent emergence of the Bahujana Samaj Party, the only post-Independence example of a party centred on Untouchables was the Republican Party of India (RPI). This was the final political vehicle devised by Ambedkar, though its formation in reached fruition only some months after his death. The Republican Party was a transformation of the Scheduled Castes Federation, electorally unsuccessful and also judged to be an inappropriate organisational form for Buddhists who had sloughed off caste by the act of abandoning Hinduism.8 Again, as in the days of the Independent Labour Party, Ambedkar planned a party along class rather than caste lines. But almost from the beginning the RPI ran into ideological, organisational and factional problems. The first major division was between an old guard more deeply rooted in the village world of the majority of Mahars, and a younger and more highly educated lead-ership that increasingly focussed on the opportunities inherent in urban life and the scheme of compensatory discrimination. This generational conflict was connected to a split between those who saw the future of Mahar politics in terms of broader economic and class struggle – some of these were the older village-based activists – and an emerging leadership less committed to working with caste Hindus and even other Untouchable communities. While Ambedkar himself had been far less concerned with agrarian problems than with broader questions of political and constitu-tional principle, his stature had been such as to engender loyalty right across Mahar society and thus to blur the divergence of interest within it. After Ambedkar, and in the context of growing social and economic diver-sity among the Mahars, there was no one who could command this general loyalty. By 1959 division in the RPI was so deep that the two major factions held separate conventions (Gokhale 1993: 224). Inevitably it was the younger, better-educated and more prosperous faction based in the cities that became the more energetic element of the party.
The RPI carried its divisions into the election of 1962, and failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat from the new linguistic state of Maharashtra.’ It did somewhat better in the State Assembly election of that year, but after that it won only a handful of Assembly seats in Maharashtra. The RPI also put down roots in several States where Atnbedkar’s influence had been relatively strong – particularly Uttar Pradesh (notably the cities of Agra and Aligarh) and Punjab, but also Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Extraordinarily, the RPI was electorally more successful in Uttar Pradesh than in Maharashtra. Its success in UP was built around a substantial Buddhist politician of Chamar origins, B. P. Maurya, who drew votes away from Congress by engineering a local coalition of Untouchables and Muslims in the city and District of Aligarh. But the inherent instability of this alliance – there had been no historical sympa-thy between Chamars and Muslims – and the Congress split of 1969 quickly changed the electoral equation for the RPI in Uttar Pradesh. By 1971 B. P. Maurya and his major opponent within the party, Ramji Ram, were both returned to the Lok Sabha under the banner of Indira Gandhi’s ostensibly left-orientated branch of the Congress. This was the effective end of the Republican Party as a force in Uttar Pradesh.
In Maharashtra, the death or eclipse of one Ambedkarite form has been a prelude to the rise of another. Thus in the early 1970 an organisation calling itself the Dalit Panthers was formed with the project of reinstating class-based Dalit politics following the Republican Party’s perceived lapse into narrow self-interest (Gokhale 1993 264). The name, with its insurrectionist symbolism, was borrowed from the Black Panthers of the United States. At the time India was marked by widespread famine, per-vasive student activism and a non-party oppositional politics which later developed into Jayaprakash Narayan’s direct confrontation of Indira Gandhi. But the Dalit Panthers proved unable to connect up with broader leftist politics. They were also no more attuned to the Dalit ‘masses’ – a majority of Mahars were still illiterate villagers – than was the Republican Party, and within a couple of years they were even more riven by ideological and personality differences. The core ideological split was publicly evident by 1974 and was personified in the two pre-eminent leaders of the movement, Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale. For Dhale’s faction, the defining moment in Dalit history was the mass conversion to Buddhism under the leadership of Ambedkar; future gains were to be made primarily through a deepening and widening of Buddhist consciousness rather than through secular political action. Namdeo Dhasal, on the other hand, represented a more orthodox leftist, indeed Marxist, position, which gave both Ambedkar and the conversion move-ment less of a defining role. Abolition of Untouchability was an issue of class and economics more than of caste, religion and consciousness, and the natural allies of the Untouchables were the poor classes of whatever religious or caste community. Consistent with this view Dhasal had seen the CPI as the appropriate overall leader of the Dalits. But within a few years Indira Gandhi’s anti-poverty programs of the Emergency period persuaded Dhasal that here was a leader genuinely committed to the poor, and his faction supported Congress in the 1977 election. By then the Panthers were divided into a number of geographically centred fac-tions of little potency, and it was only the riots in 1978 surrounding the Maharashtra Government’s decision to add the prefix ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’ to ‘Marathwada University’ that brought them into some prominence again. The Dalit Panthers had failed to define a durable role for themselves – they were political activists without a political party or a clear strategy agreed among themselves. Moreover, they had become scarcely more radical, and certainly no more connected to ordinary Mahars, than the Republican Party. And, of course, they had demon-strated little capacity to reach out to other Untouchable castes.
The void left by the demise of the Panthers has been filled not by another party or other directly political organisation of the Mahar Daltts but, extraordinarily, by a literary movement. A whole new literature has sprung up on the common basis of rejection of varna. The lives and inter-ior world of Untouchables have been explored by a profusion of writers, some of them highly talented. It is tempting, and indeed legitimate, to see this new literature as heir to the great tradition of bhakti, though many of its exponents reject this tradition, Chokha Mela in particular, for its acceptance of inequality in the expectation of a better world in the life-to-come. The resort to literary means of communicating Dalit anger has been consciously adopted in disgust at what is perceived to be the failure of orthodox politics to transform the lives of the Dalits. Clearly the Dalit literature is an intensely political body of writing, some of it infused more with passion than with concern for literary effect. But the best Dalit writers are widely recognised as having created a literature of genuine merit.
Nor is this Dalit literature confined to Maharashtra. There is now a vigorous assembly of Dalit writers in Karnataka too. The immediate origins of this movement can be located in a speech delivered in 1974 by a Minister in the Congress Government of Karnataka. Basavalingappa, an Untouchable, was moved to describe the literature of Kannada, the lan-guage of the region, as little more than boosa or cattle fodder. He had in mind this literature’s lack of attention to the lives of ordinary people, among them the Untouchables (still usually called Adi-Karnataka). It was as if Basavalingappa had put a torch to a pile of tinder, so great was the explosion of both acclamation and repudiation. To the orthodox cus-todians of Kannada literature the Untouchable Minister had defamed their cultural heritage in the service of a mindless radicalism. But to an astonishingly large number of actual or aspiring Dalit writers, Basavalingappa had opened the door to a palace of opportunity to express their rejection of their own place in Karnataka society (Mahadeva 1989). A conference of Dalit writers was held in 1974, and some hundreds are said to have attended (Indudan Honnapur interview: in January 1988). In subsequent years this Dalit literary movement has moved in a number of directions. For example, one group of young Dalits has established a popular weekly magazine, Sugathi, which combines the transmission of popular culture (film features and so on) with political and social comment on Dalit affairs. Its readership is mostly drawn from Adi-Karnatakas themselves, and in 1988 circulation was some 65,000 copies.
The literary movement preceded any narrow political expression of Dalit radicalism in Karnataka, and subsequent institutional forms have not followed the pattern of Maharashtra. Without the direct legacy of Ambedkar, the Karnataka Dalits have not sought to establish a Dalit political party. Rather, the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti has been set up as something of an umbrella organisation for the various Dalit groups within the State. Dalit activities have been directed to educating the conscious-ness of Adi-Karnataka adults and children, and staging agitations and demonstrations on matters of particular concern. A special focus has been on Harijan atrocities. Within particular industries – the nationalised banks, for example – there are organisations of Dalit workers. Many of the Dalit activists have embraced Buddhism and are engaged in increasing their knowledge of the literature of this religion and proselytising among the unconverted. But while the Karnataka movement has derived its inspiration from Ambedkar and from the Maharashtra movement in general, there is also a concern to avoid what is seen to be the Maharashtra defect of being too inward-looking and exclusive. Some of these activists have gone so far as to reject reservation of jobs and parliamentary seats as a trap which cuts them off from other progressive elements and also fails to do anything for the larger Dalit community. And there is special scorn for the occupants of reserved seats in legislatures. While there have been no intense ideological splits in Karnataka, there is evidence of the same tensions that have so destructively affected the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra. The recurrent choice for radical Untouchables everywhere is between cultivating a separate Untouchable identity or constructing alliances with all oppressed people who are prepared to listen.
Even more than in Maharashtra, the Dalit movement of Karnataka has been an urban phenomenon. The Untouchable castes of village Karnataka have not been drawn into a movement whose main preoccupa-tions have been literary, cultural and religious. During a visit to his ances-tral village, one of our Dalit guides – a leader among Dalit bank employees and a Buddhist – spoke scornfully of the backwardness of the Adi-Karnataka there. They lacked ambition and remained locked into a world of drudgery, alcohol and attachment to what he called ~some non-veg god’. To this man there was no point in trying to rouse the conscious-ness of his caste fellows and relatives in the village. His time was better spent working with young men studying in schools and colleges in the towns, and in staging demonstrations that would catch the eye of the media.
The lack of mobilisation of village Untouchables in Karnataka and even Maharashtra serves to point up the distinctiveness of the rural revolt in Bihar. In so far as there has been an ideological guide to the activity in Bihar, it has been a derivative of revolutionary Marxism. This should not lead us to conclude that Marxism is the appropriate ideology for the Dalits of Karnataka and Maharashtra, or that Ambedkarite principles are inherently incapable of attracting widespread support in rural India. As we shall see, Kanshi Ram has skilfully used the figure of Ambedkar to build a following among rural as well as urban Chamars in Uttar Pradesh. But it is notable that the Bihar mobilisation has proceeded primarily on demonstrations on matters of particular concern. A special focus has been on Harijan atrocities. Within particular industries – the nationalised banks, for example – there are organisations of Dalit workers. Many of the Dalit activists have embraced Buddhism and are engaged in increasing their knowledge of the literature of this religion and proselytising among the unconverted. But while the Karnataka movement has derived its inspiration from Ambedkar and from the Maharashtra movement in general, there is also a concern to avoid what is seen to be the Maharashtra defect of being too inward-looking and exclusive. Some of these activists have gone so far as to reject reservation of jobs and parliamentary seats as a trap which cuts them off from other progressive ele-ments and also fails to do anything for the larger Dalit community. And there is special scorn for the occupants of reserved seats in legislatures. While there have been no intense ideological splits in Karnataka, there is evidence of the same tensions that have so destructively affected the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra. The recurrent choice for radical Untouchables everywhere is between cultivating a separate Untouchable identity or constructing alliances with all oppressed people who are pre-pared to listen.
Even more than in Maharashtra, the Dalit movement of Karnataka has been an urban phenomenon. The Untouchable castes of village Karnataka have not been drawn into a movement whose main preoccupa-tions have been literary, cultural and religious. During a visit to his ances-tral village, one of our Dalit guides – a leader among Dalit bank employees and a Buddhist – spoke scornfully of the backwardness of the Adi-Karnataka there. They lacked ambition and remained locked into a world of drudgery, alcohol and attachment to what he called ‘some non-veg god’. To this man there was no point in trying to rouse the conscious-ness of his caste fellows and relatives in the village. His time was better spent working with young men studying in schools and colleges in the towns, and in staging demonstrations that would catch the eye of the media.
The lack of mobilisation of village Untouchables in Karnataka and even Maharashtra serves to point up the distinctiveness of the rural revolt in Bihar. In so far as there has been an ideological guide to the activity in Bihar, it has been a derivative of revolutionary Marxism. This should not lead us to conclude that Marxism is the appropriate ideology for the Dalits of Karnataka and Maharashtra, or that Ambedkarite principles are inherently incapable of attracting widespread support in rural India. As we shall see, Kanshi Ram has skilfully used the figure of Ambedkar to build a following among rural as well as urban Chamars in Uttar Pradesh. But it is notable that the Bihar mobilisation has proceeded primarily on the basis of several pragmatic issues – social respect, higher wages and access to land – that have had an immediate and powerful resonance with the Untouchable population. These are the same broad issues that were the core of the program of Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party from 1937 t0 1942, and in somewhat variant form they were also the foundation of the later Republican Party and Dalit Panthers. But none of these bodies actually pursued their program with any determination, and the post-Independence organisations fell seriously out of step with village Mahars at the same time as they became further isolated from communi-ties other than the Mahars. Part of the problem has been Buddhism: despite its merits as a wellspring of personal empowerment, Buddhism scarcely speaks to the issues that are of immediate concern to poor villag-ers of Mahar or any other Untouchable caste. In so far as the Dalit leader-ship of Maharashtra has concentrated on the project of Buddhism, they have tended to abdicate from a position where mobilisation of village and less educated Untouchables is a possibility. Even worse, preoccupation with another religious system has driven a positive wedge between the Mahar Buddhists and Hindus from other poor and subordinated com-munities.
But despite the limitations of the Ambedkarite movement as an electoral and mobilising force in western India, the thought and life of Babasaheb Ambedkar enjoy a tremendous and indeed fast-growing potency across large parts of India. Within Maharashtra itself one of the recent expressions of this was the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations surrounding the publication of Ambedkar’s work Riddles in Hinduism. This work is part of a multi-volume set of Ambedkar’s writ-ings being published, or usually republished, by the Government of Maharashtra under the direction of Dalit scholars. That the project has gone forward at all is testimony to the weight of Ambedkar’s writing and the political passion of his followers. Riddles in Hinduism had been consid-ered too inflammatory a work to be published during Ambedkar’s life-time, and tens of years after it was written the work had scarcely become less controversial.
While Maharashtra and neighbouring Karnataka remain the centres where Ambedkar’s legacy is taken most seriously, the physical image of the historical figure is now to be found on posters and in the form of statues in countless locations throughout India. The propagation of Babasaheb’s image has become both a sacred duty to his followers and also an easily available means for politicians and political hopefuls to posi-tion themselves as radical champions of their own communities. Juxtaposition of one’s own image beside that of Ambedkar can now be an alternative to statement of a clear political position. But more positively, through the politics of iconography Dalits have been busy reclaiming their own twentieth-century history. The great loser in this struggle of images is Gandhi. Whereas once Gandhi could be portrayed as the great champion of the ‘Harijan’, now Dalits themselves prefer to ignore or even castigate him for condescension and adherence to subordinating orthdoxy. Now it is Ambedkar who shows the way in thousands of out-of-the-way locations to which his writ did not run during his own lifetime.
The new Dalit politics of north India
North Indian politics are presently in a state of great flux. Whereas the Hindi-speaking region was once the basis of Congress rule of the nation, now the Congress vote has quite disintegrated there. Uttar Pradesh is the most dramatic case. In the general election of 1984 Congress won eighty-three out of eighty-five UP seats with 5 per cent of the total vote. But five years later the party won only fifteen seats with 32 per cent of the vote. In 1991 the Congress vote slipped further to 18 per cent, and it won five seats. This was also its tally of seats in 1996. Congress’ dominance had been built on a strong command of the Brahmin, Muslim and Untouchable ‘vote banks’, together with considerable but variable support from the other upper castes and also the Backward Castes. The latter were the first to desert the party, and since the mid-eighties it has also suffered the fatal blow of having lost its three stable vote banks.
The waning of Congress has coincided with the rise of two other parties – the Janata Dal and its offshoots, including Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These parties have risen to prominence partly because of the vacuum caused by the waning of Congress, and partly because of their own attractiveness. Thus the leading party in 1989 was Janata Dal, with fifty-four seats and 36 per cent of the vote. But in the next election of 1991 the largest party was the BJP with fifty-one seats and 33 per cent of the vote. The Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party draw their major strength from the Backward Castes, whereas the BJP has traditionally been strongest among the upper castes of the towns. But each of these two political forces picked up other groups as they gathered momentum. Thus the Janata Dal and Samajwadi parties attracted a large share of the Muslim vote disenchanted with Congress after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. And the BJP has picked up considerable Backward Caste support, partly because it has had a strong Backward Caste (Lodhi) leader in Kalyan Singh.
Another development of the first importance in Uttar Pradesh has been the rise of Kanshi Ram’s Bahujana Samaj Party to the point where it was able to form the State government in 1995 and 1997. Although Kanshi Ram has benefited crucially from the collapse of Congress, his rise is not to be attributed simply to the vacuum effect. Kanshi Ram has spoken directly to the aspirations of the Chamars, and he has also had a radical-ising impact on a wider constituency of Backward and other Scheduled Caste communities. Kanshi Ram’s mode of operation has been to yoke an aggressive Ambedkarite ideology to hard-headed manipulation of the vote banks of Uttar Pradesh. The indispensable basis of his power is his own community, the Chamars. These constitute not only the largest Untouchable caste in India, but almost certainly the largest single caste in Uttar Pradesh.’1 Kanshi Ram has not had the total support of the Chamars – until recently the Jatavs of western UP have been an important hold-out – but his command in eastern UP has been overwhelming. Kanshi Ram’s strategy has been to join his bank of Chamar voters to other Scheduled Caste and Backward Caste voters (particularly the Kurmis) and also the Muslims. He has been careful to cede the non-Chamar com-munities a majority of Bahujana Samaj candidates – there has been a spe-cially large number of Muslim candidates – in the knowledge that voters will often be attracted by a candidate of their own community. The Bahujana Samaj could offer these communities the prospect that the large Chamar vote would be added to theirs, since the Chamars believed that the party was above all theirs. But before we consider the contempo-rary situation in some detail, something must be said about the origins of Kanshi Ram and the Bahujana Samaj Party.
Kanshi Ram: from BAMCEF to the Bahujana Samaj Party
Kanshi Ram was born in 1934 as a Raedasi Sikh, a community of Punjabi Chamars converted to Sikhism. The family had 4 or 5 acres of land, some of it inherited and the rest acquired through government allocation after Independence), a small landed background is characteristic of many Scheduled Caste legislators but remains a comparative rarity for Dalits in general. Kanshi Ram’s father was himself ‘slightly’ literate, and he managed to educate all his four daughters and three sons. Kanshi Ram, the eldest, is the only graduate. He was given a reserved position in the Survey of India after completing his BSc degree, and in 1958 he transferred to the Department of Defence Production as a scientific assistant in a munitions factory in Poona. Kanshi Ram had encountered no Untouchability as a child, and overt discrimination was not a phenomenon within the educated circles of his adult life. But his outlook underwent a sudden change in 1965 when he became caught up in a struggle initiated by other Scheduled Caste employees to prevent the abolition of a holiday commemorating Dr Anibedkar’s birthday.’4 During this conflict Kanshi Ram encountered a depth of high-caste prejudice and hostility towards Dalits that was a revelation to him. His almost instant radicalisation was completed soon after by a reading of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste: he read the book three times in one night, going entirely without sleep.
Kanshi Ram’s introduction to the political ideas of Ambedkar – he has never been attracted to Buddhism – was through his Mahar Buddhist colleague and friend at the munitions factory, D. K. Khaparde. Together the two of them began formulating ideas for an organisation to be built by educated employees from the Scheduled and Backward castes. Such an organisation would work against harassment and oppression by high-caste officers, and also enable the often inward-looking occupants of reserved postions to give something back to their own communities. So Kanshi Ram and Khaparde began to contact likely recruits in Poona. At about this time Kanshi Ram abandoned any thought of marriage, largely because it did not fit into a life he now wanted to dedicate to public con-cerns. He had also quite lost interest in his career, though he continued in the job until about 1971. He finally left after a severe conflict over the non-appointment of an apparently qualified Scheduled Caste young woman. During this conflict he had gone so far as to strike a senior official, and he did not even bother attending most of the ensuing disciplinary pro-ceedings. He had already made up his mind to become a full-time activist, and the movement was by then strong enough to meet his modest needs.
In 1971 Kanshi Ram and his colleagues established the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities Employees Welfare Association, which was duly registered under the Poona Charity Commissioner. Their primary object was: To subject our problems to close scrutiny and find out quick and equitable solu-tions to the problems of injustice and harassment of our employees in general and the educated employees in particular.
Despite the Association’s inclusive reach, its aggressively Ambedkarite stance ensured that most of its members were Mahar Buddhists. Within a year of its establishment there were more than one thousand members and it was able to open an office in Poona: many of the members were from the Defence and Post and Telegraph Departments, and their first annual conference was addressed by the then Defence Minister, Jagjivan Ram. Kanshi Ram’s next organisational step was to create the basis of a national association of Scheduled Caste government servants. As early as 1973 he and his colleagues established the All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF), and a functioning office was established in Delhi in 1976. BAMCEF was relaunched with greater fanfare on 6 December 1978, the anniversary of Ambedkar’s death, with claims of two thousand delegates joining a procession to the Boat Club Lawns in New Delhi (BAMCEF Bulletin April 1979). Although the stated objects of the new organisation were essentially the same as those of the earlier body, the rhetoric had grown bolder. It was not merely the oppressors who came in the line of fire, but also many of the reserved office holders too:
As all the avenues of advance are closed to them in the field of agriculture, trade, commerce and industry almost all the educated persons from these [oppressed] communities are trapped in Govt. services. About 2 million educated oppressed Indians have already joined various types of sobs during the last 26 years. Civil Service Conduct rules put some restrictions on them. But their inherent timidity, cowardice, selfishness and lack of desire for Social Service to their own creed have made them exceptionally useless to the general mass of the oppressed Indians.The only ray of hope is that almost everywhere in the country there are some edu-cated employees who feel deeply agitated about the miserable existence of their brethren. (BAMCEF Bulletin 2 1974)
By the mid-1970S Kanshi Ram had established a broad if not dense network of contacts throughout Maharashtra and adjacent regions. During his frequent train trips from Poona to Delhi, he adopted the habit of getting down at major stations along the way – Nagpur, Jabalpur and Bhopal, among others – to contact likely sympathisers and to try to recruit them to the organisation (Kanshi Ram Interview: 1996). Once he had moved to Delhi he pushed into Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, as well as further into Madhya Pradesh. Parallel to his work among edu-cated employees Kanshi Ram was also contacting a wider audience with simple presentations of Ambedkar’s teachings. Thus in 1980 he put together a roadshow called ‘Ambedkar Mela on Wheels’. This was an oral and pictorial account of Ambedkar’s life and views, together with con-temporary material on oppression, atrocities and poverty. Between April and June 1980 the show was carted to thirty-four destinations in nine
States of the north. Jang Bahadur Patel, a Kurmi (Backward Caste) and President of the Uttar Pradesh Branch of the Bahujana Samaj Party until late 1995, recalls meeting Kanshi Ram for the first time when he brought his roadshow to Lucknow (Interview: 25 November 1995). Kanshi Ram talked persuasively about how Ambedkar had struggled for all the down-trodden classes, and how the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and also the Backwards and Minorities were all victims of Brahminism. Because of their weight of numbers, these people had the potential to convert them-selves from ‘beggars to rulers’. It was all a matter of organisation. Patel immediately joined BAMCEF, though he was in a distinct minority as a non-Untouchable: Untouchables constituted about 90 per cent of the membership, with the other io per cent being split between tribals and Backward Caste people.
BAMCEF’s motto, ‘Educate, Organise and Agitate’, was adopted from Ambedkar, and its activities were formally divided into a number of welfare and proselytising objects. But increasingly Kanshi Ram’s agita-tional activities were leading him into politics. By the late 70S he was no longer content with being the leader of reserved office holders, a class for whom he had less than complete respect. Kanshi Ram’s first attempt to create a radical political vehicle capable of mobilising the larger body of Dalits was the Dalit SoshitSamaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) formed in 1981. This was conceived as a political organisation parallel to BAMCEF: it shared the same President in Kanshi Ram, the same office, and many of the same members. DS4 was a quasi- rather than fully fledged political party, partly because government servants were forbidden to take part in electoral politics. But DS4 made little concrete progress, and late in 1984 Kanshi Ram took the plunge and formed the Bahujana Samaj Party (a variant on the name of Phule’s nineteenth-century organisation). Inevitably, this caused major strains in BAMCEF ranks. Their agitational activities had placed many of his colleagues from the Poona and early Delhi periods in a delicate position as government servants and, in any case, the political loyalty of many of them was to the several strands of the Republican Party. There were also strains arising from Kanshi Ram’s will to total domination of all three organisations. And the need for money was rising with the push into politics: one of the Maharashtra workers recalls delivering Kanshi Ram a purse of forty thousand rupees collected from Maharashtra in 1984. These several strains grew more severe over the next two years, and early in 1986 a major split took place. Kanshi Ram announced at that time that he was no longer willing to work for any organisation other than the Bahujana Samaj Party. His transition from social worker to politician was complete.
Kanshi Ram is more an organiser and political strategist than an innov-ative thinker or charismatic public speaker. While his Ambedkarite ideol-ogy has remained constant and lacking in any innovation, there has been a progressive sharpening of his rhetoric. The early issues of BAMCEF’s monthly magazine, The Oppressed Indian, were full of his didactic exposi-tions of Ambedkar’s views on Indian society. These have now given way to simpler formulations, repeated in numerous newspaper accounts and both public and private speech. The central proposition is that Indian society is characterised by the self-interested rule of io per cent over the other 90 per cent (the bahujan samaj or common people). Although the ruling io per cent is composed of several castes, they derive their legiti-macy and ruling ideology from Brahminism. All the institutions of society reflect this ruling ideology and distortion, including the press. These institutions can therefore be termed Manuwadi (after the great Brahmin-inspired text) or Brahminwadi. In the marketplace of elections, such simplicity has been further reduced to crudeness and epithet. A slogan coined after the formation of DS4 was, ‘Brahmin, Bania, Thakur Chor, Baki Sab Hem DS-Four’. Loosely translated, this rhyme states that Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs are thieves, while the rest of society are their victims. The epithets reached their height during the election cam-paign for the UP Assembly in 1993, the most notorious being: ‘Tilak, Taraju, Talwar. Maaro Unko Joote Char’. This slogan, with its insistent rhythm in Hindi, advocates that Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs, each identified by a slighting term, be beaten four times with a shoe – a tradi-tionally demeaning form of punishment because of the ritual impurity of leather. While Kanshi Ram and Mayawati denied authorship of such slogans, they served as a simple and dramatically offensive marker of the party’s ideological position.
Kanshi Ram’s strategy and his larger understanding of social change are now considerably evolved. He no longer believes in the primacy of social reform. Rather, expenditure of effort on any object other than the capture of government is seen to be superfluous. It is administrative power that will bring about desired social change, not vice versa. So he declines to spell out policies on basic issues such as the liberalisation of the Indian economy or on land reforms. His view is that such issues are irrelevant to the project of gaining power, and that the appropriate poli-cies will fall into place once power is attained. His picture of India is of a kind of holy war on the part of the bahujan samaj against their Brahminwadi oppressors. In the context of this war debates about policy are almost frivolities. This is a stance of pure fundamentalism, but it also frees him to engage in the most ruthless pragmatism in the name of capturing power.
Consistent with this stance, Kanshi Ram has become increasingly critical of the institution of reservation in government employment. Reservation is a ‘crutch’ – useful for a cripple, but a positive handicap for someone who wants to run on his own two feet (Kanshi Ram interview:1996). He now throws off the line that once the bahujan samaj get to power throughout India, it will be they who can condescend to the Brahmins by giving them reservation proportional to their own meagre population. There is more than a little bravado in this, but there is no doubt that Kanshi Ram is now hostile to the system of institutional preference that was the indispensable basis of his own personal and polit-ical career. It seems that he believes that reservation has now done enough for the Scheduled Castes. He notes that of some 500 Indian Admin-istrative Service (LAS) Officers in Uttar Pradesh, 137 are from the Scheduled Castes. By comparison, there are only seven lAS officers from the Backward Castes, six of them Yadavs (Hindustan Times, 6 April 1994). His point is not that there are now too many Scheduled Caste officers -their number conforms strictly to the legal quota – but too few from the Backward Castes. He apparently assumes that the capture of political power will automatically transform the composition of the bureaucratic elite.
The Bahujana Samaj Party first made headway in Punjab, Kanshi Ram’s home State, but his primary political task was to wean the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh from Congress. It was Kanshi Ram’s fortune that he built the party at the historical moment that the long-term Congress decline became a landslide. The formal entry of his party into Uttar Pradesh was in a by-election in 1985 for the Lok Sabha seat of Bijinor, in which its candidate was Mayawati. She is a Jatav (or Chamar), the daughter of a minor government official in Delhi, and had completed a BA and LLB from the University of Delhi. Mayawati had made contact with Kanshi Ram in 1977 while she was a student, and had gradually been drawn into his organisation. Her opponents in Bijinor included Ram Vilas Paswan – the two have had poor relations since this contest – and Meira Kumar, Jagjivan Ram’s daughter, representing Congress. Rajiv Gandhi was at the height of his popularity at the time, and Meira Kumar won the seat easily. But by 1989 the Bahujana Samaj Party had put in five years of solid organising work in UP and also in the neighbouring regions of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, and parts of Haryana. And mean-while the Congress Party had slumped in popularity. Kanshi Ram had prepared the ground carefully. He had selected organisers and candidates from a variety of social backgrounds. One of his organisers was Dr Mahsood Ahmed, a temporary lecturer in history at Aligarh Muslim University. Mahsood had become disillusioned with Congress when Indira Gandhi made her infamous tilt towards the Hindus in the early 1980s (Mahsood interview: 27 November 1995). He joined BAMCEF and then switched to DS4 in 1983 as a full-time organiser and fund raiser. Mahsood was later put in charge of the whole of eastern Uttar Pradesh for the Bahujana Samaj Party.
The years of organisation bore fruit in 1989 and 1991. In the four State Assembly and Parliamentary (Lok Sabha) polls for Uttar Pradesh between 1989 and 1991 the Bahujana Samaj Party’s share of the vote varied only marginally between 8.7 and 9.4 per cent. But this impressive vote produced a disappointing number of seats – in 1989 the party won thirteen out of 425 State Assembly seats, and in 1991 it won twelve. The party won only two Parliamentary seats in 1989, and one in 1991; Kanshi Ram himself subsequently won a by-election from UP in 1992. Both the strength and the weakness of the party is that its primary ‘vote bank’, the Chamars, are relatively evenly spread across the State. This spread gives the Bahujana Samaj a chance in a large number of seats, but also make it logically impossible to win even a single seat without strong support from other communities. Although it has attracted a measure of Muslim, Backward Caste and other Scheduled Caste support, it has encountered considerable resistance in these target communities. We need to look more closely at this problem.
First, there is the question of why the majority of Jatavs of western UP deviated from their kinfolk in the eastern part of the State, and continued to vote Congress in 1989 and 1991. The answer to this question is not entirely clear. Some have blamed the result on the poor organising capac-ities of Mayawati – she was in charge of this region – but the deeper reason may be the Jatavs’ historical association with B. P. Maurya. In a move of some desperation, Congress resurrected the 70-year-old Maurya as one of four national Vice-Presidents in the run-up to the 1996 elections. But by then Mayawati had become an electorally popular figure in eastern UP. As to the Scheduled Castes other than the Chamars/Jatavs, only Pasis appear to have voted for Kanshi Ram’s party in large numbers. The Valmikis (formerly known as Bhangis) voted solidly for the BJP in the 1993 Assembly elections, and the sole Valmiki in the Lok Sabha elected in 1991 represented the BJP (though in 1980 he had been elected for the Janata Party). Mangal Ram Premi MP – his biography is sketched in chapter 8- accounts for the Valmiki support of the BJP by simply advert-ing to the community’s dislike of the Chamars (Interview: 4 November 1995). The Chamars are more numerous, better educated and more successful in acquiring reserved positions than the Valmikis, and this tends to produce resentment. Many of the Dhobis too have recently voted for the BJP. In short, Kanshi Ram’s party has not solved the problem of how to mobilise all or even most of the Scheduled Castes. The problem that dogged Ambedkar has thus repeated itself in Uttar Pradesh, though Kanshi Ram’s Chamars are both more numerous and numerically more dominant among the Untouchables than were Ambedkar’s Mahars in the western part of the country.
Among Backward Castes, Kanshi Ram’s strongest support has come from the Kurmis. In Bihar, this is an upwardly mobile peasant commu-nity responsible for several of the worst atrocities against Dalits. But in Uttar Pradesh the Kurmis are comparatively low on the scale of prosper-ity. Moreover, they have had a history of anti-Brahmin radicalism – Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur remains a source of inspiration to some of them. And a sprinkling of them had been members of the Republican Party. The Kurmis could see advantage in being associated with a party that was not dominated by the more numerous Yadavs (whose firm affiliation is with Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party). As to the large number of other Backward Castes in UP, over the last several years there has been an intense three-way tussle between the BJP, the Bahujana Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party to capture their support. All three have had some success, but perhaps the larger part of this vote is a floating one that will flow with the main political current of the time. The last community to consider is the Muslims. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid the Muslims have been politically leaderless. They have shunned Congress for what they see to have been its culpable failure to prevent the demolition of the mosque, and have given considerable support to Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and some support to Kanshi Ram. Thus in the municipal elections of Uttar Pradesh in November 1995 and in the national and UP elections of 1996 it seems that UP Muslims were prepared to vote for whichever party was locally the strongest anti-BJP force. In short, the politics of post-Congress Uttar Pradesh are currently cast largely in terms of community vote banks. Political strategy is a matter of positioning one’s party so as to retain one s core vote bank and also attract others at the margins. At least as much as any other player, Kanshi Ram has adapted to this game with calculating skill.
Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Government
Before the UP Assembly election (held after the dismissal of the BJP Government), Kanshi Ram entered into an alliance with Mulayam Singh. The primary vote banks of the two men were complementary the Yadavs and the Chamars. This was by no means a ‘natural’ alliance, since the two communities had engaged in perennial and sometimes violent conflict in the villages. Indeed, the Yadavs had frequently captured voting booths in eastern UP and prevented the Chamars from voting. But each of the leaders could now see that his prospects were poor without the other, and they agreed on a division of seats so as to combine their vote. The alliance produced a dramatically enhanced increase in seats for the Bahujana Samaj Party (67), but its vote rose less dramatically to .11 per cent (achieved admittedly in a sharply reduced number of contests). Meanwhile the Samajwadi Party won 109 seats and 25.83 per cent of the vote, making it second to the BJP with its 177 seats and 33.3 per cent of the vote. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujana Samaj Party were able to form a coalition Government, with Mulayam Singh as Chief Minister. But Kanshi Ram and Mayawati soon came to believe that their party’s interests were being infringed by Mulayam – one issue was the alleged kidnapping of one of their candidates during panchayat elections. There was also concern at the number of ‘atrocities’ perpetrated against Scheduled Caste people, some of them by Yadavs; the belief was that Mulayam was deliberately failing to control his own followers in this matter. But above all Mulayam had brought about the defection of a number of the Bahujana Samaj legislators to his own party – some of them were Kurmis – and was daily seeking to whittle away his coalition partner from above. Accordingly, in June 1995 Kanshi Ram and Mayawati brought the Government down.
Given the overwhelming importance that Kanshi Ram now places on the acquisition of administrative power, his willingness to form a new Government with the support of the ‘Manuwadi’ BJP becomes more comprehensible. He took the view that so long as he did not have to take orders from the BJP then he was prepared to put up with the odium of being propped up by the party hated by the whole of progressive India. Perhaps conveniently, he argued that the Congress, the Janata Dal and the Communists were as much ‘Manuwadi’ parties as was the BJP. But there was still an enormous cultural and ideological gulf between his party and the BJP, and it was left to an outsider to play a perhaps crucial role in bridging the gap. Jayant Malhoutra, a prominent industrialist and Member of the Rajya Sabha, did much of the diplomatic negotiation between the leaders of the two parties. He and Kanshi Ram had formed an unlikely friendship several years earlier, and Malhoutra claims that his assistance to Kanshi Ram was motivated by concern to help bring about a ‘soft landing’ for India after the inevitable clash between the haves and have-nots (Malhoutra interview: 7 November 1995). For its part the BJP knew that neither of the other two large legislative parties would support a minority Government of its own. Since the HIP leaders had come to have a special antipathy to Mulayam’s rule, their best option was to allow the third and seemingly less threatening party to form a Government – they saw more to fear from the Yadavs than the Dalits. The HIP leadership had in mind the longer-term goal of permanently splitting the vote banks commanded by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujana Samaj Party, thereby opening up a path to their own domination of Uttar Pradesh.
In June 1995 Kanshi Ram ceded to Mayawati the task of leading the new Government in Uttar Pradesh, and her period as Chief Minister has been a platform upon which Mayawati has built a now considerable polit-ical presence in Uttar Pradesh. Early on the much younger Mayawati was properly regarded as a mere lieutenant of Kanshi Ram, to whom popular accounts suggest she is romantically as well as politically linked. But Mayawati has been able to bring a charisma and liveliness to the hustings that Kanshi Ram himself has lacked. She has represented a novelty – a direct and forthright Dalit woman with courage sufficient to run hard against the powerful institutions that so oppress poor Indians. In short, Mayawati has become both considerably popular and also a force to reckon with.
The Government of 1995 is properly regarded as a joint Kanshi Ram-Mayawati Government – Kanshi Ram continued to reside primar-ily in Delhi but made frequent trips to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and was consulted on all major decisions. In terms of new poli-cies or administrative programs, there was little to be seen from the four months of their rule. But this is by no means to say that this was not a signficant or a distinctive administration. Part of its significance resides in the intrusion of a different culture into the machinery of government of the State. Mayawati demonstrated that the Bahujana Samaj’s antipathy to ‘Brahminwadi’ culture was no mere abstraction but was to serve as a guide to the identity of the actual bureaucrats who could be trusted to direct the administration. In a word, Mayawati chose to promote and work through a small coterie of Scheduled Caste officers. For example, the high-caste incumbents in the Chief Secretary and Chief Minister’s Principal Private Secretary positions were both replaced by Scheduled Caste officers. Even more controversially, a number of more junior Scheduled Caste officers were favoured with accelerated promotion and positions at the centre of the administration. This change inevitably provoked resentment and the claim that merit had been replaced by casteism.
Within the larger administration of the State Maywati made energetic resort to the device of transfers and disciplinary action against officers found delinquent in one aspect or another. The transfer of senior officials for reasons other than completion of a normal term has become com-monplace in a number of States of India, but by common consent Mayawati engaged in the practice more richly than before in Uttar Pradesh. Quite deliberately she created a climate of fear in order to motivate officials to work to her agenda. She dealt particularly severely with officials judged to have failed to protect the most vulnerable people in a particular District, the Dalits above all. Overwhelmingly condemned in the press, her actions appear to have evoked a sense of satisfaction among common people routinely subjected to official arrogance and callousness. And a number of commentators both within the administration and outside believed that Mayawati had administered a powerful and long overdue lesson to bureaucrats that their place was as servant, not master, of the people.’
The most persistent complaint about the Bahujana Samaj Government was the degree of illicit money it exacted, particularly in the matter of obliging individual bureaucrats regarding their transfer or non-transfer. Given the habitual misuse of public office to derive funds for party if not personal purposes, it would be surprising indeed if some of these stories were not true. What cannot be established is whether such official wrong-doing was conducted on a scale greater than that of earlier administra-tions in Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps a good deal of the problem arose from the callowness of Mayawati and her lieutenants – some of the stories suggest that their insufficient knowledge of the system, and also the hurry they were in, made it difficult for them to derive funds efficiently and quietly. Official corruption is something of an acquired art.
It is clear that Mayawati was not an accessible Chief Minister. Apart from the question of the tightness of her bureaucratic team, she was inaccessible to many of her own Ministers and to representatives of the BJP who felt entitled to a hearing in return for their support of the Government. Some of this inaccessibility may have arisen from motives that were not unreasonable. Thus Mayawati and Kanshi Ram were deter-mined not to run a Government that freely granted favours to people for reasons other than the welfare of the party itself. They were particularly suspicious of requests from politicians where the request seemed to arise from personal pecuniary interest. The problem of inaccessibility was compounded by Kanshi Ram’s continuing to reside in Delhi rather than Lucknow throughout the life of the Government. There were also issues of personal style. Mayawati’s reputation is one of meting out harshness and even humiliation to those with whom she finds fault, though it is also true that many informants report having experienced no such treatment. On the other side, the practice of showing elaborate respect to the leaders became something of a culture within party circles. This sometimes took the form of touching the feet of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram, a ritual form of respect that now tends to be seen as demeaning and ‘feudal’ in origin. The complaint is that the two leaders encouraged this practice. In short, there were problems of both process and style that gave rise to considerable resentment and disaffection in Lucknow. This is one, but only one, reason for the large number of defections from the legislative party that took place after the Government fell.
The public style of the Mayawati Government was more abrasive than radical. Indeed, Mayawati’s own most provocative gesture was enacted even before she formed her own Government. In March 1994, during the Mulayam Singh government, Mayawati had somewhat casually con-demned Gandhi as ‘an enemy of the dalits and the Bahujan samaj at large’ (The Telegraph: in March 1994). Despite the frequency of previous Ambedkarite attacks on the Mahatma, Mayawati’s remarks occasioned a storm of protest in the pages of the press. The extravagance of this reac-tion was a pointer to the sensitivities aroused by the Dalits’ proximity to power in Uttar Pradesh. During her own Government Mayawati curbed her rhetoric – indeed, she felt constrained to lay the customary wreath on the occasion of Gandhi’s birth celebration. The most flamboyant gesture of her Government – and here Kanshi Ram’s hand is clearly evident – was to build a Pariwartan Chowk or Revolution Square in Lucknow that was to have huge statues of the great figures of anti-Brahmin activism: Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar, Shahu Maharaj. In the event, the Government fell before the statues could be completed. Construction of the Ghowk pro-ceeded around the clock in order to coincide with the staging of a Periyar Mela: this was a celebration of the life and works of the great figure of the Tamil non-Brahmin movement, Periyar E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker. The event was less than a resounding success in Lucknow, where Periyar is almost unknown, but the symbolism was probably directed more to Dalits in the south of India.
After the fall of the Bahujana Samaj Government it became fashionable to declare that a great opportunity had been lost by Kanshi Ram and Mayawati: they could have struck a blow for the liberation of the Dalits but they squandered their opportunity in corruption, crassness and the politics of business-as-usual. This is a dubious interpretation. Throughout their brief period of power Kanshi Ram and Mayawati had little room to manceuvre. They had a small minority of MLAs, and they knew they existed on borrowed time from the beginning. At best they could have had about a year in power before elections in mid-1996. There was simply no time to initiate solid administrative or development pro-grams, even if they had the capacity to formulate such initiatives. In these circumstances the politics of symbolism was bound to be the most effective way to encourage their own constituency. But strong symbolism breeds savage reactions in contemporary India, and the New Delhi lead-ership of the BJP found it increasingly difficult to hold State leaders to the bargain of supporting Mayawati in the name of strategic electoral gain. It surprised no one when this leadership bowed to the pressures welling up in Uttar Pradesh and decided to end the life of the minority Government. President’s rule intervened until a new Government could be formed after the general election of April 1996; in the event it was not until March 1997 that a new Government took office.
The surprising durability of the Bahujana Samaj Party
The last several years have been an exhilarating roller coaster ride for Kanshi Ram, replete with towering peaks and deep troughs. His ambition has been to become the kind of national leader the Dalits have never had. In 1994 he made his most concerted bid to build a national movement by conducting rallies and meetings in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The Bahujana Samaj had contested seats in a number of these States as early as 1989, but Kanshi Ram was now more serious about taking his message throughout the country. But these efforts came to little, particularly in the strong Communist States of Kerala and West Bengal. There, his caste-based analysis failed to cut into the prevailing ideology constructed out of the language of class. Kanshi Ram developed a considerable following in Andhra, where he staged a number of impressive rallies. It seemed for a time that he could have entered into a governing alliance with NTR’s Telegu Desam Party, but negotiations broke down and the Bahujana Samaj was soon a spent force in Andhra. After the fall of Mayawati’s Government in Lucknow it became clear that the national and provincial elections of 1996 would be crucial to the very survival of the party.
Although candidates were to be put up in a number of States, Uttar Pradesh was by far the most important arena. Given the close competi-tion between the three leading political forces – Congress, the BJP and the ‘Third Front’ of leftist and regional parties – Kanshi Ram hoped to be in a position to dictate outcomes at both State and national levels. But the whole history of his party suggested that there could be little electoral success without an alliance with another major force. The logical partner was the Janata Dal, but Kanshi Ram declared himself against any new alliance that included Mulayam (Interview: 1996). This stand appeared tantamount to political suicide. It was clear that Kanshi Ram’s movement could not easily survive a poor result in Uttar Pradesh in 1996. Unlike the figure of Ram Vilas Paswan, Kanshi Ram had set his sights on great and rapid victories. His age and ill health seem to have intensified the sense of urgency that had succeeded the patience of his earlier years in politics.
Considering its lack of strategic alliances, the Bahujana Samaj Party did surprisingly well in the Lok Sabha election of 1996. It won a total of eleven seats, six of them in Uttar Pradesh, three in Punjab and two in Madhya Pradesh. (In the previous Parliament its only UP seat was the one occupied by Kanshi Ram himself.) It was clear that Mayawati had become something of a cult figure in Uttar Pradesh. And in order to com-pensate for its lack of partners the party had energetically sought to woo communities other than its own vote bank of Chamars. The still leader-less Muslims were a particular target, and about one-quarter of the party’s tickets in Uttar Pradesh had been conceded to Muslims (The Pioneer: i8 September 1996). There were also a number of Backward Caste candidates.
In the subsequent UP Assembly election in 1996 Kanshi Ram and Mayawati reverted to the approach of constructing a strategic alliance. This time their ally was Congress. Amazingly, given its glorious past, Congress was relegated to the position ofjunior partner, and it was agreed that the combination’s candidate for Chief Minister would be Mayawati. Kanshi Ram was reported to have asked Congress to field 100 Brahmins in the 125 seats allotted to it, so as to wean the upper castes from the BJP and attract them back to Congress (The Pioneer: 9 July 1996). Again Kanshi Ram was playing the caste game with ruthless application. His own list of candidates was carefully mixed according to the appropriate communitarian formula: of his sixty-seven successful candidates, nine are upper caste representatives, twelve are Muslims, twenty-six from the Backward Castes and twenty Dalits (The Times of India: 27 October 1996).
The overall result of the 1996 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was strikingly similar to the previous Assembly election: the BJP won 174 seats in the Assembly of 425 seats; Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party won 110 seats; and the Bahujana Samaj (67) and Congress (33) jointly won ioo. Again there was a stalemate. For a time it appeared that Mulayam Singh, now installed as Defence Minister in New Delhi, would be forced by his coalition partners at the centre to back a Bahujana Samaj-Congress Government in Uttar Pradesh. This plan ultimately col-lapsed under the weight of multiple rivalries and suspicions. President’s rule from the centre persisted until finally a Bahujana Samaj-BJP coali-tion Government took office in Lucknow in March 1997. This time the agreement was that Mayawati would serve as Chief Minister for six months and then give way to Kalyan Singh from the BJP for the same period. Again Kanshi Ram and Mayawati could argue that it did not matter which of the ‘Manuwadi’ parties they made an alliance with Congress or the BJP. Their task was simply to get into government and remake the system from the inside. And second time around their abrasiveness has been even greater. During the drawn-out struggle to form a Government Mayawati was so fearful of her Assemblymen defect-ing to other parties that she locked them up in the Party headquarters in Lucknow for a period of weeks. They were not allowed out of the build-ing, not even for Diwali, and visitors could see them for no more than fifteen minutes at a time (The Asian Age: i November 1996). During this same period Kanshi Ram’s always strained relations with the ‘Manuwadi’ media deteriorated to the point that he ordered an attack on a group of journalists outside his official residence in New Delhi. He personally assaulted one of the journalists, and criminal charges are pending.
It is far too early to make a mature assessment of the Kanshi Ram- Mayawati phenomenon. Early on it might have been thought that the two leaders had achieved little more than the transfer of Congress Chamars to their own party in the context of the overall collapse of Congress in the north. It is certainly true that their only stable ‘vote bank’ is the Chamars, and no doubt a principal reason for the Chamars’ support is their understanding that this is ‘their’ party. The Chamars have also responded favourably to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s arrogant disdain for orthodoxy and their denunciation of the large and petty oppressions that still characterise the lives of many Chamars. This com-munity is now richer, better educated and bolder than when it gave its support to Jagjivan Ram. But Kanshi Ram and more recently Mayawati have also worked hard to dispel the notion that their party represents only the Dalits, let alone simply the Chamars. They have had consider-able success in attracting other groups, including Muslims, to their cause, despite their willingness to cultivate relations with the anti-Muslim BJP. To what extent their approach is more than opportunistic exploitation of the multiple divisions of contemporary Uttar Pradesh society remains a question. Perhaps this question will partly be answered by the impact Mayawati can make on the apparatus of government in Uttar Pradesh, such that a culture of governance less hostile to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy begins to emerge. Undoubtedly Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have their faults, but they do represent a more aggressive attack on the order of social orthodoxy than has previ-ously been seen from participants in the mainstream of Indian electoral politics. Kanshi Ram has shown that a person of Dalit origins can lead a party that wins seats at the ballot box and is not afraid to form a Government that puts the interests of the most subordinated Indians at its very centre. Throughout India it will now be more difficult to ignore the interests of Dalits.
Ram Vilas Paswan
Ram Vilas Paswan was elected to the Bihar State Assembly in 1969 as a member of die Samyutka Socialist Party. At the time he had considerable attraction to the Naxalite movement and no faith whatsoever in non-vio-lence.’ In 1970 Paswan’s confrontationist tactics led to his imprisonment for seven months in Bhagalpur Gaol (later infamous for the deliberate blinding of a number of prisoners). It was only with the advent of the ‘JP Movement’ that he came to accept the superiority of non-violence. Paswan became a close colleague of Jayaprakash in 1974, and he was of some importance m the movement by virtue of being both an MLA and also a Harijan (the term still used in Bihar). He was arrested at the begin-ning of the Emergency in 1975, and spent the whole of the Emergency in gaol. In the election of 1977 he won a reserved Parliamentary seat for the Janata Party, and with the exception of the period from 1984 tO 1989 has been a member of the Lok Sabha ever since. His party affiliation has changed with the many recompositions of the secular anti-Congress parties – he has variously been a member of the Janata Party, L.ok Dal and the Janata Dal. The three leaders he has acknowledged in this time are Charan Singh, Karpoori Thakur and V. P. Singh.
Ram Vilas Paswan had a tumultuous period as Minister for Labour and Welfare in the V. P. Singh Government of 1989-90. He says that this was the portfolio he wanted, because he could simultaneously do work for the Dalits and the Backward Castes (Interview: 27 October 1995). One of his accomplishments was implementation of the long-standing Dalit demand that Dr Ambedkar’s portrait be placed in the main hall of Parliament alongside the other greats of the national struggle for Independence. He was also able to persuade the Government to extend reservation in employment to Scheduled Caste persons who had become Buddhists; rite primary beneficiary of this change is the Mahars.’7 But, of course, Paswan’s most notorious action was to be intimately involved in the decision to adopt the Mandal Report that had lain on the table throughout the 1980s – it was commissioned by the previous Janata Government. This measure was of no value to the Scheduled Castes but of immense symbolic importance to the Backward Castes, particularly those of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The backlash it created among the upper castes was a major factor in the disintegration of the Government.
Paswan’s strategy in opposition remained essentially the same as it was in Government. His object was to be seen as the national leader of the Dalits, while simultaneously promoting himself as a strong leader of other out-groups – the Backwards and also the Muslims, from whom he claims to have particularly strong personal support. To augment his appeal to the Dalits he established a separate organisation called the Dalit Sena. Apparently this was established as early as 1983, but Paswan invested more energy in it after Congress lost its hold on the north Indian Untouchable vote. Of course, the key image placed alongside Paswan on the posters and promotional material of the Dalit Sena is that of Ambedkar. On the walls of the public rooms of his New Delhi residence there are now more likenesses of Ambedkar than of anyone else. But Paswan has come late to Antbedkar. The influences on him have mostly derived from the Lohia socialist movement and from Jayaprakash Narayan. But clearly Ambedkar has become the key symbol for building any all-India Dalit constituency. Paswan cannot afford to surrender any part of the Ambedkar legacy to his principal rival, Kanshi Ram.
There have always been formidable obstacles in front of Ram Vilas Paswan. His own power base is limited: he is the pre-eminent leader of the Paswans, the second Untouchable community (behind the Chamars) of one State, Bihar. For the rest, since clearly he wishes to be Prime Minister, he has to stake his claim to be the overall leader of the dis-advantaged. One practical obstacle is that his spoken English is sufficient only for limited private conversation, and he therefore has no real capac-ity to build a mass following outside the Hindi belt. And, of course, there are a number of other competitors for the same constituency of the dis-advantaged. Finally, there remain deep questions as to whether an Untouchable will be acceptable as Prime Minister of India.
Paswan’s party, die Janata Dal, has done badly in electoral terms since its triumph in 1989. Its results in the 1996 poll were also poor, but events played into Paswan’s hands. After the failure of the BJP to gain defections from other parties, Deve Gowda was able to cobble together an unlikely coalition of leftist, centrist and regional parties to form a Government in 1996. Deve Gowda installed his Janata Dal partyman Ram Vilas as his principal political lieutenant. Always energetic, as Minister for Railways Paswan rapidly turned this classic source of patronage into an instrument to promote die interests of Dalits. He claims, for example, that he has been able to regularise the position of thousands of temporary sweepers in the railways (Interview: 19 March 1997). When Congress brought down Gowda’s Government at the end of March 1997, Paswan was one of the names mentioned as a possible replacement Prime Minister. But the position went to an establishment politician, the then Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral.
In terms of actual policy Ram Vilas does not stand for a program greatly different from that of any of the other parties putting up for the Scheduled Caste vote. Despite his inclination towards radicalism, he recognises that structural change will now be difficult to bring about in the short run. It is too late for radical land reform, and the reforms that are possible have to be conducted with due regard to the stance of the courts (Paswan interview: 1995). The major way ahead is to train Dalits so that they have marketable skills. He sees it as important to extend the principle of reservation to the developing private sector. Whatever his youthful origins, Paswan is now far from a social revolutionary. He is against the assertion of any animus against the upper castes – his second wife is an upper-caste Sikh – and Brahmins in particular. Rather, his overall goal is to work towards ensuring that Dalits and other out-groups get their fair share of social goods.
The great change in the politics of the Untouchables is that over large parts of India they can no longer be taken for granted as a dumb vote bank. To a much greater extent than even a decade ago they have begun to shape their own politics. The biggest change has been in the north, and the single most potent factor has been Kanshi Ram. He has given encour-agement to Dalits across India, even though he has failed to have a major electoral impact outside a few States of the north. But Kanshi Ram did not fabricate his own political success from nothing. The times have emi-nently suited him. While the V. P. Singh Government’s adoption of the Mandal principles of reservation initially served to displace Kanshi Ram as a strong advocate of the oppressed, the Mandal factor later worked in his favour. The Mandal decision served to create and legitimate a new politics of the disadvantaged, and Kanshi Ram’s later electoral alliances were creatures of this new political environment. Meanwhile, the rise of the BJP has obligingly sapped the capacity of Congress to compete for the Dalit vote.
While Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have been spectacularly successful in Uttar Pradesh, the success has been built on dubious foundations and has appeared in danger of collapse at every point. His strategy has been to build an organisation of his own, and to use this body to draw votes and even active support from social groupings beyond his own caste. But major electoral success has depended on the construction of alliances with other parties, and these alliances have lacked both principle and stability. Ram Vilas Paswan, by contrast, has pursued the more cautious route of climbing the ladder in a broader, socially more heterogeneous, party on the mild left of Indian politics. He has projected himself as the special leader of Dalits within this national party. Paswan’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the position of his party, but his strategy is eminently more risk averse than that of Kanshi Ram. Like Ambedkar before him, Kanshi Ram has plotted a difficult route to power.
More generally, it is now abundantly clear that there can be no single political strategy for Dalits throughout India. If India had developed a dominant national politics constructed on the basis of class and relative disadvantage, the situation might be different. But it is also a mistake to assume that such a politics would necessarily have taken a form advanta-geous to the Dalits. In this chapter we have interrogated the record of Indian Marxism in relation to the Dalits, and found that considerations of caste have obstinately clung to its processes (as well, for that matter, to those of the similarly egalitarian faiths of Christianity and Sikhism). The current fragmentation of party politics means that no party can realisti-cally hope to command a national majority of the Dalit vote. But this too is not necessarily unfavourable for the Dalits. It will be recalled that in the era when they voted overwhelmingly for Congress their political and social power was considerably less than it is today. The common political task of the Dalits is to add to their collective power, but there can be no single strategy that will deliver this objective.