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The Hindu on : Dynamics of change

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, February 18, 2001

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Dynamics of change

The last two decades have seen many successful grassroots movements led by the intelligentsia. And Dalit politics has its own concerns and objectives. The success of a future secular alliance would depend to a large extent on the integration of these movements into formal politics, says noted historian RAVINDER KUMAR in this concluding part of his three-part essay.

FINALLY, we need to highlight two phenomena which, too, have surfaced since the 1980s and contributed substantially to what has been termed as the winds of change blowing across our country. I refer here to the social movements, somewhat distinct from formal politics, that have come to life over the past two decades. I also refer to the highly commendable fashion in which dalit communities across India have - through a skillful exercise of their right to vote - created for themselves a position in politics whereby they may very well decide who rules over some of the States of the Indian Union, as well as over the Republic as a whole. These two distinct types of movements need to be treated severally since their support structures, concerns and objectives are quite different. Besides their induction into a pan-Indian liberal and secular alliance, which could provide the basis for democratic governance, calls for very different sorts of strategies.

Let us, in the first instance, dwell upon the social movements, as they have been categorised in this essay. Such movements reach out to a wide range of issues; just as they also affect different constituencies, deprived or self-sufficient, which are located within different regions of the Republic of India. Another distinctive feature of these social movements is the refusal of their leaders, mostly drawn from the intelligentsia, to be coopted into organised parties, national or regional. These leaders also refuse to contest elections, preferring to function outside the arena of organised parties and representative institutions. Instead, they regard themselves as loosely structured, yet morally intense, pressure groups, which take up a variety of issues as the basis of popular protest in the public domain. Mostly, the issues taken up by them pertain to ecology or the environment, adult/primary education, human resources development or religious conflict. They also take up other issues capable of being resolved on non-party lines. The dalit question, of course, stands apart from conventional social movements for the reason that dalit organisations focus sharply on questions relating to caste and status. They are, again, explicitly political, and claim - very legitimately so - to speak on and about a problem unique to Indian society and tenaciously rooted in its past.

The social movements which have surfaced in the last two decades stem largely from the heavy handed attempts at "development" by the State in India. They also touch grassroots survival at its most deprived and vulnerable flanks. The most significant social movement of all is the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by Medha Patkar, a charismatic member of the intelligentsia wedded to neo- Gandhian discourse. The distinctive features of the NBA are too well-known to be spelt out afresh. Suffice it to recall that it rests on three basic premises: first, the rejection of formal politics as the mechanism of reaching out to the popular classes and organising them as a significant force; secondly, the need to rethink drastically some of the principles of development that have crystallised since the 1950s, particularly as they concern questions pertaining to ecology and the environment and, last but not the least, the belief that the resolution of these problems lies within Gandhian discourse. The latter discourse repudiates the basic axioms of western technological knowledge, and its normative notions of progress. The varied constituencies to which the NBA reaches out differ from relatively self-sufficient peasant communities to impoverished tribal groups, subsisting on marginal cultivation, or pastoral activity, or scarce forest produce.

The dalit communities of India, on the other hand, have adopted a very different stance on questions pertaining to social status and political emancipation. Very different, too, is the practice and vocabulary of politics which they practice. The single most significant factor about the dalits is the manner in which, four decades after the adoption of adult-franchise, they have liberated themselves from the tyranny of the upper/middle castes in Hindu society. In doing so, the dalits have achieved political autonomy for themselves,as well as for the parties with which they identify as their true representatives.

To comprehend contemporary dalit politics, we need to look back to the epic debate between Gandhi, as the moral voice of the caste Hindus, and Ambedkar, as a role exemplar for the dalits, in the 1930s. The Mahatma unambiguously condemned the gross institutions of untouchability, and the economic indignity heaped upon dalits within Hindu society. He, therefore identified the untouchables as the Harijans, or the "People of God." He also proposed that the solution to the Harijan problem lay in the thorough social and moral revolution within Hinduism. Ambedkar, as is well-known, utterly rejected the Gandhian prescription. He believed, as a political actor, a jurist and a social scientist, all three rolled into one, that only the total destruction of the Hindu social order could liberate the lowly castes from their life of misery and deprivation.

In the short term, Gandhi emerged as a victor in his bitter conflict with Ambedkar, over the question whether the untouchable communities should vote as an electorate distinct from the caste Hindus. But, in the span of a generation and a half, those whom the Mahatma dubbed as the Harijans repudiated the condescending identity thrust upon them by the "Father of the Nation." They adopted instead the Ambedkarite identity of the dalits, or the oppressed; an identity signifying intense social anger. At the same time as they identified themselves as the oppressed, the dalit elites organised their caste fellows, in the last two decades of the 20th Century, as a distinct political formation, seeking to create in the Bahujan Samaj Party, or the People's Party, a "grand alliance from below" of the deprived, the discriminated and the destitute classes in Indian society.

Where, we may in conclusion profitably ask ourselves, does our survey of the winds of change across India take us? We have focussed upon the diverse, the impoverished and the restless social constituencies which have been thrown up, over a period of four decades and more, through the institution of popular democracy and economic development (or lack thereof) within India. There is in this brief survey, also the implication, implicit rather than explicit, that these diverse social classes and communities should be brought together in a grand federal alliance, which can transform in a sane, democratic and secular fashion, the social and economic configuration for Indian society. That such a political consensus of the restless and deprived can be wrought is true. That it would not be a easy task to do so is also true. Small wonder, then, that the manner in which the creative political actor brings about such a consolidation is a question to which there is no simple answer.

Before we finally consider the question of a liberal, secular, and democratic coming together of Indian society, it must be frankly stated that the NDA is emphatically not the political formation that can achieve the task that has been spelt out in the course of this essay. The creative energy and the bold vision required for such a grand initiative can only come from a federal coalition of the political actors who sit today, on the opposition benches in the Lok Sabha, plus the grassroots leadership which has, so far, notwithstanding its widespread intelligentsia and popular base, refused to embark upon the path of formal political activity. The leaders of grassroots social movements, who command considerable moral authority in our times, should not forget that the tallest Indian of our era, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, too, commenced his pilgrimage of hope and grace as relatively obscure outsider. Inevitably, however, he was drawn into the very heart of organised politics. In such a grand coalition, today, between those who control the "Centre" and the "Left" of organised politics; and those whose formidable moral authority reaches out to the wretched of the (Indian) earth; lies the salvation of our troubled Republic.

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