Tuesday, December 10, 2019

CACIM Forum Fellowship 2008-09

Locating Dalit Rights Concerns in Civil Society Initiatives in India

Elizabeth Abraham, (elizabethabraham@gmail.com), New Delhi

In the context of new anti globalization initiatives emerging beyond national borders, an important question of “inclusiveness” of these initiatives in terms of communities in the margins needs to be examined. While these public forums claims to represent divergent voices from different parts of the world, it will be appropriate to understand the “voice” of dalit community regarding this new effort.

It is an uncontested fact that even after fifty years of democratic policies and state efforts dalits still remain in the margins of the Indian society. It is well contested question whether dalit community could identify themselves with the Indian state or mainstream dominant caste could identify dalit as part of Indian state. Historians and saga of Indian nationalism has always marked dalit allegiance to the British. In the pre- independence struggles caste never prevailed as an important issue in the nationalist agenda. If we consider the period when political and administrative unity of India was shaping up/achieved as benchmark to discuss caste question the colonial state and the post colonial state becomes the point of reference. The pre-independent state engagement in the question of caste in some places clearly indicated acts of colonial modernity while in some other cases, like in the case of the Hindu Code of Convalis indicates the endorsement of caste Hindu domination leading to a process where the state was an active party in the formulation of a community of Hindus as desired by the minority of that professed ritual and god sanctioned authority to control and rule the rest. Discourses within the national movement on the issue of untouchability indicated that the leadership was less prepared to consider untouchability as a national question, at a time when the population that suffered from acts of untouchability and the economic and social order was founded on it.

With the adoption of Constitution, the Indian state has adopted a progressive realization approach in the question of caste based atrocities and some indicators on the state accountability with regard to caste based discrimination. Even the new democratic forces that emerged in the post-independence period thought it was important to take up the issue of untouchability. Dalit struggle always remained in the margins in the Indian history until the emergence of the BSP as a political force within Indian politics. Dalit experience in political terms could be termed as an imagination within the nation and could be compared to many forms of sufferings of stateless people across the world. They always remained nation-less within the nation.

This is same with regard to Indian Civil society also. Issues of Discrimination and deprivation, the core concerns of the dalit communities were never a prime concern in the civil society or a prime focus of Indian politics. We witnessed long decades of civil society struggle to uphold the democratic character of the state. While looking at the civil society initiatives we are forced to ask the question. Why was there always a primacy of secularism over the caste questions? This may be to an extend to the reason that the notion of “modernity” and principles of universalism have shaped the Indian civil society at the initial stages of its development. And taking up the issues of caste became never a primary objective of the civil society. Issues of “atrocities” and raising anti- caste issues remained always in the domain of the dalit groups themselves. Even among the political parties or in Indian democracy Dalit issues or the so called “Scheduled Caste” issues was always a just a strategic issues that emerged during the elections. Or in other words, the Indian democracy stayed to the core principles of universalism which could never incorporate other primary issues of discrimination of the communities in the margins.

The middle of nineties witnessed the spurting up of new civil society initiatives addressing the complex realities of any postcolonial societies. Moving beyond the conventional questions, gender, language, ethnicity, caste, tribal and other religious identities emerged as “new” issues in the public space. Though there was a central shift in the universe of discourse, a merging of diverse issue remained as a distant possibility. The new civil society initiatives remained as “independent” in their own universe that could hardly link with other democratic struggles.

The liberalization policies of the state and its impact on the society gradually initiated a new stream of anti- globalization initiatives of the impacted communities. Initiatives like World Social Forum brought together the communities in the margins to a single platform. In this context it would be worth examining whether the Indian civil society which remained a client to the ideas and actions of the state in its approach to caste based discrimination could address the issue. While these social forums converge on a primary theme of opposing neo- liberal policies, are they in a position to address the dalit question.

Dalit Movements also saw a radical shift in the last decade. While dalit political parties have become more accommodative forgoing their own principles, dalit civil society efforts has become more visible through taking it to international forums. The dalit discourse on issues of discrimination and exclusion adopted racism as an analogue to explain issues of caste based discrimination as well the suppressed position of the dalits in India in the international forums. At the national level also the approach to dalit rights has taken new dimension through raising issues like the state accountability campaigns, social security campaigns, civil rights, forest rights, educational rights, land rights. Now the question is whether the non-dalit combatant of the civil society had undergone a churning so that it understand the relevance of dalit inclusion more than a symbolic representation. But as stated above a convergence of dalit groups with other democratic groups has yet to happen. In this context it is important to see if the dalit forums could identify their own marginality and existence along with the neo- liberal struggles. The study propose to address the following research questions with an objective of addressing these concerns in the forthcoming World Social Forum:-

Reserach Questions

  • The main research interest will understand the existing dalit civil society initiatives through their activities. This will focus mainly how far the activities have changed in addressing issues other than anti – caste struggles.
  • Other core concerns include an attempt to capture dalit view on the popular democratic initiatives. Has they been able to identify themselves with mainstream democratic initiatives.
  • How far Democratic Forums like World Social Forum and India Social Forum were inclusive in addressing dalit issues in the past? While such democratic forums claim to be representing the masses, were they successful in addressing the interest of the communities in the margins. The main issue in these forums being critiquing neo-liberal policies has they been able to address primary issues like dignity, discrimination, deprivation and land rights that dalit groups are struggling for.
  • Has there been any change in the approach of the civil society to dalit issues after coming together of these forums? Though these forums uphold diversity as a major principle as its core, has it been able to bring the identity-based communitarian to its focus?
  • How far dalit groups could identify themselves with the mainstream anti-globalisation issues. While the communities in the margins are the worst affected in the neo- liberal policies of the states, opposing neo- liberal policies has never been a prime concern of the dalit groups. What was the factor that has kept them away from these anti- globalization struggles? Why those issues were never a primary concern for dalit groups? Do the dalit movement think it is important to taking up anti- globalization issues as a primary concern in their democratic struggles? Can anti- caste struggle and anti-globalisation initiatives coexist?

These research questions will be conceptualized through interviews with dalit groups and leaders from across India and through studying their activities and their documents. Also it will be examined if there are variations across regions. Methodologically each state will be individually studied, conclusions of each region will be used as information contributing to the whole study, but each region will be individually remain as single case.