Why the Dalits are opting for Right Opportunism and What is the Left Alternative…

Sumit Ghosh

At present, most of the Dalit organizations endorsing Ambedkarite ideology are observed to be quite leader centric and ideologically fluid. Some schools strongly oppose the Manusmriti while the others are more concerned with their rights, the perspective being to support any political formation irrespective of their position within the left-right spectrum to reach immediate demands. Most of the far-right parties in Indian Politics (eg. BJP, Shiv Sena etc) have strongly supported the Manu doctrine and continue to oppose the reservation policies. On the other hand, the Lefts have continuously been ideologically against the caste system; yet they are not getting much of their support! Therefore, the question arises as to why and how then can the Dalit community consider to side with the reactionaries instead of their ideological allies? To dissect out the source of such sentiments, a closer look at the political stances of the Left as an alternative is necessary.

The Dalit leaders criticize the mainstream Left for relying on abstract theorization thereby failing to integrate the Dalit cause within their brigade of the oppressed. On the other hand, the small Left groups have no structured program on this issue. Ambedkar once said, “The Communist Party was originally in the hands of some Brahmin boys – Dange and others. They have been trying to win over the Maratha community and the Scheduled Castes. But they have made no headway in Maharashtra. Why? Because they are mostly a bunch of Brahmin boys. The Russians made a great mistake to entrust the Communist movement in India to them. Either the Russians didn’t want Communism in India – they wanted only drummer boys – or they didn’t understand.” In contrast to Ambedkar’s views, the life and struggle of most of the Communist leaders still remain an inspiration to those who are fighting against different modes of oppression. The Namboodiri Brahmin tradition limiting marriage within their own caste led to the practice of hypergamy with the Nair community. The differences in caste ranking in a relationship between a Brahmin man and a Nair woman meant that the woman was unable to live with her husband and so remained with her own family. The children resulting from such marriages always became Nairs and were denied access to paternal property. Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad, the first non-Congress Chief Minister of India was born in an aristocratic upper caste family but came out against such moribund caste practices of the Namboodiris. Puchalapalli Sundarayya, one of the main leaders of the Telengana movement was recorded to have sat on a hunger strike in his own village against the upper caste landlord discrimination of the Dalits in his youth. Though both came from upper caste landlord families, their empathy for the oppressed made them get deeply involved with the agrarian question.

The Manu doctrine had gained support from Gandhiji as well, in his articles published in the Gujarati daily, “Dinabandhu” and the English daily “The Harijan”. On the other hand, the mainstream Left has failed to denounce the postulates of Hinduism openly owing to their electoral benefits while the Hindu supremacists like BJP and others continue to propose the Manu doctrine, thereby proving themselves to be both sides of the same coin, to the Dalits. Such deceit, both from the Left and the progressive bourgeoisie has formed the foundational basis for Dalit opportunism.

The organized Dalits have resorted to pragmatic solutions to their oppression. Such solutions, owing to their idealistic characteristics have failed to meet the demands of the community as a whole, thereby leading to greater frustration and disillusion among the activists.  Some historical causes have also contributed to their right opportunism. For example, the leaders of the Matua (Namashudra) community, the second largest Scheduled Caste community in West Bengal have expressed anti-Muslim views many a times, owing to their plight of migrating to India after the Bengal partition of 1947 and the ensuing riots in the then East Pakistan. The domination of Hindutva ideology has failed to organize the Dalits into radical movements. The Brahminical belief of afterlife and the concept of transmigration of the soul dominate the Hindu society, including the Dalits, who consider themselves to have been born an unfortunate because of their deeds in the previous life and so must follow the customs and rituals with respect, in order to ensure a better living in the next life. To stress upon, religious conversion cannot solve the problem. The rise of Christian, Buddhist and Muslim Dalits as castes point towards the fallacy behind religious conversions among Dalits.

Ambedker had emphasized on the concept of “graded inequality” to explain the failure of Dalits to organize into radical movements. According to this concept, the quantized form of inequality introduces a sense of superiority amongst a particular section of the Dalits over the other oppressed sections lying below them in the high-low radar and such views of sectarian supremacy continue to persist among the entire community. Such cultural barriers have prevented them to organize themselves.  On the other hand, the tribal populations have been successful in maintaining a primitive mode of egalitarian society. Though not a part of the civilized ‘system’, such marginalized populations do enjoy a mode of social autonomy. Such differences among the tribals and the Dalits seem to answer the intriguing question as to why couldn’t we see any militant Scheduled Caste movement in the last 100 years whereas the resistance of Sidhu, Kanu and Birsa Munda still continue to inspire us.

Ambedkar restricted his views on the concept of “graded inequality” within the sphere of Hinduism. However, it is also observed in general in the capitalist society. Social stratification is a consequence of the differences in relationship of the people to the means of production. In a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production while the people of working class sell their own labour power to the ruling class in the form of wage labor for their own survival. While analyzing the “influence of the growth of capital on the fate of the working class” in ‘The Capital’, Marx predicted “the misery of constantly expanding strata of the active army of labour”. He even went on to differentiate between the “badly-paid strata” and the “best-paid section of the working class… its aristocracy”. This aristocracy was destined to suffer from economic insecurity like the whole working class, but during an economic boom, could reach middle class standards. On the other hand, the “badly paid strata” who could not even command normal minimum wages, would continue to suffer from extreme irregular employment and would expand as a proportion of the working class. This graded nature of wage differences splits the unity of the working class and gives rise to a chain of oppressions successfully depicted in Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller “Doodlebug”. Since such gradation is also witnessed in the sphere of Dalit oppression, it implies that it is basically a question of property relations in a society where private property triumphs and explains why Ambedkar should shake hands with Bhagat Singh.

Ambedkar put forward the question of basic human rights for Dalits and emphasized more on socio-economic democracy over political democracy. He stated that the concept of caste being specific to the Hindu society of India, Nepal and their NRIs, the western notions of democracy are not sufficient for these countries; the concept of social justice must be incorporated into the ideals of democracy. However, western democracy corresponds to western economy. Dalits being a steady source of cheap labour are a boon to the capitalist society. Therefore, the question arises as to whether western economy can overcome this eastern casteist socio-economy. Today, this is an important question, especially for the mainstream Left because they had erroneously theorized casteism as a feudal culture, and thus expected, and still do, that capitalism will eliminate casteism. However, it raises the question as to why western feudalism did not observe casteism!

Historians like Kosambi have put forward the idea that “Caste is Class”. The progressive sphere is also beset with misconceptions in relation to this debate. It is evident that caste is not mere class, at least in present India, since everyone can see that there are a large number of upper caste poors in the country as well as a few number of lower caste families belonging to the upper classes. However, in order to negate Kosambi’s view, it is usually stated that caste is integrated with religion but not class. It is very much unhistorical since it cannot explain the contribution of Catholics and Protestants, Plebeians and Patricians in maintaining the labour divisions in the western society. The claim that class exploitation is more rationalized and justified in the bourgeois society but not caste can be considered a bourgeois dogma pervaded among the Leftists, since no oppression is irrational to capitalism if it can utilize it in maximizing profit. Finally, if it is true that class is an economic category of the state while the caste that of religion, then there should be no ‘upper economic-lower caste’ person in a society! Therefore, a more scientific approach would be to state that caste and class overlap owing to the fact that caste is more rigid while class is more mobile across a social system.

While the right wing groups openly endorse Hindutva, thereby placing the constitutional concept of secularism into bankruptcy, the Left has been accused of declining to campaign in favour of the main tenants of ‘Atheism’. Most scholars argue that only Atheism alone is essential in caste movement. However, a direct war on religion as stated by Engels is “…the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out”. At the same time, attempts to renovate religion also prove to be a catalyst for its resurgence. In his essay, “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”, Com. Lenin states that “The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extra-ordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc. “Fear made the gods.”” As an anecdote, Lenin proposes again that “…only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion”. Thus, the Left standpoint of clinging to the Leninist view of “complete separation of state and religion” is a more scientific approach because in order to abolish casteism from its root, we need to connect the concept of Atheism with class struggle in a scientific way.

On the other hand, Dalit sectarianism prevents the depressed castes from joining the movements organized by the United Fronts of the oppressed. Sectarianism has pervaded the field of Dalit Literature as well, restricting its sphere of influence. In his critical work “Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature”, Sharan Kumar Limbale provides a detailed view on the various perspectives of Dalit Literature. Savarna literary critics opine that Dalit Literature must be evaluated strictly and should not be given the status of any extra literary traditions. Limbale is opposed to this view stating that middle class ideals can never do justice to Dalit Literature since it is the literature of the oppressed. Savarna critics question the monopoly of Dalit Writers in Dalit Literature. However, Limbale opines that it is impossible for a non-Dalit to write Dalit Literature as this Literature is the product of Dalit consciousness that is shaped by their live experiences. Savarna critics argue that Dalit Literature must follow the universal aesthetic principles to render itself eligible for a proper framework of evaluation. Limbale states that since Dalit Literature is unique in its insistence of social upliftment and the realistic portrayal of Dalit experiences of pain and suffering, critics must develop different artistic standards for its evaluation.  Such differences in opinion of Limabale and the Savarna critics show how the right wing perpetrators trap the Dalit sympathizers with the existing notions of evaluation thereby acting as a catalyst for the resurrection of Dalit sectarianism. Such sectarianism progresses further to criticizing the long list of upper caste leaders of the progressive Left parties, sidelining the question of class.  It must be acknowledged that upper caste dominance amongst the progressive Left is a serious setback for the revolutionaries. Community exclusion is still a major problem and the incidences of Rohith Vemula and Muthu Krishnan still point out towards the urgency of organizational cleansing within the Left parties to accommodate the Dalit cause. But it is also imperative to understand that sectarianism as a policy will isolate the Dalits from the common people, preventing them from entering into the sphere of organized activism.

With time, most of the radical ideological stances of the caste movements have faded, giving space to pragmatism and opportunism.  The call for the ‘Vaikom’ Satyagraha and the self-respect movement initiated by Ramasamy Periyar led to the development of the ‘Dravidar Kazhagam’ and the demand of the Dravidian nation among the people of the Madras Presidency. Though an atheist and radical, Periyar was illiterate, not theoretically structured and confused. Periyar’s ideas were anti-caste but his reforms were mainly concerned with the touchable Shudras. Owing to such shortcomings, the movement he initiated later went on to the hands of Conjivaram Natarajan Annadurai who went on to establish the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). A political party of the bourgeois landlords, the DMK went on to face squabbles between the two power centres, one led by Muthuvel Karunanidhi and the other by Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, soon after Annadurai’s demise. The latter went on to establish the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) which denounced all pro-Shudra, anti-Brahminical ideologies of its predecessor and yielded to right wing agendas. The DMK also faced ideological decline and the leadership became more and more dynastical. Veeramani of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) is the present successor of Periyar ideology, though the party is not quite influential at present in the Tamil society.

Inspired by the Black Panther Party, a socialist organisation against racial discrimination of African-Americans, the Dalit Panther Movement was developed by Namdeo Dhasal, J.V. Pawar, and ArunKamble in Maharashtra in 1972. They combined the Ambedkarite spirit with a broader Marxist framework and herald the rise of autonomous Dalit perspective in post-Independence India. In the 1970s, Ramdas Athawale was an activist of the Dalit Panthers. He used to fight street battles with Shiv Sena. In the mid-80s, the then Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar persuaded Athawale to become a minister for social welfare in his government. This paved the way for his opportunism. Presently, he is a Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the BJP from Maharashtra. This example shows how a leader of an initially radical movement later became ideologically disillusioned and is now within the reactionaries. The movement itself split into several splinter factions in 1977 and the leader centric activism diluted its significance.

Kashi Ram was the most charismatic figure in the Dalit movements that took place in the caste ridden society of northern India. In 1978, he formed the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF), a non-political organization to catalyze the formation of a ‘Bahujan’ bureaucracy for serving Dalit interests. In 1984, he founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which found electoral success in Uttar Pradesh. The party claims to be inspired by the philosophy of B. R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru, Ramasamy Periyer and Chatrapati Shahuji Maharaj. Kashi Ram criticized the Dalit leaders like Jagjivan Ram or Ram Vilas Paswan for being political stooges of the Congress and BJP. He denounced the Congress, BJP, Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Janata Dal as equally corrupt forces. He also followed Ambedkar’s path and converted to Buddhism. Owing to Ambedkar’s inclusion of a clause of establishing a commission for the Dalit cause under section 344 of the Constitution, the Kallekar Commission in 1953, had proposed 70% reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes only to be deceived by the Nehru cabinet. Similar attitude was replicated against the Mandal Commission Report in 1978 by the Indira government. It was Kashi Ram’s contributions to the resurgence of Dalit movements that forced the Janata Government to introduce 27% reservation in 1990. It was only 27% reservation for the 52% of the deprived people of our country, which was based on a Supreme Court verdict restricting reservation demands below 50%. Though such verdict led to the system that not less than a 50% seats were still open for the 17% belonging to the upper castes, Biswanath Pratap Singh’s government got dissolved owing to the withdrawal of support by the reactionary saffron forces.

In 2001, Mayawati succeeded Kashi Ram as the next leader of the BSP. Mayawati’s leadership helped in bridging the gap between Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC). In 1993, Mayawati formed a coalition government with the Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav as the Chief Minister but withdrew support from his government to become the Chief Minister herself with the support of the BJP in 1995. The BJP soon withdrew support not allowing her to remain in power for more than a few months. In 2007, she led the BSP government with an absolute majority for a full five-year term only to be toppled by the Samajwadi Party in 2012 due to heavy corruption charges. Such electoral developments clearly point out the ideological bankruptcy and opportunist power politics in Mayawati’s leadership.

The massive electoral victory of the BJP in the 2017 Bidhan Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh may seem to acknowledge the Dalit support for the saffron but a detailed analysis may prove otherwise. The percentage of votes shared in UP during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were as follows: BJP- 42%, BSP- 20%, SP- 22%, Congress- 6%. The 2017 elections saw: BJP- 40%, BSP- 22%, SP + Congress alliance- 28%. The SP and Congress vote share remaining more or less the same, the 2% reduction of votes for the BJP and the simultaneous 2% increase in votes for the BSP somewhat indicate the rejection of the saffron agenda by the depressed castes. Such alternative streams of protest flowing beneath the constitutional ruling of “First past the post” provoke the progressive sphere to rethink of the Dalit cause and amalgamate it into their agenda.

Marx in his essay, “The British Rule in India” borrowed the picture of labour division based on the existence of Patels, Karnams, Talwars, Todis and Simanadars in India, as painted by the members of the House of Commons in the British parliament. However, he far-sightedly stated that “We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow”. This still seems so timely! The establishment of the railways and the development of modern industries were considered by him as the material basis for the initiation of class consciousness of the oppressed in India.  Marx also commented that all victorious communities like the Arabs, Mongols etc were easily influenced by the superiority of the Indian civilization except the British, they being socio-economically more superior than the Indians. Even philosophical revolts against the staunch Hindu ideals in the form of Buddhism, Jainism etc failed owing to their inability to establish themselves independent of the main tenants of Hinduism. Historically, they got themselves positioned within the Hindu sphere.

Based on Marx’s remarks, the most comprehensive view put forward was by Balachandra Trimbak Randive in his essay “Untouchables’ in Freedom Struggle”. Com. Randive criticized the Congress and Gandhiji for failing to include the Dalit cause in their national demands due to their understanding of the Dalit issue as an internal problem of the Hindu community.  He supported the political empowerment, greater involvement in Law formulation and Education and demand for a separate electorate for the Dalits. Consideration of a separate electorate as a communal agenda of the McDonald Award provoked Gandhi to go for a fast unto death, thereby bullying Ambedkar and his followers to sign the Poona Pact in 1932. This ensured the inclusion of the Dalits within the Hindu electorate but its aftermath included two major implications. Firstly, the upper caste domination over the Dalit demands was ensured and secondly, owing to such deceit, the spontaneous involvement of the untouchables in the national movements was lost forever. Com. Randive supported the 6 point demands of the Nagpur Congress of the Scheduled Caste Federation held in 1942.  However, he criticized the Dalits for refraining to demand for total independence and also Ambedkar’s tendency in supporting the Dominion Status of India though acknowledging the fact that they had never directly spoken out against the call for Independence.

Com. Randive pointed towards the necessity of Dalit involvement in the Freedom Struggle and the Communist Movement since land reforms, industrial development and revolutionary changes in the agricultural system were the prerequisites for their socio-economic upliftment. The necessity of land reforms as cited by Com. Randive has also echoed in the Mandal Commission Report. However, Com. Randive had also pointed out that the members of the Scheduled Caste Federation headed by Ambedkar represent the same classes (businessmen, bureaucrats etc) as empowered by the Congress and the Muslim League. Com. Randive’s prescription to establish a strong United Front of the depressed classes and the working people included the call to the Dalits for joining the class organizations of workers and peasants movements i.e. the Krishak Sabha and the Trade Unions.

While religious conversions or direct war against religion empowers religion itself, pragmatic solutions like the projection of Dalit bureaucracy, sectarianism of Dalit Literature, alliance with the reactionaries empower the capitalist mode of exploitation and also the caste oppression to even greater extent. The Dalits will find the class organizations of workers and peasants as their true weapons in their fight against oppression and exploitation since their overwhelming majority belongs to these two classes. These twenty minutes of reading establishes the fact that reservation alone cannot solve the problem, class based movements for social justice is the call of the time.


  1. Dr. Debi Chattopadhyay, retired Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University
  2. “The British Rule in India”- Karl Marx
  3. “Untouchables’ in Freedom Struggle”- B. T. Randive
  4. Mandal Commission Report
  5. “Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature”- Sharan Kumar Limbale
  6. “Kosambi and Questions of Caste”- Kumkum Roy
  7. “No Casteism without Capitalism”- Yuvraj Bagare
  8. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches-Vol. I
  9. “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”- V. I. Lenin

Sumit Ghosh is associated with People’s Brigade.


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