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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

A Mandal moment in Dalit politics?

Celebrating BR Ambedkar not only put the spotlight on the man, but also on Dalit politicsnot just what it constitutes, but also its visibly altering contours

Last week India, politicians in particular, embraced B.R. Ambedkar afresh—the occasion was the 125th anniversary of the Dalit icon who is often described as the principal author of the Indian Constitution. In the process they put the spotlight on not just the man, but also on Dalit politics—not just what it constitutes, but also its visibly altering contours.

Yes, a lot of the political attention has to do with vote bank politics. But that is how traditional politicians think. What is more relevant is how the environment enabling the historic oppression and suppression of Dalit aspirations is changing and in the process also altering their conventional relationship with politicians of all hue. It is creating an unprecedented opportunity for Dalits to aspire legitimately.

For want of a better term, it is very akin to the Mandal moment for Other Backward Classes (implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission for the first time gave a national identity to OBCs, triggering a radical makeover of Indian politics by partially dismantling the hegemony of the upper castes in north India). In the case of Dalits, they always had a national identity—unfortunately, social and economic oppression ensured they always stayed disenfranchised.

What seems to have been set in motion is a reworking of these circumstances, largely because the Dalit community is empowering and articulating itself in a way we could never have imagined earlier. It is no coincidence that on the eve of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Maharashtra, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criminalized social boycott after the state assembly passed the Prohibition of Social Boycott Bill. The new law for the first time makes it illegal for extra-judicial bodies like community panchayats, the self-government body at the grassroots, to practice social discrimination. The BJP is obviously confident that the pros outweigh the cons—fear of a political backlash.

What is feeding this change? A host of things actually, like it always is.

The most important factor is that literacy levels among Scheduled Castes (SCs) have undergone a profound transformation in the last two decades and more. Denying Dalits literacy was a key means of their social and economic suppression; access to education obviously means many more doors have opened up for this community.

According to the Census of India, effective literacy among SCs rose from 37.41% in 1991 to 66.10% in 2011. A visual of literacy levels captured in the adjoining infographic reveals that in 2001, the dominant colour was red (states with effective literacy less than 60%); in 2011, this level of literacy for SCs had shrunk, surviving only in three states—Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand. Even more transformative is the story of SC women: in 1991, a little over one in five were literate, and in 2011 the proportion is nearly three in five women.

At the same time, Census 2011 showed us that India has also materially transformed. The trading up series that Mint published (http://www.livemint.com/trading-up) revealed the people who were walking are now cycling, those using two wheelers have graduated to cars; those drawing water from a pond now draw from a well, while those drawing water from a single community tap now get piped water at their homes and so on.

The decline in poverty levels to a record 22% and a drop in malnutrition levels (as captured in the recently released NFHS-4 survey reveals) only reaffirmed the altering material circumstances of India’s populace in general.

And of course another causal factor is the enhanced connectivity in the country, triggering a massive migration of people. Anecdotally we know that for example people from the North East, Odisha and West Bengal are now easily visible in Southern India and vice versa.

For Dalits, the movement to urban pockets is not only an economic opportunity, but the associated anonymity leaves them less vulnerable to social prejudice (the ghastly practice of untouchability so poignantly described by Ambedkar is included in a selection of his writings compiled by a colleague and published in Mint last week.

It is in this backdrop that we need to view the new law passed by Maharashtra and also the Stand Up India scheme just launched by the National Democratic Alliance. What the latter does is to earmark financial assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs among SCs, scheduled tribes and women. Under the scheme, 125,000 bank branches will provide loans of between 10 lakh and 1 crore to about 250,000 beneficiaries. This is over and above the Mudra Bank launched to target loans to small enterprise owners.

Take all this together and what do we have. Like the rest of India, the aspirations of Dalits too are on fire. And for the first time they have a relatively favourable enabling circumstance to realize these aspirations. It is an incredible constellation of events, which lays the basis for the reordering of the Dalit polity, which to date has been a victim of vote bank politics. At the least, we can expect that the Dalit vote can no longer be taken for granted.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com.

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