Left out of the field

Ajay Gudavarthy makes a sweeping generalization in The Hindu about how dalit politics today is ‘unmistakably’ aligning itself with the right. While the surge of the BJP may be a harrowing fact, to say that this shift enables dalits to reap the “benefits of growth and governance” and “undermine the language of caste” is vacuous and misleading.

Sumeet Mhaskar has responded to this claim in Outlook’s website saying that scholars writing about the questions of caste and subaltern groups have always been tempted to make generalised claims based on theoretically convenient assumptions rather than empirical evidence. Be it the assertion that dalits actively participated in the Hindu–Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar last year or that they supported the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, thereby proving their fidelity to the RSS–BJP nexus, such rhetorical claims only highlight an underlying anxiety. To treat instances of political opportunism like Ram Vilas Paswan aligning with the BJP uncritically only lends strength to the misrepresentation put forth by the RSS–BJP. Meanwhile, the exodus from Left parties towards the BJP hardly gets noticed.


Kerala CPI(M) cadre join BJP en masse in August 2014

Mhaskar says

In most dalit questions political parties from the Right and Centre to the Left have displayed right-wing tendencies. In the last few years the media and some North-America based scholars have become obsessed with dalit entrepreneurs—however unrepresentative they may be. The declining jobs in the public sector employment for dalits who continue to face discrimination in the labour market led the state to pass the legislation on reservation in the private sector. The business houses opposed reservation in the private sector. It is precisely because of this reason that the Indian state sought refuge in highlighting dalit entrepreneurs in order to divert the attention away from the issue of reservation in the private sector.

The politics of unseeing is such that caste has become a footnote when talking of ‘development’. Even the tools or the space to talk about it are being made invisible despite its persistence. Mhaskar cites the example of West Bengal as the only state where the percentage of non-dalit castes MLAs has increased from 38 percent in 1972 to 50 percent in 1996. The 34 years of uninterrupted Left rule also failed to get rid of manual scavenging despite the state having the second largest number of dry latrines in the country. The long years of so-called ‘communism’ were indeed, then, just a variety of bhadralok nationalism. And he concludes by saying: “With respect to dalit issues, the alleged differences between Right, Left and Centre that matter so much to elite politics are quite meaningless.”

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