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Dalit Movement: An overview

The Scheduled Castes are known as harijnas i.e children of God – a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi in 1933.There are many studies on the Dalit or SC socio-political condition but there are only a few systematic empirically sound studies on their movements. The Mahar movement of Maharashtra has been seen as all India movement.Dr Ambedkar was an all India leader. While bargaining with the British and the caste – Hindus he represented all the dalit of the country but his role in mobilizing the SCs outside Maharashtra is not documented.

There is no full fledged study or even an anthology giving information about various SC movements in different parts of the country in colonial and post colonial period. Two papers – one by Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar and the other by Ghanshyam Shah give an overview of the dalit liberation in India. The former deals with the colonial period whereas the latter looks at both the colonial and the post colonial periods. The study by Verba, Ahmad and Bhatt (1972) on the Blacks and the harijnas gives a comparative picture of the movements of these communities in the USA and India.

The main issues around which most of the Dalit movements have been centered in the colonial and post colonial periods are confined to the problem of untouchability.They launched movements for maintaining or increasing reservations in political offices, government jobs and welfare programmes.

Ghanshyam Shah classifies the Dalit movements into reformative and alternative movements. The former tries to reform the caste system to solve the problem of untouchability.The alternative movement attempts to create an alternative socio-cultural structure by conversion to some other religion or by acquiring education, economic status and political power. Both types of movements use political means to attain their objectives. The reformative movements are further divided into Bhakti movements, neo-Vedantik movements and Sanskritisation movements.

The alternative movements are divided into the conversion movement and the religious or secular movement. The latter includes the movement related to economic issues. In the context of dalit identity and ideology Shah has classified dalit movements into movements within cultural consensus, competing ideology and non Hindu identity, Buddhist dalits and counter ideology and dalit identity. The first three are based around religious ideologies whereas the last is based on class.Patankar and Omvedt classify the dalit movement into caste based and class based movements.

In the 1990s with the increased political participation in elections and success of Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh some scholars consider their mobilization as a new political movement of the dalits.

Bhakti movement in 15th century developed two traditions of saguna and nirguna.The former believes in the form of God mostly Vishnu or Shiv relating to the Vaishnavite or Shaivaite traditions. It preaches equality among all the castes though it subscribes to the varnashram dharma and the caste social order. The devotees of Nirguna believe in formless universal God.Ravidas and Kabir are the major figures of this tradition. It became more popular among the dalits in urban areas in the early 20th century as it provided the possibility of salvation for all. It promised social equality. Through these movements Fuller argues devotionalist ethic come to be widely reinterpreted as a charter of egalitarianism.

Neo-vedantik movement was initiated by Hindu religious and social reformers. These movements attempted to remove untouchability by taking them into the fold of the caste system.Dayanand Sarawati the founder of Arya Samaj believed that the caste system was a political institution created by the rulers for the common good of society and not a natural or religious distinction. Satish Kumar Sharma's book Social Movements and Social Change is the only full-fledged study which examines the relationship between the Arya Samaj and the untouchables. The study is confined to Punjab only but some of the observations are relevant for other part of the country as well.Arya Samaj was against the political movements of the untouchables. It went against any move initiated by the untouchables for their solidarity and integration.

The neo-Vedantic movements and non-Brahmin movements played an important catalytic role in developing anti-caste or anti Hinduism dalit movements in some parts of the country. The Satyashodhak Samaj and the self-respect movements in Maharashtra and the Tamil Nadu,the Adhi Dharma and Adi Andhra movement in Bengal and Adi-Hindu movement in Uttar Pradesh are important anti-untouchability movements which were launched in the last quarter of the 19th and the early part of 20th century.

There are scattered references to the Adi-Andhra, the Adi-Hindu and the Namashudra movements. Mark Juergensmeyer's book Religion as Social Vision deals with the Adi Dharma movement against untouchability in 20th century Punjab. The main plea of the movement was that the untouchables constituted a quam a distinct religious community similar to those of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslim communities. Nandini Gooptu in her study on UP in the early 20th century briefly analyses the emergence of the Adi-Hindu movement in the urban areas of the region. Like Adi-Dharma, the leaders of the Adi-Hindu movement believed that the present form of Hinduism was imposed on them by the Aryan invaders. The movement did not pose a direct threat to the caste system. It was in essence, conceived as and remained a protest against the attribution of low roles and functions to the untouchable by means of a claim not to be Aryan Hindus; it was not developed into a full blown, direct attack on the caste system.

A section of untouchables who could improve their economic condition either by abandoning or continuing their traditional occupations launched struggles for higher status in the caste hierarchy. They followed Sanskritic norms and rituals. They tried to justify their claim to a higher social status in the caste hierarchy by inventing suitable mythologies.

The Shanars or Nadars of Tamil Nadu however have crossed the boundary of untouchability.The Iravas of Kerala have also blurred if not completely destroyed, the line of untouchability.The Nadars organized movements in the late 19th century against the civic disabilities they suffered. They formed their caste organization in 1903 called SNDP Yogam.According to it the low social status of the Iravas is due to their low social and religious practices. The association launched activities for Sanskritising the norms and customs of the Iravas.They launched a Satyagraha for temple entry in the 1920s.They bargained with a government for economic opportunities and political positions.

A major anti-touchability movement was launched by Dr Ambedkar in the 1920s in Maharashtra. He saw the opportunity and possibility of a advancement for the untouchables through the use of political means to achieve social and economic equality with the highest classes in modern society. He organized the independent labour party on secular lines for protecting the interests of the laboring classes. It was dominated by Mahars.

The Dalits demanded a separate electorate in the 1930s which led to a conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi. In the early 1930s Ambedkar concluded that the only way of improving the status of the untouchables was to renounce the Hindu religion. He found that Buddhism was appropriate as an alternative religion for the untouchables. He preferred Buddhism because it was an indigenous Indian religion of equality; a religion which was anti-caste and Anti Brahmin. Ambedkar and his followers were converted to Buddhism in 1956.The movement for conversion to Buddhism has spread dalit consciousness irrespective of whether dalits became Buddhist or not. The Dalits of Maharashtra launched the Dalit Panther Movement in the early 1970s.Initially it was confined to the urban areas of Maharashtra not it spread to Gujarat, Karnataka, AndhraPradesh, Uttar Pradesh and other states.

Assertion for dalit identity has almost become a central issue of dalit movement. This involves local level collective action against discrimination and atrocities. Statues of Dr Ambedkar are found not only in urban dalit localities but also in many villages where their number is fairly large. Dalits contribute to installing Ambedkar statues in their neighbourhood.They struggle to get a piece of land from local authorities to install the statue. The statues and photos of Dr Ambedkar are an expression of dalit consciousness and their assertion for identity.

There are several local movements in which Dalits en mass migrate from their villages protesting against discrimination and atrocities. In the 1980s there were five such incidents.Desai and Maheria document one of the micro-level movements. In protest against torture and beating the dalits of the village Sambarda undertook hijarat en mass migration like refugees from their native village and camped in the open before the district collector office for 131 days in 1989.Their demand was for alternative settlement where their life and dignity will be secured. They wanted a concrete solution: alternative land to protect their dignity. They succeeded in their mission against all odds and collusion between the ruling elite and vested interests. The village level movements succeeded in mobilizing dalits of different parts of Gujarat.

The Dalit movements are dominated by their middle class raising issues related to identity and reservations of government jobs and political positions. There is widespread local level assertion against the practice of untouchability and discrimination. Their struggles have brought dalits on the agenda of mainstream politics. In academic circles the movements have forced a section of intellectuals to critically review not only Indian traditions and culture but also the paradigms of modernity and Marxism. They have exploded number of myths created by Brahminical ideology. The Dalit movements have also successfully built up a good deal of pressure on the ruling classes. However several scholars and activists feel that dalits have been reduced to a pressure group within the mainstream politics. Gail Omvedt observes that the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement was ironically only that in the end- a movement of dalits, challenging some of the deepest aspects of oppression and exploitation but failing to show the way to transformation.