Has post-Ambedkar Dalit middle class failed to produce true leadership?

The recent farmer movement culminated after the acceptance of its central demands, i.e. repeal of the farm laws and guaranteed MSP. Protestors received a grand welcome and were honored with the garlands by the locals as they returned victoriously. The movement played a vital part in radicalizing the opposition parties against the ruling party. Interestingly, several Ambedkarite political parties, right-based organizations, Dalit leaders, and intellectuals came in open support of the farmers’ cause. Many regarded the ‘Majdoor –Kisan Ekta’ (Landless Laborers-Farmers Unity) as a moral validation since the poorest of the poor stood with the movement. While the farmers’ movement became another part of the glorious history of India’s peasant struggle, the question of landless laborers who are majorly Dalit, Adivasi, and Nomadic tribes remained untouched.

Neither the Dalit political leaders nor Dalit educated class dared to ask, ‘What about the land distribution to the landless?’ One might argue that such a demand could have derailed the movement. However, one should not be hesitant to accept that the misery of landless laborers did not find any importance, as it goes against the ‘middle-class morality of the present Dalit leadership, civil society, and intelligentsia. Ambedkar was also unhappy with the middle class’s cognitive blackout of the landless rural Dalits.

In his 1956 Agra speech of the 18th of March, Ambedkar expressed, “I am very concerned for the landless laborers living in the village. I couldn’t do much for them. I can’t ignore their pain and suffering.” He blamed the educated middle-class Dalits for being selfish and oblivious towards the misery of poor Dalits. He warned them, “Today, my position is like a big pillar, supporting huge tents. I am worried about the time when this pillar will not be in its place”. Dadasaheb Gaikwad (15th October 1902 – 29th December 1971) –leader of Dalit movement after Ambedkar- heeded Ambedkar’s warning faithfully as he himself came from a poor rural Dalit family.

Gaikwad was closest to Ambedkar and led various movements, particularly land movements. He led a Bhumihin Satyagrah, fought for wasteland, grazing land, and forest land for Dalits. Gaikwad emerged as a strong leader and led the Republic Party of India, which Ambedkar initially imagined. Although Gaikwad’s activism was rooted in Ambedkar’s warnings and aspirations, the RPI was divided twice under his leadership as the educated middle-class Dalit leaders within the party disliked him. Consequently, the fractured condition of the Dalit movement and politics, increasing atrocities in rural areas, the burden of unemployment in cities, the daily struggle for survival caused frustration and anger among Dalits, especially the Dalit youth from slums. The ‘Dalit Panthers’ was an outcome of the anger and helplessness created by the self-centric middle-class leadership. Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal were leading figures of this group. The Dalit Panthers started questioning the then-existing Dalit leadership both in Dalit and non-Dalit political parties. However, the Dalit Panther also faced relatively the same issues and challenges in its sustenance and split into two groups headed by Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal. While Dhasal represented the anguish and pain of poor Dalits from slums, Dhale gained more support from educated Buddhist Dalits. The ideological rift within the Dalit movement was necessarily on the question- ‘who is your father- Marx or Ambedkar?’ which led to factions even within the larger movement. This rift has been documented in various Dalit literature and art forms. The Marathi song “Laal Ki Nila” (Red or Blue?), written by Amol Kadam and sung by music composer Adarsh Shinde, who are both Dalits, succinctly captured the ideological rift and its consequences in the following words:

कधी घडलो कधी बिघडलो

कधी आमच्या उरावर आम्हीच चढलो

ही तूतू मैंमैं  करण्यात हरलो

आणि मारेकरी आमचे आम्हीच ठरलो

 [Sometimes we came together, sometimes we fought

Sometimes we sat on each-others chests

We lost ourselves in bickering about each other

And we became our own killers]

The experiences from earlier loosely organized movements and splintered charismatic leadership led to the formation of BAMCEF [All India Backward (SC, ST, and OBC) and minority communities employees’ federation] under the aegis of Kanshi Ram and D.K. Khaparde in 1973. Its members were primarily middle-class government employees. The BAMCEF aimed to unite the SC, ST, OBC, and minority employees with the motto to ‘payback to society’ and create a think tank and intellectuals who would go to the community and spread consciousness. The BAMCEF was fashioned to produce a non-agitational, trained, cadre-based organization with institutional-collective leadership against the individual charismatic authority. With leadership from its educated government employee and trained cadres, BAMCEF could successfully organize resources to sustain the movement.

In 1985, Kanshi Ram decided to transform BAMCEF into a shadow organization for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). As a result, the BAMCEF broke into factions. He was successful in his attempt as the majority of BAMCEF members supported him. The BSP has had a considerable influence not just in North India but also in Maharashtra, specifically in Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. However, having its base in Uttar Pradesh and being an organization with a structure of individualistic leadership, there has been no popular or significant Dalit leadership of the BSP in Maharashtra and other states. Dalit movement in the post-decline phase of BSP, specifically in Maharashtra, has also witnessed the reemergence of Prakash Ambedkar’s leadership. However, both Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra and Mayawati in the U.P have failed to produce leadership from poor Dalit masses. While Mayawati seems to be projecting her nephew Aakash Anand as ‘Uttar Adhikari’ (successor) of the BSP, Prakash Ambedkar, and his followers have almost declared his son Sujat Ambedkar as a ‘Varasdar ‘(inheritor) of the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. In addition, Dalit leaders in the upper-caste parties lack both acceptance and political negotiation within their parties. Due to the absence of mass support, lack of political agency, and non-recognition within the party, Dalit leadership in upper-caste parties mainly functions as surplus leadership. Surprisingly, intellectual class within the Dalit community has been uncritical to the class interests of existing leadership and busy producing uncritical heroic stories of these leaders.

Moreover, modern Dalit leadership and intelligentsia treat poor Dalit masses merely as agency-less followers. On the contrary, poor Dalits have constantly challenged the classist nature of the Dalit middle-class and political leadership. The emergence of the Dalit Panther in the past and the rapid spread of Chandrasekhar Azad’s Bhim Army in contemporary times are two such stark examples of follower led-leadership by poor Dalit masses. The leadership of poor Dalits is from the grassroots and builds the ‘everyday resistance’ against caste-class oppression. Sadly, these ‘everyday leaders’ have been called Karyakarta (worker) of the movement in popular politics. The mainstream Dalit intelligentsia, leadership, and Dalit middle class have failed to create any concrete support structure for these ‘everyday leaders’, who not only fight for justice but face violent repercussions from the local oppressor. While the Dalit middle class, its mainstream leadership, and the intellectuals are busy taking Ambedkar at the international level and making a global Ambedkarite community, the poor Dalits continue struggling inside the shackles of caste and poverty.

Rahul Sonpimple is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research focuses on Dalit movements and leadership. He is also an active member of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association in JNU.