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The 20th Century Transformation of the Dalit Movement in India

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Michael Collins is a 2020 Kluge Fellow from the University of Gottingen. Collins is working on a project titled “From Boycotts to Ballots: Democracy and Social Minorities in Modern India.” Boris Granovskiy, who recently detailed at the Kluge Center, interviewed Collins on his work.

VCK General Secretary D. Ravikumar during his 2014 parliamentary campaign. Credit: Michael Collins

Boris Granovskiy (BG): Can you share a brief history of Dalit politics as it pertains to your research?

Michael Collins (MC): Today, the term “Dalit” refers to persons previously called “untouchables,” who account for one-sixth of India’s 1.2 billion citizens. Dalit politics is not recent in origin, but it has changed decidedly over the past century.

The most well-known Dalit leader was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), who represented the community during the colonial era and later acted as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was a brilliant legal scholar, an astute politician, and a vociferous critic of the Indian caste system. Over the course of his political life, he waged a social and political war against untouchability. Today, most Dalit movements cast themselves as heirs to Ambedkar, but his legacy has been interpreted and carried forward in different ways.

Starting in the 1960s, and particularly in the 1970s, the character of Dalit politics began to change. These were radical times, not only in the USA with the Vietnam War era and the rise of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and other groups, but also in India.

Dalit youth, many of whom were first-generation college graduates, expressed their frustration at the glacial pace of economic development and social reform. Inspired by the Black Panthers of the United States, they called themselves the Dalit Panthers and started a cultural and literary movement in the state of Maharashtra that, in 1972, transformed into a political movement. They were staunch critics of capitalism, boycotted the parliamentary system, and called for a socio-economic restructuring of society. To be frank, they didn’t last very long.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency (1975-77) that suspended democratic rule and suppressed internal dissidents. The movement was driven underground, but it resurfaced in the late-1970s and founded local chapters across the country. While their plan to knit them together into a pan-Indian movement never bore fruit, they created local branches in many states that became influential Dalit organizations.

This is where my research begins. I study a political party called Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or the Liberation Panthers Party. Founded in 1982, they were initially known as the Dalit Panther Iyakkam (DPI), or Dalit Panther Movement, of Tamil Nadu. But, following the death of their founding leader and an influx of new activists, they rechristened themselves as Liberation Panthers.

As their name suggests, they were inspired by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant movement in Sri Lanka. In the 1990s, they operated as a radical social movement, spearheading electoral boycotts and using contentious street politics to advocate for their rights and force government authorities to reckon with their demands. But, by the late-1990s, they reached an impasse as security forces obstructed their ability to organize and incarcerated more than a hundred key figures under national security laws. In 1999, VCK leaders tentatively entered democratic politics, seeking greater legitimacy in their negotiations with state authorities and hoping to leverage their base electorally to influence policy. Since then, the VCK has had some, albeit limited, electoral success, winning three seats in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly and another three berths in Parliament.


BG: What kinds of rights were the VCK demanding? What tactics did they use to advance their political project?

MC: When I study the development of Dalit politics, I see a broadening conception of rights. In the 1980s, leaders submitted legal petitions to state authorities, requesting that they attend to particular grievances such as caste harassment in the workplace or unfilled affirmation action quotas. Basically, they were claiming, ‘these are your laws; we respectfully ask that you enact them.’ DPI activists sought to build relationships with state officials and then make use of these contacts to resolve specific problems. At times their written advocacy was effective, but it was typically met with silence.

I’ve translated hundreds of early DPI appeals and they tend to follow a similar format: they are addressed to a particular recipient, typically the head of a department, and then copied to a wide range of authorities from elected representatives to high court justices. The appeal outlines a specific complaint, citing pertinent laws or legal precedents, and then respectfully requests that the official intercede and enforce Dalit rights. This initial program pursued legal advocacy through institutional channels to redress specific violations of rights. But from 1990 the movement shifted focus from particular rights violations to the broader structural disenfranchisement of Dalits in society, the economy, and politics.

In the 1990s, new leaders took control of the movement who vested less faith in the impartiality of government officials and anchored their activists at the grassroots. These activists focused less on petitioning for rights and more on forcefully asserting them. For them, caste was not strictly a graded social hierarchy, but an economic institution. To annihilate caste required striking at the heart of its material foundations.

A key issue at this time was public leasing auctions, where government properties and resources were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Customarily, locally dominant castes would collude ahead of these auctions to win with an artificially low bid and then divide and subcontract the lease to others at much higher rates. The practice effectively made them de facto custodians of public lands and resources. When Dalit activists entered such auctions in the 1980s they were forcefully driven out—if not killed.

The VCK began to project itself as a security force and its activists entered Dalit settlements to organize their residents and pool financial resources. Next, they entered these auctions and began to win them. At the time, it was radical for Dalits to flout prevailing norms and assert their rights in such a manner. The movement demanded greater inclusion—socially, economically, politically—as a matter of right, and upended prevailing caste norms in pursuit of greater access to developmental resources.


BG: What has been the impact of the VCK on Dalit Politics in Tamil Nadu?

MC: The VCK transformed the character and disposition of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. Initially, its leaders harbored little faith in the electoral system and, instead, spearheaded electoral boycotts and contentious street politics to press their demands. For example, activists organized disruptive protests, forming human chains to obstruct major roadways or railway lines. At other times, they encircled authorities, barring their entry and exit to and from their residences or offices unless they pledged to attend to a particular grievance. These tactics effectively compelled state authorities to reckon with, or at least listen to, their demands.

Aside from this tactical shift, the disposition of Dalit politics was transformed. VCK Party Chairman Thol. Thirumavalavan personified defiance. He is known for bellicose oratory during which he twists the tips of his mustache into spears pointing skyward and exhorts Dalits, “adanga maru, attu miiru, timiri ezhu, thiruppi adi,” literally “refuse to be restrained, break free from your shackles, rise up and hit back!” In terms of political style, the VCK marked the arrival of a radically new, and relatively young, Dalit movement.

The emergence of autonomous Dalit parties shook up the political system and compelled others to address Dalit interests in a more vocal way. Dalits account for nearly 20 percent of the Tamil Nadu population. When the VCK began to participate in elections, it splintered the vote of other parties. As a result, parties began to appoint Dalits in key posts—even if only in a token role—and incorporated Dalit issues into their election manifestos. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is a good example. A few years after the emergence of autonomous Dalit parties, it launched the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. The timing wasn’t a coincidence; it was a direct response to growing pressure to incorporate Dalit interests more visibly into its party program. In such a way, the emergence of Dalit parties has pressed major parties to address Dalit interests.


BG: Do you see parallels between the VCK and the US Civil Rights Movement?

MC: Absolutely. First, there’s the obvious connection. The genealogy of VCK politics traces back to the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra—a central Indian state—in the 1970s. The Dalit Panthers drew their name and early inspiration from the Black Panthers of the United States. In the 1970s, the writings of Black Panther ideologues like Huey Newton were translated into Marathi and other Indian languages; his thoughts had a considerable impact on young Dalit activists.

In the 1990s, the VCK staged annual events commemorating the birth and death anniversaries of Malcolm X, and it was not uncommon to see his image emblazoned on their movement propaganda. Today, Dalit activists find common cause with the continuing civil rights movement in the US. In fact, in June 2020, VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumavalavan spoke to an international audience about the murder of George Floyd. So there are certainly historical as well as contemporary parallels. The VCK has lobbied to insert untouchability into broader conversations on race, bondage, and other forms of inherited inequality. The US Civil Rights Movement continues to provide inspiration.

African Americans in the U.S. and Dalits in India grapple with a similar predicament in electoral politics. How does one effectively exercise one’s political voice? Do you align with powerful actors in the current system or do you go it alone and try to maintain your independence to sway policy? The VCK has historically joined electoral coalitions led by more established parties to help organize and finance their campaigns. This undercuts their representative capacity, as the party leading the coalition exercises considerable control over their selection of candidates, election manifestos, and even their latitude to pursue pro-Dalit policy objectives. Yet facing elections in India, which some analysts peg as the world’s most expensive, is a daunting challenge for Dalits who tend to lack the social capital, material wealth, and political pedigree relative to most other politicians. Dalit leaders often feel required to choose between political autonomy and electoral viability.


BG: Today, how do VCK politicians perceive their democratic transition with two decades of hindsight?

MC: It’s a mixed response. On the one hand, longtime party leaders speak of the 1990s with nostalgia. It was a time when, in their eyes, they refused to compromise in their pursuit of civil rights. At that time, if a powerful local figure violated Dalit rights, activists swarmed the streets in protest.

But today, as politicians, they feel pressured to carefully assess the situation. Is that person politically connected or an ally of their coalition? When is the next election, and would a hardline response forfeit critical non-Dalit votes? Party leaders have been upfront with me when they discuss how political considerations affect the intensity with which they respond to caste discrimination and anti-Dalit violence. This is particularly true when elections are coming.

Today, there is palpable discomfort among party organizers that their foray into elections has undercut their capacity to represent Dalit interests. It required that they adopt a new, institutionalized repertoire of action, and this has been hard for many longtime activists to accept. But, as a result of their electoral integration, they now have greater access to party leaders and various branches of government. This access hasn’t always translated into improved policy outcomes, but now they can directly approach relevant authorities to air their grievances and utilize their capacity as elected officials to attract broader social and media attention to Dalit issues.

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