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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

Fanatic Dalits, Empowered Dalits?

Not So Fascinating World Of Dalit-Hindutva Engagement

Sunday 25 October 2009, by Subhash Gatade



Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation by Badri Narayan; 2009; Sage; pages 195.

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanise America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

—Du Bois (The Soul of Black Folks)


The question of mapping ‘agency’ as it unfolds itself in the trajectory of the oppressed has been a recurring theme in the social sciences of the 20th century. In his historic treatise Soul of the Black Folks, the legendary African-American social scientist and activist, Du Bois, had discussed the ‘double consciousness’ which inhabits the Negro (this was the term which was used then for the African-Americans) and tried to delineate the dilemma through which every oppressed individual /formation is condemned to pass. According to Du Bois, a Black individual lives with a feeling of ’twoness’ in a dominant White society. On the one hand s/he is engaged in confrontation with the dominant White world to oppose racial discrimination and on the other hand s/he also yearns to become an American ‘without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows’.

If the feeling of ‘twoness’ inhabited the Blacks, is it possible to think about the Dalits in a Varna society on similar lines? The contradictoriness of the consciousness is very much visible in this case as well. On the one hand s/he is engaged in imitating/following the Varna hierarchy (this process of upward mobility is variously described as Brahminisation/Sanskritisation by scholars a la M.N. Srinivas) and on the other hand one encounters a strong current of resistance to this cooption.

Interestingly, as we approach the sixtieth year of India’s becoming a republic when (to quote Dr Ambedkar) we embarked on the journey of becoming a political democracy where one wo/man had one vote and the challenge of its becoming a ‘social democracy’ with one wo/man one value still beckoned us, an altogether different situation awaits us. We have before us Dalit assertion reaching its zenith signified by a ‘Dalit ki beti’ becoming the Chief Minister of the largest State in the Indian Union and the ‘guest actor role of the Dalits’ in the Indian polity becoming a thing of the past. And simultaneously one encounters the ideological and institutional incorporation of a section of the subalterns—namely Dalits, tribals, backwards—in the unfolding Hindutva agenda also coming to its fruition. As is widely known, if the 1992-93 riots in Bombay made us aware of the communalisation of a section of the women and their turning stormtroopers for the Hindutva brigade (discussed and debated in detail in the volume Womena and the Hindu Right—ed.) throwing many of our earlier assumptions about women’s empowerment to the winds, the Gujarat genocide in the year 2002 made us aware of this dangerous and anti-human detour of the Dalit consciousness.

Interestingly, while it is easy to comprehend Dalit assertion on autonomous lines, connecting it to the glorious tradition of cultural revolts led by the likes of Phule, Jyothee Thass, Periyar, Ambedkar and others, one is normally baffled by a section of the Dalits’ cooption by the Hindutva forces and their becoming stormtroopers for its hate-agenda.

The book under discussion by Badri Narayan titled Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (Sage, 2009) in fact tries to unravel this dynamics of Dalit identity to ‘deconstruct the tactics used by the Hindutva forces to politically mobilise Dalits’ to its side. The articles collated in this volume—a few of which have appeared in different journals/magazines—are mainly based on the original empirical data collected by the author through his extensive field trips to UP and Bihar, wherein he has looked at the recent goings-on in individual marginal communities and the manner in which politics of identity is being played out in these communities at the behest of political forces on the Right, namely, Hindutva forces. The author has focussed his attention on mainly four Dalit castes—Pasi, Nishads, Musahars and Dusadhs—and their clever manipulation by the RSS-BJP.


THE book is divided into eight chapters with an added chapter on introduction wherein the author lays down the basic premise of his work where he describes in detail how politically motivated communal forces are silently but ingeniously working among common people supposedly to break up the harmony existing in society. Communalisation of the identity construction of different communities, their positing against other communities which are in turn projected as their enemies, conversion of the pride of a community in its own identities into the feeling of hatred for other communities, replacement of the narratives of self-respect by narratives of violence against other communities—essentially the modus operandi used by the Hindutva forces has been explained in great detail.

The Introduction part of the book looks at the use of ‘pastness’ by individuals/communities which is the source of a person’s/community’s identity and which is deeply entrenched in his/her/their dreams/desires. For the author, pastness is ‘both the truth and the imagination of the past’ which takes shape ‘during the process of rememberance of the past.’ For the communities the sense of pastness ‘helps fight anxieties and insecurities that arise from their increasing feeling of temporariness’ which is a result of their ‘encounters with statehood, modernity, the onslaught of globalisation and the changing forms of the market.’ Political parties and other agencies which are engaged in impacting the communities cleverly encash this strong desire of communities to assert their identities. One can easily notice a shift in the strategy of political mobilisation by these political formations. If earlier the emphasis used to be on making promises and offering allurements to the gullible masses, since the 1980s with the phenomenon of Dalit assertion making its presence felt, one notices creative strategies to mobilise smaller castes/communities by arousing their sense of pastness. The interplay between the new mobilisation strategies and the assertion by the communities themselves has led to the evolution of the prevailing political strategy based on the exploitation of ‘pastness’.

This process unfolds itself in the picking out of heroes from myths, histories, legends present in the oral culture of the castes, reinterpretation, recreation and reconstruction of such heroes to suit the political ideologies of the concerned party and their transmission back to the people as symbols of their caste identities. The next stage involves celebration of these heroes by organising programmes, erecting statues, holding rallies, bringing out booklets and pamphlets valorising these heroes and narrating their legends in the form which suits the political agenda of the party.

Although the phenomenon of identity construction and assertion is visible at an all India level, for the author this political strategy is being most successfully carried out in the States of Bihar and UP. This can be attributed to the typical social formation in this region which makes it amenable to those parties that are engaged in caste and identity politics. Interestingly while most of the political parties are engaged in this game of identity politics, the BSP and BJP can be considered to be the main players as far as politics in UP is concerned. And both the parties seem to be following diametrically opposite approaches to the question.

If the BJP is trying to win over the Dalits to its side by appropriating their past and identity as a Hindu past and identity, the BSP seems to be empowering the Dalit communities and providing them self-respect and confidence. (It is debatable if this understanding can be said to be still valid. On a close look at the trajectory of the BSP during last one-and-a-half decade, one notices very many changes. Earlier when the strategy was to challenge and question the upper caste hegemony, the slogan was ‘Tilak, tarazu aur Talar/inko maaro joote char’ and today when power considerations have led to new alignments the key slogan seems to be ‘Haath Nahin Ganesh Hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh Hai’. Two inferences are unavoidable. One, there is no conscious attempt to stop/decelerate the process of Hinduisation of the Dalit identity; secondly, since attaining political power seems to have become a key goal, the alliances with upper-caste-dominated forces like the BJP on three occasions has definitely impacted the process of Dalit assertion.) One also comes across recreation of memories through myths, heroes and caste histories in a manner which suits the political formation. It can also be observed that the same caste hero or myth invoked by the BSP is being interpreted by the BJP in a more aggressive manner and getting posited as an anti-Muslim hero. Another significant difference between the two parties seem to be whereas the BSP focuses on the myths of Dalit women heroes of the 1857 revolt—Jhalakaribai, Udadevi, Mahavirdevi, Avantibai and Pannadhai —supposedly to buttress to the image of its leader Mayawati, one rarely comes across myths of Dalit women in the BJP’s political discourse. The manner in which story of Suhaldev, the caste hero of the Pasis, has been appropriated is a case in point.


THE dargah of Ghazi Mian situated in Bahraich, UP is very popular among the local populace. On any normal day one can witness thousands of devotees thronging there to have a glimpse of the Mazaar. Lakhs of devotees gather in the month of May when a fair is held in his memory. Interestingly, a majority of the devotees are Hindus. As the popular perception goes, the dargah is reputed to be a place where the wishes of all devotees are supposedly granted. There are broadly two contesting versions about Ghazi Mian popular in the region. If the first one can be said to be a folk or popular version, the other seems to be the product of the machinations of communal elements Ghazi Mian, whose actual name was Salar Masood, and who was nephew of Mahmood of Ghazanavi had come to the area in Bahraich to hunt. The local population supposedly approached him and asked him to act as their saviour. It was the period when Suhaldev was the King of the Bhar/Pasi community he happened to a very cruel King and oppressed people of his kingdom. When Suhaldev heard about Ghazi Mian, he attacked him and killed him and his entire army. Suhaldev also died in the battle.The popularity of Ghazi Mian in the region arose from the fact that when his tomb was built, it supposedly acquired magical powers. Local people believe that both Hindus and Muslims are blessed after praying there.

A parallel version, which has been consciously built and circulated by communal elements, talks of the great warrior Maharaja Suhaldev, who defended Hindu religion and Hindus from the foreign invader Masood who despoiled Indian cultural traditions, ravaged women and killed children and men. One can easily see that there are broadly two purposes behind the creation of warring communal memories of the myth of Suhaldev: if the first one pertains to the appropriation of Pasis—a Dalit caste which is numerically number two among them—into their political fold, the second is to extend and construct a Hindu history against Islam to mobilise Hindus under their fold. In order to counter the popularity of Ghazi Mian—where a majority of the devotees are Hindus—and bring the straying Hindus back into the fold, the Hindutva elements/formations have also started organising parallel fairs and other cultural programmes/event to commemorate his memory. Many programmes are organised to celebrate Suhaldev, namely, Kalash Yatra, yajna, sports competitions, a huge wrestling match and a Ram katha.

One also witnesses the ‘spatial strategy’ (to quote Satish Deshpande, Contemporary India, 2003, Viking, page 85) of Hindutva based on site in full play here.

To quote:

The strategy based on the site has two facets. First, a chosen spot or site is invested with some unique particularity, such that it can be declared to be the only one of its kind; or if a site already has some such claims, these claims are refined and amplified. However, the criterion of selection is that the spot must implicate the ‘other’ deeply enough to prevent easy extrication. The combined result is to prepare a battleground where Hindu ‘pride’ or ‘self-respect’ can be defended only by inflicting an insult of some kind on the ‘other’.

Apart from projecting Salar Masood as a cruel person, the RSS emphasises repeatedly that the dargah was once the ashram of Balak Rishi. The ashram and the Suryakund inside it were razed by Salar to denigrate the Hindus, who are believers in composite culture and heritage. The RSS claims that the saviour of the nation and Hindu religion has been forgotten by the Hindus and they have no qualms in going and praying at the imaginary tomb of a foreign invader.

It is worth noting that despite the feverish attempts by the RSS and its affiliated organisations to vitiate the atmosphere, the popular narrative of the people contradicts what is being peddled by them. And this narrative looks at Suhaldev as a villain and Ghazi Mian as a hero.

There is no denying the fact that the ‘construction of Suhaldev as a great warrior’ has definitely helped the Hindutva forces in mobilising people and creating for them a solid constituency among the Pasis there, who have a significant population in areas around Bahraich. For the Pasis, the discovery of Suhaldev has acted as an iconic figure who was born into their own community.
Apart from describing in detail this ‘Making of a War Hero’ the book also discusses similar interventions in other Dalit communities. In the case of the Nishads, which is a sub-caste of the Mallah caste, which is a ‘water-centric’ community whose primary occupation is boating and fishing, it discusses the use of its cultural resources by other Dalit parties as well. The metamorphosis of these ‘castes’ into the ‘political constituency’ which the ‘political parties are contesting to win’ has benn explained in detail. According to Badri Narayan
All these political parties are using the same mythical and cultural resources, with the common motive of winning the votes of these castes, but are reinterpreting and recreating them in different ways to suit their political agendas.

The book also finds that as an interesting side effect of this process the castes are acquiring power to negotiate with various parties in the fray.

Taking advantage of the mythical hero of the Nishads, namely, Nishadraj Guhya, who supposedly helped Ram, the BJP-RSS combine skillfully used the community during the infamous Ram Janambhoomi-Babri mosque agitation. In 1990 when Advani was undertaking his rath yatra around the country and his entourage was prevented from entering Ayodhya, the Nishads were mobilised to transport the kar sevaks to Ayodhya through the water route.

In case of Musahars, while the myths of Savari—a character in the minor sub-plot in Ramayana—and that of two brothers Dina-Bhadri—who were great fighters—have helped the community to assert themselves or raise themselves in the social hierarchy and develop their social confidence, they have become handy for the BJP-RSS also to further its agenda. As the Musahars consider themselves to be descendants of Savari, the RSS-BJP tried to mobilise the Musahars to help in Ramkaj (incomplete work of Ram). The two brothers Dina-Bhadri are also projected as reincarnations of Ram-Laxman although the RSS-BJP are careful enough not to highlight their struggle for the cause of Nonia and Beldars against the contractors and the people employed by them to dig the land. The author laments over the fact that the Left and other democratic forces have not understood the significance of this cultural resources for mobilising the Musahars and creating popular support for them


TO conclude, it must be stated that the book is a welcome addition to the small albeit growing scholarly/popular works on the theme where Hindutva’s engagement with the Dalits is being dealt in a specific way. A combination of fieldwork laced with oral history and a broad knowledge of the theme based on research has definitely added to novelty to the book.

It has been successful in not only explaining the dynamics of Dalit identity but has also looked very closely at the manner in which forces like the RSS-BJP—who are opposed to the composite heritage of the people—operate in our society. Through different case studies the danger which this situation presents before the dream of an inclusive, tolerant, just India is also conveyed.

The book emphasises a very important point which has not received the attention it deserves. Whenever there has been a talk of Hindutvaisation of Dalits, witnessed as a phenomenon during the 2002 Gujarat genocide, an attempt has been made to deny ‘agency’ to the Dalits. The participation of a section of the Dalits in the anti-Muslim violence was explained on the ground that they were either misled or used by the Varna dominated communal forces.

The author rightly tells that the ‘success’ of the Hindutva forces in saffronising the myths and legends of Dalits is not only because the strategies used by the Hindutva forces have been smart, but also because there is a strong urge within the Dalit communities ‘to seek acceptance from the upper-caste Hindus who had always culturally and socially marginalised them’

The process of Hinduisation can thus be interpreted as a ‘dual’ process wherein, on the one hand, it is an attempt to seek acceptance from the dominant castes by imitating them and, on the other hand, one can find a vein of dissent which gets exhibited in the subaltern’s challenge to the dominant hegemony by ‘becoming’ one like them.

The only lacuna which one notices in this book is absence of proper editing. If the author would have been careful enough he could have avoided repetitions of ideas, details at various places. This definitely makes it a dull reading. It is also surprising that the author has missed to refer or mention a few important publications (which have discussed the same phenomenon) have appeared during this interregnum. And the most notable among these books is Hindutva and Dalits (edited by Anand Teltumbde, 2004, Samya)

One just hopes that a radical Dalit community would emerge to critically engage with the reconstruction and reappropriation of its memory by vested interests and move towards the emanci-patory agenda put forward by Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and others.

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