Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956


Mayawati, a Jatav (Chamar) woman, became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 1995. She is the first Dalit woman to have acceded to the highest office in an Indian state, but gender is not the most remarkable aspect of this accession. Its special importance arises from the uniqueness of a Dalit becoming Chief Minister through the vehicle of a political party centred on Untouchables themselves. The Bahujana Samaj Party, founded and still dominated by Kanshi Ram, seized its unlikely opportu-nity in UP after the collapse of a Government in which it was junior partner. Mayawati's minority Government was backed for strategic reasons by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and it lasted a mere four months. But the very advent of such a Government had an electrifying effect on Untouchables across India. It was as if the world had been stood on its head, so that the bottom ruled over the top. When Mayawati again came to power in April 1997, this time in actual coalition with the BJP, the event was improbable without being unimaginable. The earlier accession had established, perhaps for the very first time, that the Dalits were a central and not merely a marginal political force.

Installation of two Mayawati Governments is not the only event of recent political significance to the Dalits. At the national level a powerful Dalit leader has emerged within the Janata Dal, the party that formed Governments after the elections of 1989 and 1996. Ram Vilas Paswan was Minister for Labour and Welfare in V. P. Singh's Government of 1989-90, and he was one of the driving forces behind the immensely controversial decision to adopt the Mandal Report and thus extend reservation of public employment to a new class of 'Backward' elements. The intention was to try to create an historic coalition of the downtrodden by joining together the Dalits, the Backward Castes and, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Muslims too. While no such secure coalition is yet in sight, its very possibility continues to have political potency. So this aspiration was something of an ideological rationale for the formation of the coalition Government led by Deve Gowda after the inconclusive elec-tion of 1996. Ram Vilas Paswan was Minister for Railways in that Government - he retained the post after the Prime Ministerial change-over of 1997 - and he was widely regarded as the politician most relied upon by Prime Minister Gowda. Kanshi Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan, bit-terly opposed though they are to each other, represent a new Untouch-able politics that is radical and assertive but also ruthlessly pragmatic. For the first time across large parts of India the Dalits have to be taken seri-ously rather than viewed as a vote bank to be exploited by their social superiors.

Still another indication of the new radicalism is the so-called Naxalite activity that has persisted for a number of years in regions of Bihar and also Andhra Pradesh. We have briefly discussed the Bihar situation in chapter 2. In Andhra, the violent activity is centred in the same Telengana region that produced a major insurrection at the time of Independence. Untouchable labourers were at the centre of that insurrection (Harrison 1960: 2 15-16). During the 19805 and 905 the Madigas and also the Mangs have been a key constituent of the new agrarian resistance, though the movement has tended to be led by high-caste figures. While the Naxalite activities of Andhra and Bihar cannot be portrayed as the likely future of Untouchable politics in India as a whole, nor can these movements be dismissed as phenomena relevant only to the most backward regions of India. Like the more widespread and articulate Dalit movement, the insurrectionary labourers of Bihar and Andhra reflect a deep Untouch-able resistance. But for the rest of this chapter we are concerned with more mainstream political life.

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