ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dalit Politics in India

Recognition without Redistribution

Dalit political parties in North and Central India have overwhelmingly pursued an agenda of recognition, calling for equal respect, rather than one of redistribution. While this has improved the social and economic standing of Dalits better situated in terms of class, it has failed to substantively improve the lives of the majority of Dalits. Ultimately, Dalits' quest for equal treatment will be limited so long as it lacks a redistributive politics that addresses exploitative economic relations.

This article was originally written as formative coursework for “Democracy in South and East Asia,” taught by Chun Lin at the London School of Economics as part of the Master of Science degree in Comparative Politics. We are grateful for her guidance and helpful comments on a previous draft.

How should we understand the rise of caste-based politics among India’s Dalits since the 1990s? Should we celebrate it as the empowerment of a historically oppressed community and a major success of Indian democracy, as some scholars have (Jaffrelot 2003; Kohli 2001; Varshney 2000)? Or should we be more sceptical in examining the gains and limitations?

We argue that caste-based politics cannot achieve social justice for Dalits unless it takes class into account, which it has largely failed to. The politics of recognition employed by Dalit parties has brought only limited gains for Dalits on the whole as the benefits associated with it have been reaped by Dalits better situated in terms of class. Ultimately, Dalits’ quest for equal treatment will be limited so long as it lacks a redistributive politics to address exploitative economic relations. We use the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP)—one of the largest and most electorally successful of caste-based parties—and its project for Dalit equality to illustrate our arguments.

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