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How Left-Liberal Prejudices Curb Debates Around India's Social Justice Politics

The centrality of Dalit-Bahujan discourse reprimands the ruling minority for its perpetual control over power.

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The enshrined social justice values of the Indian Constitution direct the government to execute wide surveys and collect social and historical data to examine the economic and educational backwardness of the Dalits, Adivasi, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs). It will help the policymakers to assess if sections within the population are continued to survive into deplorable class and precarious social conditions or not.

It is followed by the state's second step, which is to ensure equitable redistribution of economic and social assets alongside substantive implementation of fair constitutional provisions for the welfare of the worst-off social groups. The vulnerable and marginalised people can, thus, get equitable access to modern entitlements and the social relationships based on caste discriminations and hierarchies can be reformed.

The reservation policies and other safeguards for the socially marginalised communities, emerged out of such ethical considerations. However, even such legitimate claims are not unanimously accepted in the social and political affairs, instead, the conservative social elites often condemn the ideals of social justice as the dangerous ideological imperatives that create social fissures and disturb national unity.

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False Comparisons to the Hindutva Agenda

The recent political demands by the opposition parties, especially for conducting the Caste Census or to expand the constitutional mandate of the reservation policy beyond the given limits, are maligned as ‘vote bank politics’ or cornered for its pessimistic views about the recent economic development. The criticisms offered by Pratap Bhanu Mehta (in the Indian Express, published on 21 April) against the growing demand of social justice based political mobilisation under the leadership of the Congress party, explicitly re-introduce the classic Left-Liberal prejudices and the conventional trust deficit of the educated urban social elites towards the Dalit-Bahujan claims. As calls are made to give primacy to the welfare of the Dalit-Bahujan social groups and seek their equitable representation in the major institutions of power, the secular upper caste intellectual junta finds it harmful towards their own social and class interests.

Mehta’s assessment that social justice politics is similar to the majoritarian Hindutva agenda is a false comparison. Such design tries to equate the conventional ruling classes as a small vulnerable minority and sees no harm in their hegemonic control over major assets of power and privileges.

Instead, he cunningly flags that Ambedkar wanted to annihilate the caste and hence, suggests that the growing relevance of caste-based political mobilisation is antithetical to his vision. He prescribes that the general welfare measures (like Direct Cash Transfer Schemes for the poor) shall be enough for the betterment of the marginalised social groups. Such passive and uninformed commentary brings much damage to the emerging democratic mobilisation of the opposition that is getting ready to counter the BJP’s emotive tactics of cultural nationalism with the newly recharged political slogans of social justice.


It is self-defeating to understand that the social justice agenda is centred around state’s welfarist measures that offer some material benefits to the demanding Dalit-Bahujan masses. Such skewed reading undermines the normative agenda of social justice politics. The centrality of Dalit-Bahujan discourse reprimands the ruling minority for its perpetual control over each institution of power and envisages a substantive democratisation of political power. The politics of social justice demands a dynamic change in the nature and character of the ruling political elites, making the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi groups its influential shareholders. It aspires that the state institutions shall supplement the concerns and interest of the marginalised communities and shall ensure equitable distributions of nation’s assets with fairness and equity.

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BJP Has Exploited the Failures of Social Justice Politics

It is also evident that the ‘official’ Dalit-Bahujan leadership, till the recent past has hesitated to build effective political mobilisation on the social justice agenda. Further, the parties that claim to represent the Dalit-Bahujan concerns have eventually failed in providing effective leadership to the vast poor and depressed classes. There is an absence of a comprehensive political manifesto to bring substantive economic reforms, keeping in mind the welfare and empowerment of the Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan groups. The social justice politics remained divided on flimsy skirmishes, patriarchal egos and unwarranted fears within the Dalit-Bahujan leaders.

Within the Left-Liberal discourse, parties like DMK, BSP, RJD and SP are often condemned for being corrupt and unaccountable towards the general masses, accused for promoting nepotism and are also portrayed as serving the narrow interests of certain caste groups. However, the secular-Left parties are not benefited by such accusations.

Instead, it is the BJP that has cunningly exploited the failures of social justice politics and has impressed certain marginalised social groups to become its crucial allies.

Looking into such a depressing, fragmented and unintellectual site of social justice politics, it is prudent for political pundits like Mehta to show his displeasure. However, such negation of the social justice politics also overlooks that the right-wing governments have overtly been committed in promoting the interests of the big capitalist class and legitimised the control of social elites over major institutions of power.

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State and Non-state Institutions Are Nowhere to Be Seen

Under the Hindutva regimes, the democratic credentials of the polity, especially values like freedom, fairness and ethical functioning of the state institutions has been eroded substantively. Importantly, the crucial modern institutions like the judiciary, the higher bureaucracy, mass media, the elite capitalist class corridors and the cultural industry have continued to function under the aegis of the social elites and serve their niche class and social interests.

Furthermore, the BJP laden governments have not executed or announced any policy initiative motivated towards the rapid empowerment of the impoverished communities from poverty, social discrimination and political powerlessness.

Though the rhetoric of inclusive growth (sabka vikas) or of the Hindu unity have impressed the certain Dalit, Adivasi and OBC groups and made them part of the BJP platform, it hardly integrated them into the modern institutions of pride and power.

The current BJP regimes have been distanced from the concerns and demands of the farmers, poor working classes and Dalit-Adivasi groups and have converted into an autocratic, monistic political force. It is required that the political parties that are committed to the values of social justice and democracy shall build broader political alliances to defeat the elitist-Hindutva juggernaut and introduce the vulnerable communities as the key claimants of political power.

The acknowledgement that the political parties are endorsing the social justice agenda is a crucial development. It brings the issues of the worst-off social groups into the mainstream political debates and examines the claims of development from a subaltern perspective. The re-emergence of ‘Mandal Politics’ against BJP’s emotive ‘Mandir politics’ can expose BJP’s claims that the Hindutva regimes have benefited the poor and marginalized groups substantially. The recent elevation of social justice slogans in the national politics under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi is crucial not only for the possible re-emergence of social justice politics, but it is equally important for safeguarding the democratic credentials of a modern nation.

(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Dalit-Bahujan   Social Justice 

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