PUCL Bulletin, April 2002

The Bhopal Dalit Declaration
By Kancha Ilaiah

For the first time in the history of democratic experimentation in India, Madhya Pradesh, with the total involvement of the Chief Minister, organised a conference to prepare an agenda for socio-economic reform of the Indian state and civil society. Digvijay Singh's interest went beyond his day-to-day administrative problems. He in his a inaugural speech made it clear that he wanted to combine politics and power with socio-economic reform as that alone can transform a backward country such as India and a backward State such as Madhya Pradesh.

All these years, politicians made positive gestures towards Dalits only to win them over as electoral base, but never to set an agenda for their socio-economic transformation. The Dalit agenda of an average politician, so far, has been confined to affirming the reservation policy Ambedkar infused into the system. The process of privatisation began to dismantle the space of reservation. The deliberations at the Bhopal Dalit conference focussed on the Bhopal document, which charted out an economic agenda for transforming the Dalits' socio-economic conditions. The meet evolved a database for critical examination of Dalit progress based on the experience of 50 years of policy and located the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe question in terms of policy and performance of the Indian state. Though the document did not contextualise the Dalit question by critiquing the socio-spiritual institutions that evolved in India, it tried to examine the relationship between political democracy and civil-societal democracy. It was pointed out that the document should have paid more attention to the institutional causes of untouchability. Untouchability in the spiritual realm led to social segregation of people who were not allowed to participate in agrarian capital in the feudal and the pre-feudal economy of India and also in the capitalist modernity of the nation in the present context. Dalits were not mere social untouchables but were kept out of the capitalist modernity.

The conference examined the Madhya Pradesh model of distribution of grazing land, empowering Dalits and tribals through decentralisation by devolving powers to the Panchayat Raj institutions. It c examined the process of making the tribals direct sellers of forest produce and direct buyers of necessary goods and commodities in a market where the system of middlemen from the business class was abolished. It, however, went beyond this model. This model, for that matter any model in India, had not worked out a blueprint for the full-blooded participation of Dalits in capitalist entrepreneurship and market. In other words, no model has so far created a capitalist class from the country's quarter of a billion Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. No class of contractors, businessmen/ women have evolved from these communities. This does not mean there are no administrative and managerial skills among the Dalits and the tribals. Their talent does not have the seed capital required to match the labour capital they possess. The Dalit bureaucratic class and the political leadership were unable to become a class in themselves to turn it into a social capital of the community as the upper castes have done.

The conference posed two questions: one, is it possible to adopt the American model by developing diversified assets, capital, entrepreneurship and skills, as the Americans have done by giving a share to African-Americans in all kinds of national assets? The American economy grew from strength to strength with the robust participation of African-Americans in every sphere of economy-capital ownership, business, capitalist farming and so on. By applying their skills, which had many innovative abilities that the whites lacked, the African-Americans contributed a whole range of new ethics to capital growth. Why does Indian capital not allow that kind of creative and productive di- versification with Dalit participation? Second, is it possible to create a democratic civil society, which would strengthen the political democracy, by creating conditions of social equality that become the backbone of national development? The answer to these two questions lies in the state repositioning its strategy in both economic and political spheres going far beyond the models of all schools of economic thought that the upper caste economists have so far worked out. No mainstream Indian economist has, so far, advocated active Dalit participation in entrepreneurship and capital ownership. Why?

The Dalit intellectuals felt that Dalit entrepreneurship and capital ownership should not be seen as a dragon of the economy (as many have been seeing reservation in the job sector), but must be seen as a springboard for the whole economy. The truth in this argument can be realised if we understand that creative labour power still exists only among the Dalits and if that labour power owns the capital it has a tremendous ability to reposition the dignity of labour in India. The innovativeness of capital grows only when we combine the dignity of labour and capital. Since capital in India is arrested in the Brahmin - Bania culture, it suffers from an enormous indignity of labour. When capital and markets operate in the larger cultural environment of indignity of labour they can never take revolutionary leaps. The Bhopal conference makes it clear that without a share in the liberalised private capital for Dalits, the state and civil society are bound to crack. Further, the question of social democracy is related to establishing the spiritual democratic relations within all religions operating in India. Caste discrimination within the religious order structuralised the undemocratic relations within civil society, which led to a casteisation of state, land, capital and development. The state must step in though the Endowment Departments to abolish caste practice in all religious and educational institutions. For example, Hinduism and some Christian institutions practice Casteism in temples and churches. The secular state that grants lands and other benefits cannot allow religious discrimination to be practised in the nation. Caste does not allow secularism to operate in any meaningful way because religions claim many assets from the state's collective property, which belongs to all people of that state. The Chief Minister's promise that the State shall make 30 percent of its purchases from Dalit and tribal business establishments to begin with, starting from this financial year, is a great leap forward.

Let us not forget that many upper caste entrepreneurs and business establishments prospered because of the support of the state and nationalised banks. Ail these years the upper castes have used the national assets as if they belong to them alone. Now Dalits are asking for a share in all forms of state property and the state must understand their aspiration on the basis of citizenship. The notion of citizenship gets institutionalised only when Dalits share all forms of national wealth equitably. The Central Government told the world at the Durban conference of the United Nations that India was working towards the abolition of caste Within its national interest. But so far the Centre has not come up with any meaningful strategy to transform the casteist socio-economic and spiritual realms. Dalit intellectuals believe that the BJP does not have any reform agenda because it evolved its ideology within the bonds of Hindu Varna dharma.

It, in fact, would negate all the fruits of socio-economic reforms that earlier Government had achieved with some belief in Gandhian and Ambedkar initiatives. The Dalit intelligentsia still seems to repose confidence in the Congress (I) and left-wing political formations as they have some agenda for social transformation on their cards. Digvijay Singh's initiative comes as a reassuring process in the context of post-Durban developments. One hopes the leaders of all parties make some effort to see the Dalit writing on the wall and evolve a national agenda for total diversification of national wealth to avoid a civil war in the 21st century.

Home | Index