Still at the Margins: Dalits and the Nehruvian State’s Efforts against Untouchability

By Shayok Chakraborty (PO ‘19)


“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny…At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” These were the immortal words of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, as he addressed his first Parliament on the night of India’s independence from the British Empire. It was a night of palpable hope, for it seemed that for once, that poverty-stricken nation of millions would be governed by a state that actually cared about more than the people’s exploitation. The burden of Nehru and the nationalists was to respond to that hope with a vision that united the country and brought India’s masses a better future.

Nehru was one of the main architects and future executors of that vision. At root, he saw a modern India as a democratic India, in which democracy was synonymous with “equality, not just the equality of possessing the vote, but social and economic equality” (“Nehru’s Legacy,” Celebrating Nehru). He sought “democratically planned collectivism,” in which “the service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over” (Nehru 581, Nehru). One of the most persistent social barriers to Nehru’s democracy was the ancient caste system and the socioeconomic caste oppression of the “Untouchable”, or Dalit, castes. Nehru recognized caste oppression as an especially large and important obstacle in his country’s march towards equal opportunity: “So long as the caste system continues to exist in this country, democracy and people’s rule have absolutely no meaning…How can the concept of equality and of equal opportunities for all exist side by side with the caste system which divides people into compartments and leads to suppression of one section of society by others?” (Brown 230).

Regardless of his convictions, his efforts to destroy caste oppression through his state-led development model would largely fall short. While there have been certain advancements, the Dalit castes by and large continue to suffer from acute socioeconomic degradation and discrimination. In examining why Nehruvian socialism failed to realize its high ambitions regarding the caste system, we might gain insight into why the broader development project in India did not succeed in eradicating poverty and oppression, what we might do to improve upon previous efforts, and about the general prospects of a democratic state attempting to destroy a form of acute socioeconomic oppression through ambitious state-led development projects. The results are sobering, but enlightening.


The Caste System and the Oppression of Dalits

Before examining the efficacy or inefficacy of the Nehruvian state’s efforts in eliminating caste oppression of Dalits, it is important for us to make some general points about the caste system. Simply put, the Indian caste system is a form of social organization defined by occupation. An individual is born into a caste by birth, and must retain the occupation and status associated with his or her caste without the possibility of mobility. There are four possible caste categories, or varnas, that one could be born into. From highest to lowest, they were: Brahmin, or priest and scholar; Kshatriya, or warrior and nobleman; Vaishya, or merchants and traders; and Shudra, the farmer and other laborers. The last ‘varna’ is not truly a varna – the Untouchable, or Dalit, castes. Dalit castes are technically outside the varna system, and they face extreme stigma because their occupations are considered “unclean” or ritually impure work (Nehru 271). They make up about 15% of India’s population, with precise percentages varying from state to state (Deliege 4). This, of course, was how caste operated in theory, as there are many Brahmin farmers and even some Dalit doctors today that show that in many situations, the connection between one’s caste and one’s occupation was actually quite fluid (Deliege 2). Despite this, the general rule of varnas apply when it comes to social status. A Brahmin will always be afforded higher status than a Dalit, if one judges by caste identity alone.

More importantly than varnas to Indian social organization, perhaps, are jatis, of which there are an innumerable amount. Jatis were more specific occupations, and there were many within each varna. Among the Dalit castes, there are Chamars, Bhangis, Paraiyars, and Mahars, among many others. The social position and occupation of each jati often differed regionally. For example, in Tamil Nadu, Sakkiliyars are cobblers, impure for working with leathers; in Hindi-speaking regions, it is Chamars who are cobblers and tanners; in Maharashtra, it is Chambhars who are leather workers; and in Andhra Pradesh, the Madigas are leather workers (Deliege 25). Regional differences aside, there is often quite a loose and fluid relationship between the jati and the occupation, similar to the relationship between varna and occupation. Very few Paraiyars actually play the parai drums at funerals, for example, and in the 1930s, British civil servant Edward Blunt estimated that only about 4.8% of Chamars actually worked leather (Deliege 26). That said, the vast majority of Dalits still work within a certain range of “impure occupations,” and/or agricultural labor. The details of these various castes’ occupations are not as important as the larger picture: for a system so enormously important to India’s social organization, the caste system is notoriously confusing, contradictory, fluid, and diverse. Certain generalizations can be drawn, however, and we will focus on those generalizations that pertain particularly to the Dalit, or Untouchable, castes.

Before delving more directly into the nature of Dalit oppression, however, it is important to briefly establish terminology. There are many interchangeable terms for the Dalit castes, and in discussing the differences among these terms we can establish certain characteristics of Dalit life. Most popularly, in the English language, we refer to the Untouchable castes, which refers to the ritual impurity associated with traditionally Dalit occupations in Hinduism. While different castes may be performing different work in different regions, as explored above, Dalit occupations in rural and often even urban society revolve around organic waste, filth, ritual pollution, death, evil spirits, or various menial tasks – though the most frequent occupation for a Dalit is that of agricultural labor, along with various menial tasks around the village (Deliege 25). In the eyes of caste Hindus, this creates an inherent impurity in the very person of the Dalit that renders them “untouchable,” and carries with it various restrictions, stigmas, and economic deprivation. This is one of several sources of Dalit marginalization, though even this seemingly essential rule is fluid when it comes to the despicable but routine sexual violence visited upon Dalit women by higher caste men in villages, where touch conveniently seems to be no obstacle (Soundararajan).

The term “Dalit” is newer and more political, used by Dalit militants and intellectuals for the purpose of empowerment. It means “the downtrodden”, and emerged from the militant Dalit Panther movement of 1972, modelled after the Black Panther movement in America. While the group has disappeared, the term has survived, and asserts a more aggressive, empowered view of the Untouchable that directly challenges his Untouchability (Deliege 16). The history of the word, “Dalit,” also sheds light on both the mobility and the lack of mobility that Dalits have faced in the postcolonial era – an urban, intellectual militant movement of Dalits would have been impossible even a few decades earlier, but their tiny size show that class and education have not reached the vast majority (Deliege xi). There are other terms – various ancient Sanskrit terms, the Gandhian term of Harijan, the legal term of Scheduled Castes (which will be explained further later) – but for the purposes of this paper, an explanation of “Untouchable” and “Dalit” are sufficient for now.

All of that said, it should be noted that Dalits themselves would rarely, if ever, refer to themselves by any of these terms. “Untouchable” is an anthropological term; “Dalit” is a politically militant one; and both are moreso terms of the intellectual class. Most Dalits would know themselves by their jati – Chamar, Bhangi, etc. – though the caste names themselves were often seen as insulting due to their stigma, leaving many Dalits without indisputably neutral and non-pejorative ways to refer to themselves (Deliege 16). Rather than bind together as “Untouchables” or “Dalits” in general, Dalit jati are also often directly oppositional towards each other; Chamars, for example, generally regard themselves as higher than Bhangis and Sakkiliyars. Within communities of Dalit castes on the outskirts of villages, “higher” Dalit castes will ironically practice Untouchability on “lower” Dalit castes, such as the stigmatization of the Sakkiliyars as mentioned before (Deliege 25). The fact that jati is the easiest identifier is revealing about the low degree to which Dalits experience solidarity and commonality with other Dalits as a unified “caste.” This has impacted the ability of Dalits to build a broad political movement of resistance against caste oppression – even the famed Dalit leader and Indian founding father, B.R. Ambedkar, was regarded as a “Mahar leader” as opposed to a “Dalit leader” by most Dalits who were not Mahars from Maharashtra (Deliege 5).

If most Dalits themselves do not feel solidarity with other Dalit castes, then a general term like “Dalit” or “Untouchable” even useful? As mentioned earlier, Dalits generally inhabit ritually impure occupations or agricultural labor. But deeper than that, Dalits are bound together by common stigmatization, if not by common culture or community. Their condition can be described by three characteristics: low ritual status, economic dependence and exploitation, and severe social discrimination and stigma. (Deliege 2). As we will see, the acute poverty of the Dalit is intimately tied up in the range of occupations that they are permitted, which is defined by their social position; and their low social position and stigma is intimately tied up in their economic occupation. In other words, the oppression of the Dalit is circular, indelibly both social and economic.

Most Dalits have lived in and continue to live in India’s villages, as does most of India: 82% of India’s population is rural according to the World Bank. Therefore it is perhaps most important to discuss the state of Dalits in rural society, particularly because most of the Dalit presence in cities came post-independence (Deliege 136). Economically, the Dalit position in society is one marked by poverty, economic dependence, and yet indispensability to village society. It has been so since precolonial times, and there had been little socioeconomic change for the vast majority of Dalits leading up to independence (Deliege 117). As mentioned earlier, Dalit occupations can be both ritual and secular, with some overlap. Purely ritual duties might include the beating of drums to drive away spirits at funerals; purely secular duties might include agricultural labor or brick-making; and tasks of practical economic necessity that are assigned to Dalits due to their associations with impurity include the cleaning of carcasses, tanning, sweeping, etc. Ironically, for a group so defined by their ritual tasks, most Dalits spend the majority of their time doing secular, agricultural work and manual labor in order to subsist (Deliege 116).

Dalit agricultural laborers are kept subservient and materially deprived through a system of cyclical exploitation of landless Dalits by their higher caste landlords, often absentee. The fulcrum of this relationship was in the caste system’s strict prohibition of Dalit land ownership (Deliege 124). In an agrarian society in which most other occupations were socially prohibited as well, Dalits were consigned to dependence on their high caste landlords for pastures, farmland, and even the places where their own houses stood (Deliege 119). This economic dependence was deepened and made permanent by the pitiful compensation that landlords gave their Dalit laborers, barely enough for subsistence, so that there was never enough to accrue enough income to eventually escape the dependency that the system relied upon. Traditionally, Dalits were bound to their masters in a state of semi-slavery – in Kerala, landlords could literally sell Dalits to other landlords, and also had the right to put Dalits to death if they saw fit (Deliege 119). This state of semi-feudal serfdom, in which Dalits and even their descendants could be bound for life through non-commercial ties to their landlord, had given way to modified versions of this bonded labor system that utilized commercial means of subjugation instead (Deliege 124). In the twentieth century, Dalits were instead entering into agreements with a landlord in which a sum of money was borrowed, and the Dalit sold his labor as compensation. It was by no means uncommon for a destitute Dalit, desperate for money, to be forced by circumstances outside his control into such an agreement. Unfortunately, it was also by no means uncommon for the landlord to provide such meager compensation that the debt was never repaid, leading to servitude for the rest of his life, and perhaps for his sons as well (Deliege 126). In other words, during the twentieth century, slavery was replaced by indentured servitude, with little change in the ultimately wretched, oppressive, and highly exploitative socioeconomic condition of the average Dalit.

Dalits also experience a primarily social form of oppression in the form of extreme discrimination and exclusion, even as they remained economically integrated.  Their social condition is defined by their ritual impurity, and they are subject to various prohibitions and restrictions as a result. Some of the most consequential and infamous ones are the prohibition on Dalits taking water from main village wells, from entering high-caste temples, and from education. They are forbidden to marry outside of their caste, cannot eat with other castes either, and in Kerala, must literally respect a certain distance in feet from Nambudiri Brahmins (Deliege 96). Besides these restrictions on Dalits’ ability to participate in public and private life, Dalits experience other restrictions designed to harden their material deprivation. In Ramnad district, Dalits were not allowed to wear jewelry, sandals, cloaks, shirts, etc., and women were not able to cover their breasts with a blouse nor wear flowers in their hair. Any violations of these sorts of social restrictions are met with violent repression that Dalits have little power to resist (Deliege 110).

The deep-rooted nature of caste oppression on Dalits shows that it is not just a problem of poverty, nor of discrimination, but about the fundamental social and economic relationship between the Dalit and his society. Therefore, the elimination of caste oppression meant a similarly fundamental transformation of that relationship, by giving Dalits the tools, power, and institutional backing to break out from socioeconomic dependence, deprivation, discrimination, and exclusion. The task was clearly monumental, but so too were Nehru’s ambitions. Having briefly discussed the problem, we may now delve into the Nehruvian developmental state’s solutions, as well as the problems in implementation that plagued it the whole way.


The Political Structures of the Nehruvian State

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, the state was ultimately the central actor and protagonist in India’s story of liberation. Therefore, any flaws in the administrative capabilities of the central government had profound effects on Nehru’s success or failure. If we are to adequately discuss the failure of Nehruvian developmentalism to eradicate caste oppression, we should start with an analysis of the political and administrative structures of the Indian postcolonial state.

One of Nehru’s most major obstacles was foundational: he found that the central government simply did not have the power to implement its ambitious programs without the cooperation of state and local actors. The 1950 constitution theoretically created a democratic federal state in which most power rested in the central government and its Prime Minister, but the states and their Chief Ministers held power in important areas: local government, industry, agriculture, health and welfare, education, public order, and land revenue. The center dealt with defense, foreign affairs, national finance, and the income tax, while both center and state dealt with social and economic planning, and civil and criminal law (Brown 205). While the central government had greater access to funds then the state governments, could direct them to follow central legislation, and even directly take over government in certain rare cases through ‘President’s Rule,’ the states retained enormous power over the implementation of central policies. That meant that Nehru’s development plans in crucial sectors like land reform, industrialization, education, and health and welfare were beholden to the willingness of state and local governments to comply. If they simply did not share his priorities, there was little Nehru could do to get his way. This would sometimes occur even when the Chief Minister of the state was in Nehru’s Congress Party as well. An example of the inability of the national party to force its priorities on the state parties was in land reform. Ironically, states led by Congress governments have not had the most but rather the least effective agrarian reform in the nation, often because powerful local Congress politicians came from the landholding classes themselves (Chakravorty 104). Clearly. Nehru had difficulty forcing cooperation either through federal pressure on the state or through national party pressure on the local party – again and again, decentralization would defeat him, and this happened in the realm of caste abolition as well.

It is worth noting however that it is dubious that simply modifying postcolonial India’s formal political structures would solve these problems of decentralization. Even the much more authoritarian British ruled largely through alliances with the locally powerful, who would deliver taxes in return for protection and a portion of the profits. Many claim that in India, the society is strong, while the state is weak – kinship networks and other traditional social bonds matter much more than the power of the state (Lieven 31). While there is not space for a lengthy discussion of historical Indian state-society relations, it should be established that no South Asian state had ever achieved a situation in which the central government could impose its will over that of uncooperative local interests, and that perhaps this is not simply a structural problem with the postcolonial state but rather a fact of South Asian government.

Another major obstacle to effective implementation was the continual discordance between Nehru’s democratic, postcolonial priorities and the authoritarian, colonial administrative structures that he had inherited to carry them out. India’s new constitution may have come into effect on January of 1950, but large parts of postcolonial India’s new political structures were based on the 1935 Government of India Act, borrowin about 250 articles (Brown 204). It is therefore not so surprising that the national state had certain resemblances to the old imperial system.  The best example of this was the nature of India’s central bureaucracy, those meant to directly implement the central government’s plans and therefore the tool most directly within Nehru’s control. Unfortunately, the all-India Administrative Services was largely descended from the colonial bureaucracy and “steel frame” of empire, the Indian Civil Service (Brown 206). The authoritarian ICS had been the most direct implementers of imperial policy in India, and its abolishment had been one of the greatest goals of the independence movement. The idealism of protest soon gave way to the realities of power, and Nehru and the Congress party realized they needed a strong all-India service, with high morale and protection from political interference that would hinder administrative efficiency. Creating a central bureaucracy wholesale was not an option considering the immediacy of India’s problems, and so Nehru largely adopted the old ICS, including its staff, its institutional culture, and its training processes, in the hopes of gaining stability and efficiency of government.

Unfortunately, the ICS – and therefore the IAS – were built not for radical democratic reform, but for authoritarian stability, in order to keep the extraction machine running. As one Uttar Pradesh minister remarked in 1951, “We inherited an administrative machinery which is not suited to present conditions. Individual exceptions apart, members of the Civil Services are strong repositories of conservatism.” In 1950, Nehru himself remarked on the authoritarian way with which the Indian civil service and police conducted themselves, tending “to revert to the days of British rule, when they looked upon the public as some kind of an enemy or opponent which had to be put down” (Brown 207). The ICS was drawn from a small, educated, and often landed elite, almost exclusively high caste, as they had superior access to English education and contacts within the administration through which they could more easily get a job (Witscoe 38). They therefore had little in common with the vast majority of poor Indians, let alone Dalits. Attempts at reform were easily batted away by the IAS through standard tactics of delay and deflection, and Nehru himself was a man predisposed for broad programs and sweeping visions, not the minutiae of bureaucratic reform (Brown 208). Working through an institution of such profound conservatism, Nehru’s dreams of socioeconomic revolution, including the abolition of caste, were hindered greatly.


The Nehruvian Answer to the Problem of Untouchability

Article 17 of the Indian constitution declared Untouchability legally abolished, any practice of it punishable, but Nehru would have to make his law into a reality. His policies included legislation against anti-Dalit discrimination and hate crimes; reservations for Dalits in political representation, urban government jobs, and education; land reform to break the cycle of dependency and give marginalized rural Indians land of their own; industrialization to urbanize, modernize, and develop the nation, to give Dalits and other groups more opportunities to escape oppressive rural societies by taking a manufacturing job; and education to prepare more Dalits for the sliver of opportunities that was being opened up to them. His efforts were beset by administrative difficulties the whole way, leading to limited success.

Nehru’s efforts to deal with the direct problem of discrimination and “casteism” were primarily legislative. In 1955, Parliament passed the Untouchability Offenses Act, which barred a broad range of discriminatory practices against Dalits, and the Supreme Court struck down any constitutional challenges to its legality (Brown 230). In practice, however, it was far from ideal. Convictions under the law were few and the penalties often laughably light. The highest number of cases in any year reaching the state courts was just short of a mere 700 in 1956, proceeding to decline even further to 393 in the whole of India by the early 1960s. Similarly, the number of convictions in these cases declined from nearly 43% in the first three years after the legislation was passed to just over 31% from 1960-1963 (Brown 309).

Nehru’s major problem was twofold: a lack of political will at the central level to enforce, and decentralization that placed the responsibility of implementation with the states. Lack of political will ensured that there was no central enforcement apparatus in relation to the Act, nor any central agency that gathered information regarding the Act and the problems in its enforcement (Brown 311). Without these crucial tools, Nehru could not reach into the local arena and use the power of the central government to see justice done. More likely, a Dalit seeking to report a violation would have to go to local police and magistrates, who often held the prejudices of the accused and were unwilling to challenge the locally powerful high castes anyway. In the situation that it actually reached the court, Dalits were usually destitute and could hardly afford a lawyer of the caliber of the powerful – if they could afford one at all. In the situation that they attained state legal aid, the case was incredibly difficult to try because witnesses were often extremely reluctant to come forward and challenge the powerful; and assuming the unlikely event of a conviction, penalties could be as insignificant as a few rupees, hardly deterring the wealthy and powerful at all (Brown 309). These difficulties and the high rate of failure deterred most Dalits from utilizing the Untouchability Offenses Act to protect themselves. Nehru could do little to challenge this state of affairs, particularly considering that the bureaucracy was made up of high caste elites who also likely sympathized not with the Dalit but with his oppressor.

Indeed, ironically, the Untouchability Offenses Act itself was often practiced with the realities of caste in mind in in its attempts to rectify discrimination. In 1964, an educated Chamar named Bana Ram made a great show of defying the taboo of Untouchables drinking from the same well as high castes. A Banya woman threw Bana Ram’s water pot to the ground in anger, and he reported this to the police under the Untouchability Offenses Act. Rather than allow the Chamars to use the main well, a compromise was reached – the village would dig them a separate well of their own (Deliege 95). These sorts of compromises were not uncommon, even when it came to Nehru’s central government operations. In these ways, Nehru’s own efforts partially perpetuated caste oppression even as it attempted to cure it.

Nehru also tried to increase the political power and representation of Dalits in India. As mentioned before, the developmental policies that Nehru pursued were undermined by the fact that he often had to operate through conservative actors, whether that meant the bureaucracy, local elites and interests, or his own party. Development resources and policies flowed down from the central government into local settings through patronage channels dating back to the colonial period, during which the landed elites determined the distribution of resources and the enforcement of laws (Witscoe 37). Nehru’s own Congress party was a part of this process, and he was often struggling with high caste, landed rural elite members of his party at the state level to get his way. In an attempt to bypass local power structures, as well as to circumvent the problems and inefficiencies of central administration, Nehru attempted to recreate an ancient form of rural democracy in more modern terms. In 1958, he instituted the panchayati raj, rule by the village councils, based on the ancient system of panchayat that had governed villages for millennia. While the ancient panchayats had been high caste councils convened to deal with small-scale or ritual issues, Nehru envisioned the panchayati raj as inclusive of all castes, a way for the least privileged to gain a voice in development implementation at the expense of the established, conservative bureaucracy. While panchayati raj would experience more success in empowering the marginalized in the years after Nehru’s death, it was largely ineffective while he was alive. It mostly kept in power those who were already powerful in rural communities, meaning high caste and landed elite, while the development officers meant to work between the local panchayats and the central government often shared the same biases and problems as the very bureaucracy Nehru was trying to avoid (Brown 306). Rural democracy, at least during Nehru’s time, had failed to significantly empower Dalit communities in the political sense. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that the will of most people in the village was pro-caste system and anti-Dalit, and that was especially so for the high caste elites who relied on Dalit labor for their wealth.

The Nehruvian state also had certain provisions for Dalit electoral representation, namely through the use of reserved seats for Dalits in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures (Brown 230). Indeed, B.R. Ambedkar, the most famous Dalit leader in Indian history and a major Congress figure, argued that political power for Dalits was all-important. “Nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove them unless you get political power in your hands” (D.N.). The efficacy of Nehru’s arrangement in actually providing power to Dalits was dubious, however. The issue of Dalit reservations predated independence, and came to a head with the 1932 Poona Pact. Ambedkar desired separate electorates for Dalits by which Dalits could vote for Dalit candidates, arguing that Dalits have a “separate existence” anyway from the rest of the Hindu population, and therefore deserved a separate base of power as well. His main opposition was in Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that separate electorates would “create a division” in Hinduism, as if the divisions of caste did not already exist. He argued rather speciously that separate electorates were also a bad idea because Dalits should not be restricted merely to reserved seats, but should be allowed to stake their claim to “the kingdom of the whole world” and run as general candidates. Of course, Gandhi did not acknowledge that the chances for a Dalit to win in a caste Hindu electorate was close to zero, that “the kingdom of the whole world” was accessible merely in theory but not in fact (D.N.). Ambedkar refused to back down, so Gandhi fasted nearly to death in protest until Ambedkar was forced to relent or be blamed for the death of India’s single most popular independence leader.

A compromise was struck, one that would remain under the Nehru government. Dalits would receive seats proportional to the percentage of Dalits in the overall population, meaning that in 1976, there were 78 Dalit seats in the Lok Sabha, representing 14.4% of India. In the state legislatures, there are 540 seats reserved for Dalits out of a total 3,997 (Deliege 193). However, rather than “separate electorates” in which Dalit representatives were elected by Dalits, Congress’ compromise established that Dalit candidates for the Dalit seat would be advanced by each party, at which point they were to be elected by the entire caste Hindu community (D.N.). These “reserved constituencies” were designated on the state level by the relatively high number of Dalits in a specific state, though since Dalits never encompass a majority in any state, Dalit candidates are always by elected by majority non-Dalit populations. Also, because most Dalits live in states that do not have “reserved constituencies,” most Dalits do not end up voting for a Dalit candidate at all. As a Dalit victory in the general electorate was near impossible – in 1977, only three members of the Lok Sabha accomplished this – the Nehruvian system of political reservations paradoxically ensured that Dalit representatives were elected by non-Dalits and that most Dalits never got to vote in Dalit ‘reserved constituencies’ at all (Deliege 194).

The fact that Dalit candidates had to appeal to non-Dalit constituencies to attain power meant that Dalit concerns were hardly heeded over that of non-Dalits, and these politicians generally made poor delegates for the Dalit communities they were supposed to represent. Ambedkar himself spoke derisively of Dalit legislators from the Congress Party. “They were completely under the control of the Congress Party Executive. They could not ask a question which it did not like. They could not move a resolution which it did not permit. They could not bring in legislation to which it objected…One of the objects of obtaining representation in the legislature for the Untouchables is to enable them to ventilate their grievances and to obtain redress for their wrongs. The Congress successfully and effectively prevented this from happening” (Ambedkar 102). An Ambedkarite from Uttar Pradesh, Maurya, reflected in 1963 that “the people in the reserved seats belong to the party in power and are often incapable persons…They do not represent their people to the party and government, but represent the party in power to their people” (Isaacs 125). Gandhi’s concerns about the integration of Dalits into the Hindu fold were heeded, then, but at the cost of any truly representative Dalit voice in the Lok Sabha or state legislatures, leaving governance and the implementation of caste-related policies in the hands of the same upper caste landed elite that had always been in power (Deliege 195). It is perhaps not coincidence that this was the policy pursued by the Brahmins Gandhi and Nehru, who, intentionally or not, had supported political arrangements that denied Dalits any effective political power.

In the economic field as well as the political, Nehru also established reservations to aid Dalits. This was a particularly urban phenomenon, in which the primarily rural Dalit community began to enter cities in search of work. The vast majority of Dalits remain in rural areas today, and by 1965 urban Dalits numbered somewhere between a mere one and six million (Isaacs 112). However, urban Dalits and the job quotas they utilize are still an important aspect of the mobility that a limited number of Dalits were able to attain through Nehruvian policies. In the central government services in India, the quota for Dalits – or “Scheduled Castes”, as the government calls those castes classified as suffering Untouchability – for jobs filled by competitive examination is 12.5%. The quota is 16.66% for all other jobs filled simply by appointments, and in the states there is variation based on local population figures. In theory, when jobs are filled by examination, the first 12.5% of applicants are taken from the top competitors from the general list, at which point the remaining candidates got Scheduled Caste applicants with passing scores no matter how much lower those scores may be. In practice, however, the numbers of Scheduled Castes in government white collar jobs was often far lower than the quotas stated as goals. In 1963, the Scheduled Caste quotas were only 1 to 7 percent filled – government officials have complained that there are too few qualified Dalit applicants, while Dalit spokesmen argued that this was the result of continuing discrimination, particularly in cases where a personal interview was part of the recruitment procedure, and caste Hindus interviewers could act on their prejudices (Isaacs 108). These interviews were only part of white collar jobs, while manual and menial government jobs were filled largely without difficulty. As for the reason why there was a relative dearth of Dalits in white-collar government jobs, both government officials and Dalit representatives were likely right. Discrimination may very well have played a factor, but the naked fact was that very few Dalits were able to sit for the interview at all, let alone be discriminated against during one. Very few Dalits had access to the kind of education and wealth necessary to apply and pass the test for a civil service job, a product of the deep-seated socioeconomic oppression of the caste system, but those who did pass these benchmarks formed a small but important Dalit elite we will turn to later in this essay. For now, we will discuss menial or manual labor quotas for Dalits instead.

Of the 329,046 Dalits employed in a central government service of 2.3 million in 1963, the vast majority were employed in menial or manual labor positions (Isaacs 108). For example, as compared to the 1 to 7 percent of Dalits in Grade 1 civil servant roles, better than 17.5% of Grade 4 manual laborers in government agencies – the messengers, menials, and flunkeys – were Dalit (Isaacs 109). But even this relatively high number of Dalits paled in comparison to the proportion of municipal sweepers that were Dalits – 90%, and that was without quotas (Isaacs 110). While these jobs often resembled the work that many Dalits were consigned to in villages – sweeping and refuse collection – it was often precisely the link to their traditionally ‘impure’ occupations that gave tens of thousands of Dalits a near monopoly on such municipal work.

Urban jobs were of a different quality than rural jobs, however, for a variety of reasons. Dalit sweepers and refuse collectors received salaries, social benefits, and job security that rural life never afforded them (Deliege 138). For example, in the Dalit village of Valghira Manickam, many Paraiyars also work as municipal sweepers in the nearby town of Devakottai, where they enjoy relatively high, steady salaries, interest-free loans, retirement benefits, social protection, and are able to buy food, clothes, and sent their children for some minimal level of education (Deliege 138). This is not at all to say that these are jobs free of hardship and extreme material poverty, but in comparison to the wretched destitution of the purely rural Dalit’s life, municipal sweepers in Devakottai are envied and feel a pride in their job (Deliege 139). A broader study of sweeping by M. Searle-Chatterjee found that the basic salary of a sweeper was 103 rupees a month, not counting income from sweeping private homes (Searle-Chatterjee 284). Searle-Chatterjee found that a family of sweepers could make income comparable to that of a university lecturer, and that they enjoyed a variety of other benefits, such as two weeks of vacation, interest-free loans, sick leave, low-cost housing, and so forth (Deliege 139). It is safe to say that no upper-caste landlord was giving a Dalit tenant farmer “sick leave” or “two weeks of vacation” – this is clearly a form of real mobility, though perhaps far more modest than one hoping for equal access to higher education and the like might have hoped. Therefore, Nehru’s reservations in these areas provided a form of real mobility that was attainable to a Dalit who had no extraordinary level of education. These were still accessible only to a relatively small amount of people, due to the relatively low number of Dalits in cities overall, but for those Dalits who were able to take advantage of these opportunities, such statistics mattered less than the better future they held for themselves and their families.

These municipal jobs were still, however, menial. The road out of menial labor – the road to becoming a part of the white-collar Dalit elite, in other words – was through education. Indeed, the denial of education had been one of the major ways that the upper castes denied mobility to Dalits, as every child in school was one less tenant farmer in a high-class estate (Deliege 197-198). Nehru declared that mass education and literacy would be primary concerns of the Indian state, not just for Dalits but for Indians overall. “In the final analysis, the greatest and most revolutionary factor in bringing about political, economic, and social change is education,” he said in 1958. “Without education, there is no real development” (Brown 313). For such an apparently important part of the Nehruvian development project, however, the state mostly neglected the lack of mass education, preferring to focus on agricultural and industrial modernization instead. In other words, in the education sector, it was not decentralization or a conservative administrative machinery that foiled Nehru, but his own priorities. In his first Five Year Plan, only 3.5% of the budget went to education; in the Second, only 1.6% went to education (Bhola 252). There were, however, some undeniable advancements. In 1947, the Indian school population was 18.2 million and the literacy rate was 10%; in 1961, the school population was 50 million and the literacy rate was 25% (Isaacs 79). Dalits, too, experienced a rise in access to education. In 1948, there were about half a million Dalits in schools; and in 1963, the number of Dalits in school had swollen eightfold or tenfold to about 6 million, with more than 4 million in primary school, 1.5 million in middle and high schools, and about 55,000 Dalits in colleges and universities (Isaacs 80). When looking at these numbers in comparison to the total percentage of the Dalit population, however, Nehru’s lack of emphasis on education showed its impact. For Dalits in 1961, the literacy rate was a mere 10% with both genders combined, which masks the pitiful literacy rate of Dalit women in 1961. Only 10% of the Dalit male population had a primary or basic junior education, and only just over 3% had attained a college degree; for Dalit women, the rate was 3.8% and 0.6% respectively. This was as compared to a general literacy rate in 1961 of 35% for men and 13% for women (Brown 312). Of course, literacy alone was no guarantee to a life without poverty, so the number of those who were actually able to use their education to escape deprivation were miniscule indeed.

The discrepancy in Dalit and non-Dalit literacy rates is explained by the greater likelihood that a Dalit lived in a rural area, and by their social exclusion. But it is also arguably because Nehru did not set out any particular special program to ensure that Dalits had access to education, despite their severe social position. He believed that since education was supposed to be ensured for all, anyway, it would not be necessary to do anything special for Dalits – something of a strange inconsistency, considering that he had recognized the necessity of special provisions to achieve a universal outcome in other sectors (Deliege 194). Mass education had by and large failed to be an effective social ladder for most Dalits under Nehru’s direction, due to his government nearly completely ignoring the issue. For those lucky few who did have the opportunity of not just primary education, but matriculation, the Nehruvian state had provided certain aid to facilitate their upward mobility.

Unlike in the realm of primary education, Dalits in higher education did experience certain special government aid and protections. Nehru’s government instituted educational reservations and scholarships, and later by reservations in Class 1 and Class 2 jobs in the government civil service. In 1963, the Indian state gave out 55,568 scholarships to Dalits – but whether these scholarships were translating into degrees, jobs, and mobility was a more complicated discussion. According to a top educational official of the time, out of the 140,000 bachelor’s degrees in India in 1963, approximately two percent – or 2,800 degrees – were Dalit (Isaacs 81). Other figures confirm that Dalits often tend to have worse outcomes than their caste Hindu peers due to the higher chance that they lacked wealth and access as good an education. Most Dalits are concentrated in less reputed faculties, as opposed to medicine or the applied sciences, and in Maharashtra, it is estimated that about 85% of Dalit college students leave without a degree (Deliege 194). Still, Dalit doctors, lawyers, and civil servants do emerge from these schools, and many elect to enter the civil service due to reservations for Dalits that have been explained above. The Nehruvian state’s focus on higher education created great mobility for those able to get to the position at which they could possibly be competitive enough for university or a civil service position, but these were mostly irrelevant to the lives of most Dalits (Deliege 195).

It is clear that Nehru’s reservation system aided millions of Dalits in mobility, allowing for opportunities as sweepers and as civil servants, but there were also weaknesses to the quota system. For one thing, the existence of reservations created another form of stigma for Dalits in university and in government jobs – caste Hindus were more than willing to assume that their Dalit colleagues were accepted not due to ability but due to the quota, creating problems for career advancement and promotions for Dalits (Deliege 196, Isaacs 114). The effects of reservations on creating broad mobility were also somewhat limited. Reservations tended to create a self-perpetuating and tiny Dalit elite, where the children of that miniscule number of Dalit civil servants and doctors would have access to the same opportunities their parents had and simply reproduce the status that their family had already attained, rather than lifting new Dalit families out of deep poverty (Deliege 197). Indeed, something of a split has occurred between the skilled Dalit elite and the masses of Dalit poor. In a study, Sachchidananda wrote that, “By and large, large numbers of the elite in both towns and villages have taken little interest in bettering the lot of their less fortunate brethren. They feel alienated from their own base…Their major preoccupation is to satisfy the needs of their immediate family and kin” (Deliege 144). Later, we will discuss the relationship between the Dalit elite and the Dalit masses further, but for now it is sufficient to conclude that reservations were an important tool of mobility only for a small number – it was not on the systemic level necessary to fundamentally change the condition of the vast majority of Dalits.

Perhaps the most promising programs in creating that systemic change were land reform and industrialization. Successful land reform could break the cycle of dependency and deprivation for landless Dalit tenant farmers by giving them land and outlawing or easing the oppressive nature of the landlord-tenant farmer relationship. Industrialization could give Dalits the opportunity to leave rural society altogether and join urban society with a firm economic foundation. Unlike the discrimination legislation, land reform and industrialization did not use government as a shield against unlawful and bigoted social practices, but rather used government to build up the socioeconomic power of Dalits, so that eventually Dalits themselves had the power to shield themselves from social and economic oppression without government help. It is therefore not surprising that Nehru stressed both greatly in his modernization campaign.

However, India’s industrialization was slow compared to other Third World economies, and Nehru’s planned model failed for the most part to transition India away from rurality in a comprehensive way (Brown 302). While industrialization was important to the Nehruvian project of development in general, it probably had the least to directly do with Dalits and their development among Nehru’s plans. Dalits did work in factories, but the few Dalits in cities tended mostly to go into reserved government jobs or take up trades like brickmaking, while the majority remained in rural India as landless tenant farmers (Deliege 124). Therefore, we will spend the last part of this essay discussing land reform and the flaws that made it yet another incomplete promise to Dalits.

Land reform under Nehru and later administrations tended to follow three main axioms, as laid out in the Five-Year Plans. One, the regulation of rent, specifically that the rent demanded of tenant farmers by zamindar landlords should not exceed the level of one fifth to one fourth of the gross produce; two, security of tenure, specifically that tenants should be accorded permanent rights to the land they tilled subject to a limited right of the landlord to assume some land for personal cultivation; and three, land ceilings, in which all land that exceeded the land ceiling to be mandatorily conferred to the tenant farmers (Appu). On a national scale, as noted in the 1974 Fifth Five Year Plan, ‘a broad assessment of the program of land reform is that…legislation has fallen short of the desired objectives, and implementation of the enacted laws has been inadequate” (Chakravorty 95). However, the broad picture obscures the fact that there was a range of success and failure depending on the type of policy pursued and on local conditions. For example, in Kerala and West Bengal, land reform was much more significant and serious, largely because leftist parties like the communists had taken over the state governments. Ironically, it was in Congress-led states where land reform was often weakest, as the Congress Party “provided both the motivation for land reform and the opposition to it, as a socialist head with a conservative body” (Chakravorty 96, 104). After all, at the state level especially, the Congress Party was dominated by high caste landlords, meaning that those charged with carrying out land reform were precisely those who had the most to lose from it (Witsoe 41). Therein lies the same central problems that had plagued every Nehruvian developmental project: decentralization, and the conservatism of both public and private actors.

The regulation of rent aimed to reform tenant farming and make sure that there were limits on how much produce landlords could take from their tenant farmers. The existence of these laws could only help those with security of tenure, however – a tenant farmer without a secure claim to the land could face ejection for raising concerns about fair rent (Appu). In one village near Kolkata, for example, tenant farmers were handing over fifty percent of their produce to their landlords. While they were fully aware that the law mandated a twenty-five percent limit, the farmers also knew that if they raised that concern, they would be quickly replaced by the surplus of peasants in the village who would gladly give fifty percent if it meant a plot of land. The government largely failed to punish landlords for these practices due to landlord control of the state government and a lack of power at the national level, leaving rent regulations largely theoretical.

Achieving security of tenure for tenant farmers who had been tilling a plot for a long time also proved to be difficult to implement, and landlords devised many ways to sidestep the law. After all, within a certain limit beneath the land ceiling, landlords were able to either take land for personal cultivation or let it fall into the hands of the tenant farmer. To avoid the latter possibility, landlords sometimes simply evicted long-term tenants before land reform occurred, meaning that the tenant had “voluntarily” given up their rights to the land and that the landlord was free to “personally” cultivate it through short-term or seasonal tenants who could make no such long-term claim (Kolenda 137). Landlords also countered the transfer of land to tenant farmer hands by moving them from plot to plot to prevent any sort of long-term stakes in a single plot (Chakravorty 103). With little power of their own and without a strong state to back up their claims, “land to the tiller” was of limited success.

When it came to the implementation of land ceilings, there were similar problems. While the existence of the ceiling technically meant that the landlord could not assume all of the land tilled by tenant farmers under personal cultivation, landlords would again find ways around the law. They would often keep it ambiguous which plots of land they would keep and which plots they would allow to be turned over to the tenant farmer. Therefore, when a tenant farmer asserted their legal right to the land, the landlord would simply threaten to assume that particular plot of land as a personal holding, deterring any tenant farmer from claiming what the law supposedly afforded them (Appu). Tenant farmers also often lacked a legal ‘deed’ to their land, some sort of record of their years tilling their plot – tenancy agreements were often oral, enforced by custom and landlord power, and therefore no good in court (Chakravorty 97). These factors rendered their tie to the land insecure, which also undermined farmers’ ability to make good of laws regulating rent. Those farmers who were able to stake out their claims to the land were often hung up by countless litigation funded by their richer and more powerful foes, litigations that could often take up so many years and so much money that tenant farmer was simply outlasted by his opponent (Chakravorty 100).

Overall, land reform policies in India did not abolish tenancy, nor did it radically redistribute land in favor of the nation’s poor farmers, let alone landless Dalit tenant farmers. In the mid-1950s, about 20 percent of all cultivated land was still being rented out to tenant farmers, though this figure did however decline to about 12 percent by 1962. By 1961-1962, the top one percent of landholding households held 11 percent of the land; the top 19 percent owned 68 percent of the land; and the bottom 81 percent owned a mere 31.5 percent of the land (Brown 307-308). There were some limited successes – for example, about 20-25 million tenant households benefitted from the “abolition” of the zamindar class and gained plots of land (most of these farmers would have been Dalit), and in West Bengal, the Communist state government would accomplish certain safeguards, rights, and rent regulation for tenant farmers there through Operation Barga (Chakravorty 101). For the most part, however, power remained congealed in the same sectors of society that it had always been in, and land ownership – that key out of dependence on the upper castes – remained out of the reach of most Dalit farmers. 58.4% of rural Dalit households at the all-India level are landless, and while Dalits make up 20% of the population, they own only 9% of the land (Anand). Overwhelmingly, the beneficiaries of land reform were “OBC” (Other Backwards Caste), lower caste than Brahmins and Kshatriyas but still higher in caste than Dalits. For example, while OBC Indians make up only 68% of rural India, they own 78% of India’s land (Anand). They quickly converted this into political power, creating powerful parties such that of Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in Bihar (Witscoe 41, 56). The newfound power of OBCs is something of a model for Dalits, showing what is possible if widespread land ownership is attained. Yet the continued high rates of landlessness among rural Dalits has continued to keep the OBC example merely a dream.



Overall, the pattern of caste reform under Nehruvian state-led development is clear: small minorities of Dalits experience great success, but the vast majority are fundamentally untouched. Repeatedly, this was due to the failure of the state to effectively assert itself over local conservative power, or even because the agents of the state themselves reflected conservative elements and actively colluded with the caste privileged. Besides problems of decentralization and a conservative bureaucracy, however, there is also the possibility that the very premise of Nehru’s state-led development model was inadequate for caste abolition. As Witscoe and others have argued, Nehru and the Congress party were not nearly as democratic as their rhetoric implied. There may have been elections, free press, and other hallmarks of liberal democracy, but Nehruvian developmentalism was not representative, particularly in regards to caste. Nehru himself came from a highly patrician background, educated in Britain and of the highest Brahmin caste. Most of the local and national Congress leadership was also upper caste, with a few exceptions, such as the famous Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar. For Nehru and the Congress leadership, caste abolition, and indeed the alleviation of most of India’s social and economic problems, were problems by which the state “developed” the victims of these systems from above (Witscoe 38). Dalits were passive receivers of development from an upper caste-dominated state, not agents of their own liberation through representation in that state. This was reflected in the aforementioned caste makeup of India’s administration, as well as in their political representation, where Dalit reserved candidates were elected by majorities of non-Dalits. Perhaps, then, it was not that the Nehruvian model fell short of its potential, but that it had reached its potential and its potential for Dalit liberation was simply not very high.

However, even Dalit-led movements have had flaws in the past as well. For example, Dalit liberation movements have had difficulty becoming truly “Dalit” movements, representing all Dalit castes, as opposed to representing a single Dalit caste (Deliege 147). The example of B.R. Ambedkar, aspirational leader of all Dalits but mostly leader of Maharashtra Mahars in reality, has been discussed already. It is also important to note that while many of these movements put forth the rhetoric of democracy and equality, they almost always became simply caste movements concerned with the upward mobility of their own caste, rather than the abolition of the caste system. For example, the Irava movement began more egalitarian, but eventually focused on the upward mobility of its own caste to the point that it proved a major obstacle to the emancipation of the Pulayas (Deliege 172). Much of this stems from the fact that there is often a tension in Dalit movements between a desire to reject the caste system and a desire to integrate into it – for many, caste is simply the only model of social organization they know of, and so broader movements based on democratic equality, caste abolition, and a constructed solidarity among Dalit castes is not feasible (Deliege 173).

Dalit parties today are also often led by economically privileged Dalit elites, and this can impact their priorities. For example, the famous Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh is the most prominent Dalit party in Indian politics today, even electing a Dalit chief minister, Mayawati. Yet the BSP’s approach to Dalit liberation was mostly through the “politics of recognition,” the attempt to eliminate discrimination and increase representation, while ignoring the “politics of redistribution” that addressed that economic aspects of Dalit oppression. This meant a two-pronged campaign, in which pro-Dalit monuments were set up around Uttar Pradesh to bolster the image of Dalits, while also expanding Dalit reservations among police officers and bureaucrats. While the BSP campaign aided those who were of more economic privilege, the vast majority of Dalits were untouched by such campaigns (Sarkar). While the flaws are different in comparison to the state-led developmental model, Dalit movements too have shown limits in their ability to provide a path to liberation from caste oppression.

The answer, at least for the purposes of this paper, then, is something of a non-answer. This author is American-born, and can say little definitive about what might actually be effective in destroying the caste oppression of Dalits. However, we can glean certain things from this analysis that can make future efforts to eliminate such deeply ingrained socioeconomic oppression in India or anywhere else at least marginally more effective. Ultimately, Nehru required a strong and competent state that was enthusiastic about carrying about his goals, and able to overcome intransigent conservative elements at the local level. Some would argue that his failure was fundamentally out of his control, that Nehru simply lacked the power to overcome the entrenched powers that had existed so long. Others would argue that his upper caste-dominated state was part of the very monster he had sought to destroy, and state-led efforts could never have succeeded unless Dalits themselves held the reins, which seems credible when we consider the ways that local Congress politicians who were themselves high-caste landowners were supposed to carry out land redistribution. These were the requirements to attain a solution – a strong, competent, and representative state – to the problem of radical inequality. However, we must also realize that the problems in the state that need to be resolved to fix that inequality are often in and of themselves a reflection of that inequality. In that way, the problems are circular, particularly in a country like South Asia in which state and society are so closely enmeshed. That is what makes these kinds of deep inequalities so intractable. But the limited successes – including land reform in West Bengal, urban beneficiaries of the reservation system, and even the possibility of political power through new land ownership for Dalits shown by OBC castes, for example – show that reform is not impossible, it is simply very hard. At the very least, analyses like these can shed light on what our goal should be in any development model. And for the sake of Dalits and all other oppressed peoples, we must follow the example of Nehru and Ambedkar, and push on towards that goal. For every group of Dalits whose status had not changed, there were those few who had escaped much of the worst of caste oppression – and that, at least, is better than nothing.
















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