What do the Dalit youth want? The standard political wisdom seems to be still stuck in the 1980s and has missed the rapid sociopolitical change in the post-liberalisation era. The demography has changed; increasing urbanisation and education levels, coupled with the rise of the subaltern castes to political power, has given birth to a new generation of Dalits who are far more assertive and aspirational than what society and politics
The increasing education levels and exposure to the wider world, thanks to the internet revolution, mean that they are no longer satisfied with the promise of a life free from caste-based violence and discrimination. They want faster socioeconomic mobility and affluence just like other sections of the youth today. This generation rejects the old Congress model of clientelism with Dalits as the recipient of the patronage of the dominant castes in power but instead seeks to democratise the access to the power itself. And the political parties and institutions are at a loss about how to deal with this new generation.
The cluelessness shows when upper caste leaders of political parties arrive to eat at Dalit homes and create an awkward scene. Or when eternally angry activists resort to radical left rhetoric or anti-Hindu rants thinking that it will attract Dalits towards them. The fact is that none of these tamashas (spectacles) appeal to the Dalit youth. They are simply not impressed by dining with such leaders. And long gone are the days of the Dalit Panther and radical decades of the 1960s and 1970s when the allure of communism was strong. In fact, the common Dalit abhors leftists and their politics of pitting Dalits against the might of the state. The educated members of the community point to the extreme landlessness and disempowerment of Dalits and the complete absence of Dalits from the left-dominated academia in West Bengal and Kerala after decades of left rule.
The anti-Hindu rhetoric, too, doesn’t attract Dalits despite what the academic discourse tells us. The overwhelming majority of Dalits remains Hindu. Buddhism hasn’t found significant takers beyond some sections of castes like the Mahars in Maharashtra and Jatavs in western Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, Dalit youth is also not too enamoured by the Hindu right despite the significant rightward shift in the recent years. The main reason is that the lack of genuine power sharing and absence of Dalit icons and heroes from the Hindutva and nationalist ecosystem. Instead, what Dalit youth seek is an alternative vision best described by BR Ambedkar as Prabuddh Bharat (an enlightened India). It is an urban-industrial modern India, which is a post-caste society with gender equality, that stirs the imagination of the Dalit youth. They do not seek the village dystopia of the Gandhians, Samajwadis and the upper caste orthodoxy, nor do they dream of a Soviet paradise of the left or a post-Hindu India of the missionary demagogues and Islamists. What they seek is something simple: a new India with social mobility and economic prosperity, where birth-based identities become irrelevant. They seek a strong state capable of defending its people and upholding the constitutional rights.
Far from the dreams of anarchists, Dalits oppose chaos for they are the biggest losers in every such situation. In a revolution, power never passes on to the people on the ground in whose name chaos is unleashed, but to those standing behind the throne. But today, most of the political parties seem to be out of sync with the Dalit youth, including Dalit-focused parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Even the new faces of Dalit politics are only giving expression to the opposition voice against the present ruling dispensation rather than putting forward an agenda for the future. The pitch for a new India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a strong appeal but it is marred by the lack of adequate representation of Dalits in the power structure. There is also a suspicion that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is anti-reservations. It is clear that Dalit unrest shall continue for years to come till it finds an anchor in a new politics and leadership.