Another instance of the pathology of caste [Guest Blog]

This is a post by Chandan Gowda, Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at NLS, Bangalore. In this post, he explains some of the reasons behind the demands for internal reservations, which goes beyond the standard argument based on the creamy layer exclusion.

The psychological havoc of caste becomes obvious again in the case of the right- and left-hand (Yada-Bala) divisions among the Dalits of Karnataka. (The two sub-sections are numerically evenly poised.) Superficial discussions of caste identity in metropolitan circles presume Dalit to be an undifferentiated all-India category of “untouchable” castes. But, the Madigas (the left-hand Dalits) of Karnataka have long complained of being “primary untouchables.” The Holeyas (the right-hand Dalits) shun the Madigas in the various ways in which the non-Dalits shun them: inter-marriage, inter-dining, and social visitation do not usually happen between them. In addition to such social mal-experience, the activists of the left-hand Dalits have been pointing out that the right hand Dalits corner most of the benefits of the state’s affirmative action programmes. In fact, the efforts of the Madiga Meesalati Horata Samiti, a committee formed to fight for internal reservation for the left-hand Dalits within the existing state-sanctioned quotas in jobs and educational institutions, over the last decade led to the creation of the AJ Sadashiva Commission in 2004 for examining the “the issue of internal reservation to the left and right wings among the Scheduled Castes” (for more details about this commission, visit this site.)

The Dalit leadership, drawn mostly from the right-hand sections, was probably wise in not allowing the internal differences to break asunder their movement. But it might be a bit late now for them to sort out their internal inequalities and emerge united. It appears that the left-hand Dalits, who have been mobilizing themselves over the last decade, do not wish to close ranks with the right-hand Dalits. Clearly, these divisions are open to cynical manipulation by political parties. In fact, the BJP played with these divisions in the previous assembly election. The right-hand Dalits, who hold Ambedkar as their hero, seem less willing to align with the BJP while the left-hand Dalits, who consider Babu Jagjivan Ram their icon alongside Ambedkar, are not as hesitant about it.

In these times of deadly pursuits of power, money and prestige, a parable narrated by the great Kannada writer-activist, Siddalinagaih might seem merely wistful. Still, its political idealism is compelling.

“A Holeya and a Madiga were bonded (jeeta) workers with a village headman. In the mornings, both would be served the previous night’s leftovers at the cattle shed. Before eating his food, the Holeya blew into it and pretended to cool a hot dish. Seeing this, the Madiga picked up a quarrel with the headman: “Both of us are bonded workers. Why do you serve hot food only to him?” He wouldn’t believe the headman who insisted he served cold leftovers to them both. The Holeya continued to bluff the Madiga that he was being served hot, fresh food.” (My translation).

I am planning to do a short research assignment historicizing the left-right division within Dalits and assess its importance for contemporary politics. Although the terminology of left and right used to distinguish an inferior from a superior caste within Dalits is specific to Karnataka (it is invoked with reference to non-Dalit castes also in Tamilnadu), the inferiorized distinctions within Dalits are present in most parts of India.

Written by
Harish Narsappa
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