‘Dalit’ Politics and/as the Future of Politics

The event subsists in language, but happens to things. 
Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense

We are well aware of the political events that have unfolded in the University of Hyderabad (HCU) recently – from the students’ suspension, to Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, his now iconic ‘suicide’ note, and the ongoing agitation demanding justice for Rohith. These are, I would argue, instances of substantive moves which transgress the given boundaries of ‘Dalit’ politics. But instead of recognising the intensity and potential of this transgressive moment, not so surprisingly, the left-liberal debates in both mainstream and so-called alternative media continue to be structured around the collaborative potential between what they term ‘caste-based resistance’ and class-based politics.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There seems to be a tacit agreement among various political adversaries – be it Left, Right or Centrist groups – in defining Dalit politics.[/pullquote]
Such unity is projected by many commentators of this idea as the ideal solution to the onslaught of right-wing fundamentalism. What has to be noted however, is that while the left-liberals only recognise the fascist tendencies of the present political dispensation as an exception in the otherwise broadly ‘secular-democratic’ state, the Dalits (and marginal groups in general) identify and experience the policing order of the Hindu polity (irrespective of its ideological hues) as an everyday tyranny. In that sense, to begin with, we have to acknowledge that the Dalits and other marginal groups have a more intense and nuanced understanding of the rules of Indian politics than the left-liberal intelligentsia. The latter’s pragmatism, we might say, has led to their failure in even understanding what constitutes Dalit politics. Let me elaborate.

There seems to be a tacit agreement among various political adversaries – be it Left, Right or Centrist groups – in defining Dalit politics. The primary assumption which binds together all these political stakeholders (and their ‘radical’ splinter groups) is that Dalit politics is a mere mechanism to ensure the implementation of affirmative actions. For example, almost all mainstream political parties pledge time and again that they support ‘reservation’ and respect Ambedkar as one of the tallest leaders of India. So entrenched is this notion that traces of it can be diagnosed even among groups that primarily work against caste oppression. Such kinds of positioning however, attempt at reducing politics into a mere struggle for representation in the existing political order.

And this (mis)recognition, I argue, is a byproduct of conceptualising politics at large as ‘police order.’ In such a conception, as the philosopher Jacques Ranciere has pointed out, a form of order is instituted where nobody actually needs to speak anymore because the ‘natural stakeholders’ of power will put in place the mechanisms for necessary checks and balances. We have enough historical evidence and experience to suggest that such appropriations, contrary to their claims, cannot guarantee the filling of the gap between policing and true democratic principles; they are, in fact, antithetical.Dalit books

Further, unlike Ambedkar’s vision of reservation which is an ethically and philosophically charged proposition, the policing order of politics has substituted such concerns with mere proceduralism, thus labelling Dalit politics as a byproduct of ‘beneficiary politics.’ In so doing, the question of reservation is shifted from the sphere of popular contestation into the restrictive sphere of judicial authority. In turn, politics is reduced to whether or not these constitutional rights have been implemented justly. And in addition to this, through the careful denial (and perennial deferral of the actual delivery) of these rights, this policing order has systematically projected the implementation of reservations as the sole objective of Dalit politics, thereby systematically branding it as a politics of sectarian (and immediate material) interests.

A ‘Suicide’ Note for Liberal Consensus: Rohith Vemula

In this context, it may be useful to revisit Rohith Vemula’s ‘suicide’ note. My proposition is that this note has made possible a transgression of the police order, thereby enabling us to concretely imagine politics – or reenergize its imaginative potential – as, following Ranciere, the (re)distribution of the sensible. We have to bear in mind that without this note, there was a near definite possibility of ignoring the instance of his ‘suicide’ as yet another Dalit student suicide. But the note is significant for the way that it has punctured the language games of the liberal political order.

Rohith, with prophetic intensity marks this liberal framing by stating that, “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility… In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” Such devaluation has been central to the production of the liberal intelligentsia as (sole) representatives of the ‘revolutionary forces of history,’ contributing in turn to the devaluation of Dalit lives. The paternalistic gaze of this intelligentsia has reduced the Dalits into inert bodies (or bare lives) waiting to be rescued by the former’s grand gestures of ‘redemption.’ Rohith’s note, which struggles against this inertness imposed on him, transgresses this police order and its representative logic of politics by targeting the dogmatic image of thought itself. It has evoked an absolute sense of universal humanism by ascribing the ‘human’ as “a glorious thing made up of star dust.”

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Rohith’s note serves as a spectre that haunts the structural unconscious of the Indian Left, which ironically claims to have exorcised all the ghosts of the past through the magic wand of class.[/pullquote]
Further, as a form of writing “formalities,” Rohith states, “No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.” By stating that no one is responsible for this act of killing himself, he (re)distributes that responsibility to everyone. This (re)distribution, or the refusal to name, is a reclamation of the sacredness of his act, thereby constructing a new critical ontology of the self. This act – one of non-closure – moves away from all forms of instrumentality, which is the sole yardstick of the police order of politics.

Similarly, by clubbing his “friends and enemies” together, he also makes visible the political non-differentiability between the two in the context of the caste question. All these non-closures also mark the entry point of the politics of apparition. If the Indian Left (liberal or otherwise) suddenly woke up to the agonizing realities of caste after the death of Rohith, one has to attribute it to the haunting power of spectral politics. My argument is that Rohith’s note serves as a spectre that haunts the structural unconscious of the Indian Left, which ironically claims to have exorcised all the ghosts of the past through the magic wand of class.

Rohith’s statement that, “all the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past…” marks this peculiar historical location of the Dalits. It clearly posits the impossibility to accommodate Dalits within the confines of the Brahmanical sovereign order and its modern preserver, the Indian nation-state. The Dalit politics that stands in for the larger emancipatory goal is, in fact the “unappreciated child,” and it is this goal which is going to relentlessly haunt the policing order of all mainstream political positioning.

Concurrent to this, we have to position Rohith’s refusal also to reduce politics into mere bodily acts. The prophetic intensity of his thought that demands the treatment of “a man” as “a mind” forces language to bleed internally, thereby exposing the instability of categories as they appear, or better yet, that the idea of a ‘category’ does not capture what the future of politics and the politics of the future stands-in for. His words exemplify that there is a chaos that is internal to both the world and language that undermines the stability of the dogmatic image of thought, and in turn produces a new form of politics which defies the logic of instrumentalism, in toto.

The Hyderabad Factor

The events unfolding in Hyderabad, as I have argued, are critical in rethinking the future of not just Dalit politics but the future of politics, as such. If one of Ambedkar’s visions for reservation was that it would become the ground for producing a new organic intellectual class, the events in Hyderabad epitomise this moment in our contemporary times. Because while on the one hand they [the events] definitely stand-in for and continue with the struggle for constitutional rights, they consistently defy any and every attempt at categorising the struggle as mere proceduralism.

In this context, it is important to account the histories of Dalit and minority politics in universities in Hyderabad. And while such an in-depth analysis is beyond the purview of this brief essay, even a cursory look at this history will allow us to revisit the genealogy of this new mode of political thinking and action. For instance, if we look at the way Ambedkar’s name figures in the student group Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) of HCU, we will see that it is invoked here not as a caste leader but as a humanist par excellence. This becomes significant in light of the resistance by the Left intelligentsia for decades in acknowledging Ambedkar as a political philosopher, devaluing him instead, to a ‘pragmatic’ (not in its philosophical sense) political leader. ASA in that sense is a reinvention and affirmation of Ambedkar as a political philosopher whose ideals can lead humanity in general. That is the reason the counter-culture initiated by this organisation has the power to talk about various forms of oppression, as well as the dexterity to host a heterogeneous political culture and language. In comparison with Dalit groups in other universities across India, like for instance, the United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF) in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, which works primarily as a pressure group, ASA and its politics has a much bigger presence because it positions itself both as a political as well as civil rights organisation. This conflation of the political and civil functioning of politics allows it to occupy an interstitial space (or a frontier space) where the mobility as well as intensity of politics acquires altogether different dimensions.

Let me end this brief essay with a few observations regarding the affective dimension of politics initiated by these emergent formations. First of all, they have consistently resisted the left-liberal propagation that ‘discursive consensus’ is the only legitimate mode of political action. Strategically planned and carefully monitored protests that are synonymous with most of the (radical!) left political actions of the Capital exemplify this mode. Certainly, there are elements of meticulous planning in the protests organised by these new formations as well. But it is politically important to acknowledge the ways that they have retained the significance of spontaneous human action. In this emergent political-scape, notions such as violence and non-violence, performance and life, actual and the virtual, banal and spectacular, etc. acquire a valency that elides the binary logic.

All of this has brought forth/into play a new critical ontology of political action based on intensive differences. Although this warrants a much longer analysis, let me explain this briefly by drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, he marks this crucial distinction between extensive and intensive differences. According to Deleuze, extensive differences (such as length, area, or volume) are intrinsically divisible. Intensity, on the contrary, is indivisible. The indispensible property of intensity however, is not that it is indivisible, but that it is a property that cannot be divided without involving a change in kind. I draw on this distinction to propose that while the left-liberal ideas regarding unity are based on the principles of extensiveness, Dalit politics is based largely on the aspect of intensity, thereby radically altering the symmetry of the very order of politics itself.


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Santhosh S. Written by:

Asst. Professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University of Delhi.

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