The developmental turn in Dalit activism: disquieting caste and capitalism in contemporary India 
Luisa Steur (University of Amsterdam)
David Mosse (SOAS)
Anandhi Shanmugasundaram (Madras Institute of Development Studies)
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Wednesday 11 July, 11:30-13:15, 14:30-16:15, Thursday 12 July, 9:00-10:45 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel explores the emerging significance of caste in the development process and how Dalit activism (locally, nationally and internationally) has changed in response, in particular through the redirection of social movement and campaign agendas from human rights to development policy.

Long Abstract

The durability of poverty and inequality amidst rapid economic growth presents India with the greatest of challenges. The concentration of this poverty in communities of the historically disadvantaged and socially excluded Dalits raises questions about the continuing significance of caste today, particularly amongst Dalits who regard their unequal opportunities and dispossession as resulting from caste discrimination. In consequence, Dalit activism that arose in response to the violence of caste atrocities and demanded compensation for historical injustice seems to be taking a "developmental turn". It now confronts caste as a structural and modern dynamic in the context of capitalist growth: Dalit NGOs and movements today address the economic injustices and insecurities underlying caste violence more directly, whether they concern denial of Dalit access to common property, land rights, fair wages, or discrimination in education and job markets. This panel seeks to explore this developmental turn in Dalit activism and its various manifestations in more ethnographic detail, including how it has emerged through the complex engagements of different Dalit movements, political parties, NGOs, and networks and how it challenges national governments and international development agencies to rethink their development policy. We invite particular attention to the complexities that emerge as categories for action conceived (trans)nationally articulate with ground-level realities in Dalit communities; as different interests within the broad agenda of Dalit development are negotiated; as the "Dalit" category contends with the politics of gender, (sub)caste and language in pressing for development; and as "caste" operates within the uncertainties of contemporary capitalist development.

Accepted papers:


Anandhi Shanmugasundaram (Madras Institute of Development Studies)

Paper short abstract:

Against the post-1990 development politics and dalit movement this paper analyses the micro-politics of dalit women's activism and their discourse on caste, gender and development

Paper long abstract:

It is well known that the dalit women's movement India has offered a nuanced critique of caste and development politics. If it has raised issues with the dalit movement for marginalisation of gender issues, it has simultaneously articulated the 'politics of difference' and highlighted the caste-dimension of women's issues through the critique of upper caste women's dominance in the women's movement. Scholars studying dalit women's movement have highlighted the recent formation of National Dalit Women's Federation and their articulation of dalit women's rights as providing a critique of dalit movement and development politics in India. However, very little attention has been paid to situate such rights discourse within the varied and complex micro-level context inorder to understand the dynamics of dalit women's activism and their discourse on caste, gender and development. Against this background, this paper attempts to reinterpret dalit women's activism not as just as a production of international, national alliances and network politics but as interaction between these and the micro-level political activism of grass -roots dalit women. Through a detailed case study of a grass-roots dalit women's movement in Tamilnadu, this paper analyses the contingencies of practices and imaginations of dalit women activists and the diversed ways in which they have articulated and interpreted their political activism by subverting the 'official discourse' of emancipation and freedom and in turn what such an activism discloses in terms of dalit women's critique of caste and development.


Sundara Babu Nagappan (Vikas Adhyayan Kendra)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the dynamics involved in the Dalit political mobilizations in contemporary south India in the context of Dalit land rights struggles.

Paper long abstract:

The control over land and other natural resources has a great significance in contributing to the empowerment of the marginalized people, particularly among the historically disadvantaged communities like the Dalits, especially in the reduction of poverty, in proving food security, human dignity and social inclusion.

For more than three decades now, the question of land reforms - including implementing various lands ceiling laws effectively and redistributing the surplus land - has been more or less ignored. The government documents had even stopped referring to this issue anymore. Moreover, the Government while abandoning the welfarism for the Dalits in the context of land re-distribution has in recent years been on the drive to acquire more and more land, including those that were under the utilization of the Dalit communities, for its economic growth.

However, this also has led to a backlash from the marginalized sections. Many protests across the country against the enforced acquisition of land for Special Economic zones (SEZs) and other purposes have already began to force both the central and state (federal) governments to talk about an adequate compensation and rehabilitation policy that explicitly recognizes the rights of these marginalized sections.

Under this back-drop, this paper will explore the role particularly played by the Dalit Land Rights Federation in the context of the struggle for Dalit lands. The paper would focus on a particular case of the Dalit struggle for the reclamation of the common grazing land in Tamil Nadu taken over by the government for industrial purposes.


Rajan Krishnan (Loyala College)

Paper short abstract:

Planning development, the state and the civil society organizations are situated within the narratives of capital. The political aspirations of Dalits are situated within the narratives of community. The disjuncture between the narratives produces both limitations and opportunities.

Paper long abstract:

Like Walter Benjamin's famous description of the angel

of history in Paul Klee's painting, Dalit communities caught in the

whirlwind of development look towards the past they are leaving while

being hurled into uncertain future. It is a disquieting departure,

combining elation and desperation, euphoria and trepidation. While it

relieves them from the shackles of an unfair system of labor

relationships determined by rigid, humiliating disabilities of caste

system, it does not offer them any assurance of benefiting from

capitalist development on an equal footing with others. Their

political capacity to bargain for their share rests on the narratives

of community; whereas, developmental planning and action are part of

the narratives of capital with the State and the right bearing,

deracinated individual forming the two conceptual poles. In the

discourses of economics the pre-existing community is being erased

enumerated and contained without the capacity to intervene in the

process of development. Curiously, community identities play a crucial

role in electoral democracy where contestations over political power

are played out. This background sets up the tense relationships

between NGOs and political parties both seeking to improve the lives

of Dalits through their actions in the domains of civil society and

political society respectively. Borrowing the characterizations used by

Partha Chatterjee, the paper will describe this as a disjuncture

between narratives of capital and narratives of community. The

disjuncture produces both limits and opportunities that the paper will

map through combining ethnographic notes and political theory.


Kaushal Vidyarthee (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the emergence of business enterprises owned by Dalits in contemporary India and how this emergence is shaping the Dalit activism and in turn being shaped by it.

Paper long abstract:

The Dalit activism which has taken recently a development turn is excessively concerned with the access to social and economic opportunities in terms of ownership of common property, land rights, fair wages, job markets, and educational institutes. Yet, there is another very important type of access which is the ownership of business enterprises. This becomes even more relevant in the context of the inclusive development agenda of the state and the enterprise driven growth in India since economic reforms in 1990s. As expected, the ownership of enterprises by Dalits has been minimal especially in the sectors driving economic growth such as trade, IT, finance, communications, transport etc. The few Dalits who have been successful entrepreneurs have realised the importance of ownership of business enterprises for socio-economic development of Dalits. They in turn have further advocated for advancing the business interests of other Dalits. Their mobilization has led to the formation of the first ever Dalit business owners' association called- Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) and its various chapters. Policy makers have also recently made favourable policies such as fixed procurements from Dalit firms, subsidized credit support for the establishment of firms, and training programmes for Dalit entrepreneurs. The paper explores how such activism and mobilization by Dalit community to demand greater ownership of business enterprises is shaping the policy process in India. My data consists of more than forty in-depth interviews with Dalit entrepreneurs in Uttar Pradesh, members from DICCI, and policy makers.


Dag Erik Berg (Molde University College)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses the sub-caste movement in Andhra Pradesh, Madiga Reservation Parota Samiti and their demand that the constitutional category “Scheduled Caste” should be sub-divided to enable underprivileged castes to gain access to the reservation policies granted by the Indian state.

Paper long abstract:

This paper discusses the sub-caste movement in Andhra Pradesh, Madiga Reservation Parota Samiti and their demand that the constitutional category "Scheduled Caste" should be sub-divided to enable underprivileged castes to gain access to the reservation policies granted by the Indian state.

The Madigas have been hit hard by globalisation. But the Madiga demand has a long history and reflects enduring inequalities among Dalits. In particular, the Madigas have a relative disadvantage in comparison to the Malas, another sub-caste, as the Malas have been more successful in making use of the reservation policies for Scheduled castes than Madigas and other Dalit sub-castes in the state.

The paper examines, first, how the Madiga struggle for sub-categorisation among Scheduled Castes has brought a constitutional dimension to their movement and strategy, thereby reproducing the significance of the secular-bureaucratic state for Dalits. Second, although the Madiga movement displays class differences between Dalits, their movement also shows the ways in which equality reinforces caste politics in the context of discourses of development and class.


Nicolas Jaoul (CNRS)

Paper short abstract:

This case study questions the way the process of NGOisation is impacting the political manufacture of the Dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh, through a comparison with previous features of Dalit activism, like finances, caste networks, language, ideology and local repertoires of collective action.

Paper long abstract:

In the aftermath of the Durban conference, the international civil society started taking interest in the Dalit question. The availability of NGO fundings has incitated Dalit activists formerly trained in the Ambedkarite movement, to reframe their activity. This tendency has been initiated by several Dalit activists who obtained NGO trainings in the 1990s, and founded their own NGOs.

This contribution will look at the impact of this evolution of the Dalit movement, and the possibilities and constraints that the current process of NGOisation entails for it. It will focus on the Dynamic Action group, a grouping of local Dalit NGOs of Uttar Pradesh. The paper aims at comparing the methods of work with the previous way of functioning of the Dalit movement in UP. It will look at several aspects of this process of NGOisation and their consequences on the political nature of the movement, through concrete issues like:

1° finances, from community based donation system, which gave an economic basis to the Dalit movement's autonomy, to dependence from foreign funding agencies;

2° caste networks that hitherto structured the Dalit movement;

3° translation of local concerns of Dalits, into a global language of rights and commensurable "data", implying to produce reports in English and hire professional NGO writers exterior to the movement;

4° the ability to sustain a local people's movement;

5° the fate of ideology (anti-brahminism/Ambedkarism) and local repertoires of protests that have previously informed the movement's politics of emancipation.


Luisa Steur (University of Amsterdam)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how since the Durban conference in 2001, Dalit activists' articulations of "caste" have been shaped by their engagement with "global civil society".

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores how the Dalit movement's turn toward transnational advocacy, commencing in preparation of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, affected political dialectics within the movement at large in the context of the most recent phase in India's capitalist path of development. It discusses how in the decade after Durban, activist understandings of "caste" have related to international civil society campaigns: how a recently emerging agenda of "Dalit budgeting", as part of international initiatives at "state accountability" and "budget transparency", relates to the earlier international Dalit discourse that focused on the eradication of "untouchability" as part of an international "human rights" effort. In particular the paper explores the different scales invoked by the two framings, the different ways these programs tie activists to the "grassroots", the way these frames affect the pendulum between caste eradication and caste assertion, and finally how they accommodate or confront the wider dynamic of capitalist development in "Shining" India.


David Mosse (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

The widespread adoption of a Dalit rights framework among development NGOs in south India introduced new uncertainties and new ‘network’ forms. These are analysed both in terms of discursive effect and the politics of organisational relations.

Paper long abstract:

In the 1990s, a rights-based approach to development and the revival of Dalit movements and politics converged to produce a 'dalitization' of the field of NGOs. This paper examines how NGOs in S. India came to adopt a Dalit rights approach and the significance of the NGO form itself as a vehicle for Dalit social goals. It describes the emergence of a Dalit rights discourse in the context of the relationship between NGOs and INGO donors to show how regional caste politics intersect with NGO institutional processes. The paper explores issues and debates around a Dalit rights approach. It explains the uncertainties that this involved - social retaliation, political risk and financial insecurity - and specific organisational responses, in particular the emergence of 'network' forms. To make sense of the expansion and later fragmentation of certain Dalit NGO networks, two approaches are needed. The first draws on anthropological approaches to 'the network' as a discursive effect, a cultural construct or mobilising metaphor. The second adopts an organisational view of the inter-agency relationships that determine the actual practices of Dalit NGOs. Seeing Dalit NGO networking as a two-level process helps focus on the disjuncture between the 'narrativised network' and organisational relations. This not only explains the success and vulnerabilities of NGO Dalit rights work, but also how NGO donors - supporting network narratives through fund flows into agencies - amplify the tension between 'network idea' and organisational processes to a point of crisis which brings about policy and institutional change.