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Behind the Headlines: Is India Becoming More Democratic?

Rajesh is a fifteen year old low caste (Dalit) boy living in a small village in the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. He comes from a laboring family. His father and mother stack bricks in a local brick-kiln and sometimes harvest wheat for the neighbouring landlord. When I interviewed Rajesh in 2002 while conducting social research in India, he spoke to me of his dreams. “I want to become a big politician in India after first studying law. And I want to raise the standing of my community.” Rajesh was already on the way to realizing his goals. He was a “topper” (best in his class) at the local school and he spoke enthusiastically about the rise of Dalits in politics.

During the last thirty years marginalized groups in many parts of the world have achieved a new level of political power. The governments in many places in Africa, Latin America and Asia have become formally democratic. New political parties representing the masses have emerged on the political scene. And disadvantaged groups have been able to participate in politics on the ground.

These trends are especially evident in India. Not only has democracy survived in India since it became Independent in 1947: it has blossomed. New parties representing marginalized political groups have risen to prominence, and many Dalits at the local level – boys like Rajesh – seem hopeful and upbeat.

Much of the popular upsurge in democracy has occurred in south India, which has a longer history of popular mobilization. But north India has also participated. Indeed, in perhaps the most dramatic instance of “people power” in India since Independence, a party representing low castes won the elections in the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh in May 2007. This party – called the “Bahujan Samaj Party” (BSP) – is led by Mayawati, a Dalit former school teacher.

But has the rise of political parties like the BSP actually improved the ability of downtrodden groups to participate in politics? On the face of it the answer is an unequivocal yes, at least when we look at the BSP in Uttar Pradesh. A great deal of research in Uttar Pradesh refers to the rise of Dalit political consciousness in the State since the BSP first emerged on the political scene in the 1980s. Dalits are organizing strikes against their employers and petitioning the state for welfare resources. They are active in student politics, trade unions, and everyday protests. And statues of famous Dalits – particularly B.R. Ambedkar – now dot the public areas of Uttar Pradesh’s towns and cities.

Hand in hand with this political assertion has been a social shift: Dalits are refusing to accept that the stigma of caste. They increasingly socialize and eat with higher castes. In small towns across north India, one frequently hears Dalits insisting, “Why should we be treated like dogs? We should be demanding our rights!” “We are humans just like higher castes”. More and more Dalits are going into education and becoming civil servants, lawyers, doctors, and professors – helped in part by a system of government reservations.

What is remarkable is that these changes have occurred without significant bloodshed. The French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has written of a “Silent Revolution” occurring at the local level in many parts of north India. In just a couple of decades low castes have quietly overturned centuries of discrimination and exploitation.

But many Dalits are arguing that the changes have not gone far enough. Dalit activists and sympathetic scholars are pointing to the continued existence of higher caste violence against Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Scholars have also shown that Dalits remain disadvantaged within education and the professions, perhaps inevitably given the scale of their former deprivation. More than this, many Dalits argue that – despite appearances – they do not have a great deal more political power since the rise of the BSP than they had before. During social research I have been conducting in Uttar Pradesh since 1996, I have been repeatedly told by Dalits that it is harder than ever to engage in politics at the local level – harder than ever to get a higher caste police officer’s help, harder than ever to get a child enrolled in a higher caste private school or obtain treatment from a higher caste government doctor. In a familiar twist to an age-old story, the rise of a people’s party at the formal level may not be leading to “effective democratization” on the ground.

Perhaps the question of whether north India is becoming more democratic therefore comes down to interpretation – a glass half full or a glass half empty. But the question also seems to hinge on how we define democracy. Dalits can certainly vote in elections. They can demonstrate in public. There are no formal rules barring them from schools. And they can certainly travel on public transport, share offices, and walk about with higher castes. None of this should be taken for granted, and some of these things represent major changes from the past. But Dalits are not, as yet, able to compete on equal terms with higher castes in everyday political arenas. Many Dalits remain cynical about the rise of BSP and generally quite turned off by politics.

These points came home to me when I interviewed Rajesh’s older brother, Jaipal, who had a BA degree from a local college and was looking for work. Jaipal had a very different outlook from his brother. Jaipal said that the rise of the BSP was a “sham”. He spoke of the lack of jobs for Dalits, in spite of government reservations. He said that Dalits continued to face discrimination in government offices in the local town and that they found it difficult to gain representation on the local government council. I asked Jaipal whether he thought India is becoming more democratic. “Definitely not” he replied.

Much is changing in India. Low castes have forced their way into the political limelight. But the question of effective democratization – a positive interest and involvement in politics at the local level – is very much open to doubt. There is a need for a great deal more discussion about what democracy means and how it works. And there is need for scholars, journalists, NGO workers and Dalits “on the ground” in places like UP to come together to discuss how effective democratization might be promoted.

This blog is an attempt to encourage further reflection on democratization within and beyond India. What do you think based on your experience of observing democracy in India and elsewhere? How do you think democracy should be defined? Is India different from other parts of the world because of the prevalence of caste? These are the type of questions we hope to see debated on the pages of this blog. The blog is open to people from all walks of life – please don’t feel you need to be a scholar or student. It is likewise open to people from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, though the founders of the blog are geographer-anthropologists.

We have grand ambitions for the blog, then, but it emerges out of a quite specific research project.

Craig Jeffrey (University of Oxford) and Stephen Young (University of Washington) are currently undertaking social research on Dalit democratization in north India. The project is funded by the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF). It seeks to address the question of democratization in Uttar Pradesh through reference to the lives and struggles of a set of Dalit political entrepreneurs in north India. We have included short biographies for Craig and Stephen on the main page of the blog and also a link to a description of our NSF funded project. Craig and Stephen will be regular contributors to the blog. We look forward to these discussions.