Twenty-six January 2022 marks India’s 73rd Republic Day. It will be 73 years since the Constitution of India came into effect and along with that a promise to secure for all citizens, justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Two weeks after the dust from the Republic Day pageantry settles, the electorate of five states will decide how well their elected representatives have performed in delivering the promises of the Constitution. Politicians across party lines have already kicked off the Dalit outreach part of their election campaign. And a standard fixture of this outreach is a photo-op of politicians at a Dalit family’s home, sitting on the floor, and having a meal. We never get to know any details of this Dalit family — their names, professions, aspirations, or their expectations from the government. Neither do we know the details regarding who cooked the food, what conversations (if any) happened during the meal, or if anything changed in their lives after the famous visits. All we know is that a politician visited a Dalit bhai/behen/beti’s home.
It is very likely that there are many professionals from the Dalit community within the immediate circles of politicians. In most state governments across India, there are Dalits serving as civil servants, engineers, doctors, teachers, police officers, healthcare workers and other state department employees. If rural Dalit vote is the target, then there are Dalit sarpanchs and grassroot leaders who can articulate the concerns of the community. Yet when the time for the photo ops arrive, our politicians and their media teams go to the homes of the most marginalised and vulnerable Dalit families, and burden their household with charity they may have never asked for. How is this imagery of false generosity, powerlessness, and indignity an acceptable visual for demonstrating engagement with Dalit voters?
The image of reality
An online image search for “Dalits” returns a collection of heart rendering images. Imagery that depicts helplessness, humiliation, and ostracisation; images of bodies that are violated, undignified, and disrespected; images that rob decency of human life and violently reinforces the hierarchy of the caste system. The photos that our politicians tout as Dalit outreach belong to this same school.
Even in this day and age, many in upper caste communities do not perceive Dalits as equal human beings. In their limited imagination, Dalits do not sit across from them at a table, have a meal in a dignified manner, or engage with them in regular conversations. Upper caste imagination expects that Dalits sit on the floor, stand up in their presence, speak only when asked to, do as they are told to, and take what is given to them. That is why, whenever Dalits dare to challenge the expected social order, upper castes respond with violence to enforce the rules of engagement that are aligned to their expectations.
In the context of these social realities, the photo of a generous upper caste politician having a meal with a vulnerable Dalit family presents itself as intentional. The image represents a power dynamic that is acceptable to the vast majority of members from upper caste communities who rely on their caste capital to lead everyday lives. While the photo shows an upper caste individual engaging with a Dalit individual, it does not threaten caste privilege, it does not undermine the caste system, it does not annihilate caste. For violent casteists, the photos signal their continued caste supremacy and for benevolent casteists, they signal a savior complex that preserves their moral superiority. For Dalits, it is intended to serve as a reminder of their place in the caste riddled society — on the floor of the social pyramid, at the service of the upper castes, and a sustenance that is charity of the upper castes.
What true outreach would mean
The most familiar image of B.R. Ambedkar is of him in a blue suit, with the Indian Constitution in one hand and the other pointing ahead. This image has been replicated in the countless statues of Ambedkar that adorn the nation, from Parliament to street corners. Today, there are Dalit filmmakers, artists, writers, and activists who present a wide array of visual imagery that showcase Dalits as not just helpless victims but as resilient communities. In parts of the country where even simple acts like dressing in a certain manner can get Dalits killed, Dalit youth are daring to project an assertive image of themselves.
So why are our politicians still staging stereotypes in the name of Dalit outreach? Why are the same kind of images being conceived, propagated, and recycled every election cycle? This is not to say the poor and vulnerable are not worthy of being showcased in high-profile photos but to engage them with the dignity they deserve.
Dalit outreach should not be unidimensional. Talk with Dalit students in state universities to understand how the government can better support their academic endeavors; talk with Dalit women to learn about the threats and challenges they face at every turn in their lives; talk with Dalit farmers about their promised land titles; talk with Dalit professionals in public and private sector regarding the opportunities they are seeking. Engage the Dalit community as equals not just as photo-ops.
Benson Neethipudi is a public sector consultant. He recently graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets @bNeethipudi. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of his employers.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)