This thesis is an exploration of the politicisation of caste in contemporary India through looking at the identity politics of a group of Dalit activists. ‘Dalit’ as a concept is political in nature and attempts to reformulate the identities of castes that have traditionally been marked by ritual stigma, economic exploitation, and social exclusion, with profound material as well as psychological impact. The new assertiveness of these underprivileged castes is today manifest in literature, in political parties, and in a multitude of organisations and activist networks fighting discrimination against Dalits within education, politics, and general public life.
Moving beyond the official rhetoric of the Dalit movement, the thesis takes as its subject the relation between larger, public narratives of caste and development, and personal narratives of ‘Dalithood’, activism, and social difference. Central to the discussion is the formulation of caste pride and what this pride should be based on. While Dalit activists position themselves clearly in opposition to the Brahmanical ideology as manifest in discriminatory notions and practices, their relation to the Dalits for whom they claim to speak is more ambivalent.
Seeing themselves as representatives of the Dalits on the basis of a shared notion of ‘Dalithood’, the activists employ various strategies to negotiate the social distance between their own educated, middle-class selves and the ‘poor and oppressed’ Dalits of their discourse. While this is both an expression of solidarity and a necessity to legitimise their activism, I contend that social difference is also reproduced in activist narratives, and that this difference is constitutive of their social identities. This reification of social difference plays into the dichotomy between the ‘forward’ and the ‘backward’ – a dichotomy which is strengthened by the confluence of notions of development, progress and modernity with popular conceptions of caste.