Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Dalits Demand More State Intervention

Gopal Guru
August 17, 2009

Dalits in India demand more state intervention for improvements in their living conditions. This demand, however, goes completely against the grain. In contemporary thinking, post-structuralist and neo-liberal perspectives, for different reasons, do not put a premium on the state. The first does not assign any credibility to the state, while the second does not want to throw the baby out with the bath water; instead it seeks to limit the role of the state. It would still like the state to retain some hold over external security concerns, and in fact, would prefer the military state over the welfare state for a variety of reasons. One of the fundamental reasons is related to private accumulation for “social development,” which is an impossibility in what is described as the dentistry, predatory or patrimonial state that existed in the pre-modern period.

At the other end of the spectrum, the post-structuralist perspective would consider state intervention as undesirable in as much as it leads to both subjection and subjugation of the free person. Thus, according to the post-structuralist perspective, the state is part of the problem rather than the solution. The question that needs to be raised at this crucial juncture is a matter of what the Dalits should do. Should they side with the first rather than second or vice versa? 

In this regard, it is interesting to note that Dalits are quite vocal in proposing the second option rather than the first one. However, their defense of the new economic order in favor of Dalits is influenced by the need for the positional improvement that globalization seems to have brought about within Dalit living conditions. In addition to this defense, one could possibly – yet without much confidence – argue that in the new dispensation, Dalits have more freedom to choose and change their masters (employers) apart from the state sector and as a best case scenario, could even have the opportunity to become employers themselves.

This perspective effectively suggests that it may not matter much even if the state withdraws from the welfare sector.  However, among the Dalit circles, this view seems to be less popular.  In fact, the majority of Dalits in India demand increasing intervention from the state, which they see as a more reliable and viable option as far as their welfare is concerned. Thus, Dalits expect the state to intervene and create more employment opportunities, not only in the public sector but in the private sector as well. In India, during the past few years, educated Dalits have been pressing for reservation in the private sector as well. These individuals want a more institutional mechanism for intervention in their lives, along with a stricter regulation of caste certification that leads to government benefits. In fact, Dalits are struggling to verify their caste certificates, which are required to seek admissions to professional colleges in Maharashtra, while also demanding state intervention in the social sector for healthcare, education, and housing. In addition to this, Dalits expect the state to help in augmenting their credibility in order for them to become “market worthy” through loans and the promotion of Dalit self-help groups. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Dalit households are one of the major beneficiaries of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). However, as noted by observers, NREGS is not free from problems.  

Why are Dalits demanding more and more intervention from the state? Is it fair to overburden the state with this ever-increasing flow of demands? How do Dalits relate to the state? It could be said that the state has been described as the entity, which was formed only after the structures of inequalities were in place and further consolidated. By taking a cue from Bernard Williams, it could be argued that in the ex post facto situation, most of the resources get concentrated not into the hands of the state, but into the hands of the private sector. For redistribution purposes, the state needs to extract these resources primarily by taxing the wealthiest classes of people. Dalits – being on the marginal side of the spectrum – therefore, have to rely on the state for reapportioning the resources so as to minimize the gap between the two stages: absolute marginalization to relative deprivation. In order to strike a balance between the two stages, Dalits need to depend on the state and have earned the right to make such demands for a variety of reasons. First, Dalits contribute enormously towards food production, which the Indian state acquires through levy. Second, Dalits play an important role in developing infrastructure, which is so important in giving concrete meaning to the “developmentalism” of the state. Third, Dalits who are sanitation workers or “Walmikis” in particular, are single-handedly responsible for ensuring the health of civil society. This is not to suggest that Dalits should remain scavengers forever, but the state sector should adopt a radical position so that Dalits are able to move from scavenging to more decent jobs. Dalits’ claim for fair distribution needs to be acknowledged as legitimate since, after all, they are not “free riders” who are able to participate only in distribution and not in production. 

Although Dalits, through their labor, transform the state from being a more abstract entity into a concrete reality, they find themselves pushed to the margin of the state. Their articulation and expression vis-à-vis the state changes from assertive (language of rights) to more submissive (the language of servility). Common Dalits elect the state government, but as soon as they elect it, they find themselves pushed out. They are not able to lay their claim on the state, and instead of becoming assets to the state, they become mere liabilities. They are constituted as beneficiaries of a dole receiving mentality. To put it differently, Dalits become an object of pity because they fail to mediate their relationship with the state through the language of rights and instead, cast their relationship with the state in a patrimonial framework, treating the state as Ma-Bap Sarkar, a patriarchical state that looks after the interest of its family members.  The relationship between Dalits and the state becomes one of mere patronage and is so oppressive in the sense that Dalits tend to internalize their inferiority vis-à-vis the state. Being at the receiving end of the state patronage, distribution of the resources is transferred through the mediation of the state as part of the mandate of the social contact.  It is this reason that the state acquires seminal importance. Imagine a Dalit placed in charge over the state with unrestrained power to acquire and redistribute resources. Such hold over the state could certainly place a Dalit ruler into the position of a Buddhist Tathagatha: a person known for his or her moral caliber and one who would postpone his or her emancipation until the last person is emancipated. One can only wonder if there is such an exemplar among Dalits today who could use state power in the favor of the last person.

Gopal Guru is a professor of social and political theory in the Center of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.He can be reached at

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

© 2009 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.