Dalits have mobilized throughout India - but how has that mobilization translated into political empowerment around the country?
India is home to over 200 million Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” who have historically occupied the bottom rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy. In recent decades, however, Dalits have experienced unprecedented political and social mobilization.
But, across India’s states, the collective action undertaken by this historically marginalized community has been highly uneven--this is the argument of a brand new book by the political scientist Amit Ahuja titled, Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements.
Amit is a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and one of the wisest voices on Indian politics, social change, and foreign policy. This week, Milan sits down with Amit to talk about his new book, the status of Dalit politics circa 2020, the BJP’s Dalit outreach, and Amit’s innovative research on marriage markets in India.
"Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." “Unsubstantiated narratives" "A battle of personalities."
Milan Vaishnav (00:11):
Welcome to Grand Tamasha, I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. India is home to over 200 million Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, who have historically occupied the bottom rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy. In recent decades, however, adults have experienced unprecedented political and social mobilization, but across India states, the collective action undertaken by this historically marginalized community has been highly uneven. This is the argument of a brand new book by the political scientist Amit Ahuja titled "Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements." Amit is a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and one of the wisest voices on Indian politics, social change, and foreign policy. I am very pleased to welcome him to the podcast for the very first time to talk about his brand new book. Amit, welcome to the show.
Amit Ahuja (00:57):
Thank you, Milan. Thank you for those kind words.
Milan Vaishnav (00:59):
So I'm pleased to have you on the show this week, but I'm very sad that your service dog Tashi is not here today.
Amit Ahuja (01:07):
Yes but the good news is that Tashi is all well and will be out of surgery this evening and you know, next time when I'm here you will see me with him.
Milan Vaishnav (01:18):
Okay. Cause it's usually a two for one gig here.
Amit Ahuja (01:21):
Yes. Yes. Yes. I've come to understand that yes.
Milan Vaishnav (01:25):
Looking at our producer Laura and thinking, I think we need to have a dog in here every week. I think that would raise the standards of the show. Amit, we have a lot to talk about,uin the book and congratulations - I had a chance to read it from cover to cover this weekend - but before we kind of get into the real substance,ulet me just sort of step back for a second. You know, I think we often talk about caste as this kind of abstract concept, but it is strongly ingrained into people's lived experiences into their daily lives. In the preface of this book, you write, and I'm going to quote you, humiliation has defined Dalits' relationship with the rest of Indian society especially. I think for our international listeners, help break down for us, you know, what has been the historical position that Dalits have held in Indian society.
Amit Ahuja (02:13):
So, you know, as you explained in your introduction, it's just, you know, Dalits have had - Dalits lie at the bottom of the Hindu social order. And that's, that's the caste system, which is an occupationally defined social order in which there are certain castes that are associated with ritual purity and therefore enjoy a higher status. Others are associated with lower levels of ritual purity. So for example, the priestly, the warrior castes are seen as higher castes. Those associated with farming, craftsmanship, artisan castes, those are seen as lower castes. Dalits actually lie beyond these. Their occupations were seen as so polluting that they were treated as untouchables. And so they lie at the bottom of this, of this caste hierarchy and this sense of pollution that stigmatizes them then also manifested in their lives. They were kept away from in terms of their habitation.
Amit Ahuja (03:19):
They were treated as untouchables in some places that their touch was seen as polluting. In other places, even their shadow was regarded as, you know, as, as polluted. So it's - in that sense, there has been this, this longstanding separation and stigma associated with their identity. What is really interesting is that, you know, even though today the relationship between occupation and caste has broken down, so Dalits for example, are no longer associated with those polluting occupations. For example, with dealing with animal hides or picking up manual waste those things have changed. Even then, the stigma has stayed. And that's primarily because caste has reproduced itself as a social order over a 2000 year old institution. And for that duration, it's reproduced itself. And what is also interesting is that, you know, in the beginning I said this is about the Hindu social order. Even Islam, Christianity, Sikhism in sub-continent, religious faiths that actually differentiate themselves from Hinduism on the count of, of social equality. You know, even within these faiths there is the caste distinction. So there are Muslim Dalits, Christian Dalit Sikhs Dalits and that stigma comes with, with humiliation, with you know, with this threat of violence of insults. And, and what is, what has happened is that over the years, even as a situation of Dalits has changed their, the way they are perceived by rest of society, that has still to change substantially. And, and let me sort of explain this. Dalits, you know, have become assertive. They've mobilized, they don't accept the stigma with associated with their castes. But identity as we know, is not about just, you know, not just about how you see yourself, but it's also about how others see you. And in that sense, even though Dalits have broken away from their polluting occupations they have been educated, they have become assertive politically, socially. Others see the stigma around their caste and it's very difficult for them to escape that. They still end up being seen just as Dalits.
Milan Vaishnav (06:07):
So let me, let me stop you there because I think, you know, one of the things I wanted to ask you, I don't think I've ever asked you this, is, you know, why did you decide to take the subject of Dalits up and they're kind of social and political mobilization? Why was this the topic of your book? What led you to this choice?
Amit Ahuja (06:24):
So there are, you know, there are different reasons that sort of,
Milan Vaishnav (06:28):
Other than that you have to do a PhD dissertation.
Amit Ahuja (06:31):
That is correct. So, no, so, so you, you know, even when it comes to PhD dissertation topics, the topic that I sort of got interested in intellectually. You know, when I was when I was going through my undergraduate work in India there, that was a time in the 1990s when lower caste politics was ascendant. And what was really interesting is that by the time I started my PhD at the University of Michigan, there's a lot of literature that had appeared on, on lower caste assertion. And when I, when I began my work, I wanted to sort of see what were the effects of this, of this lower caste assertion, especially political and electoral assertion that we'd seen in the 1990s and during the 2000s.
Amit Ahuja (07:12):
So that's how I started, that's what sort of got me interested. But the more I read, what also struck me was that growing up, whether it was in high school or it was in an undergraduate program in economics, somehow the question of caste and the effects of caste discrimination the sort of structural disadvantages that come with it, those were just never part of one's curriculum. And you know, when I, when I, when I read up on Dalits, it was very obvious that looking back on the history, the culture, they were just absent. They are not, they were just, they were not a part of the story in India. These things were changing you know, in, in the, in the early 2000s and there was no denying that, but it was very, you know, I was very struck by how my upbringing and how my education did not focus on, on this story at all.
Milan Vaishnav (08:19):
And you know, when you think about the book, there's sort of a central puzzle that animates the whole thing, right? Where you have in some instances ethnically Dalit parties - these are pro-Dalit political parties - and they have performed very poorly in some states. And these are precisely the states where historically they have mobilized socially quite successfully. On the other hand, you kind of have the mirror image, right? You have political parties who represent Dalits who do very well electorally, but there is no history of social mobilization. Now, there's a lot to unpack here and you spend entirety of the book doing it. But I'm just wondering, when you talk about social mobilization, electoral mobilization, you know, what did these mean to kind of the lay person?
Amit Ahuja (09:04):
I distinguished between two forms of mobilization. As you point out, social mobilization. I see as the mobilization is the organization that people get, you know, they are involved in on an everyday basis. These, this is about organizing, coming together, telling stories about one's group, accomplishing small tasks in one's neighborhood, celebrating festivals, getting involved in one's community. So social mobilization is an everyday form of mobilization where people come together. It is sort of ongoing. It is a form of collective action. It brings people together. It requires a level of organization and coordination. And I studied this at, at the local, at the neighborhood locality level, and it is different and very distinct from electoral mobilization, which is primarily focused on the act of voting, supporting parties. Electoral mobilization by contrast occurs around elections. It's the two, three, four week period before the elections. And once the elections are done, electoral mobilization is done whereas social mobilization continues.
Milan Vaishnav (10:23):
But when you have, I guess, you know, this is the thing that I think is strikes me as the most counter-intuitive part of the book where you have a marginalized group like Dalits where you have social mobilization that has come before electoral mobilization. The success of this group's electoral mobilization seems to be curtailed. And I think that's not what one would expect, right? If you have a base that's socially mobilized, it seemed natural that you can use that platform, those linkages, those networks to, to leverage them electorally. Why is this, why is this happening? Why is the social mobilization in some sense undermining or limiting the electoral mobilizaton that's possible?
Amit Ahuja (11:04):
See social mobilization, the way I see it, performs a very important function, which, you know, sometimes we don't appreciate as much in political science because we're so focused on what parties are doing. And what I find is that what social mobilization does, esepecially in a marginalized group when it begins to organize itself, it protests, it demands, it comes together. It performs two basic, important functions. One, it produces a cohort of mobilizers who are, who know how to organize the group, who are articulate in terms of their, you know, representing group interests. And second, it also produces the demands, the symbols of that group, which are actually absent given its marginalization. These are not symbols and demands, which are there in the public sphere. Once this work is done and you have a competitive party system, multi-ethnic parties who want to basically expand their vote share, are going to take on these demands, recruit these mobilizers to get the votes of this group.
Amit Ahuja (12:37):
So the marginalized group, the social mobilization actually lays the groundwork for the incorporation of and mobilization of the marginalized group by multiethnic parties. Right? that's what the, that's the work that the social mobilization does. Now when ethnic parties appear and ethnic parties - or for that matter, new parties, when they appear, - they're looking for electoral opportunities. Right? And in India, this opportunity, for example, appears in the early nineties. The Indian party system is fragmenting. The Congress is declining. There are new parties coming up across the country and we see the Dalit parties begin to appear and compete in different, different parts of the state, different parts of the country. But what is interesting is that where social mobilization had occurred, Dalit demands, Dalit symbols, Dalit party workers, Dalit mobilizers in Dalit localities had already been incorporated in the multiethnic mainstream parties. So when the Dalit party began to compete, it was not bringing new demands or you know, new ideas to the,uto the mobilization process. It was also - it's party workers were also - competing with Dalit party workers from other parties. So it found the going really difficult because in these two states that I look at Tamil Naidu and Maharashtra, that had experienced historical social mobilization in these two states this work of getting the demands and party workers and mobilizers into mainstream parties, had already been done.
Milan Vaishnav (14:17):
Right. I mean, I'm glad you brought up these states because the book is kind of broken into, into two parts. On the one hand, you look at Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu where you had Dalit social mobilization that did not lead to electoral success for their parties. On the other hand, you have Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two North Indian states where you have very powerful pro-Dalit parties but not a lot of social mobilization. Now these are important states. I mean they have huge Dalit populations. They just have huge populations more generally. I'm wondering if we could maybe just walk through one state. Let's just take Tamil Nadu for example, to kind of give our kind of a tangible concrete example of what you're talking about. So we have a pro-Dalit the party called the VCK. It's been around for a long time and yet it's a pretty minor, kind of bit player in party politics. How did that come to pass?
Amit Ahuja (15:07):
The VCK has, as I said, it's been around for for awhile. And VCK begins to compete and compete seriously in, in Tamil Nadu politics as the politics of that state is fragmenting. And that's something I don't know. I I talked about earlier, but and what does VCA actually need for its success? It needs Dalits who are one fifth of the state's population to support the party in large numbers. If that feat is achieved, VCK is a serious player in the state's politics, right? In a fragmenting party system, when VCK goes to Dalit localities to mobilize Dalits, it runs into a problem. And the problem is that there are party workers, Dalit party workers from different parties that the VCK party worker has to compete with. The VCK party worker talks about Dalit rights, Dalit recognition, the VCK party worker wants to fight the election in the name of Ambedkar a was a big civil rights icon related to Dalits and there the problem is that these things are already there.
Amit Ahuja (16:29):
That's the, you know, these are already a part of the political landscape.
Milan Vaishnav (16:32):
So they've already been kind of appropriated.
Amit Ahuja (16:34):
Absolutely. And what and what, what is even more interesting is, because they have been, even at the locality level, because Dalits are voting for different parties, even though they are very conscious of their Dalit identity, they are actually not voting their castes. Right? Right. And so that because, that vote is split, this is not a consolidated vote. Now, if they are not interested in voting your caste, the vote is you know, and your ethnic party comes knocking and those demands and symbols are already there in the mainstream, then it becomes very difficult for Thirumavalavan who leads the VCK to make that case of the kind that leaders in Uttar Pradesh in the North or Bihar in the North have been able,
Milan Vaishnav (17:24):
So this is basically the mirror image of the story of the BSP, which is the pro-Dalit party headed by Mayawati, who is one of India's most well known popular politicians. Also one of its foremost DaliT leaders. You know, is it fair to say that the BSP's rise essentially is the kind of inverse of this story? That you know, you had no previous political party that fully incorporated Dalit demands so then the BSP comes around and it's able essentially to occupy that space.
Amit Ahuja (17:53):
Yeah. So that's part of the story that, you know, when, when the party system fragments and the BSP comes around, it is the, in some ways the first mover in terms of articulating Dalit demands for recognition for, you know, as an equal group as compared to other castes. But there's, there's a little bit more that it is also, it's also taking advantage of the fact that in Dalit localities, because you know, I went and actually looked at how the mobilization process works and what I found is that in Dalit localities in Uttar Pradesh, there were basically very few party workers from other parties who were present prior to the arrival of the BSP. So in some ways BSP goes in, starts appointing, recruiting party workers. And this is for the first time some of these localities have actually had parties from the Dalits
Amit Ahuja (18:54):
So it's not like there've not been - people have not come to mobilize them. - Right? That has happened, but they have been from outside. Right? So they have these actually been Dalits have lived in cities or most of the times it's been members of other castes who've come in and mobilized them. So in that sense, you know, it is taking advantage of the, of the articulation of Dalit demands for the first time. It's also appointing and recruiting Dalit party workers for the first time. And, and then, most importantly, because these Dalits who are living in these localities are voting together they really have, you know, these votes have not been split by different parties prior to the arrival of BSP.
Milan Vaishnav (19:37):
So you have a much more of a kind of block style voting.
Amit Ahuja (19:39):
Yes, absolutely. So these blocks have actually been preserved because had these groups, mo - had these groups been mobilized socially, what social mobilization and that sense does it signals to different parties that Hey, we are mobilized, we are organized as a group. You want to woo us, you want our votes, you've got to incorporate our demands. Right? And the more, more the longer is that process more party workers you will find in a locality. Right.
Milan Vaishnav (20:06):
There are a lot of really stunning pieces of data in the book. And there's a question that you look at which comes from, I believe it's a CSDS survey.
Amit Ahuja (20:14):
Milan Vaishnav (20:15):
How many people in a state can recognize the picture of BR Ambedkar? Who as you mentioned is the most famous Dalit icon. He Is called the father of the constitution. Now in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, twice as many people, I think it's 88% can recognize his picture compared to the residents of Bihar and UV, which is a kind of stunning number. What do you take away from this discussion?
Amit Ahuja (20:38):
And what is, what is even more interesting about this number is the fact that, you know the survey was done after the UPA government had undertaken a project of putting a [inaudible] Ambedkar's statues across the state of state. Right. And it's just what it sort of tells you really is that, you know, the familiarity with Ambedkar is far stronger. And as has been around for a longer time in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, I actually proved this even more because it is not just about recognizing Ambedkar's picture, right? I, you know, it, during my work, I actually went and looked in the localities in which I worked. I started counting the localities in which Ambedkar's birthday and death anniversaries were being celebrated. And what I discovered was that far more localities in Uttar Pradesh - in, sorry, - in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were observing his birth anniversary.
Amit Ahuja (21:39):
People knew about him. They knew about his achievements, his contributions, why he was important for Dalits and these anniversaries were being celebrated from within the localities and different parties, actually their party workers contributed to these celebrations. What was interesting in UP and in Bihar was that in Uttar Pradesh, you know, fewer localities observed the birth anniversary. People knew that he was an icon. He was important for the community, but they didn't know why. They, you know, they did not know his association with the Dalit history that much. And importantly, the celebrations were sponsored by the BSP. Other parties did not take part in it and where the BSP presence was weak, I did not spot this, these celebrations.
Milan Vaishnav (22:37):
So the main part of your book is sort of understanding why you get this different variation and kind of social political mobilization, but that's just one part of it. You then shift to look at what impact does this have on welfare, which is ultimately, I think that the thing that a lot of us care about, and here again, I guess somewhat unexpectedly where you have electorally powerful significant pro-Dalit parties, welfare outcomes actually lag behind places where they're absent. Now, why is it that parties like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh or the Lok Jan Shakti Party in Bihar, these, again pro-Dalit parties - why can't they translate this political power into better outcomes for the people they represent? I mean they have the votes, they have the seats, they have the chief minister, they have the cabinet. Why doesn't A lead to B?
Amit Ahuja (23:24):
You're absolutely right and that really is puzzling. It's also something that I had actually expected because that's, that's the sort of, that's the question I -
Milan Vaishnav (23:33):
Well, if you know about these states, you know that, you know, they continue to lag behind.
Amit Ahuja (23:38):
They do, but this is the interesting thing. So what I look at is, you know, so if I just compare Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and for example, with Dalits in Tamil and Maharashtra, you know, you could sort of say, Hey, you don't, these states lag behind. And so therefore that's expected. But the way I look at it slightly differently, I compare the Dalit welfare indicators with the welfare indicators of others within the same state. So what I look at is not, not across state comparison of Dalits, but actually the gap that is there between Dalits and others across these states. And what I find is that the gap has actually either not narrowed or expanded in Bihar and UP despite the fact that you had stronger performance of Dalit parties in these states. And, and you know, the fieldwork actually showed up the three reasons for this. One is that there is outside the party, whether it's the BJPSP, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the LJP, the Lok Jan Shakti Party in Bihar, there is actually very little social vigilance that is there among Dalits.
Amit Ahuja (24:53):
So which is to say when things go wrong, when things are not delivered as promised, the agitation levels, whether it's small protests, it's petitioning behavior, that social vigilance is absent because social mobilization levels at the locality level are much lower in these states.
Milan Vaishnav (25:12):
Now these are the things that are happening between elections as you said.
Amit Ahuja (25:14):
Yes, absolutely. And then second is this issue of, you know, ultimately we remember the Dalits are still mostly poor and when it comes to the poor holding government officials, holding your own parties that you support, you know, holding them accountable on promises becomes more difficult. Right? And so if you want to sort of, you know, in political science we use the word clientelism. Dalits in that sense are weak clients even when it comes to their own parties. So as a counterfactual, if this was an ethnic party, was a caste-based body of let's say wealthier caste group -
Milan Vaishnav (25:56):
Amit Ahuja (25:56):
I think the accountability would have been better.
Milan Vaishnav (25:59):
Amit Ahuja (25:59):
So that is, but most importantly, thirdly for Dalits in these states, and let's talk about BSP, which has actually been in power in UP, right? The fact is that elections are a lottery. If the party wins, they're in power. You know, you will get access to the state and when the party loses you have no access. Right? And you know, the party is not going to win all the time. And you know of what we've seen is, you know, we've seen projects, policies being implemented, but there's no continuity. And where Dalits in for example, in Tamil Nadu, in Maharashtra where they actually split their votes between, there's far more policy continuity. Because parties themselves don't know, you know, how particular group of Dalits, or you know, in a locality how Dalits are going to vote and who's going to vote for them. And so in that sense, you know, nobody wants to alienate the group. And so those policies, those projects, they continue even as governments alternate.
Milan Vaishnav (27:04):
So, Amit, let me bring this story, if I can, to the present. So we've just had a major election in 2019 this is kind of where you end your book.
Amit Ahuja (27:12):
Milan Vaishnav (27:12):
We've seen unprecedented levels of support from India's Dalits for the ruling party, the BJP.
Amit Ahuja (27:19):
Milan Vaishnav (27:19):
We see the continued marginalization of smaller Dalit parties like the VCK, but we also see the marginalization of previously successful parties like the BSP of Mayawati.
Amit Ahuja (27:31):
Milan Vaishnav (27:31):
So I'm wondering if you could just kind of take a step back and answer the question of, you know, what is the state of Dalit at the politics in the aftermath of the 2019 general election? How would you sum it up?
Amit Ahuja (27:43):
So I think that the 2019 election throws up very interesting patterns which have been developing for, for a few elections now. So, you know, if you go back by three elections, you have Dalits, you know, I think the vote percentage for the BJP - the support for it - was at 10 percent.
Milan Vaishnav (27:57):
Amit Ahuja (27:58):
Then it went up to twenty-five in 2014, and now it's up to about 34 percent. Right? So you're absolutely right. Then the percentage of support has gone up in for the, for the BJP. But here's the, here's the, here's the interesting part of the story I think, which is that I think the BSP is still holding on to some of its vote shares. And I think that is interesting because, you know, the ground level conditions, which I assume in some ways - of when I went for the study that I've conducted - Is that, you know, the party system needs to have that openness. It needs to be fragmented. And you know, what we're seeing is the party system is less fragmented as compared to what the situation was earlier.
Milan Vaishnav (28:46):
Amit Ahuja (28:46):
Right? So, that opportunity, the electoral opportunity for that matter for a party like the BSP, which is a caste party or any other caste party is, shrinking.
Milan Vaishnav (28:55):
Now this has happened as the BJP has become the new hegemon.
Amit Ahuja (28:58):
New hegemon, yes.
Milan Vaishnav (28:59):
That the Congress once was.
Amit Ahuja (29:00):
Yeah. But on the other side, what is really, I think, worth noticing is how the BJP has mobilized Dalits, right? So this is not, these are not Dalits who are just voting for the BJP out of just sheer opportunism. Some of that may be going on, but the BJP on its own has made, has put in a considerable effort, especially in terms of using Dalit symbols using Ambedkar for example. And how Prime Minister Modi, you know, uses Ambedkar the commemoration of Ambedkar, memorialization of Ambedkar. There are lots of steps that the BJP has taken to, to conduct this outreach towards Dalits. So it's not - you know, there's a clear strategy at play here.
Milan Vaishnav (29:58):
So could I dig a little deeper on this point?
Amit Ahuja (29:59):
Milan Vaishnav (30:00):
So, you know, we had Rahul Verma on the show, I think back in the first season who made the point that, you know, the support the BJP gets from Dalits,
Amit Ahuja (30:10):
Milan Vaishnav (30:10):
Is contrasted with the fact that the party has relatively few prominent Dalit faces. So if you look at who votes for the party, who comprises the party at its leadership level this contradiction is eventually gonna blow up in the party's face. And I'm wondering if you agree with that and if you do, what are, or even if you don't, what are some of the other factors that could that could maybe challenge the BJP and its control over Dalit votes?
Amit Ahuja (30:38):
So I think, I see Rahul's point. And let me also sort of explain why this - the sort of the rationale behind this point. Because, you know, given that most of the BJP support today comes out of North India, not entirely, but still a lot of it's electoral support comes out of North India and across some of these North Indian states there is caste-based, block voting. And if, you know, if you're voting as a block, then you're looking for leaders and caste matters. The caste of the leaders matters in elections, right? So do you - so then it is important for the BJP to start worrying whether they have Dalit faces or not.
Milan Vaishnav (31:20):
Amit Ahuja (31:20):
Right? But on the other hand, what my, you know, my, my work shows and Anad's is that many Indian parties are leader-centric parties and in such leader-centric parties, you know, there are other ways of mobilizing caste groups. One is you use their symbols, you use their demand, you recognize them, acknowledge them.
Milan Vaishnav (31:50):
And you use their language, right?
Amit Ahuja (31:51):
And use their language and that to a certain extent, we see that the BJP is doing in the North. But the Congress in Maharashtra has been doing this for decades.
Milan Vaishnav (32:02):
Amit Ahuja (32:02):
Right? And there's the interesting part that they didn't do this in, in one state, in, in the North, but they were doing this in Maharashtra.
Milan Vaishnav (32:09):
Amit Ahuja (32:09):
And similarly the Dravidian parties and other parties have been doing this in the South. That's one. Second, recruiting widely at the base.
Milan Vaishnav (32:19):
Amit Ahuja (32:19):
So it's not just about who do you have in a cabinet in a state cabinet or who you have in the national cabinet. But also, you know, how widely do you recruit party workers among the group in their locality. So does the party have a face proximate to the voter?
Milan Vaishnav (32:38):
Amit Ahuja (32:38):
Right? That matters. And then third of course, which was something which we are already seeing. So where we had the BSP doesn't have a face within the party, they ally with a prominent face. So you know, for example, they have maintained a relationship with Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar.
Milan Vaishnav (32:55):
Right. So let me bring this conversation to a close by taking it in a very different direction, but that's related. I can't resist not asking you about a study you did with our mutual friend Susan Ostermann. It finds a passing reference in the book. I think it may be the first political science experiment ever to be done on Indian matrimonial and dating websites. It's one of my favorite papers of yours. You know, what's a political scientist like you mess - doing, kind of messing around on matrimonial sites?
Amit Ahuja (33:29):
Yes, that's a, that's an interesting question for many reasons, you know, including from my wife who did ask me the same question, what are you doing on matrimonial websites?
Milan Vaishnav (33:39):
And what does this have to do with your research on caste?
Amit Ahuja (33:41):
Exactly. So you know, see the caste question if you're going to study politics in India, politics does not exist in a vacuum. And especially if you're going to study caste politics you know, how is castes reproduced? Caste has been reproduced generation after generation because of marriage. People are born into a caste. They marry somebody from within their caste, their children have the same caste and that cycle continues. So that relationship between caste and marriage as has always been there. And so for me, the reason I was looking at the marriage market is because, you know, I had studied caste-based, I had studied Dalit mobilization, both social, electoral and Dalit assertion. And what I wanted to see was that, you know, what was the social impact of Dalit assertion and I wanna sort of, you know, come back to that point that I'd made earlier, which is look, identity, as I mentioned, is about not just about how we see ourselves, but how others see us. And what we did therefore in this study is, we looked at, you know, the acceptance of grooms belonging to different castes among possible matrimonial partners. So basically women who are in the marriage market looking for grooms and all of our grooms interestingly, and, and, and you know as per the design basically shared a lot of their characteristics, whether it's how well, you know, whether it was an education their income, the kind of family background, their height you know, all these characteristics. And essentially what we were looking at were people who would be very desirable, grooms in the marriage. So these are high income, upper middle class, very well educated grooms. And so if, if there was one part, one place in, in, in society where we would start seeing the impact of castes going away you know, it would be in this segment. And, and when I spoke to some of these grooms,
Milan Vaishnav (35:57):
So these are real grooms, these aren't fake profiles that you made.
Amit Ahuja (36:00):
These are, these are absolute, these are real grooms found for us by matrimonial agencies. And what I found very interesting is a lot of these grooms, you know, valued their professional identity, the work they were doing much more than their caste identity. And so that was that for me it was, was really important. But when it, when it came down to, you know, how people responded to them, there was a very clear difference despite sharing similar characteristics. The Dalit grooms receive far less interest as compared to grooms belonging to backward castes, the intermediate castes or the upper castes. And you know, so that was, and it was very clear at that time that you know, even though these Dalit grooms valued their professional identity a lot more than their caste identity they were as well educated as accomplished as other grooms, they weren't - they were still - there were still many people who still perceived them as Dalits first, than then you know, possible, you know, matrimonial matches from a good background or good prospects in life.
Milan Vaishnav (37:12):
So like any good conversation about India, we start about with some high minded topic and we end up about matchmaking and marriage and dating.
Amit Ahuja (37:21):
It's all about marriage.
Milan Vaishnav (37:24):
Amit thank you so much for coming on the show. The book is called "Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements." It's been published by Oxford University Press as part of their South Asia Series. Always good to talk to you and hope you'll come back soon.
Amit Ahuja (37:36):
Thank you so much, Milan.
Grand Tamasha is a coproduction of.the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, GrandTamasha.com. Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.