Manu vs Smith vs Marx or: Why ‘Dalit Capitalism’ is a reductive idea

“With globalization came Adam Smith to challenge Manu. The market has now become bigger than caste, bigger than Marx,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, mentor of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) in a recent interview with Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta. The statement continued to baffle me no matter how many times I scanned the entire interview. We have only just learnt to become suspicious of capitalism and its different avatars but here were two Dalit entrepreneurs singing its praise. To my mind, in spite of the economic avenues capitalism opens up to the underprivileged, a single minded emphasis on capitalism and globalization as social equalizers is rather problematic.

In the course of the interview Milind Kamble, the DICCI chief and Chandra Bhan Prasad went on to speak about a few Dalit entrepreneurs who had managed to overcome their social disadvantages. For instance, Rajesh Saraiya’s rags to riches tale was spoken of as a result of which he is now “worth over $400 million, owns four Mercedes Benz cars and is only in his forties.” For these two proponents of dalit capitalism, a phenomena that offered a number of newspaper editors a readymade catchphrase for a striking headline, is equal to dalit progress. But such an equation doesn’t take into account the fact that larger economic forces don’t become advantageous simply because they allow a handful of dalits to become business tycoons. A handful of names, a smattering of success stories of those who’ve benefited from capitalism doesn’t make for a social revolution. The fact that the same economic forces are robbing poor, marginalized adivasis and dalits of their lands and forests is clearly overlooked here.

We find here an assertion that dalit capitalism is somehow the ultimate stage of dalit liberation and empowerment. What is crucial to remember however is that in an attempt to fashion oneself in the image of the oppressor, we often tend to forget the true nature and consequences of larger processes. Anand Teltumbde, a political analyst and civil rights activist, has gone so far as to suggest that this propagation of Dalit capitalism goes against Ambedkar’s disdain for capitalism and instead declares- “why even struggle against Brahmanism as did Ambedkar; when dalits could themselves become Brahmins and end the problem of casteism.”

Most of the arguments made in the interview are simplistic and seem superficial if not overtly optimistic. A few hundred making money is in no way indicative of the social and economic conditions that the rest of the seventeen crore dalits are enduring. In the interview, Chandra Bhan Prasad notes that in “Uttar Pradesh, alone, 50 big hospitals are being run by Dalit doctors”. That statistic may sound impressively like a marker of social progress, but then 20.5% of India’s total schedule caste population (413 lakh) lives in the state, the highest in any. The state also has the dubious distinction of toping the charts vis-à-vis crimes against dalits. A total of 18.4% cases of the total crime (6,202 cases out a total of 33,655) involve atrocities against dalits.

Clearly then, the reality is far more complicated.

This is not to say that these individual achievements of Dalit businessmen are not laudable. For such a trend substantially subverts caste rules that forbid lower castes from engaging in any kind of economic activity. But they cannot be used to imply that the entire community has finally “arrived” or that such economic prosperity is the only possible way of finding emancipation. The fact that Dalit entrepreneurs continue to face difficulties within the free market in terms of social ostracization from upper caste groups and lack of support within the field are not given attention. After all this essentially indicates that the economic field is fraught with just the same social barriers as any other, substantiating activist and writer Subhash Gatade’s claim that the concept of Dalit capitalism “not only sounds utopian but also exhibit’s a misplaced confidence in capitalism’s potential for social transformation.”

I was also surprised to hear a tone of disdain towards reservations and affirmative action in the interview. Reservations are referred to as ‘launching pads’ that have now overstayed their welcome, “We cannot undermine the value of affirmative action. It has given Dalits a launch pad. You need that to take off. Now don’t run on the launch pad, take off,” they say.

Such talk of launching, running and taking off — although colorful and exciting — seems rather far removed from the realties of caste politics in India. How exactly does a dalit capitalist ‘take off’? How does he or she shrug off centuries-old biases that prevent him from getting enough supplies on credit to begin with? How does a dalit break the shackles of the traditionally dominant business-caste groups? Is this business of taking off really that easy?

And if the dalit entrepreneur does ‘take off’, does his embracing of Adam Smith’s laissez-faire beliefs of profit-focused business really help the other countless dalits. Does this successful dalit capitalist then not exploit others, irrespective of their caste, to continue profiting?

Such simple homogenizing is indeed alarming. While the oppression that comes with being born into a lower caste encompasses all aspects of one’s life- economic, social, and cultural, it is odd to see one strand of dalits propagating a rather narrow and uncritical means to emancipation. While no one disagrees that such economic prosperity is indeed commendable, it does not in itself hold the key to eradicating caste or the horrors associated with modern capitalism and globalization.

The article was first published in Newsyaps in June 2013. The website has since shut down.