In the narrow alleyways of Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities of the world and among the holiest for the Hindus, a silent revolution is underway. Away from the bustling ghats of the Ganga, these streets are a squeeze and it is in these tight corners that Dalit Capitalism is taking root.
These new capitalists do not seek merely to enter an elite club of millionaires. They want to create businesses that will employ Dalit youngsters, foster entrepreneurship and boost the purchasing power of their social strata.
One site where this bold socio-political experiment is being attempted falls on the Varanasi-Azamgarh road to the north of the city. Here, around 10 retired government officials have pooled Rs 2.5 crore from their savings and invested in a shopping arcade named B-Megamart, short for Bhim Megamart. These retirees, all Dalits, first met in the spring of 2016, at a protest against a Supreme Court ruling that had stopped immediate arrests under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
“The trigger to start an enterprise was those protests. We decided that we need Dalit promoters who will employ Dalit workers because government jobs are shrinking and discrimination against us is rising,” says Chhedilal Paswan, a retired electrical engineer and a B-Megamart partner. Shyam Narayan Prasad, a Dalit activist who supports the venture, wants wealth creation to expand. “Ninety per cent of the country’s wealth is with 10% of the people. Neither we are traditionally traders nor we are picked as employees. We need to build enterprises to create respectable work for ourselves,” Prasad says.
The aim is not to get rich, says P Ram, a retired income tax official and another B-Megamart investor. “This is our way of giving back to the Bahujan Samaj.”
They approached several banks for loans but were turned down as they lacked collateral. Therefore, they registered a limited liability partnership funded with their private savings. “If B-Mart succeeds, we hope to encourage more people to launch similar enterprises,” says Prasad.
The tenor of this group is combative, harking back to the 1980s, when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) exhorted better-off Dalits to return to villages and educate their friends and family.
Dalit protests have pockmarked the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) term in office. B-Megamart’s promoters conceive their project as another kind of protest, reflecting their disagreement with the ruling dispensation’s economic and social policies, including 10% reservation for the poor among the upper castes. “We did not get our rights under this government. They interpret the Atrocities Act the way they want and perpetuate our neglect,” says Ram.
Capital and profit are the paths these Dalit-Bahujans have chosen, but with a measure of trepidation. For instance, Bhim Megamart, inexorably linked with Dalit identity, was rebranded as B-Megamart. “We were afraid,” says Paswan. “Some customers might have been put off by the word ‘Bhim’. We avoided that risk.” Bhim is a nod to Dalit icon Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a social reformer, economist and the jurist credited with framing the Constitution.
Despite hurdles, B-Megamart has become an avenue of Dalit assertion. They celebrate Buddha Purnima in the premises with sweets, music and an altar to Buddha. On Ambedkar Jayanti, April 14, they went to the city with a promotional stall.
B-Megamart promoters want to change how they are perceived. That is why they back the BSP, a party representing Dalit interests. “If the Dalits accept other parties, they often end up feeling disenfranchised—the difference is like living in your own home or somebody else’s,” says Mahesh Prasad Ahirwar, a history professor at the Banaras Hindu University.
There are other Bahujan business models too. Dr Manmohan Shyam, who grew up in rural Jaunpur and went on to study medicine at BHU in the 1990s, represents the other model. Shyam’s father, a soldier, put him in school, where a teacher would punish him for being “too intelligent”. “He said that I was overstepping my Dalit identity,” says Shyam.
When he was six, Shyam found himself in a shakha, a branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP. Now a doctor with a successful practice and a hospital in Varanasi, Shyam has imbibed the ideology he grew up in. His impulse to succeed does not arise from anger against discrimination. “There is no caste here, only rashtra (nation),” as he says. He emphasises vegetarianism, samskara, parampara and reeti-rivaz (values, tradition, rituals) but has had no less a radical life. He overcame rural oppression through hard work and then prevailed to marry Dr Anjana Gupta, a Gujarati.
Shyam’s association with the RSS draws him closer to the BJP and other elites. He attends, for example, to the medical needs of the family of the erstwhile Raja of Varanasi. He helped organise the April 25 rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in Parliament, and is someone Shyam admires. “The caste system is 25% of what it once was,” says Shyam. “Every five years it appears during elections then vanishes.”
The B-Megamart team and the doctor represent two extremes of the social consciousness among the educated and well-off Dalits. Both have a government job in the background—the retirees themselves and the doctor’s father.
Freeing animal spirits
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, many BSP supporters migrated to the BJP, whose development pitch talked to them. Hari Nath and his son Rajesh Anand, who own a shoe business in Varanasi, were among them. His father, an employee with the city adimistration, tried to stem his animal spirits, but to Nath, business meant freedom and achievement based on skill. In 1983, he started Nath and Sons in Varanasi’s Mahmoorganj with `1,750. “Unlike the baniya who gets capital, I spent my scholarship money to launch my company,” says Nath.
Anand is a reluctant entrepreneur. He wanted to be a scientist. “Three BHU professors rejected me. One said that he did not want to oversee a Dalit PhD student,” he says.
Since 2011, Dr Brijesh Asthwal, who teaches pharmacology in BHU, has been independently researching the Bahujan business model. He has found only 100 Dalit businessmen. “The Dalit middle class is tiny. It is not empowered to participate in the modern economic model,” he says.
“Dalit politics is not determined by income,” says Ravindra Bhartiya, a student-activist at BHU. “Rather, Dalit subcastes vote for different political formations. Educated, socially aware Dalits migrate most often to the BSP.” Yet, unless most Dalits come together and build alliances, they cannot change the direction of politics.
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