Dalit Middle Class: Mobility, Identity and Politics of Caste


Co-Written by Shraddha Jalan & Swapnil Dhanraj

The emergence of the term ‘Dalit middle class’ should be considered as an important development in the discourse of caste and Dalit politics in India.  This book by G. Srinivas concerns itself with providing empirical evidence to the emergent ideological trends and patterns of identities among the middle class Dalits in India, specifically in Hyderabad city. By focusing on the emergence, growth and consolidation of Dalit middle class in the city of Hyderabad, this body of work, attempts to understand the trends and patterns in ideology and identity among the Dalit middle class.

Dalit middle classThe book is divided into six chapters. The extensive and painstaking fieldwork done by the author in the city of Hyderabad occupies the last three chapters of the study. The first chapter is a general introduction to the book. The second chapter discusses the theoretical framework and review of literature. The third chapter profiles the middle class Dalits included in the study; the fourth chapter focuses on identity and ideology of the Dalit middle class; fifth chapter deals with few case histories of middle class Dalits. The sixth chapter outlines the sociology of Dalit middle class.

The first three chapters deal with empirical data and analysis thereof. Two chapters, 1) Introduction and 2) ‘Dalit middle class or Dalit Elite’ will engage the readers with an in-depth literature review and various scholarly works on the middle class in India. The third chapter ‘Dalit Middle Class: An Empirical Analysis’ outlines and collates various characteristics and the specificities/ particulars of the Dalit middle class by juxtaposing it against the general features of the middle class.

According to the author, the identity consciousness long ignited among the Dalits has enabled them to utilize all opportunities to overcome their ‘untouchable’, ‘marginalised’ and deprived status towards assertion of a notable middle class with community consciousness among them.  Moreover, he maintains that Dalit middle class is perceived as new and distinct from the general middle class in India not merely due to its distinctive origin, formation process, composition but its ethnographic identity and ideology. Emergence of this class is mainly attributed to the post-independence period. The author in this work has divided the middles class Dalits into two categories:  ‘government employees’ and ‘independent professionals’.

The study has profiled the Dalit middle class in Hyderabad by focusing on 105 middle class Dalits and eight detailed case histories from among them. These 105 middle class Dalits were interviewed for the study with the help of a structured interview schedule. In order to understand the nature of emerging Dalit middle class in Hyderabad and to examine its ideology and identity patterns , the study identifies the changes brought about by the social and economic mobility among the Schedule Castes with special reference to those who have joined ‘white- collar’ jobs and other independent professions such as law, medicine and journalism.

The specific questions addressed in the study are

  • Social background of the middle class Dalits, educational level, occupation, economic status and rural/urban background of the family of their origin.
  • Their understanding of the problem of their community; their opinion on the ways and means to solve them.
  • Their preferences for self-identification as Dalits and/or middle class
  • Their new attitudes towards education and occupation
  • Their lifestyle, consumption patterns, assets and debts
  • Their interaction patterns with the members of their own community and other caste groups.
  • Their perception on reservations as a means of Dali upliftment.

The social change in India facilitated social and economic mobility among large sections of society. Introduction of new ‘secular’ occupations and policies of protective discrimination helped some Dalits move up in the society. This also reflects a shift from caste-based social stratification to the one based on class. The emerging social structure, in a sense, is independent of the caste system.  The new occupational structure stresses more on values of achievement and much lesser on those of ascription. The Dalits are traditionally part of the middle class. For centuries together, they remained in subjugation, serving the caste-Hindus.  Various streams of socio-religious and political mobilizations in the twentieth century paved the way for Dalits to take to education and employment in non-traditional occupations. In the post independence period, the Indian state has been supporting the Dalits’ Socio-economic mobility through the policy of ‘protective discrimination’ or the policy of reservations. Thus the emergence of the Dalit middle class is largely attributed to the reservation system (p.52).

The process of social change in India has resulted in social mobility among the ‘lower caste’ especially the Dalits. Such social mobility has been lacking in uniformity and has some limitations. It has not been able to effect changes in all the sectors equally, namely, social, economic, political and cultural. Similarly, it has not effected change among all the communities. However, in the case of the Dalits, it has resulted in the formation of a small section of ‘Dalit elites’ or Dalit middle class, mainly due to the mobility witnessed them in education and employment. (p.81)

In the fourth chapter –‘Middle class Dalits and their ideology and identity’ the author has tried to comprehend the life circumstances that lead members of the Dalit middle class incline towards Dalit identity and ideology. According to him ideologies are shared and hence need to be defined at group level. Therefore it is a social or collective ‘identity’ of the group. He says that usually identity is taken up in individualistic fashion in terms of representations and identification processes of group members. The ideology and identity formation among the Dalit middle class is understood at four levels (1) life situation (2) Identity pattern (3) Ideology formation and (4) Politics. In the first category to map life situation that the circumstances, experiences, and expectations he carries out an analysis of their interpersonal relationships, social relations, community connections, their interaction with other successful Dalits add their own efforts towards the development of Dalits. Their identity pattern is studied by him through the participant’s self-description, identity patterns and status differentiation with others and the criteria for identifying Dalits. The next level was accounted for their understanding, thoughts and perception on the progress made by Dalits since independence, status of Dalit women, Dalit leaders and greatest personalities of the twentieth century. The fourth and final level he analyzes with the help of membership in organizations or political parties, their preferences to overall effective models or strategic development of Dalits, views on reservation, awareness about issues and policies, views on some important socio-economic and political issues in understanding the identity and ideology.

The fifth chapter –‘Dalit Middle class and Narratives of Self and Community’  includes Eight narratives of different Dalits belonging to various profession such as Bank employee, Teacher, Advocate, Clerical cadre, Journalist, NGO professional, Doctor and Officer cadre was noted in this chapter.  The narratives display the trajectory of how community as a context and mobility as a factor lead to the formation of Dalit identity. And to what extent an individual Dalit recruited into the middle class individually or as a group contribute to the shaping of a radical Dalit ideology.  With concluding his work in the last chapter ‘Towards a Sociology of Dalit Middle Class’ he argues that the emergence if Dalit middle class is distinctly unique from the general middle class that is largely constituted by the ‘upper castes’ or the ruling classes of the traditionally propertied. Giving its credits to the reservation policy he says that because of the discriminated social status and lack of resources and opportunities, Dalits and other ‘lower castes’ could not enter the middle class until the enabling social environment was created by the policies of the government in the post-independence period.

This book by G. Srinivas is an attempt to analyse the formation of the Dalit middle class which offers wide range of facts that are important in understanding the formation of Dalit middle class in India today. The book is definitely going to have a scholarly impact on the students and researchers who are interested studying the Dalit middle class

Gurram Srinivas, Dalit Middle Class: Mobility, Identity and Politics of Caste, Jaipur, Rawat Publications, 2016, 230pp., ₹ 799, ISBN: 978-81-316-0688-9 (Hardcover).

 Shraddha Jalan and Swapnil Dhanraj are with Centre for the study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Shraddha is pursuing her M.A in sociology and Swapnil is a PhD student.


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