This essay comes from many months of observing the Twitter timeline of Chandra Bhan Prasad, perhaps India’s foremost researcher on issues the Dalit community and capitalism.
Dalits have been at the bottom of the Indian caste system, though increasingly tales of rapid mobility powered by the markets (‘Dalit millionaires’ is almost a separate epistemic category) are common.
Prasad is the bard of such success stories. He has converted his Twitter account into a daily-updated public account of the economic rise of the Dalit community. Everyday he records, with photos, a diary of the kind of businesses that Dalits have built around the country. If one day Prasad is found standing in front of and talking about the 100-bed Guru Ravidas Mission hospital in Phagwara and its founder, on another he is seen showing off the ₹4 lakh diamond necklace on a “Dalit wedding participant” which he believes causes “pain to Manuwadis (oppressive upper-castes)”. A series of tweets trail ‘Dalit spending power’ in various parts of the country. An industrial unit, here, a car showroom there, there is no place, it seems, that Prasad does not go to, and no place where he does not find an entrepreneurial Dalit.
Prasad’s idea is to catalogue and demonstrate his community in a new light. Not as victims of oppression but as an empowered and aspirational community generating enormous wealth, which it can (and Prasad argues it should) leverage to access greater social capital.
The most recent posts of Prasad are images and prices of a series of consumer goods—a shirt, a leather wallet, dresses, shoes. But these are no ordinary items.
They are from Prasad’s latest entrepreneurial venture—ByDalits.com. It is an online aggregator of goods sold by Dalit businesses. It sells everything from jewellery to jackets, and as the name suggests, everything is made by Dalits or from a Dalit-owned firm.
The mission statement of the project is to ‘promote Dalit brands, create Dalit wealth (and) destroy caste hegemony’. Prasad spends most of his time these days travelling around the world and onboarding Dalit-owned and manufactured brands onto the platform.
It might be pertinent to ask why the same brands couldn’t just sell on a regular platform like Amazon or Flipkart, and no doubt many of them do. But by bringing them together under a common URL and converting the age-old discriminatory principle of untouchability against Dalits into a USP—and proudly proclaiming that these products are ‘By Dalits’—Prasad is using the power of the market to propel societal change.
The Indian constitution guarantees freedom from caste discrimination, but the application of this progressive principle, even with affirmative action, has been patchy in the course of India’s 70-year independent history.
Prasad believes some of the missing links could be filled by the market. His own past research (with the University of Pennsylvania) has shown that access to relatively unfettered markets has a spillover effect on Dalit lives in everything from social equality to access to professions and livelihoods hitherto only open to upper castes. For this, Prasad is an ardent champion of capitalism, which, along with the English language, he believes, are paths to freedom for the Dalits. I once attended a charming and uplifting dinner he throws every year to celebrate ‘Goddess English’ who, he says, set the Dalits free (as knowledge of English often bridges what birth-based caste discrimination separates).
ByDalits is an expansion of an earlier project Prasad started called Dalit Foods which focussed on selling foods made by Dalit companies. That the focus shifted from food to consumer goods is both a by-product of streamlining supply lines and delivery systems, but also hints at how, while well begun, far the journey to true equality for the Dalits needs to percolate deep into Indian society.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.