Why Should Dalit-Bahujans and Adivasis Do Research?


Yashwant Zagade

yashwant zagadeDuring my masters programme, after class one day, I was having tea with my classmates. We were discussing about the research topic for our masters programme. An upper caste friend of mine expressed interest in working on the plight of Dalits. My other Dalit friend responded by asking, "Why don't you rather study your own caste? Why can't you see your caste as a subject of research?"

This discussion forced me to think seriously and reflect critically on research, research topics, and their politics. Sometime later, I read an article by Gopal Guru, 'How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?' It further opened my eyes to the politics of doing research.

My journey in search of truth had landed me in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, for a masters programme in Social Work, with specialisation in Dalit and Tribal Studies. Here, I took the first lessons in doing research. Before TISS, I was working as a full-time activist in a Left-oriented people's movement. I joined TISS thinking that I would go back to the field after completing the masters programme. But the first day of my masters programme began with an emphasis on the importance of doing research in bringing social change. This idea was new to me and my background as an activist did not allow me to take this idea seriously. But later, the entire academic culture of TISS and my faculty in particular: bodhi s.r, Alex Akhup and Suryakant Waghmore, influenced me to take up research seriously. As a result, I decided to continue with my higher studies in the field of research. We had to do compulsory research during our masters, which I did, but I was not happy with my efforts and desperately wanted to continue in research in order to do better. With this thought, I took admission for the integrated M.Phil-PhD programme.

For me, doing research is not just about getting a mere degree, but a radical political act which can alter the structure of knowledge production. I come from the Mali caste, which is considered as a lower caste under the Shudra section of the Hindu Varna order. We were denied education by the Brahmanical social structure for thousands of years. As Phule states, "Lack of education led to lack of wisdom. Lack of wisdom led to lack of morals. Lack of morals led to lack of progress. Lack of progress led to lack of Money. Lack of Money led to the oppression of Shudras. Lack of education led to such catastrophe" (Keer 1964). Over the years, we remained mainly as recipients of knowledge, rather than as producers of knowledge. Ambedkar tells us to 'Educate, Agitate and Organise', and now, with the support of reservation, I got an opportunity to do research. Hence, by doing research we should reclaim our right of producing knowledge which was denied by Brahmanism for thousands of years. So, I want to be a contributor in this sector and bring a change in its reality, by producing knowledge from 'within[1]'.

In the field of research, the researcher and the research subject are expected and considered to be objective and unbiased in nature. This thought is now is being criticised by many feminists and subaltern academicians. Scholars from marginalized communities consider the acknowledgement of 'self' and the personal element of the researcher essential in conducting research. Doing research is also a politics since the researcher holds the power to choose the subject for his/her/their research. Hence, a researcher's location has to be clear, so that his/her/their biases are evident, and the readers can better understand and interpret the field and the author (Waghmore 2013).

Any scholarly endeavour has both intellectual and personal reasons behind it. In my case, I was a follower of Hindutva politics during my graduation days. After graduation, I came under the influence of Gandhian thoughts, which pushed me to get into full-time activism. I began working as a full-time activist in a Marxist-Socialist people's movement. After spending two years in the movement, I reached a point where I wanted to know the larger socio-political world. With this thirst, I joined TISS. Though I was from a lower caste background, I was not well versed with the question of caste until I joined TISS. While pursuing my masters in TISS, I found a space to engage with the issue of caste at both the intellectual and practical level. My earlier engagement with the field as a full-time activist through the Left movement had oriented me to understand societal issues in a class- framework through the Marxist perspective.

However, the TISS curriculum and inside-outside classroom discussions helped me understand the idea of Ambedkarism and its perspective on the caste system. I found that the Ambedkarite perspective challenged my previous Marxist orientation in understanding societal issues in general and the caste issue in particular. The Ambedkarite perspective helped me to locate my position as a lower Shudra in the hierarchy of the caste structure, while the Marxist movement perceived me as a middle-class individual. Due to my caste location, I could locate myself in the historical anti-caste struggle, and it pushed and inspired me to be a part of the Ambedkarite movement to fight against the exploitative caste structure which dehumanized, criminalized and marginalized us for thousands of years.

The masters' programme helped in enhancing my understanding of the issue of caste. The assignments of the MA course gave me the opportunity to read more about the Ambedkarite movement. Fellow Ambedkarite students created space for me to be a part of the Ambedkarite students' group, and through the group's activities I have been able to be part of the larger Ambedkarite movement inside and outside the campus. Through this involvement, I gradually understood that annihilation of caste should be the core idea of bringing equality in Indian society.

In order to be a part of the anti-caste movement, I have realized that I should have a nuanced understanding of caste and various social issues. Also, Ambedkarite discourse demands that you do not remain an emotional layman-activist towards societal issues and instead build rational knowledge to uproot the discrimination in society. In this context, I have decided to study further in order to produce knowledge and to engage with the complex realities of caste, gender, and religion. I assume that a sound theoretical position will build the future roadmap for change, as Ambedkar and Phule did in their time.

In today's context, Ambedkarite movement needs profound theoretical orientation to continue the struggle for social justice. My scholarly endeavour is also in keeping with the hope that I will be able to contribute my small bit by engaging with the caste issue in the academic setting. At this moment, as per my understanding, one needs to engage with the Ambedkarite discourse at the level of both scholarship and activism. Keeping this thought in mind, I deliberately chose to study my own Mali caste for my Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) course, for a few reasons.

The first reason was that during my masters, I got acquainted with the idea of insider and outsider perspectives of doing research, and the politics behind it. On this phenomenon, Gopal Guru (2002) argues that Indian academia has always been dominated by upper castes. He conceptualises this as 'Theoretical Brahmins and Empirical Shudra'. Historically, marginalized communities such as Dalit-Bahujans and Adivasis were never a part of knowledge production and always remained as a 'data' for upper-caste researchers. So, I decided that I shall not focus on 'others'. Rather, I shall engage in a critical manner with my own caste, through research. Also, being an insider, I had the epistemic privilege to reflect on my position and had easy access to information that is sometimes not disclosed to outsiders.

The second reason is that historically in the colonial period, Malis were prominent stakeholders in the anti-caste Satyashodhak movement. Malis' representation in the movement was out of proportion in comparison to their population (Omvedt 1976:149). It resulted in the emergence of many anti-caste stalwarts like Jotirao and Savitri Phule, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande (known as the father of the trade-union movement of India), Krishnaji Bhalerao, etc. In the contemporary period, especially in the post Mandal era, OBCs became politically assertive at the Pan-India and State levels. In Maharashtra, Malis were able to maintain their political presence even after the state formation in 1956 (Vora 2009:228). Because of this, they remained one of the most prominent socio-political groups among the OBCs in Maharashtra.

With this background, I was curious to know what was currently happening in my caste. Today, I hardly find my caste-fellows actively becoming part of the Ambedkarite movement despite the revolutionary legacy. With these questions, I conducted research in my maternal village. I chose the rural setting because I grew up in the city, and was not too aware of how caste operated in villages. Another reason for studying the village was the fact that caste was the social basis of a village and cities were far more complex and heterogeneous in their socio-economic structures. It is also very difficult to study hierarchies in cities at the M.Phil level, given the time constraint. Besides, the concept of hierarchy in its crudest form is practiced in villages far more rigidly than it is in cities.

In the end, I can say that the overall experience of doing research was both enriching and painful. When I joined M.Phil, I was not fully confident that I would be able to complete my research on time. But somehow, I completed with the help of my guide and friends. Now I am confident that I can write, that too in 'English', and engage in the process of knowledge. I am looking forward to finishing my Ph.D. soon.



1. Refers to the the emerging research perspective which theorises knowledge from the worldview of the marginalized communities - Social Work in India (Tribal and Adivasi Studies: Perspectives From Within 3), Edited by bodhi s.r. 


1. Guru, G. (2002). How egalitarian are the social sciences in India?. Economic and Political Weekly, 5003-5009.

2. Keer, D. (1964). Mahatma Jyotirao Phule–The Father of Our Social Revolution. Bombay: Popular Parkshan Pvt. Ldt.

3. Omvedt, G. (1976). Cultural revolt in a colonial society: the non Brahman movement in western India, 1873 to 1930. Scientific Socialist Education Trust.

4. Voora, R. Maharashtra or Maratha Rashtra? edited by C. Jaffrelot, & S. Kumar, Rise
of the Plebeians? New Delhi: Routledge.

5. Waghmore, S. (2013). Civility against caste: Dalit politics and citizenship in western India. SAGE Publications India.



Yashwant Zagade is a PhD student in Tata Insitute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and is interested in doing sociology from an Ambedkarite perspective.

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