Throughout the 1990s, a radical and militant organisation in Tamil Nadu called the Liberation Panther Movement (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Iyyakkam) engaged in an electoral boycott. In successive elections, committed cadres went to the polls and spoiled their ballots with slogans such as ‘none of you are honest, so none shall have our votes’, and ‘we lack the basic right to life, what use the political right to vote?’ Movement leaders spoke boldly of retaliating against caste violence and of returning a ‘hit for a hit’ in impassioned speeches that inspired a generation of young Dalits to challenge caste norms.
Scholars of protest and social movements argue that voicing a vocabulary of resistance, challenging taken-for-granted assumptions, and mapping out how things could be different are as important a part of the revolution as building the barricades and engaging in armed struggle. They invest the audience with a sense of the possibilities for change and encourage them to contest age old inequities. Certainly in 1999, villagers and townsfolk would quote examples or passages from Panther leader Thirumavalavan’s speeches to make a point or to explain their refusal to abide by caste practices. The rousing rhetoric of the Panthers, thus, played a prominent role in the Dalit politics of resistance.
Emboldened and inspired by Panther activism, Dalits fought back against overt practices of untouchability such as the use of separate tumblers in tea-shops and refused to perform menial tasks. The electoral boycott was an integral part of this upsurge and was designed to highlight the illegitimacy of existing political parties and emphasise that Dalits did not feel represented by the democratic process. Time and again movement leaders condemned state inaction against those responsible for caste atrocities. Were the police to arrest those setting light to Dalit homes, raping Dalit women, or exploiting Dalit labourers – activists insisted – then there would be no call for them to take to the streets or threaten to take the law into their own hands.
Electoral boycotts are potent symbols of disenfranchisement, and powerful indictments of processes of representation.
Electoral boycotts are potent symbols of disenfranchisement, and powerful indictments of processes of representation. They undermine politician’s claims to speak on behalf of the electorate and represent the diversity of the population. In so doing they delegitimise the process and question the inclusivity of the polity. In this instance the Panthers raised questions about the electoral process – noting that booths were often sited in dominant caste areas where Dalits could be intimidated – and the Hobson’s choice available – in that no party took meaningful action to address caste-based inequalities or discrimination.
In a study for Brookings Institute, Matthew Frankel outlines how widespread the practice of boycotting election is in noting that ten elections were boycotted each year between 1995-2004. He argues that threatening to boycott elections has been effective, especially when regimes are sensitive to issues of legitimacy and representation. He argues that actual boycotts generally end in failure and further marginalise those engaged in the protest. In 1999, the Liberation Panthers appeared to accept this logic and took the momentous decision to abandon extra-institutional protests and contest elections.
They formed the Liberation Panther Party (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi – VCK) and contested elections as part of a Third front of parties led by the Tamil State Congress. In justifying the move to political participation, Thirumavalavan argued that the boycott benefitted opponents, denied them a say in parliament, and enabled authorities to depict them as anti-democratic extremists. Entering the political fray meant, at the least, that other parties had to acknowledge them and consider how to appeal to Dalit voters.
Activists at the time feared that the move to politics would result in compromise. “If you rear a calf with pigs”, an activist once told me, “the calf too will eat shit”. Given their track-record of speaking truth to power and the close ties between leaders and people at the grassroots, however, several cadre and commentators felt that the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal had the potential to render parliamentary institutions more democratic and accountable. Time after time, however, radical challengers and inspiring protest leaders have disappointed their followers on attaining office. So universal is this finding, that there is a whole theory of ‘institutionalisation’ explaining how movements tend to lose their radicalism and become more bureaucratic upon entering institutions.
Whilst an autonomous Dalit party could potentially secure new gains and advantages for their constituents, there was always the risk that Dalits would lose a powerful advocate to the machinations of ‘normal politics’. In the decades since this point, the VCK have wrung some concessions from Tamil political institutions but have increasingly been cast as divorced from their core constituents. In order to win elections they have had to reach out to members of other castes and have diluted their radicalism and shifted their focus beyond Dalit concerns as a result. Electoral boycotts may be counter-productive, in other words, but political participation may also come at a cost.
Featured image credit: Marakkanam Salt Pans in Tamil Nadu, by Sandip Dey. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.