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Sociology: Research


Dalit Politics and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu?









Dalit Politics and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu? Charting the Impact of the Liberation Panther Party
Hugo Gorringe; Co-I: Roger Jeffery
ESRC Research Grant: ES/J001732/1

ESRC Website:

In this project Hugo Gorringe is revisiting previous work on Dalit movements in Tamil Nadu and seeking to chart their institutionalisation into political parties. He will be working with Roger Jeffery to analyse changing trends in Dalit voting in the state too. The project is primarily based on qualitative, ethnographic fieldwork in Tamil Nadu.

The Research

In India, Dalit (ex-Untouchable) movements have engaged with political institutions in recent decades by creating political parties and contesting elections. This politics of recognition has been most successful in Uttar Pradesh (UP) where the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP – Majority People’s Party) has elected Mayawati, a Dalit woman, as Chief Minister. Although Mayawati is touted as a potential Prime Minister, disillusioned movement activists see political participation as compromised and corrupt. Caught between the compulsions and compromises of electoral politics, Dalit parties have been unable significantly to erode caste discrimination (Mehrotra 2006). The ‘failure’ of pioneering Dalit parties in UP and Maharashtra has led one eminent commentator to ‘“look south” as Tamil Nadu may offer some important lessons’ for Dalit politics (Omvedt 2003: xvii-xviii).

The entry of radical Dalit movements into Tamil political institutions in the 1990s was a major milestone (Gorringe 2005), but as yet there is no systematic study of the impact of Tamil Dalit parties. Our proposed ethnography of a Dalit party will link research on the changing dynamics of caste (Kapadia 1995, Heyer, 2010, Mosse 2009) and literature on political institutions (Subramanian 1999, Rajadurai and Geetha 2002). Although Wyatt’s (2009) research analyses the rise of Dalit parties, our research will offer detailed analyses of the conditions of activism and how Dalit activists and leaders negotiate institutionalisation. Party leaders’ caste is often treated as a proxy for caste dynamics in politics (see Ananth 2006). Consequently systemic forms of exclusion that impede Dalits from participating fully in politics are neglected. Our project will deepen understandings of the interplay between caste and political representation and fill gaps left by recent work on political entrepreneurs (Wyatt 2009) and leaders’ writings and speeches (Roberts 2007), by exploring the potential inconsistencies (Pai 2002) between Dalit party politics and the concerns of those at the grass-roots. Our research will interest scholars of social movements, social inequality, caste, politics and Indian society. It will enhance interpretations of democratisation and representational politics in India; offer insights into processes of institutionalisation with a rare ethnography of an ‘institutionalised’ radical movement; flesh out the interplay between caste and politics in South India; and contribute to debates about the incorporation of violent groups into political institutions (Mitra 1992, Gorringe 2006).

Read a wide-ranging and informative interview with VCK leader J. Gowthama Sannah. He offers an account of Dalit protest from the 1800s to the present day and takes issue with several established readings of this history.

A brief video and account of the research may also be found here.

Workshop on Institutionalisation

In September 2013 we organised a workshop on the institutionalisation of marginal actors. Support for the workshop came from the ESRC grant and a UKIERI thematic partnership between UoE and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The workshop heard papers on the varying strategies of Dalits, women, Muslims and Backward Castes as they seek to get their concerns recognised by established institutions. We considered the tactics they adopt, the gains they achieve and the compromises they are forced into in the process as well as looking at the unintended consequences of such institutionalisation. Professor James Manor gave the key note lecture and reflected on some of the significant gains made by marginal groups over the past few decades as well as reflecting on continuing issues. For full details on the workshop see here. To read my paper for the event see here. More details on the collaboration with TISS may be found at

Seminar on Caste and Politics in Tamil Nadu

In December 2013, we will hold a seminar-style workshop to discuss the interplay between caste and politics in Tamil Nadu. Topics discussed will include Dalit politics; intermediate caste mobilisation; caste and gender; Tamil nationalism and Dravidian politics. See a flyer for the event here. A write up of the main presentatins and debates may be found in Seminar magazine: Gorringe, H and Karthikeyan, D. 2014. ‘The Contemporary Dialectics of Caste Politics’, Seminar 657, May Issue:


Read more about the methods employed in this project here. Early impressions from the first phase of research may be found in the following papers and articles:

Publications (Oldest First)


  • Spoke at the launch of e-VCK on social media and politics, 17 June 2012, SanThome Parish Hall, Chennai. (See an English version of the talk here)
  • Contributed article on Thirumavalavan to VCK publication released for 50th birthday – the publication will be in Tamil (English version here)
  • Spoke to SCM/School of Human Rights event: ‘Drumming Out Oppression of Drumming it in? Dalit Identity Politics and Human Rights’, Bangalore, 5th July 2012
  • Gave public lecture at Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai: ‘Caste, The Body & Dalit Politics: Making and Contesting Caste in TN’, 22nd August 2012 (see slides here)
  • Gave a public lecture at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai: ‘Show me a better party & I’ll join it: Dalits, Disillusionment, Disunity & The Durability of Dreams’, 29th August 2012 (here).
  • Gave a public lecture at JNU, Delhi: ‘Now we too can twirl our moustaches! Caste, The Body & Dalit Politics’, 5th September 2012 (Slides).
  • Gave a public lecture at MIDS, Chennai: ‘Vernacularised Institutionalisation and the Compulsions of Politics: Dalit Parties in Tamil Nadu’, 26th September (Slides here).
  • Gave a talk to the Japan-Edinburgh Workshop on "Social Movements
    and the Subaltern in Postcolonial South Asia" on 17 October 2012, at The University of Edinburgh. Talk was titled: ‘From Dalit to Untouchable and Beyond: New Directions in South Indian Dalit Politics’ (slides here)
  • Invited to speak to the Institute of Advanced Academic Studies at the UoE on the issue of violence: ‘Caste, Violence and the Everyday’, Edinburgh, 18th October 2012 (Slides here).
  • Invited to speak at the Contested Spaces Workshop in UPenn, Philadelphia, 29-30 March 2013. Here is a draft of the paper: 'Out of the Cheris: Dalits Contesting and Creating Public Space in Tamil Nadu'.
  • Gave a paper at the FWSA Annual Conference in Nottingham, June 21-23: 'Questions of Honour' analysed the position of Dalit women in the VCK.
  • Both Roger Jeffery and I gave papers at the 'Institutionalising Marginal Actors' workshop detailed above, September 18-19 2013.
  • January 2014: Invited to give a paper in the Centre for South Asian Studies seminar series at Edinburgh. 16th January 2014: ‘Drumming out Oppression, or Drumming it in? Contested cultures of Contention in Dalit Politics’.
  •  April 2014: I co-organised a panel on caste with Karin Kapadia at the BASAS Annual Conference, Royal Holloway University College of London. 2-4th April 2014: The panel was entitled: ‘Dalit Lives: Dynamism and Discrimination in India and Beyond’ and featured papers from Ishita Mehrotra, Karin Kapadia and myself and a joint paper by David Mosse, Annapurna Waughray and Meena Dhanda. My paper was entitled: ‘Untouchability Unlimited? Caste Discrimination, Hierarchy & Politics in Tamil Nadu’.
  • October 2014: Invited to contribute to a panel discussion on Surinder Jodhka’s new book: Caste in Contemporary India: Tuesday 7 October, Copenhagen:
  • November 2014: Invited to give a seminar at Kings College London: ‘More Than Just 'Identity Politics': Re-assessing the Use of Symbolic Means in Tamil Dalit Assertion and Caste Politics’, Wednesday 26 November, London:  
  • April 2015: Presentation at BSA Annual Conference in Glasgow
  • April 2015: Invited to contribute to workshop on 'Fissures, Mediation and Theories of Empowerment: Dalit Politics and Anti-Politics' organised by Rupa Viswanath and Gajendran Ayyathurai, University of Goettingen: 
  • July 2015: Invited to contribute to 'Politics as Usual' workshop organised by Andrew Wyatt, University of Bristol:
  • March 2016: Presented a paper at the PSA Annual Conference in Brighton: ‘A Panther in Parliament? The VCK and National Politics’ (Slides).