Historical Burden or Lacking Effort? Caste Perceptions of Dalit Socio-economic Conditions

DOI10.1177/2321023020963317
Publication Date01 Dec 2020
AuthorSiddharth Swaminathan
SubjectSpecial Section on Politics & Society Between ElectionsSpecial Section Articles
Special Section Article
Historical Burden or Lacking Effort?
Caste Perceptions of Dalit Socio-
economic Conditions
Siddharth Swaminathan1
Abstract
Why do some upper caste respondents view Dalit socio-economic conditions as a consequence of a
lack of effort by Dalits, while others see it as a consequence of systematic discrimination and exclusion
of Dalits from opportunities across generations? What explains this variation? This forms the central
question I explore in this article. Two commonly held explanations for much of the observed upper
caste behaviours towards Dalits also explain the divergent opinions held by upper caste respondents
on the reasons for current Dalit socio-economic conditions. Using individual level data from the Politics
and Society between Elections survey, I find that a negative bias toward Dalits that arises when upper
caste respondents perceive themselves as more hardworking than Dalits and a perception of the rela-
tively favourable treatment of Dalits by government officials significantly explain differences in upper
caste opinions. Persistent inequalities reinforced by denying the historical burden borne by Dalits over
centuries ultimately renders social change meaningless and democratic deepening a pipe dream.
Keywords
Caste, Dalit, socio-economic conditions, prejudice, discrimination, upper caste
Introduction
Caste, a system of power, domination and unequal social recognition is inextricably linked to political,
social, economic and cultural life in India. A source of enormous privilege for some and crushing disad-
vantage to others, ‘the caste into which one is born remains among the most important determinants of
life opportunity’ (Mosse, 2018, p. 423). A voluminous body of social science research shows that caste
continues to significantly shape structures of opportunity and exclusion; of discrimination and violence
in overt and covert ways; in public and private spaces; in education, occupation and livelihood choices;
in governance and state-citizen interactions; across rural and urban geographies; and in market as well
as non-market interactions. Caste identity with its markers of inherited status and privilege is at the heart
Studies in Indian Politics
8(2) 135–151, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
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DOI: 10.1177/2321023020963317
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1 School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
Corresponding author:
Siddharth Swaminathan, School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka 560100,
India.
E-mail: siddharth.swaminathan@apu.edu.in
136 Studies in Indian Politics 8(2)
of how individuals and communities value themselves and others, the ways in which they unmake or
make their identity, the sorts of discourses that get articulated, and who gets to do so.
Why do some upper caste respondents view Dalit socio-economic conditions as a consequence of a
lack of effort by Dalits, while others see it as a consequence of systematic discrimination and exclusion
of Dalits from opportunities across generations? What explains this variation? This forms the central
question I explore in this article. Drawing from extant scholarship, I test two explanations for the reasons
upper caste respondents attribute to current Dalit socio-economic conditions. The first explanation
relates to upper class prejudice towards Dalits. Upper caste respondents who perceive themselves
‘superior’ to Dalits are likely to hold a set of views about the reasons for Dalit conditions different from
those who do not see themselves so. More specifically, a negative bias increases the likelihood that an
upper caste individual views Dalit socio-economic conditions a result of a lack of effort by Dalits. The
second explanation focuses on the perception within upper castes of the relatively advantageous treatment
of Dalits by state officials in interactions between the state and citizens; that is, upper caste respondents
who perceive Dalits as being treated favourably by officials in government offices are more likely to see
Dalit socio-economic conditions a result of lack of effort. I statistically test the hypothesized relationships
using individual-level data from the Politics and Society between Elections 2017–2019 (PSBE) survey.
The results show that among the upper caste, respondents who see the upper castes as more hardwork-
ing relative to Dalits (i.e., hold a negative bias against Dalits) are 14 per cent more likely to attribute the
low levels of Dalit socio-economic development to a lack of effort among Dalits. Conversely, upper
caste respondents who see Dalits as more hardworking relative to themselves (i.e., exhibit a positive
bias) are 6 per cent less likely to do so. Similarly, upper caste respondents who perceive unfair treatment
by the state are also more likely to subscribe to the view that Dalits are not trying hard enough. Economic
class has a partial effect—the middle class is more likely to believe that Dalits do not exert enough effort,
while rural respondents are less likely to do so. Other factors such as age and gender have no systematic
effects on upper caste perceptions.
The structure of this article is as follows. Following this introduction, the second section describes the
dependent variable of this study—the reasons upper caste respondents attribute to Dalit socio-economic
conditions—and relates the empirical observations to recent scholarship on caste identity in the social
sciences. At the end of this section, I outline a set of expectations drawing from extant research. The
second section focuses on the empirical tests of the relationships hypothesized in the previous section.
Here, I outline the empirical strategy and statistically test the stated expectations using a logistic regres-
sion model with data from the PSBE survey. The final section concludes the analysis with a discussion
of the results and its implications for politics and society in India.
Caste Views on the Reasons for Dalit Socio-economic Conditions
The PSBE survey asks all sampled respondents to choose one of two statements that capture the reasons
for the current socio-economic conditions of Dalits. The statements are as follows: (statement 1)
‘Generations of unfair treatment has made it difficult for Dalits to improve their economic conditions’
and (statement 2) ‘Dalits are not trying harder. If they tried harder, they will be better off’. These two
statements capture divergent perceptions that an individual might hold as explanations for the current
socio-economic conditions of Dalits. The first suggests generations of unfair treatment of Dalits as the
source of Dalit impoverishment. This statement locates the historical burden of Dalit identity as the
primary reason for the Dalit condition. The second statement presents a contrary view, one that denies

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