Date of Award

2017

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

South Asia Regional Studies

First Advisor

Lisa Mitchell

Abstract

This dissertation examines the entanglements of Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) activists in southern India with the ideas and practices of democracy. The research seeks to understand how democracy is understood, experienced, and put to use by marginalized groups to communicate political demands, represent their interests, and participate in deliberative processes from which they have been excluded. This project chronicles the political transformation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, VCK or Liberation Panthers Party, from an outwardly militant social movement into electoral politics, charting its transition from boycotts to ballots. Through an ethnography of democratic integration and minority representation, the dissertation analyzes a layering of political strategies whereby VCK organizers struggled to represent Dalit concerns: legal advocacy, contentious street politics, and electoral democracy. Drawing upon more than three years of fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, India, hundreds of interviews with party organizers, and a wide breadth of primary and secondary source materials, the project illustrates that formal integration within electoral democracy does not inherently bolster minority representation, but, from the perspective of VCK leaders, it mired their party in a web of complex negotiations that compromised its early platform and undercut its capacity for robust minority advocacy. A diachronic study of the VCK demonstrates that democratic politics does not necessarily erase, but may compound existing forms of inequality as its experience is mediated by prevailing socio-economic disparities premised on caste, class, gender, race, and religion. Altogether, the dissertation nuances our understanding of how democracy is understood and experienced by marginalized social groups, at once accounting for its powerful social imaginary and potent political vocabulary while remaining attentive to its limitations when approached as the principal platform for minority representation.

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