Social Devolution: A Sociological Perspective on
Affirmed Status of Dalits in

Dr. D. K. Verma
Associate Professor & Head,

        Division of SC, ST & OBC Development,

        Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar National Institute of Social Sciences,

        Dr. Ambedkar Nagar (Mhow)



Article published in The Asianists' ASIA Edited by T. Wignesan Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques Paris France




The author has coined two new terms, namely ‘social devolution’ and ‘affirmed status’ to understand the processes of positive discrimination vis-à-vis caste consolidation in contextual analysis of Ambedkar’s vision in post-modern society.

Conceptualizing Affirmed Status

Though the debate on who are Dalits is still on, but in any case socio-economically and educationally backward sections of Indian society can safely be included among Dalits. However, sociological analysis of Dalits as a group and contextualising and situating Dalits in contemporary Indian society need some explanations. In fact, the existing sociological understanding fails to give explanation for the status and roles of Dalits in Indian society mainly because the traditional social structure of the country still leaves a little space for integrating Dalits into the mainstream which process rather widens the gap between the Dalits (a class aspiring for equal status with support from the state) and non-Dalits (socially high- ascribed status groups).

However, Dalits, particularly the elite class among Dalits, in contemporary Indian society present a status markedly different from socially low-ascribed and politically and/or economically and/or educationally high achieved statuses in the sociological perspective. With regard to Dalits, it is a fact that their economic and political empowerment do not ensure or lead to their social empowerment. They remain socially stigmatised even after achieving the highest possible protocol in the country.

        On the contrary, many socially highly-placed groups are endeavouring to be a part of the groups (Dalits) which are positively discriminated against by the state to ensure for themselves availability and accessibility to privileges. In fact, the positive discrimination policy of the state has given Dalits, a special status to avail and access opportunities for their own development and to shape Indian society in the future as well. The Dalits are no more just bargaining for voting power to rule the Indian polity and society managed by non-Dalits but they themselves have become a political power in order to govern the state for the benefit of Dalits and the rest of the Indian society.

The policy of positive discrimination like affirmative action, has resulted in the emergence of an elite middle class among Dalits which cannot be said to be included among achieved status group mainly because of their continued struggle to annihilate social stigma attached to their ascribed status. However, constitutional provisions and legislative measures have helped them ensure sound contributions to the socio-economic and political system of the country. Thus, Dalits could be defined as affirmed status individuals or group. Therefore, an attempt could be made to provide a sociological explanation of Dalits in Indian society by describing them as an affirmed status group.

Conceptualizing Social Devolution

Affirmed status would mean the sociological situation of an individual or group (s) of individuals who have acquired a status higher than their ascribed status mainly because of the positive discrimination by the state in their favour. And their own achievements, at whatever level, could not have been possible without such support from the state.

Thus, the social status and mobility of the affirmed status group(s) would be the resultant of aspirations and achievements of individuals belonging to a group(s) and the support of the state. One may, therefore find a wide disparity in the achievements between the achieved status and affirmed status individuals or groups(s). The status and mobility among affirmed status group(s) required to be higher should gradually increase with the continuation of the policy of positive discrimination, as more and more opportunities and benefits become available and be redirected to them than to other individuals or groups.

That is why the upper castes and socially higher status groups like Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vysyas alike, have started movements to include themselves under the umbrella of positive discrimination policy of the state. This, the process of willingness among socially higher placed groups to become beneficiary of the positive discrimination policy, is in total negation of the social situation in
India before 1931 when besides middle castes groups even most of the lower castes which were socio-economically and educationally backward aspired to be included among the higher social groups. The trend was to be in the mainstream of higher social status or simulate like them as such explanations is that of Sanskritisation.

Now, the social trend is to become a part of the group that receives benefits from the state under its policy of positive discrimination. Caste based social stratification in Indian society which traditionally gave importance to those graded as unequal while aspiring for higher status and struggling for mobility to move up on the social ladder framed largely on the religious code, is changing not because constitutional provisions have provided parallel platforms to the privileged groups to construct an egalitarian social order but because the affiliation to an ascribed status is shifting from caste norms to the state. Individuals or group(s) who/which is/are positively discriminated against by the state acquire an affirmed status which give them access to special opportunities.

Thus, in Indian society, the state is taking over the role of the caste to provide affiliation to a certain status and that given status by the state is Affirmed Status.

The explanation for the (reverse) process for social mobility of higher caste groups downwards and their struggle for achieving a status of being a positively discriminated group, though not becoming thereby a part of a group which is socio-economically and/or educationally backward or a part of the untouchable group may be circumscribed by conceptualising the process as an attempt at social devolution.


         Devolution is a term generally used in politics meaning the devolving of powers from the central government to the local government. The devolution can be “administrative” (delegation of powers) or financial, e.g., giving regions a budget which was formerly administered directly by the central government. Professor Vernon Bogdanor defines “Devolution” as the delegation of central powers without any admission that the supremacy of the centre is compromised and that the powers cannot be taken back unilaterally. In other words it is the "dispersal of power from a superior to an inferior political authority".

Thus, the term devolution in political science, means more than decentralisation or federalism, in the sense that it is meant to allow far more independence and exercise of discretion by local politicians. Devolution can be of powers which are administrative/executive (such as of governmental departments or agencies) or legislative (such as of a local assembly) or judicial (such as of local courts) or any combination of them. The notion of devolution has a long history within the
United Kingdom with regard to Scotland and Wales where certain powers have been devolved from the central government to these regions of the United Kingdom.

         Devolution is also sometimes referred to as “Home Rule” which is another term for self-government. Devolution is also an ecclesiastical term, meaning the right of an ecclesiastical superior to appoint someone to a benefice.

         Extending the concept of devolution as “Social Devolution” would therefore be construed as a process of elevating social power, prestige and dignity to socially low status groups (affirmed status of Dalits) by way of positively discriminating them to provide opportunities by a central agency (state in the case of India) without redistributing supremacy and forwardness of higher status groups which also, in fact aspire to achieve the affirmed status given by that agency.

[These two concepts about the process of social devolution and the Affirmed Status were discussed in a paper titled “Ambedkar’s Vision, Social Devolution and Affirmed Status: Role of Non-Dalits in Social Integration of Dalits for Sustainable Development” presented at the National Seminar on “The Role of Weaker Sections in Democracy and Nation Building” organised by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar National Institute of Social Sciences, Dr. Ambedkar Nagar (India), 6-7, February, 2004.]


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