Understanding the Underdog

An underdog in a particular situation may very well be the powerful one in a different context and vice versa, so strategies for siding with the underdog need to be carefully worked out.

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So, who is an underdog? The dictionary defines an underdog as a loser/runner-up/second best/small fry and so on. But the term has a far more politically significant connotation in common parlance. To side with the underdog means supporting the wronged, the deprived, the person(s) and/or population group(s) facing socio-economic imbalance, resulting in the denial of entitlements and social justice. This qafeteer tends to agree with this used meaning, rather than the dictionary meaning. However, I continue being baffled by the question of who is an underdog. Is an underdog forever an underdog, and in all situations?

Phrases like “marginalised” and “vulnerable” are used routinely with reference to different population groups, especially in the social development sector that provides me my bread, butter and jam. These are buzzwords with human rights activists and groups: individuals and population groups marginalised socio-economically, culturally and politically are vulnerable to specific kinds and situations of rights violations—with routine denial of social justice. So, such individuals and population segments are underdogs. But who are they? And, are they always already underdogs?

Economic deprivation being one of the most readily recognised markers of marginalisation, let us take the poor of India. That very concept is a problematic one, surely, for “the poor” certainly does not imply one homogeneous, monolithic population group. Even if only economic poverty is taken as the single yardstick, there would hardly be any debate that there are degree differences: not every poor person/family faces abject poverty in the form of continued hunger and starvation. There are differences between rural and urban poverty—with the urban poor having more opportunities for income earning, but less welfare schemes from the government. So, how to decide who is an underdog? Every single person and family facing economic deprivation is an underdog, of course, but is everyone in a similar situation of underdog-hood/-ness? Or, is it that individuals and families facing abject poverty, with two square meals a day being a forgotten phenomenon, more of an underdog than those who can manage two square meals a day once every week or so?

So, how to decide who is an underdog? Every single person and family facing economic deprivation is an underdog, of course, but is everyone in a similar situation of underdog-hood/-ness?

I certainly do not find it easy to answer this apparently simple question and it only becomes even more complicated if we bring in other oppressive criteria. Think of a starving Brahmin family and a half-starving lower caste Dalit family in a village in Haryana. Let’s say that the Brahmin family manages to eat just one meal that leaves everyone hungrier than before once every three days. In contrast, the Dalit family manages at least one square meal—poor in quality and limited in quantity, but a meal nevertheless—everyday and can arrange two square meals at least once every week. Both families are facing hunger and starvation, but there is certainly a difference.

However, the Brahmin family faces no ghettoisation and has free access to community resources like drinking and bathing water because of their caste. In contrast, the lower-caste family leaves in an area earmarked for people of their caste, segregated from the rest of the village by a fence and have no access to the community resources mentioned above. It’s irrelevant to reiterate that such situations are not figments of my imagination but realities in many villages in the state mentioned, as also in quite a few other states of the Union of India. The National Crime Records Bureau in its last published report reflects a 19 percent increase in crimes against Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people across the country between 2013 and 2014. These atrocities range from lynching and arson to rape and murder. The Brahmin family has more chances of starving to death, possibly, but the Dalit family lives with the omnipresent possibility of facing any kind of monstrosity, up to being burnt alive inside their home for unwittingly breaking some norm that they may not even be aware of. Some social custom forbidden by the law of the land, but practised anyway. Can we really say that the Dalit family is less of an underdog because they eat somewhat more than the members of the Brahmin family?


Gender discrimination is the other oft-referred tool of oppression; girls and women are on the receiving end of such discrimination, making them underdogs in a male-dominated patriarchal society such as ours. True, but issues around the kinds and degrees of underdog-hood/-ness seem to be far too complex to be resolved easily. I cannot remember exactly how and where I read this piece of information, but just reflect a little on this situation. A village somewhere in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh (it was certainly before the creation of Telengana, that much I remember) with a majority of Dalit inhabitants was occupied by the Maoists and declared a liberated zone. Apparently, Dalit women of this village had faced being systematically raped by upper-caste men for decades and one of their demand post “liberation” was that the Dalit men rape upper-caste women. Who are the real underdogs here? Dalit women who had been facing organised violations over a pretty long period of time, most certainly, but can we say that the upper caste women were any less of an underdog—living with the knowledge that their menfolk were deliberate rapists? Or, must we presume that all upper caste women were in support of such action against Dalit women, even if tacitly? For me, that’s too much of a simplification, but the demand of the lower-caste women makes me wonder. “Women are their own worst enemies”—are they? Or, a case of two hungry packs of wolves fighting over a little bit of meat that will relieve the hunger of none? Who is the underdog here? Both groups of women, or neither?

Such problems in deciding who the underdog is in any given situation are real issues, rather than imagined ones, though seldom articulated with any clarity and purpose—in the election manifestos of political parties as much as in the programmes of the social development sector.

Such problems in deciding who the underdog is in any given situation are real issues, rather than imagined ones, though seldom articulated with any clarity and purpose—in the election manifestos of political parties as much as in the programmes of the social development sector. “Poorest of the poor” is a catchphrase for both vote-seekers and grant-aspirants for social development activism, but who the poorest of the poor are remains largely undefined. This ambiguity poses serious problems not only in large-scale government programmes being underutilised, but also problematises the achievement of real change through the actions of non-profit organisations in the social development sector.

It is taboo in this sector to question the internal dynamics of inequality and injustice within a population group identified as deserving beneficiaries. If economic poverty is in focus, then caste differences cannot be brought into question. If caste-based atrocities are the focal point of the movement for social justice, then gender oppression or violation of the rights of children within Dalit communities are to be overlooked. If the struggle is against the discrimination meted out to individuals with non-heteronormative gender-sexuality expressions and orientation, then rivalries within such communities and intimate partner violence issues are to be brushed aside.

There is certainly a price to be paid for such generalisations and deliberate obliteration of multiple points of oppression that constantly and continuously redefine who is an underdog when and how. Laws are passed without implementation mechanisms being put in place. Welfare schemes are either misused or remain underutilised. Rights are secured without those facing most violations even getting to know about such rights.

If by now readers are frowning or smirking in disdain against my apparently unsubstantiated claims, I welcome everyone to please let me know of any government scheme/social development organisation working specifically for equal rights and opportunities for a Dalit girl in her mid-teens, coming from a family facing death by starvation, having never benefited from any Integrated Child Development Centre in her village, never enrolled in any formal school, recognising that she feels attracted to other girls rather than to boys and thinking that she will be punished by God (of whichever religion) for such a sin, with no idea that same-sex attraction is no longer considered a ‘disorder’ in mental health discourse . . . This girl, for sure, is an underdog and do we have anything for her—addressing all her discriminations comprehensively? I think not. We human rights and social development activists work too much in silos for that.

Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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