Up a rickety dark flight of stairs, stepping over unattended piles of rubbish, on the third floor of a tumbledown building, we arrive at the office of SN Enterprises, a garment manufacturer in Delhi’s Punjabi Basti. This gali, with its narrow, huddled-together buildings is a hub for small leather and fabric units. On the floor above the office is a room where workers with sewing machines make non-branded, affordable shirts and trousers for the city’s working class.

Dalit commentator and entrepreneur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, is here, inspecting a new swatch of crisp white Giza cotton that has just arrived from Bengaluru. This is part of Prasad’s research and development for Zero Plus, a recently-launched clothing label for Dalits, which Prasad owns.

Last year, Prasad introduced a range of spices, pickles and grains as Dalit Foods online – the e-commerce brand, Prasad said, was a social experiment against discrimination. Zero Plus is an extension of the same idea of branding products as Dalit to combine politics with economics. On a smaller scale, but with a similar objective, proponents of the Bhim Army – an organisation that has mobilised Dalit youth in western Uttar Pradesh through its strong network – have also been promoting various businesses within the Dalit community, such as Bheem Shakti, a detergent powder, marketed as an alternative to Patanjali.

Chandra Bhan Prasad at the garment factory in Delhi where Zero Plus shirts are produced. Photo credit: Sunaina Kumar

To legitimise his brand, Prasad has turned to Ambedkar. He claims that Zero Plus, which has a range of shirts and trousers (and will soon expand to suits and ties for men, along with a range of garments for women) is inspired by the sartorial choices of the Dalit icon. The political symbolism of Ambedkar’s three-piece suit, reinforced through his statues planted across the country, has become so entrenched in Indian consciousness that it has made its way into popular culture. In last year’s Kabali, Rajinikanth, who plays a politically conscious underclass hero in sharp suits, tells his followers that dressing in suits is a form of resistance.

This is the message that Prasad, 58, a Pasi (traditionally a caste of pig rearers, considered untouchable) from Azamgarh hopes to capitalise upon. “There are many reasons for doing this,” he said. “We want to earn profit out of it, that’s first. We also want to set an example and make entrepreneurship fashionable for Dalits. But, apart from the business, I see it as a social enterprise and a reform movement.”

Prasad intends to give an aspirational edge to his clothing label. “I’m using the finest quality fabrics and the tailoring is comparable to the best brands,” he said. “This is high-quality formal clothing that I want Dalits to adopt. The acceptance level of Dalits will go up once they dress better.”

The name of the brand, according to him, is inspired by the concept of zero and infinity in mathematics, but it is just as likely a subversive reference to Dalit identity. To begin with, Prasad is reaching out and selling it to all the people he knows in his circle and through social media, before he launches it online this July.

Samples of Zero Plus shirts.

Power dressing

At the manufacturing unit, two of the senior workers, Suresh Kumar and Sant Ram are sewing Zero Plus labels on a stack of shirts. They are both Dalit and have been stitching garments for the last 25 years. They have converted, but take pride in their identity as followers of Ambedkar. They are unaware of the brand and its link to the leader, but seem ready to buy into the premise when told about it.

“We are followers of Babasaheb and dressing like him is a part of following in his footsteps,” said Kumar, a 49-year-old from Aligarh.

“You certainly get more respect if you dress well, and people resent seeing Dalits in good clothes,” added Sant Ram, who is from Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh.

There is a historical context for this entrepreneurial venture. Clothing, a symbol of social standing and power, has also been an instrument of oppression and an integral tool for determining and imposing identity in traditional Indian caste-hierarchies.

A worker stitching a shirt for Zero Plus at the garment factory in Delhi. Photo credit: Sunaina Kumar

The lower castes have never enjoyed the autonomy to dress the way they want. The Chandal caste was forced to wear the clothes of the dead and ornaments of iron. The most widely-known form of clothing prohibition led to the Channar revolt or the Upper Cloth movement in the 19th century – in erstwhile Travancore, where women from the Channar caste were not allowed to cover their breasts, women rebelled by wearing an upper cloth. They were attacked by both men and women of the upper castes until the king of Travancore, under pressure from Christian missionaries, issued a proclamation allowing women to cover their breasts. At around the same time, the Mookkuthi Samaram or nose stud agitation took place in Kerala – where women of lower castes fought for the right to wear a nose stud.

These codes of dressing have been a part of the wider social structure across India and anytime they have been broken, there have been reprisals from the upper castes. In Rajasthan, Dalit men were forbidden from wearing colourful pagdis and punished and thrashed if they dared to do so. In Tamil Nadu, lower caste men were forbidden from folding up their lungis and had to wear it to their toes. In parts of the state, this rule still applies.

Dalits were generally not allowed to wear clean, bright or new clothes or sandals. In some places, if a Dalit wore new clothes, they had to be smeared with soot so they would appear unclean. Dalit women were not allowed to wear gold or silver jewellery, or saris in which gold thread was used. Dalit men could not twirl their moustaches up in the manner of upper caste men. This too is still considered an offence – in Mehsana district in Gujarat, a Dalit youth and his family were attacked because he dared to twirl his moustache.

It was in this context that Ambedkar’s assertion of identity by donning a suit was considered revolutionary. “By the canons of tradition and history this man was not supposed to wear a suit, blue or otherwise,” wrote Ramachandra Guha in an essay in 2002. “That he did was a consequence of his extraordinary personal achievements.... by memorialising him in a suit, the Dalits were celebrating his successful storming of an upper caste citadel.”

News anchor and editor Ravish Kumar wearing a Zero Plus shirt.

Subversive business

Within the Dalit community there is a mixed response to the venture and in general, to branding products as Dalit. While some feel that it ends up reinforcing the old stereotypes, others support the idea of Dalits breaking the shackles of caste in capitalism by any means possible.

Rahul Sonpimple, Dalit student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and leader of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, said: “Certainly, more Dalits should be entering into businesses. The lower castes represent a big and untapped market share. But this concept is problematic. I do not like the idea of branding food as Dalit food, or clothes as Dalit clothes and coercing people to buy it. Besides, the word Dalit itself has negative connotations in our society and people will think these products are of poor quality.”

Are these products only for Dalits? Will a Brahmin buy a suit which is branded as a Dalit suit? Is the market a leveller of caste? “We have only seen the hegemony of certain upper caste businesses in India, like the Brahmins and Baniyas,” added Dharma Teja, a volunteer from Hyderabad who works with the popular YouTube channel Dalit Camera, which documents the lives of Dalits. “In this space, if a Dalit can bring in a subversive business idea, I’m all for it.”

An artist fixes spectacles onto a statue of BR Ambedkar at his workshop on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

But what if this popular notion of Ambedkar making a political sartorial choice was a fallacy? Vivek Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems in Delhi, has been encouraging his students to resist falling for this precept. “I’m not sure if Ambedkar thought of it as his dress code, one that he wanted young Dalits to follow,” said Kumar. “If he did, why would this man who wrote about everything, not write this? Where is this injunction? If you go through archives, there are pictures of Ambedkar in a pyjama-kurta, in a kafni, in a dhoti and coat. Why are these never talked about? Only his photos on formal occasions such as the ones at the Parliament are widely circulated. This concept was built as a deliberate construction to pose him against the simplicity of Gandhi.”

This may be a rhetorical question or perhaps we need more research on Ambedkar’s dressing, but for generations of Dalits the suit has become a symbol of aspiration and striving. “It is a potent symbol,” said Sonpimple. “Being like him and looking like him is our only way forward, our future.”