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BJP-RSS Politics and Economic Plight of Dalits in India | Ram Puniyani

Friday 4 June 2021


by Ram Puniyani

India’s caste system is the major obstacle for betterment of the socio-economic condition of the downtrodden. The lowest in the rung of caste hierarchy, the victims of caste oppression are addressed as dalits or ScheduledCastes (SC). There are others who are also on the lower scale of hierarchy, the tribal (ST) and other backward castes (OBC). For centuries the low castes were subject to oppression at multiple levels. Theirs’ was a sort of slavery couchedin the wrap of religion. Many Hindu scriptures gave the rigid outline of thesocial system. One such scripture has been Manu Smiriti which was burnt in apublic protest by the greatest of the caste opponents Dr. Bhimrao BabasahebAmbedkar.

As the opposition to caste structure started coming up during freedommovement of India, the reaction to this was Hindu Nationalism, rather BrahmanicNationalism. It was the Brahmanic stream of Hinduism which has been most rigidabout the oppression of lower castes. This Brahmanic Nationalism presenteditself as Hindu nationalism and got expressed in Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. RSSthrived over a period of time and currently is the most powerful organization inthe country. It is working for restoration of Caste, gender hierarchy andinequality of older times.

It is an overarching formation working in all spheres of life and itsprogeny working in political arena is Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which isruling the country from last seven years. It is very subtle in presenting itsagenda which is against dalits and other downtrodden. BJP poses to beassociating with dalits while its policies are meant to subjugate thiscommunity. It has multiple strategies to win them over for electoral purposeswhile modifying the policies in a direction which are detrimental to the allround conditions of dalits, including their economic conditions.

BJP-RSS and anti-dalitideology

BJP came to political forefront when it started its campaign for RamTemple in the decade of 1980. In 1990 V.P.Singh implemented Mandal Commission,which gave 27% reservation to the other backward Castes. Earlier the SC had 15%of reservation, ST 7.5% and now OBC reservation was added up to that. This madeBJP more assertive and its support base, the upper caste, came forward tosupport BJP campaigns for Ram temple and other divisive agenda, pushing thesocial equality attempts in the backyard. This identity based Ram temple campaignalso served the purpose of distracting the attention from the plight ofoppressed sections of society as well.

The period up to 2014, (2004 to 2014 period was the time when Congressled UPA was in power) saw that on one hand despite the opposition toaffirmative action for dalits there was effort to implement it. On the otherhand BJP was building itself to oppose the policy of reservation for dalits onone hand and to co-opt them into its ideological and political fold.

UPA I (2004-2009) came up with rights based approach, ‘Right toinformation’, ‘right to employment’, ‘right to education’, ‘right to health’and ‘right to food’. This benefitted the large sections of dalits living belowthe poverty line. The ongoing affirmative action’s during many decades afterindependence did lift the dalit’s conditions to some extent. Still due to thedeeply entrenched caste system, the affirmative provisions were not implementedas they should have been. So in a way the process of social transformation till2014 was at snail’s pace anyway.

The major change in the condition of dalits has been due to reservationswhich were mandated by the constitution and which aimed to break the shacklesof caste backwardness and improve the condition of dalits. RSS-BJP has beenopposed to this all through, overtly or covertly. Mandal Commission was aturning point in a way as RSS-BJP activated its mechanism for opposing the sameindirectly by raising the pitch of Ram temple campaign. They did floatorganizations like ‘Youth for Equality’. Social debates were popularisedagainst reservation.

Reservation: Creamy Layer

The overallpicture before BJP coming to power was summed up by prominent academic Sukhdeo Thorat.As per him “dalits are employed in manual, unskilled labor jobs in urban areas.Given these facts, only 5% of the working dalit population has actuallybenefited from the Indian reservation law.” (1) As per him while GOI povertyalleviation programs help dalits, the government does not strictly monitor themand many are never implemented…and the vast majority of dalits are deniedupward socioeconomic mobility due to lack of access to education, land, andcapital.

Further worsening of the situation began with BJP coming to power atCentre. The first attempt BJP initiated was at state level and then at Centrewas to introduce ‘reservation based on economic ground’. Also there is a talkthat creamy layers will be excluded from the reservations. The ‘creamylayers’ means those who have better socio economic status. Dilip Mandal,another scholar points out,“ for the first time, thecentral government is going to include an individual’s salary to calculate household earnings, which would determine the creamylayer category for members of that family. In one stroke, a large number ofsalary earners will be excluded from the ambit of OBC quota.” (2) FurtherMandal elaborates, ”The proposed criteria, if implemented, will exclude eventhe lower middle class OBCs. Take the example of a family where both parentsare primary school teachers. In all probability, their combined annual salarywould be above Rs 12 lakh. Now, if their daughter applies for a government job,she will not be considered for the OBC quota.” (3)

Introducing reservation on Economic Ground has further weakened theposition of the status of dalits. BJP led NDA passed the resolution approving10% quota for upper caste on economic criterion. These criterion are liberalenough to include large sections of population at the cost of reservation ofthe dalits/OBC.

BJP Identity Politics and Lynching in name of Cow-Beef

BJP’s main plank in political arena is identity politics. This politicsis based on polarization and creating a sense of fear among majority for theminority community. In pursuit of this while they have been pursuing the RamTemple issue earlier; from 2014 when BJP got majority for the first time; ittook the issue of Holy cow to higher pitch leading to mob lynching of Muslimsand dalits. Both these communities are related to occupations of cow slaughterand leather work. The IndiaSpend data tells us the massive increase in thelynching with BJP coming to power and also increase in atrocities againstdalits. This runs parallel to the impact on economic situation of dalits as thesale/purchase of old cows has massively declined and those involved in thesetrades, primarily dalits have suffered huge economic setback. “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centered on bovine issuesover nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86% of 28 Indians killedin 63 incidents. As many of 97 per cent of these attacks were reported afterPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and abouthalf the cow-related violence — 32 of 63 cases –were from states governed bythe Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recorded until June 25, 2017.” (5)

Running parallel tothis was attacks on dalits who were dealing with Cowhide. In Una (Gujarat) sevendalit youth were stripped above the waist and beaten mercilessly. Followingthis the usual economic cycle of old cattle being bought and sold got a setbackgiving an adverse impact to the economic plight of many dalit families. “A newreport by ‘Human Rights Watch’ reveals the impact of ‘cow protection’ on agriculture,industries and India’s minorities. The report looks at the issue of cow-relatedviolence and its impact on India’s minorities. The report analyses thesocio-political, legal and economic issues around cattletrade and cow-related violence. Indian government should prevent andprosecute mob violence by vigilante groups targeting minorities in the name ofcow protection, ‘Human Rights Watch’ said in a report.”(6)

“The government [should] not [be] the one to decide on [what foodyou can or cannot eat]. This ban will have an ill effect on the lives of theDalits who are [dependent] upon the labor connected with cows and leatherproducts.” (7)

Due to the rigidity of caste hierarchy prevalent in India; dalitsare forced to work in very degrading jobs like scavenging of rubbish heaps,work in slaughter houses, tanneries, leather factories and other menial jobs. Tolive in segregation from the upper castes such as Brahmins is a part of regularpractice here.

Reservation for Dalits in Universities

From March 2018 UGC advertised the faculty jobsand in this only 2.5% of posts were reserved for SC and none for ST. This istotally in opposition to what the norms have been (15% for SC, 7.5% for ST and27% for OBC) (8) This is going to have very adverse impact on the economicconditions of dalits along with change in the future academic conditions in thecountry. This will worsen the overall plight of this section of society.

Economic status

According to a 2014 report to the Ministry ofMinority Affairs by Amitabh Kundu, over 44.8% of ScheduledTribe (ST) and 33.8% of Scheduled Caste(SC) populations in rural India were living below thepoverty line in 2011-12, compared to 30.8% of Muslims. In urban areas, 27.3% of STand 21.8% of SC populations were poor, versus 26.5% of Muslims. (9, 10)

Some Hindu Dalits achieved affluence, although mostremain poor. In particular, some Dalit intellectuals such as Chandrabhan Prasad have argued that theliving standards of many Dalits have improved since the economic liberalizationin 1991 and have supported their claims through large surveys. (11) Accordingto SocioEconomic and Caste Census 2011, nearly 79 percent of rural Adivasi householdsand 73 percent for Dalit households were most deprived among rural householdsin India. While 45 percent of scheduled caste households are landless and earnby manual casual labor for their living and same is for 30 percent for adivasis.(12)

A 2012 survey by MangaloreUniversity in Karnataka stated that 93% ofdalit families still live below thepoverty line.(13) The budget (2020) has failed to give due share tothe Dalits, Adivasis, working class, Women and Children. It has also failed totake concrete steps to resolve the economic crisis prevalent in the primarysector of the economy, i.e., Agriculture. Instead of providing the farmers withsubstantial financial relief, they have been left in a world of false hopes andpromises. Also, education and health have not been provided with the kind ofattention they badly need. (14) Congress president Rahul Gandhi has criticized the RSS and the BJP for the plight of Dalits and said he praised dalit community who are coming forward to protest against thesepolicies. He commented this when many Dalit organisations had called for anation-wide shutdown with strong determination against the dilution of arrest prevalentprovisions under the SC/ST Atrocities Act by the Supreme Court.( 15)

BJP’s Strategiesto Co-opt Dalits

RSS-BJP faces a uniquedilemma. On one hand they want to ensure the subordination of dalits at allsocial levels. On the other they have to win over the electoral benefits ofthese communities. Through various of its organizations, RSS, achieves this.They are employing multiple strategies to win over there marginalizedcommunities. Their affiliated organizations doing this are Vishwa HinduParishad, Vanavasi Klayan Ashram, Bajrang Dal, Seva Bharati to name the few.They have tried to increase Brahminic religiosity at all the levels. They havepicked up some of the icons from these marginalized communities and revivedthem through Hindu Nationalist lens. In addition they have lured some of theleaders of these communities with the bait of pelf and power.

The BJP’s landslide victory in the 2014 general election washelped by Dalit votes. Currently, 84 parliament seats are reserved for Dalitsas those constituencies are dominated by Dalit people. In 2014, the BJP won 40of them, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of DevelopingSocieties(CSDS).

One such study, CSDSpost-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, showed that between 2014and 2019; support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward casteshas more than doubled (16). Incidentally they compriselarge section of poor people in the state.Similarly the 2021 post-poll survey also indicates that this support isbecoming much higher among Dalits and OBCs than among upper castes.

This has been thestrategy of BJP all over. Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai demonstrates thediverse ways used by this party for Adivasis and dalits. These groups find thatthey feel BJP offered them respect andrecognition more than other parties. (17) In theirperception this party treats them as equal members of society. It seems thesesocial groups seem to perceive a sense of dignity which motivates them to votefor BJP. This is what explains the BJP’s attitude towards Matua community,which is in large numbers in West Bengal. This is what explains Modi’s visit toBangla desh and a visit to Matua Mandir.

The situation may not remain the same as this community feels theyhave been betrayed. A report UCAN News (18) points out this sense of being letdown and it is expected that this rising anger among the community will getreflected in 2024 elections. Now by and by this marginalized community is nottaking the promises of BJP seriously. Young Dalits are increasingly aware oftheir rights as citizens. As per one of them "In the past, we were nothingbut cannon fodder for both the opposition and ruling parties. The time has comewhen such exploitation will not be allowed," (18)

As per the same report another Dalit activist in the northernstate of Punjab, told that the present generation of Dalits haslearned from the past. "The ongoing agitation wants to send a messageacross the Dalit people … to break the trap and demand equal rights insociety,".

Emerging dalit leader with great promise Jignesh Mevani, fromGujarat, who is the new face of Dalit political assertiveness; holds meetings, seminarsand awareness camps that attract huge crowds of people. He outlines the clearpath for advance of dalits in the current despicable situation. In one of themeeting held in Ahmadabad city Mevani criticized the BJP government ofdisregarding the interests of Dalit people. He called for more nationwide resistanceprotests as the BJP government is failing to defend the Dalit protection law inthe Supreme Court. There are hopes as "Young people are nowconfronting the government with facts and figures, a trend alien to thecommunity in the past. A new revolution is in the making and the time is notfar away when the community will no longer be viewed as taboo or alien tomainstream society," (18)

Summing up

BJP’s rise on political firmament has been a big setback to values of democracy, freedom of expression, security of religious minorities and Dalits. It has also adversely affected the economic welfare of the marginalizedsections of society. Through various measures the affirmative action meant fordalits are gradually being undone. In addition to raising of issues likeCow-beef have affected the livelihood of this section of society. Parallel tothis BJP and its associates have unleashed the process of cooption of dalitsinto HIndutva fold.

Sections of dalits are able to see the agenda of Brahmanic agendaof BJP-RSS and do plan to oppose it through various measures. The awarenessamong dalit youth in particular is coming up to resist the BJP moves toundermine their social and economic status.

Foot Notes









"India also has the largest number of people trapped in slavery – 14.2 million people".

10. Sengupta, Somini (29 August 2008). "Crusader Sees Wealth as Cure for Caste Bias". The New York Times. India.Retrieved 20November 2011.

11. Wax, Emily (31 August 2008). "In an Indian Village, Signs of the Loosening Grip ofCaste". The Washington Post.Retrieved 20November 2011.

12. "Landlessness is higher among Dalits but more adivasisare ’deprived’". The Indian Express. 6 July2015.Retrieved 6September 2015.

13. TNN (28 October 2012). "93% dalit families still live below poverty line, sayssurvey". The Times of India.Retrieved 13September 2015.






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