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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 19 New Delhi April 28, 2018

Changing Contour of Dalit Politics and New Idioms

Saturday 28 April 2018

by Arun Srivastava

The RSS might have the magical wand to solve the problems of Hindutva and evolve the mechanism for ushering India into the Hindu Rashtra, but it utterly lacks the vision for uniting the Dalits and take them out of the nightmare of the isolationist politics being practised by it and its political mouth organ BJP.

From luring and poaching the so-called Dalit leaders from other political parties to worshipping local Dalit deities, the Sangh resorted to all kinds of gimmicks but to no avail. Even if in the 2017 election to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly the Dalits are said to have rallied behind the BJP, the fact remains that they never could imbibe and present the BJP or RSS ideology. They as usual remained at the periphery. The upper-caste leaders and the support-base continued to treat them as political untouchables.

The disdain of the top saffron leadership towards them and the derisive attitude and approach of the party’s rank and file, especially of the upper caste, made them not to forget the humiliation and insult inflicted upon them by these elements. What was worse, they continued with their oppression and torture even after the Dalits overwhelmingly voted for them. The Dalits’ attempt to identify with the BJP proved to be an abortive move.

Realising that nothing can woo them and also faced with threat of growing Dalit alienation with their anger spilling out on the streets of India, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, proclaimed the party’s total devotion to the country’s greatest Dalit icon, Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar.

Modi in his usual style has tried to usurp the legacy of Babasaheb. A few days back he claimed that no government has done as much to preserve and promote Ambedkar’s legacy as his. To identify the party with the aspirations of the Dalits, Modi has also asked his party MPs to spend two nights in villages between April 14 and May 5 to interact especially with the Dalit community and make them aware of the measures taken by the party and the government to honour Ambedkar.

In the perception of Modi, the Dalits would feel satisfied with the offer of some fringe benefits. But he is mistaken. The Dalits are for assertion of their identity and share in governance. These two aspirational needs of Dalits are contrary to the saffron policy and approach towards the Dalits. For the Sangh they are a part of Hindutva and obviously any acceptance of their demand would jeopardise the interest of the RSS ideology. Significantly, the BJP is too willing to chant ‘Jai Bhim’ but the Dalits are too cautious of chanting ‘Jai Ram’. By doing this they would be falling into the trap of the Sangh and BJP. The saffron forces will succeed in their mission to describe them as neo-Hindus.

Scared of the Dalits feeling alienated and severing their ties with the party, the BJP leadership has embarked upon a major image refurbishing mission. With the Supreme Court reluctant to review its order on the SC/ST Atrocities Act, the BJP—proficient in the game of speaking lies and resorting to gimmicks—has decided to move the Court to display its passionate well-meaning intentions, the concern of the party, to the Dalit community.

The inability of the party to counter the Dalit unrest emerging across the country and bereft of any alternate politico-cultural mechanism to counter this trend and also to reach out to the dejected Dalits, the BJP opted for the gimmick to prostrate before the Court. With this in mind and with the intent to dissuade the Dalits from taking to agitation, three BJP-ruled States of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—which had earlier endorsed and stood by the Supreme Court’s instructions and also directed their police establishment to implement the Court order — at the directive of their central leadership revoked their decision on Tuesday (April 17). In Madhya Pradesh seven Dalits were killed during the Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups on April 2,

As a part of the strategy, the BJP leadership also tutored these three State governments to file review petitions in the Apex Court. It ought to be recalled that just after the Dalit organisations gave the call for a Bharat Bandh, Narendra Modi came out with the assurance that the Centre would not allow the law to be affected. Even on that day the BJP-ruled States were determined to implement Court’s March 20 order. What was quite interesting was Rajasthan, the laboratory of Hindutva, where maximum atrocities took place on Dalits, pledged to support the review petition filed by the Central Government. Incidentally, it was after severe peoples’ outcry and criticism that the Modi Government filed the review petition.

One thing is absolutely clear: that this sophisticated and cosmetic slant is not going to have any effect on the Dalits. The hardening of the Dalit attitude towards the BJP could be judged from the fact that a veteran RSS Dalit ideologue from Gujarat deserted the RSS as well as the BJP. The 64-year-old Mulchand Rana was the Vice-President of the Samajik Samrasata Manch of Gujarat, an RSS wing of Social Unity. After quitting the RSS, he said; “The importance of Dalits in BJP and RSS has been dropping over the past 10 years. But in the past five years, the rift between Dalits and other communities has widened so much that it has led to an increase in cases of atrocities.”

This admission of the unembellished fact simply underlines that the RSS and BJP have been least interested in empowering them and giving them their due. That Modi has betrayed the Dalits has been a highly debated issue in their inner circle and groups. The contempt with which the Modi Government treated the anti-Dalit violence in Saharanpur of UP immensely harmed Modi and his image. In recent months the BJP and also the Modi Government have been celebrating and eulogising Babasaheb. But the Dalits are yet to forget the insult inflicted on him by the upper-caste leaders and supporters of the party. In Saharanpur the BJP cadres belonging to the Thakur community had prevented them from installing a statue of B.R. Ambedkar at the Saint Ravidas temple on the occasion of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. Dalit houses were torched, their cattlesheds ransacked, and belongings destroyed. Two Dalits were killed.

When one examines the anti-Dalit violence in India over a period of time, the four Northern States of UP, Bihar, MP and Rajasthan, popularly known as the “cow-belt” States, top the list. As per the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, the total number of crimes against SCs in the country in 2010 was 32,643, of which UP accounted for 7522 (23 per cent). The number of crimes increased to 47,064 in 2014, in which UP’s share was 8075. In recent years crimes against SCs increased in MP and Rajasthan.

An insight into the crimes against Dalits would reveal that the present generation of Dalits, precisely the Dalit youths, do not perceive these as caste conflicts or violence. The character has undergone a major change. They have to realise that these were the basic ingredients of the class conflicts. Obviously the implications of the anti-Dalit violence need serious consideration. The youths have acquired a new vision and are aware of the importance of literacy and education, the sending of communication, occupational mobility and relevance of affirmative action. A peep into the operation of Dalit organisations which have come up during the last four-five years would unravel that Dalit youths are more class conscious and desire to express their identity at horizontal and vertical social and economic levels. It has now become a pan-Indian phenomenon. For the older generation of Dalits, Ambedkar was to be worshipped and revered, but the new generation has started to analyse and evaluate his writings, theories and speeches. Ambedkar’s academic contribution on Dalit liberation has created a sense of confidence and assertion in the community.

This novel realisation amongst the Dalits points to a new Dalit assertion which is disinclined to accept the caste-based hegemony and supremacy of the upper-caste Hindu. Jignesh Mewani’s affirmation made thousands of Dalits rally against the flogging of five Dalit youth in Una of Gujarat, and young lawyer Chandrasekhar floating the Bhim Army to counter upper-caste oppression at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, are examples of resurgence of innovative Dalit consciousness and politics.

BJP leaders, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, have been trying to assuage the sentiments of Dalits and cautioning anti-Dalit elements within the party, but in reality they have done little to win over the Dalits’ trust. Though at the national executive in Bhubaneswar last April Shah had said: “Our mass base is changing rapidly. So change your behaviour, language and tone accordingly”, the fact remains that nothing changed. On the contrary the situation changed for the worse. The number and character of atrocities on Dalits have bourgeoned. The entire exercise of Modi and Shah has been phoney, simply aimed at winning the support of the 16.6 per cent politically significant Scheduled Caste (SC) population.

The RSS has in fact come to realise the intensity and dynamics of the new Dalit assertion. It is scared that failure to check the new idiom of the Dalit assertion would act as a serious deterrent in its horizontal and vertical expansion and growth. We have been witness to the fact that it is only after avowal of the new Dalit identity that the long march of the RSS could be checked to a great extent. New Dalit politics has resurrected in a major way. Dalits have reacted to denial of their rights, to atrocities on them, and rejection of their economic status.

Some people are not willing to accept this new dynamic of Dalit politics and say that the character and mode of the new politics is yet to acquire a definite shape. They may be right. But they must accept that it has resuscitated in a much stronger manner. Earlier the urban Dalits in their quest and bliss to join the ranks of the neo-middle class had been maintaining some distance from the poor Dalits, but now the scenario has changed. The urban Dalits, who have joined the ranks of the neo-middle class, are for asserting their identity and follow the teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

They have become aware that in the era of dominance of the market forces and systematic assertion by the capitalist economy, they would have to evolve a new political action. They are striving to take charge of affairs in their own hands. Though caste continues to be the basic index of their assertion, they are not willing to get embroiled simply in caste war.

It is not that the saffron scholars are unaware of these developments. With the avowed aim to win over them, the BJP leadership, especially the Narendra Modi Government, has been desperately trying to identify themselves with the ideals of Babasaheb. They have been dedicating their devotion to him. But their divisive policy has made them stagger. Their efforts and zeal to appropriate Ambedkar has not succeeded to the extent they had desired. The violence and oppression perpetrated on Dalits during the last four years have made the latter scared of the BJP trap and intentions.

The BJP’s attempt to Hinduise Ambedkar has simply backfired and turned the Dalits more vigilant. The BJP leaders’ attempt to insert Ramji, his father’s name, into Babasaheb’s name has been exposed. The modern Dalit leaders and scholars view this move as an attempt to split the community. Anandraj Ambedkar, grandson of Ambedkar, pointed out that he seldom wrote his full name and preferred his initials. The Dalits have resented this as a move to portray Ambedkar as a Hindu, and more so as a Ram bhakt. Decrying the government’s move the other grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, said: “My sense is, close to the elections, they might try to tell the voters that Ambedkar was also a ‘Ram bhakt’”.

This move of the RSS and BJP has been a part of their strategy to Hinduise everything from the freedom fighters to the national heroes to the important historical events. It is not that the Sangh is experimenting this with only Babasaheb. A look at the developments would reveal that right from Bir Kunwar Singh to Tantya Tope everyone is being identified as the Hindu aspiration. This is cultural attack. The Sangh has been attacking the liberal, Left and secular forces and scholars with the allegation to dilute the national identity of these people and events.

The RSS has been resorting to this line in other places with some changes in conformity to the local needs. The reasons for usurping Ambedkar are: the RSS and BJP are unnerved at the prospect of losing the vote of the Dalits and the backward castes in the next general elections. It is explicit that with the Dalits turning away from the saffron brigade, the BJP would miserably lose the 209 Lok Sabha elections. The Dalits rallying behind the BJP in 2014 and again in 2017 had the same connotation which conjured the others to vote against the Congress: anger at the non-performance of the Congress Government and their inability to ensure the protection of the poor and Dalits. The RSS and BJP have come to realise the electoral value and potential of the Dalits. For purely political and electoral reasons, the saffron brigade needs to reach out to the community and thinks that a symbolic bow before Ambedkar will do the trick. The other factor has been the the modern Dalits, especially the urban Dalits, elites and educated, have deified him. Obviously they did it for their personal gains. Ask a rural Dalit, he would not be able to explain Babaseheb’s role in framing the Constitution. They only know that he was their leader who raised his voice for their liberation and protection of their izzat and honour. It is the urban Dalit population which used his role as the architect of the Indian Constitution. While usurping him as a Hindu, interestingly the RSS and BJP preferred to annihilate his scathing criticism of the Hindu caste order.

A look at the RSS move could be seen at the all-India level. From Narendra Modi to Yogi Adityanath—all have started referring to Babasaheb as a Hindu. The Uttar Pradesh Government at the instruction of its Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath issued an order to refer to Ambedkar by his “correct” name in all government and court records—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Babasaheb did not subscribe to Hinduism. A small reference is suffice to understand it.

Ambedkar has criticised Ram’s role in the battle between Sugriv and Vali. Ram, it is well known, killed Vali and installed Sugriv as the king. In Ambedkar’s words, “The murder of Vali is the greatest blot on the character of Rama. It was a crime which was thoroughly unpro-voked, for Vali had no quarrel with Rama. It was a most cowardly act for Vali was unarmed. It was a planned and premeditated murder.”

Ambedkar has been highly critical of the beheading of Shambuk, a Shudra. His fault was he was performing tapasya for ascending to heaven in his own earthly person. This clearly manifests the complete hegemony of the upper-caste Hindus. Eklavya was made to sacrifice his thumb in order to ensure that a tribal boy does not surpass the skills of a Kshatriya prince in archery.

The Dalits and downtrodden have always been humiliated and assaulted and oppressed by the feudal and upper-caste landed gentry. But during the last years the Dalits have witnessed systematic attack on their identity. The Sangh, under devious mechanism, tried to obliterate their identity.

The 2017 elections to Uttar Pradesh Assembly made it explicit that the Dalits look for a wider canvass. Use of social media to network and communicate has proliferated; Left politics and its limitations are under scrutiny. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they have distanced away from the traditional Communist Parties. Only Naxalites among the Left are the political force which attract them. Incidentally, in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections while the Grand Alliance of the RJD-JD(U) bulldozed even the BJP, the CPI-ML managed to win three seats having the Mahadalit population.

It is also significant that a paradigm shift is being witnessed in the attitude of the Dalits and agricultural labourers towards the movements relating to their own problems. During last two years the Patna High Court exonerated the goons of the landlords involved in at least three genocides but the Dalits did not protest against the government and its lawyers for preparing and presenting weak cases before the court.

Mewani’s main demand is: every landless Dalit should be given five acres of land. It is reasonable as “every zilla and tehsil has government wasteland” and this could be recovered through the implementation of law. His movement was “pitching for an alternative model of development, based on land reforms, where productivity and wealth gains will be made by redistributing land to those who will work on it themselves, land to the tiller”. The State administration’s move to start mapping land around Saroda village was a huge victory for the movement, he claimed. Hitherto, “Gujarat had a unique model of carrying land reforms only on paper,” he said.

“Even if we are not able to create a classless society ... we ought to aim for a society that has less disparity ... Material issues are the heart of Dalit politics. With our slogan, ‘you keep the cow’s tail, give us our land’, we are discarding the communal agenda of the Sangh Parivar and are raising material issues—one could call it a Left perspective,” he said. While critiquing the Left for its shortcomings, he would welcome Leftist activists to his movement, he said, adding: “The more the Left keeps raising Dalit issues, the more the Dalits will begin to trust the Left.”

It was necessary for the Dalits to counter saffron politics. Undeniably the “political philosophy of Dalit-Muslim” unity is one way to do so. Emphasising the need for inter-caste and inter-religious marriages to be common among Dalits, he said the movement was seeking to build a broad coalition against the Sangh Parivar and a gathering of OBCs, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and trade unionists was being planned for September 27 in the State, he said. If land can be found for the Tatas, Ambanis, Adanis and SEZs, it can be found for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs as well. If there is political will, then it is definitely possible. But corporate groups are given land to generate economic development that benefits everyone. What is the harm in giving five acres of wasteland to a Dalit achiever?

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52[at]

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