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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 33 New Delhi August 4, 2018

First Bharat Bandh by Dalits on August 9

Tuesday 7 August 2018

by Arun Srivastava

Bandhs are the regular social features with political nuance in India. Bandh is a form of mechanism to send across some message. The proposed August 9 bandh is different from all the previous bandhs. For the first time this bandh has been called by the Dalit organisations. Bandhs are usually called by the political parties. But the Dalit-sponsored bandh aims at asserting their identity and rights.

The immediate provocation for giving the call for Bharat Bandh is the reluctance of the government to listen to the Dalit protest against dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. On March 20, the Supreme Court observed that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 was being used to “blackmail” innocent citizens and handed down guidelines to protect both public servants and private employees. However, the facts on record unravel the truth that no one, not even the government official, underwent legal prosecution for committing atrocities on Dalits. In contrast the Dalits on flimsy charges were languishing in jails. The Court expressed concern about the “innocent citizen”, but was not bothered of the Dalits.

This Dalit affirmation on August 9 will be different from the previous Dalit protests. Significantly, realising the nature and dynamics of August 9, established leaders like Ramvilas Paswan, Udit Raj and Mayawati have also become vocal against the Modi Government. Their primary strategy has been to snatch the initiative from the hands of the new Dalit youth leadership emerging fast on the national horizon. These leaders are aware of the fact that keeping away from the August 9 protest would prove to be disastrous. These Dalit leaders could have long back taken up the issues staring at the faces of the Dalit community. But they ignored them.

The Dalit leadership in fact is planning for a bandh on a much wider scale. This would herald the emergence of the Dalit youth leadership at the national level. The new leadership, which took birth in Gujarat, has acquired a national dynamics. The Dalit upsurge is being given a political shape post-Una atrocities and flogging of the Dalits. After Una, the Dalits have realised that the problem is widespread and that has brought in a new sense of unity. After the incident, Jignesh Mewani began the Asmita Yatra from Ahmedabad to Una. More than 20,000 Dalits joined him for the yatra.

After the April 2 showdown the Dalit community is gearing up for a major face-off with the Narendra Modi Government on August 9. The intensity and character of the Dalit assertion on that day could be gauged from the simple fact that even the Dalit faces of the NDA and Modi Government have started cautioning the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. 

In April at least nine people were killed in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan as Dalit outfits allegedly turned violent in several parts of the country due to their outrage over a Supreme Court ruling on atrocities against Dalits, according to the government officials. Nevertheless senior Dalit activists like S.R. Darapuri, former IPS, vehemently denied that the activists took to violence. Recently several Dalit organisations and political leaders held a session which witnessed the birth of the Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh Manch with the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, Prakash Ambedkar, taking the lead.

There’s a need to politicise the 167 million Dalits in India. They must identify their needs and raise their voice about such necessities like sanitation, quality education, occupational health hazards, spearheading sustained protests against atrocities against Dalits and shaming archaic mindsets through the media. They must fight for their basic rights, not for freebies.

Now the time has come for the poor Dalit masses and Dalit youth to come up with fresh ideas and a different language and get out of the typical rhetoric of bramanvaad-murdaabad, and focus on real, material issues. This will be able to successfully generate a movement. All poor forces should stand united. The Dalits have become victims of the material contradictions of the globalisation resulting in clashes with the neo-liberals. Mewani has rightly been empha-sising: “Fascism is fascism. It will ruin our country if we stay silent any longer.”

This is a Manch for everyone opposed to the ideology of the RSS and committed to rights and justice. The Manch is planning to launch a nationwide movement on social issues. One of these is to demand opening of temples in the States. The Manch’s mission is to consolidate and unify the movement which is why the Manch had been formed with political support. Who have joined the new platform? They include the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch, Akhil Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union, National Campaign Council for Protection of Dalit Rights, and the Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union. The focus, however, remains on highlighting the atrocities against the Dalits.

The Bharat Bandh is a strategic action-plan at reaching out to people and exploring possible electoral alliances, evolved during a series of discussions between senior leaders of various Opposition parties in New Delhi over the past many days. Interestingly Dalit MPs have also “expressed concern” over the “wrong message” sent by the appointment of Justice (retd) A.K. Goel as the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairman since he is “the judge who ruled against the SC/ST Act”. Significantly the leaders of the Manch have strong reasons to believe that the RSS is behind all this and the organised crime against the Dalits is a part of their cultural nationalism. The Indian fascist forces are aware of the fact that it is the Dalit or Scheduled Caste people who have the guts to take head-on the fascist forces and fascism. Being militant they are not scared of the striking power of these forces.

The RSS and BJP forces, which in fact have been striving to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra riding on the back of fascism and the fascist forces, are aware of the militancy of the Dalits which is why to terrorise them and make them toe their political line the former have been perpetrating tortures, like lynching and murders. Unfortunately the traditional Dalit leadership never tried to develop and strengthen this skill of the Dalit. In places where they confronted the private armies of the landlords and state repression, they were instantly identified as hard-core Naxalites or terrorists. Lynching and mob violence have escalated dramatically. A new narrative of nationalism and rejection of dissent have created a dangerous public emotion. Organised mob violence is not new to India. But at the heart of the current wave of lynching is a new political emotion which does not allow dissent. The perpetrators of the crime are the self-styled conscience-keepers of “society”. The mood of the nation, at present, is to explain its dealings with one another in the religious language of virtue and sin.

In social media platforms, ‘mob lynching’ over dissent or expressions of free speech has been going on for a long time and is still continuing. But now the goal-post has been shifted to the streets. There is no denying the fact that oppression of the Dalits has the tacit blessings of the Sangh.

Some intellectuals and leaders may not subscribe to the view that India and its people are facing fascistic threat under the BJP-NDA rule, with remote control in the hands of the RSS which admires fascism. Fascism is the cruelest ideology in the world. They chant nationalist slogans but seek to impose the hegemonistic rule of finance capital. Fascism clamours for a “strong man” to control ‘anarchy and chaos’ which in fact is targeted against the agitations of unemployed youth, working class battles for their rights, besides for the right to dissent. With capitalist crisis deepening throughout the world these forces have become quite aggressive.

Fascism has started taking different forms in different countries but its basic nature has not changed. The present-day world is facing the critical threat of fascism or fascistic tendencies. It is a matter of serious concern, in the recent election of Germany, the pro-fascist Right-wing party could get more than 13 per cent votes and a number of seats in Parliament. In several West European countries, reactionary governments are capturing power. In such a scenario the surge of fascist forces is not at all surprising.

Only a fortnight back Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan held a meeting with the Dalit rights coalition, All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, at his residence. He also wrote a letter to the Prime Minister supporting the demand raised by the Dalit rights groups of increasing their represen-tation in the higher judiciary and also in the Supreme Court which does not have a single Dalit judge. Following the political line of the BJP and Modi Government he also held the Supreme Court Collegium system of appoint-ment of judges responsible for this omission. The letter urged that “Parliament should bring in a law that ensures reservation for SCs, STs, OBCs and women in the High Courts and the Supreme Court”.

Strange enough, it took six months for Paswan to come out of the slumber to realise that the damage had been done and write to the Home Minister to release Bhim Army chief Chandra-shekhar and others booked under the National Security Act. Paswan’s gesture is purely a move to win over the trust of the Dalits and keep them in good humour. Paswan did not show his concern for the Dalits and poor who became victims of the lynching. The primary reason for this was he did not want to be seen on the opposite side of Modi.

Lynching aims at enforcing a majoritarian ethnic/racial/religious political order. By maintaining silence he simply endorsed the hegemony of the BJP and Sangh. The datasets on lynching show a qualitative increase in the incidence of lynching after the BJP’s rise to power in 2014. The BJP has itself to blame for antagonising the Dalits. From the time of the lynching of four Dalits in Una by gau rakshaks to the hounding to death of the bright Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, in Hyderabad to the prolonged incarceration of the Dalit firebrand, Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”, in the wake of the clashes between the Rajputs and Dalits in Saharanpur, UP, the Dalits have been at the receiving end of the saffron ire. There has been systematic disparaging of the Dalits, as the Rohith Vemula episode showed when a Union Minister called the Hyderabad Central University a den of anti-nationals simply because the ABVP was opposed to the Ambedkar Students Association.

During the four years of BJP rule, Dalits have lost the gains they had made earlier. The most glaring was the constitutional security provided to them. The Supreme Court decision that diluted the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has made them vulnerable to the upper-caste oppression and reprisal. In another decision against the Dalits, the Allahabad High Court has overruled reservations for the SC faculty at the university level. The Centre, instead of appealing to the Supreme Court, lent support to the HC’s decision. The UGC has issued an order to give effect to the HC’s verdict, without any consideration of the likely reduction in the reserved faculty posts in the universities.

It is an open secret that the BJP has not been concerned of the miseries and plights of the Dalits. Through its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the party had pledged its commitment to social justice and harmony. It also promised economic empowerment of the Dalits through education, entrepreneurship and skill development. The manifesto further stressed on preventing atrocities against the Scheduled Castes (SCs). But after four years of Modi rule, they lost everything of whatever little they had.

The economic empowerment of the Dalits depends on the allocation to the Special Component Plan (SCP) for SCs. The Modi Government did not maintain a proper allocation. The average allocation in the period between 2014 and 2018 is 7.59 per cent, almost nine per cent short of the 16.6 per cent target set by the government. The move meant a downgrading of the significance of allocations for the SCs. As a result of this, education and entrepreneurship development have been the worst affected. The Dalit students are facing difficulties in getting the Post-Matric Scholarship and also the delay in release of funds to the UGC for National Ph.D Fellowships for SC/ST scholars (earlier called the Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship) has caused hardship to many researchers.

The BJP’s attempt to Hinduise Ambedkar has simply backfired and turned the Dalits more cautious. An insight into the victory of the BJP would make it explicit that the established Dalit leaders did not take the fight against the BJP head-on. Their approach and attitude to the 2014 elections made it abundantly clear that they lost the battle even before the war formally began. They would have adopted the same approach for the 2019 elections had the new emerging Dalit leadership not thrown an open challenge to the RSS and BJP. It is the fear of losing the space to the new leaders that leaders like Mayawati and others have become pro-active.

For BSP supremo Mayawati the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have come as an opportunity to consolidate her grip on the Dalits and untouchables of Uttar Pradesh and resuscitate her own image as a champion of the Dalit cause. Unfortunately her impulsive political actions of the past have given her a negative image. Even her own partymen do not take her seriously. Nevertheless, wisdom has prevailed on her and she has come to realise that to regain her primacy in Indian politics and reclaim her position as the Dalit leader, she has to reach out to the other Opposition leaders and adopt a flexible approach.

The recent emergence of new young Dalit faces in Gujarat and their taking to the war path against the feudal and upper-caste elements has unnerved Mayawati. She is yet not clear about what should be the stance of the party towards the present political and economic developments taking place in the country. The main problem with Mayawati, however, is that she does not comprehend the new idiom of Dalit assertion. It is an open secret that during the rule of Narendra Modi, the nature of Dalit assertion has undergone a change. The new Dalit leadership has been trying to place the Dalit question in relation to and contradiction between the capitalist economy and market forces that have been defining the Indian economy.

This move of the RSS and BJP has been the 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 Babasaheb only. A look at the developments would reveal that right from Bir Kunwar Singh to Tantya Tope everyone is being identified as Hindu aspiration. This is a cultural attack. The Sangh has been attacking the liberal, Left and secular forces and scholars with the allegation that Mewani’s movement is “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,” Mewani said.

There is a new swing in Dalit politics today. Its signs are obvious in the way Dalits have reacted to denial of their rights, to atrocities on them, the modes of struggles, rejection of their economic status. New young Dalit leaders have been asserting their individuality. It is being added to the new form of politics. No doubt Dalits are increasingly striving to take charge of affairs in their own hands. Though caste continues to be the basic index of their assertion, the fact is that they are disillusioned of caste politics. They nurse a strong feeling that their caste leaders have simply exploited them and used them for their personal gains.

Naxalites are the only political force which attract them. Incidentally in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections while the Grand Alliance of 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. The new Dalit politics feels that it holds the key to some of these concerns and strivings.

In fact Dalit unity is a big challenge in modern-day Dalit politics. A new class of Manuwadi Dalit is fast growing within the Dalit community itself. A recent study by an NGO found wide prevalence of untouchability practised by Dalit castes against other Dalit castes. This is a major impediment in the path of Dalit unity. It is a sad commentary that the Indian Left is yet to look at the Dalit community in a proper modern perspective. The Left must become an ally of the Dalits. We must listen to what Mewani says: “I definitely see the Left as an ally. It’s not about the Left joining the Dalits or Dalits joining the Left, it’s about a Dalit becoming Left—by which I simply mean a cogent understanding of class struggle.”

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

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