India: Dalit Politics At Crossroads? – Analysis


Results of the 2014 general election and the subsequent Assembly elections clearly established that Dalit politics is undergoing a change.

By Satish Misra

The Presidential election on 17 July is like a watershed moment of Indian political and social consciousness. It is a contest between two Dalit candidates, the BJP-led NDA candidate Ramnath Kovind, who was the Governor of Bihar till recently, and the UPA’s nominee Meira Kumar, the daughter of Dalit legend Babu Jagjivan Ram.

In ordinary times, this would have carried not much political significance. But Dalit politics in the country has come under sharper focus since the assumption of throne by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2014 and coming to power of the BJP in 22 states and some violent incidents across the country.

The issue has come under lot of debate in the national as well as international media. The fact that not only has the ruling coalition went for a Dalit candidate to extend its political support base among the Dalit population that according to 2011 census stood at 201.4 million, even the opposition opted for a candidate of the same denomination speaks volumes on the current state of  politics in the country.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept to power winning 71 out of total 80 Lok Sabha seats from the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh. All the 17 reserved Scheduled Caste seats went to the BJP. It clearly meant that a sizable portion of Dalit votes went to the BJP account and indicated that there was a division among SC voters.

Analysts were of the view that non-Jatav votes went to the BJP.

The results of the 2014 general election and the subsequent Assembly elections clearly established that Dalit politics is undergoing a change. Whether the symbolism of making a Dalit reach the highest constitutional post of the country will help the BJP to consolidate its political base among the SC community and spread it further needs to be examined carefully, particularly in the background of growing social tensions between Dalits and the upper castes, particularly the Rajputs or Thakurs. Rising incidents of violence and maltreatment of Dalits by several BJP ruled states and the Centre itself are a manifestation of the trend.

Politics of “Hinduatva”, revolving around issues of Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, cow vigilantism around the issue of beef ban and other similar issues, is sharpening existing tensions among higher castes and Dalits.

Latest of the series of incidents has been the outlawing of a convention in Lucknow on July 3 to discuss the state of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh by the BJP ruled government. Thirty-one activists were arrested while about 50 Dalits, coming from Gujarat, were sent back by the State Police. The State Administration did not permit them to proceed to Lucknow to mark a symbolic protest.

Earlier in May this year, cutting of the internet services to control social media in caste violence hit district of Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh was a very ominous sign of the state of affairs in country’s biggest state. Violent clashes had erupted in Saharanpur on 5 May when Dalits objected to the taking out of a strident procession by Thakurs to commemorate the birth anniversary of the medieval Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap. The Dalits stalled the procession as it entered their area and the confrontation escalated from stone pelting from both the sides. Thakurs did not take the Dalit’s opposition kindly and went into rampage leading to the burning down of about 40 Dalit houses and shops. A mob of Thakurs also indulged in desecration of Dalit iconography and shrines. A Thakur youth died, while many more were injured from both the communities. Dalits abandoned the village apprehending further violence

The atmosphere of confrontation had started building up since a BJP government was installed in the state on 19 March and Yogi Adityanath — a Thakur by birth — became the UP’s 21st chief minister.

The first skirmish had taken place in Shabbirpur village on 20 April 20 — within 45 days of the new BJP government in Lucknow — when the Jatav-Dalits of the village were about to erect a statue of B.R. Ambedkar to celebrate the Ambedkar Jayanti and Thakurs objected to it, citing lack of administrative permission for the celebrations.

About a month-long tension between the two communities in the communally sensitive district of Saharanpur cannot be merely a law and order problem. It seems to be an abject failure of the state administration to understand the real causes of the problem and treating the issue in a routine fashion.

Violence in Saharanpur was the latest manifestation of the politics that has been pursued by political parties for the last few years in western UP through ‘love jihad’, cow protection and Muslim appeasement.

In 2013, there were communal riots after clashes broke out between Jats and Muslims. Recently held assembly elections in the state further sharpened the fault lines.

The breaking up of Jat-Muslim understanding paid rich electoral dividends in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the BJP won all seats in the region and the same was followed in the state elections.

After the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in early 1990s of the last century, backward and Dalit castes felt empowered and higher caste, particularly the Thakurs, no more had a clout like before when they used to call shots in the state resulting in their perceived humiliation.

But Dalits of the region, notably Jatavs who have been ardent supporters of the BSP and its leader Mayawati, have become much more politically conscious and are therefore not ready to accept upper caste assertion.

The role of the Bheem Army Bharat Ekta Mission, founded by a young lawyer Chandrashekhar Azad, came to the forefront during the Saharanpur clashes as it protested against the caste-based violence and the state administration’s apathy towards them.

The fact that it has come to prominence by organising a massive rally at Jantar Mantar in the union capital on 21 May to protest against the Saharanpur violence cannot either be ignored or brushed under the carpet.

Organisations like the Bheem Army are drawing their strengths from the treatment and injustice meted out to Dalit research scholar like Rohith Vemula of the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide in January 2016.

Dalits have been the integral part of the traditional agrarian economy where milching animals have played a leading role.  Strict enforcement of cow slaughter, the livelihood of Dalits, is directly affected. There have been violent incidents in UP, MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other states where Dalits have come under attack of groups of cow vigilantes.

The statement of Bheem Army founder that “for elections, we are Hindus and after that we are Dalits” is a clear reminder to the RSS-BJP brand of politics for making timely corrections failing which it may take an ugly turn. The subsequent arrest of Chandrashekhar Azad by the State Police and the treatment meted out to him is sharpening the existing fault lines in the caste hierarchical system in society.

Dalit consciousness has been rising steadily. A feeling is growing within the community that crimes against them are not seriously pursued and not thoroughly investigated by a caste-biased administration. A growing perception is that guilty are either not adequately punished or manage to go unpunished.

While political parties are playing their short-term game of dividing society on caste, sub-castes and religious lines, emerging Dalit consciousness resulting in assertiveness is sure to influence politics in a decisive manner in the times to come.

It is time that discerning political thinkers and leaders found ways to address the rising phenomenon and take steps to address the issue in a reconciliatory manner instead of embarking on a confrontationist path.

Dalit politics, indeed, seems to be standing at a crucial crossroad.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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