Dalits are seething in Modi's Gujarat and it will hurt BJP during polls
The incident in Una on July 11 cannot be seen in isolation.
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Already facing a huge erosion among the politically-dominant Patels in Gujarat because of the ongoing stir for reservations by the community, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now contending with double the trouble in the aftermath of the brutal attack on seven Dalit youth over the skinning of a dead cow at Una village of Gir Somnath district.
The victims were reportedly skinning a dead cow they had bought when six men intervened and started thrashing them as a large crowd watched in silence. The video has gone viral.
The attack on July 11 has snowballed into a political crisis not only because of the uproar on the issue in Parliament on July 20, but also because of the planned visits by Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal to the site of the incident.
Meanwhile, in Parliament, the BJP further scored what can eventually turn out to be a self-goal when Union home minister Rajnath Singh praised Gujarat government's handling of the situation. "Nine people have been arrested so far. Four police officials have been suspended for negligence of duty," the minister informed.
While the high-profile helicopter visits and the ruckus in Parliament project the issue nationally, at the local level, there is a greater worry because of the seething anger among Dalits in the state. Taking administrative action will not suffice, the BJP has to be seen moving on the ground to prevent such events from recurring.
On July 18, a Congress municipal councillor and four other Dalits allegedly attempted suicide by consuming phenyl in Gondal town of Rajkot district to protest the incident and because authorities failed to take action.
That they chose the precincts of an Ambedkar statue in the town to mark their protest and had intimated the police of their intention shows that the act was symbolic. Its message, however, will not be lost among the state's Dalit population.
This is not the only incident of protest following the Una tragedy. Similar protests have claimed the life of one police constable and there are reports that state-wide opposition to the incident is fast becoming an administrative challenge and a political crisis.
While the Dalit population in Gujarat is pegged at approximately seven per cent - lower than the national average - this does not make the community insignificant in the state. After the Gir Somnath incident, Scheduled Castes will feel further alienated from the BJP even at the national level.
The party has alienated a significant section of the Dalit population since January with the way in which it handled the issue of Rohith Vemula's suicide at Hyderabad University.
The BJP has tried to build bridges with the community with a mega programme, making repeated statements eulogising Dr BR Ambedkar and his role in nation-building. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched the "Stand-up India" scheme in April, which aims to promote entrepreneurship among women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by opening avenues for easier loans.
Modi's strategy is to inculcate the culture of entrepreneurship among Dalits given his own grooming in a mercantile culture. However, in the face of repeated attacks on Dalits and the failure of the government and the BJP to act against the harassers, all such initiatives come to naught.
For Dalits, identity and security are of paramount importance. While the handling of the Vemula incident challenged their identity, incidents like Una undermine their security.
Such acts cannot be seen in isolation. It is the result of a sense of elation among Hindus following the 2014 Lok Sabha verdict. The BJP took no step to canvass in its core constituency that the BJP secured absolute majority not only because of caste Hindus, but also because Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes voted for the party in an overwhelmingly majority.
For the sake of governance, the BJP also needed to campaign among supporters that religious minorities must feel secure for the sake of national unity and to maintain internal security. Yet, because of a myopic view of Hindutva, these initiatives were not taken, and contrarily, the BJP encouraged attacks on Dalits and religious minorities.
The unfortunate public reminder to Prime Minister Narendra Modi served by American President Barack Obama in 2015 should never have been necessitated. Incidents likes the Una attack are the result of the failure of the BJP to transform itself from being a party of the Opposition to a party of governance.
For the past two-and-half years, self-appointed cow-vigilante groups have ruled the countryside in various parts of North India. Armed with torches and thick sticks, they have patrolled highways and detained trucks carrying cattle or hidden even legitimately and beaten up temp drivers and those accompanying the vehicles.
These groups have their own so-called network of spies and work outside the legal framework. The police neither intervene nor attempt to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. Reports of cow vigilantism from northern states have become far too common. People are beaten up merely on the basis of suspicion.
In 2015, the entire nation watched the Dadri incident in horror and it became the cause of much outrage among the intelligentsia. A year later, the energies to protest appeared spent when a court ordered that FIRs be filed against the family members of Mohammed Akhlaq, who was mercilessly lynched by a mob for "eating" beef.
To quell the anger and to ensure that the BJP minimises political damage in a state that is due for polls in November 2017, the party and the government will have to intervene at the highest level.
The crisis facing the BJP in Gujarat is ironic given that the two most powerful men in the country today are from the state. No one can be more aware than Modi that the erosion of the party's popularity in Gujarat will pose a massive political challenge.