Dalit consciousness in India has reached a watershed moment
This groundswell, this sense of common cause, is a radical new assertion.
- Total Shares
Imagine yourself bludgeoned to death for presuming to ride a horse. Your limbs pulverised for speaking up for a raped daughter. Your body flogged for doing an already dehumanising job no one else wants to do. Then imagine the one law that seems to protect you from this having its teeth pulled out.
The stories of Pradeep Rathod, Bant Singh and the Una men are not stories from India’s past: they are its shamefaced reality in the here and now. On an average, there are 40,000 serious crimes against Dalits every year. The conviction rate ranges from 3 per cent to 15 per cent in different states. That is just one stark snapshot of the harsh, asymmetrical power structure within which Dalits live.
The Supreme Court’s decision on March 20, therefore, to defang the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was a particularly cruel blow. The wave of Dalit anger that swept the country on April 2, protesting this dilution was not just unprecedented in scale, it was unique in several critical ways. It signals that Dalit consciousness in India is at a watershed moment.
Many commentators have condemned the violence that accompanied the protests. That condemnation is necessary and timely - even for the protestors themselves. Violence has a way of serving itself short. It’s an invitation for the state to bring on its might. A pretext to blur the real issue at hand. Some of that happened on April 2. Of the nine people killed in police firing that day, six were Dalits.
Image: PTI photo
But the key significance of the Dalit Bharat bandh on April 2 is not necessarily the violence. The key significances are this: One, never before have so many lakhs of Dalits spontaneously risen up in synchronous protest across different states.
Two, never before have any of the traditional formal political parties had so little role to play, either as catalyst, amplifier or organiser of the protests.
Three, there was no single figure or centralised leadership from within Dalit groups themselves which served as lightning rod for the movement. Instead, disparate Dalit organisations came together in spontaneous shock and set up street coordination committees, triggering a massive, organic, proliferating web of outrage across the nation. Reminiscent of desperate revolutions elsewhere in the globe.
This is unprecedented. This groundswell, this sense of common cause, is a radical new assertion. Dalits comprise nearly 20 per cent of the country. And the young especially are no longer willing to be a project of charitable noblesse oblige. The night-over tourism, the eat-a-meal-with-a-Dalit condescension, the ritual garlanding of the blue-coated statue. This habitual stuff will not cut it any longer. It’s also sobering to remember that when protests don’t turn violent no one seems to take note of it. There have been innumerable peaceful Bhim yatras when both media and political power has just looked the other way. In contrast, Dalits will undoubtedly have drawn subliminal messages about the effectiveness of the April 2 protests.
Understandably, therefore, these protests have sent tremors through the BJP. The RSS has summoned a meeting to sound its warnings. The other parties are gleeful, calculating this is the start of the BJP’s electoral comeuppance.
But politics often hostages itself to short-sightedness.
This April 14, on the birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, political parties across the spectrum will trade charges and embark on an escalated jostle to declare themselves the true champion of Ambedkar’s legacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already asked his party to ensure maximum fanfare. Mayawati hopes to remind the Dalits - at least in Uttar Pradesh - that the BSP is their vehicle. Akhilesh Yadav - galvanised by the new SP-BSP alliance - will also undoubtedly up the ante on both the rhetoric and the celebration. The Congress will roll out its standard.
The upcoming Karnataka elections, which has devolved quite simply into a race for castes and sub-castes, will be the first test of how things are set to pan. The dilution of the SC/ST Act, for instance, had brought together two separate Dalit voter bases - the Chalavadis or “right-handed touchables”, who are traditionally Congress supporters, and the Madigas or "left-hand untouchables", traditionally BJP supporters, and a 100 other sub-castes in common rage.
So if the April 2 protests are to be read as a sign at all, the time for shallow optics and lip-service is past. As Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the father of the Constitution, puts it, Dalits have seen through the charade. They now want “participatory participation”. They want to access the system as their right.
The BJP is indeed in trouble with Dalit disenchantment. In 2014, it had won a substantial Dalit vote: one in every four, with the Congress and BSP worst hit by the shift. A short three years later, its internal contradictions have started to unravel its political project: the desire for a consolidated "Hindu Samaj". Although the RSS has been running a robust Dalit outreach programme - in Rajasthan, some hazard almost 60 per cent of Dalits have been "Hinduised" - the simultaneous "gau rakshak" frenzy, the lynchings, the roll-back of the cattle economy, the periodic utterances of BJP ministers and leaders advocating "Manuvaad", the cleft tongue on reservations, and the apathetic state response to high-profile Dalit atrocities have taken a toll.
As Badri Narayan, professor at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion in JNU, says, the "sabka saath, sabka vikas" and "sarvajan" rhetoric which initially attracted Dalits to the BJP now ring hollow.
The systematic assault on the Periyar-Ambedkar movement in Chennai Central University, the Rohith Vemula case in Hyderabad University, the crackdown on JNU, Delhi University, Jadavpur University, the squeeze on funds at TISS - in a line, the crackdown on all the "vocal universities", the ones that represent alternative thought and concern for equity and social justice, have had a catalytic impact, especially among young Dalit student groups.
The malafide incarceration of Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravana under the National Security Act has added to the alienation. Throw in the smouldering resentment of atrocities in Araria district in Bihar, Sahranpur in Uttar Pradesh, and Una in Gujarat, to name just a few, and the BJP’s trouble pot is clearly visible. The perception that the government did not make a spirited defence of the SC/ST Act in the Supreme Court has added the final sizzle.
But the other parties’ houses are not in order either. Part of what gives the decentralised yet coordinated Dalit rage on April 2 particular edge is that there is a political vacuum in the country.
Historically, Dalits have never asserted themselves en bloc as equivalently oppressed people elsewhere in the world because both the Constitution and a raft of political forces - centrists, socialists, Marxists, Gandhians and various shades of leftists - have seemed to represent their concerns. But all these forces today stand severely eroded.
Dalits want development, expanded opportunities, education, equity and freedom from oppression. In this excellent article, Sukhdeo Thorat, professor emeritus at JNU, details the subtle yet steady dismantling of economic empowerment of Dalits under the current regime. The BJP may indeed substantively lose its Dalit vote in 2019 for all of this. But the question is, which other political party will tap into the rise in Dalit consciousness in a fresh and genuinely constructive way?
As Prakash Ambedkar says, “There is a highly fluid situation in India today. The old guard is dead. But the new ones have not yet got a grip.”
And the protests of April 2 show that the time for competitive dining is over.