Even in Gujarat, probably the BJP's strongest turf, the dalit discontent can alter the equations.
The trigger of the current dalit resistance, probably, was the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar in Hyderabad University, in January.
Balubhai and his family are not used to getting attention. That is no surprise because what they have been getting all their lives were discrimination and disregard. The dalit family in Mota Samadhiyala village in Una, Gujarat, makes a living from skinning dead cows. On July 11, two members of the family, along with two other dalits, were brutalised by the cow vigilante group Gau Rakshaks for skinning a dead cow. Balubhai's house has not stopped getting visitors ever since visuals of the incident went viral on social media, leading to a national outrage.
VVIPs made a beeline for Balubhai's house. Chief ministers and national leaders came down to offer support. But what has really moved the family was the stream of dalits who have been visiting. What the family has gone through has had a profound impact on the community in Gujarat and the rest of India.
A village of 3,000 people, Mota Samadhiyala has around 150 dalits. Violence against them is nothing new. However, the sight of four dalit youth made to stand in a line and battered with sticks and metal rods for skinning a dead cow burst open the seams of pent-up anger in the community. The visual was shot and proudly shared by the cow vigilantes. Later, the police found that the cow was killed by a lion. Dalits, especially the youth, were so angered that they went on the war path, blocking highways, burning vehicles, and some of them even attempting suicide in protest. Its impact has been felt across the state, and its reverberations are being heard nationally, strengthening the narrative that the hindutva ideology is anti-dalit.
Around the same time, in the neighbouring Maharashtra, the demolition of a building in Mumbai threatened to undo all that the Narendra Modi government had done to 'appropriate' the legacy of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Thousands of people ignored the monsoon downpour and marched to Azad Maidan protesting the demolition of Ambedkar Bhawan, which had housed the Buddha Bhushan Printing Press established by Ambedkar and kept many documents written and published by the dalit icon. The call for the protest was made by Ambedkar’s grandsons Prakash and Anandraj, and the turnout gave a clear indication of the future of dalit politics.
The angry dalit is bad news for the BJP. The anguish and frustration of the community, which continues to exist on the margins of society, is finding expression in protests. Queering the pitch for the BJP is the growing feeling that hindutva forces are in conflict with dalits. A day before the Una violence, a group of people barged into the house of a dalit in Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka and assaulted the family for alleged cow slaughter. Seven people, including two Bajrang Dal activists, were arrested for the attack. A few months ago in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Bapurao Tajne, a dalit labourer, dug a well on his own because the villagers did not allow his wife to draw water from a common well.
Critics of the Modi government say the hindutva brigade has been emboldened since the BJP came to power. There has been a new-found enthusiasm for cow protection, and it is now targeting dalits. “New avenues have been opened up for attacks on dalits,” said Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary. “One of these new avenues is the entire question of cow protection… They are making it an issue for such attacks.”
Skinning and disposal of dead cattle is traditionally a dalits' job. “It is an occupational issue for them,” said thinker Chandra Bhan Prasad. “However, the hindutva brigade in its love for mother cow is looking at even this as against the religion.” The ban on beef enforced by the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra has hit the livelihood of thousands of dalits in the state. “The beef ban hurt the community economically,” said Vaibhav Chaya, activist and poet. “Also, attacks on dalits have increased since this government came.”
K. Raju, chairman of the Congress's scheduled castes wing, said crimes against dalits increased by 20 per cent in 2014. “The BJP governments, both at the Centre and in the states, have not handled these cases properly,” he said. There were 47,064 instances of crime against dalits in 2014, he said.
What happened in Una, however, was a tipping point. Dalits in Gujarat refused to dispose of carcasses after that. And, in a show of protest, dalits dumped dead cows outside the office of the Saurashtra district collector and government offices in Gondal and Surendranagar. Balubhai’s family says they do not want to continue with the traditional occupation. “Why should we do it? To be thrashed?” asked Vasaram, who was beaten by the vigilantes. The police have arrested only 16 of around 40 people involved in the attack.
Gujarat has a shoddy record of dealing with crimes against dalits. The conviction rate in such cases in the state is just 2.95 per cent, said P.L. Punia, chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes. “The national average is 22 per cent,” he said.
The trigger of the current dalit resistance, probably, was the suicide of the 26-year-old Rohith Vemula, a research scholar in Hyderabad University, in January. The BJP's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, has had confrontations with dalit students before and after the suicide. And, the Modi government has been accused of suppressing the dalit voice on campuses. In May last year, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, derecognised Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, which had organised debates critical of the government. The ban was later revoked.
The dalit discontent could cost the BJP dearly in elections. Last November, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat called for a review of the reservation system. It was perceived as anti-dalit and it damaged the BJP’s prospects in the assembly elections in Bihar. The loose cannons in the party also stoked trouble. Union minister V.K. Singh used a dog analogy while referring to the killings of dalits in Haryana in 2015. The anology drew heavy flak. “The government has failed in protecting the dignity of dalits, instilling confidence in them and implementing schemes. This has created a feeling that the BJP is anti-dalit,” said Raju.
In July, the party's vice president in Uttar Pradesh Dayashankar Singh made a highly derogatory remark against Mayawati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which draws its support mainly from dalits. It could not have been timed worse, as a major tactical move of BJP president Amit Shah for the assembly elections was to appeal to dalits other than the Jatavs. For good measure, Shah had taken a dip in the Shipra along with dalit sadhus during the Simhastha Kumbh and eaten dinner in a dalit house in Uttar Pradesh.
Keen not to let go of the political opportunity, Mayawati flew back to Lucknow in the middle of the Parliament session to chalk out a strategy to capitalise on the controversy. She has asked party leaders not to issue statements without her permission. The shrewd politician that she is, Mayawati does not want to alienate the non-dalit voters. “The BJP is conspiring to have a caste war in UP,” she said. Desperate to control the damage, the BJP is planning to depute its dalit MPs, ministers and leaders to meet dalit representatives in the state.
Dalits make a substantial 32 per cent of the population in Punjab. But that has not stopped them being the victims of cow vigilantism. The Akali Dal-BJP government here has been a failure in reining in the cow vigilantes and taking action against the perpetrators of hate crimes against dalits.
Even in Gujarat, probably the BJP's strongest turf, the dalit discontent can alter the equations. Dalits were a Congress vote bank, but a sizeable chunk moved to the BJP after the Godhra carnage in 2002. “In 2002, when they wanted to fight against the Muslims, we were considered Hindus, and now we are considered dalits,” said activist Vijaysinh Parmar.
In 1997, the killing of ten dalits in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar colony in Mumbai led to the consolidation of dalits in the state against the Shiv Sena-BJP government. The alliance lost the elections two years later. The new wave of protests could spell trouble for the BJP in the upcoming civic polls in the state, negating any goodwill it earned by making dalit leader Ramdas Athavale a Union minister.
Anand Teltumbde, an authority on dalit issues, said the BJP's attempt to attract dalits to its fold was with an eye on making India a Hindu Rashtra. “It realised that the dalit votes were crucial in this project and began going whole hog after them,” he said. “It has already tried all kinds of acrobatics: coopting most dalit leaders into its fold, exhibiting its bhakti towards Ambedkar, memorialising things that he touched or set foot on.” But the inherent contradictions between dalits and hindutva, he said, are defeating these efforts.
The RSS rejected the idea that violence against dalits reflected on its ideology. RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha said even the worst critics of the RSS could not blame the Sangh for atrocities against dalits. “For years, the RSS has been using its might to end the binary between dalits and non-dalits. There is no trace of untouchability among swayamsevaks,” he said.
The BJP said atrocities against dalits were on the rise even when the United Progressive Alliance was in power. “If you look at the National Crime Records Bureau data, 2007 onwards, there has been an increase,” said BJP leader G.V.L. Narasimha Rao. “The greatest number of incidents have been reported from UP and Bihar, where the BJP is not in power.” He said the Modi government had made genuine efforts to improve the lot of dalits by making the SC/ST Atrocities Act more stringent, focusing on implementation of schemes meant for dalits and encouraging dalit entrepreneurs through schemes like Make in India.
When it comes to dalit issues, few political parties have a straight record. Recently in Karnataka, the upper-caste Vokkaligas slapped a penalty on four dalit women for entering a temple in Sigaranahalli, in the Lok Sabha constituency of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular). The Congress government in the state and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah have often been accused of being mute spectators to the widening rift between upper castes and dalits.
Though the politics of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu is inherently against upper castes, dalits seldom benefit from it. “Dalits in Tamil Nadu are almost politically orphan; their assertion systemically trashed by both the DMK and AIADMK. Politically speaking, dalits in Tamil Nadu are much worse than those in Bihar and UP,” said C. Lakshmanan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies. Parties like Thol. Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Dr Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Thamilagam, however, have started consolidating dalit votes.
Being heard has always been a struggle for dalits. Now they seem to be finding a voice through different modes of protest. In Madhya Pradesh, some 50 dalit families from two villages in Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s constituency wrote an application on July 22 seeking permission for euthanasia. The reason: the land allotted to them by the state government in 2002, when the Congress was in power, has not yet been given.
Most dalit protests have been spontaneous, but also leaderless. The protests in Gujarat were driven by local groups. In Madhya Pradesh, a dalit group called Megh Sena was formed in January. It has 10,000 members and held a rally in Indore to protest caste discrimination and atrocities.
The youth are playing an important role in the resistance, using social media to mobilise support and organise protests. “Certainly, dalits are angry and this anger is going to pour out in the coming elections. The problem is, there is no alternative for them and largely for the people in electoral terms. But wherever that alternative is available, say in UP, the BJP will have slim chances of winning,” said Teltumbde.
Where would these protests take them to? It had the potential to force a change, said Shan Mohammed, a member of Ambedkar Students Association. Rohith Vemula belonged to this group. “Rohith’s demise led to different campaigns. There were student protests in Mumbai, in rural Maharashtra and in the villages of Andhra Pradesh. This is a continuation of that protest,” he said.
A more visible change would be the coming together of dalit groups and communist parties. Said Anant Prakash Narayan, former vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, “JNU is known to be a communist campus. But it took up the issue of harassment and death of Vemula, an Ambedkarite, in a forceful manner.”
Ambedkar has become more relevant than ever before, as dalits make their voice heard against atrocities. And, as Punia says, it is a good sign.
With Nandini Oza, Niranjan Takle, Ajay Uprety, Deepak Tiwari, Prathima Nandakumar, Lakshmi Subramanian and Lalita Iyer