Appropriating a Dalit Icon
Addressing a public meeting in TN's Coimbatore recently,
PM Narendra Modi accused the Congress of trying to instigate Dalits against him. He assured the nation that as long as the name of Ambedkar existed in the hearts of the people, reservations for the oppressed classes would continue.
Reiterating his commitment to the Dalit cause, Modi said the Centre had paid rich tributes to Ambedkar on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary. Even a special debate was held in Parliament to commemorate the occasion.
It is a fact that Congress has been trying to use the occasion to ignite fire. Modi is ill qualified to question that because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was all along doing the same thing when Congress was in power. Former UGC Chairman Prof Sukhdev Thorat had conducted an investigation during UPA-II regime, at the request of the union government, on the alleged caste discrimination prevailing in the AIIMS-Delhi. The study found shocking evidences of discrimination against the SC & ST students inside the campus.
But neither the ruling Congress nor the main opposition BJP took any interest to deliberate the Thorat report and take remedial action as recommended by Thorat. Had such remedial measures been initiated three years ago, Rohith and many more Dalit students would not have ended their life. So much for these two national parties' concern for the oppressed castes.
Back to Modi's other observations in Coimbatore: Centre paying rich tributes to Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary and a special debate in Parliament to commemorate the occasion are no substitutes for taking concrete steps to dismantle the all-pervasive racism. If that is taken as the benchmark, Congress will defeat Modi by miles.
His compulsion to invoke the name of Ambedkar and the expressed concern for the Dalit welfare are better explained by Saba Naqvi in an Economic Times article dated Feb 06 under the caption 'Untouchable for Dalits'.
The killing of Kalburgi and other rationalists had hardly disturbed Modi; nor the return of awards by the writers and artists. Because of the national and international outcry over Dadri killing, he spoke (of course, perforce) against the beef murder. In the case of the rationalist murders, he will lose hardly any vote. In Dadri issue, the affected community by and large will not vote him. And it is a well-designed plot to segregate the Muslims to reap the benefit of polarisation.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP got more Dalit votes than ever before in its history. According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies data, in previous elections, the all-India Dalit vote for the BJP was 12-14%. It jumped to 24% in 2014.
Simultaneously, Dalit support for the Congress dipped to 19%, although it traditionally stood at around 28%. In other words, the shift of the Dalits was a crucial element in the defeat of the Congress. It is a quantum jump for a party which was once overwhelmingly led by upper castes and mercantile communities.
Next, the Narendra Modi-powered election of 2014 had considerable success in breaking the 'Dalit barrier', most significantly in UP and Bihar from where the party made a rich haul at the cost of regional parties. The election swung in favour of the BJP largely because Muslims and Dalits were divided.
The BJP's acid test will come in a year from now in the 2017 UP assembly election. It will really have to fight to hold on to the gains it made in the Dalit community in 2014. The Dalit unrest now prevailing in the country after Rohith's suicide can be ignored by Modi only at his peril. Being considered as an anti-Dalit is a potential disaster for any leader.
Some of Modi's half-baked colleagues tried to establish that Rohith was not a Dalit. That is a feeble bureaucratic attempt to fight the raging fire. They missed the wood for the trees. Rohith is now a symbol larger than any detail. Hence Modi's remembrance of the Dalit icon at Coimbatore.
But attributing the entre credit to Ambedkar for bringing in the reservations for the oppressed castes is an over kill. Reservation was first started in Kolhapur by the initiative of the Maharaja of Kolhapur in 1902. Next it was introduced by the Maharaja of Mysore in his Princely State in May 1921. The third in the line was the Madras Presidency where it was introduced in September 1921 by the Justice Party which came to power in the Province on the plank of curbing the then existing Brahmin monopoly.
Next was the Bombay Presidency in 1931. Next came Travancore where the Maharaja introduced Reservation in 1935, followed by the Maharaja of Cochin. Thus, before Independence the whole of the peninsula was covered by Reservation.
The peninsular States are ahead of the States in the rest of India in all parameters of development and welfare. This is not accidental. An important contributory-causatory factor is the bringing in of a larger part of the population into governance, administration and education through Reservation in response to social reform movements in the peninsular States—a process that suffered considerable delay in the rest of India. The architect was Periyar EVR.
At the national level, Reservation was introduced for the SCs through the initiative of Dr Ambedkar in 1943. With his wisdom, he foresaw that those in whose hands power would effectively reside in post-colonial India would be averse to providing Reservation and other measures required for the SCs. He convinced the Viceroy against counter-advice by certain other members and secured Reservation, Post-Matric Scholarship scheme and Overseas Scholarship Scheme for SCs, which could then be automatically extended to the STs on attainment of Independence.
Reservation for OBCs had to wait for forty six years after Independence in the rest of India. Dr Rammanohar Lohia (Periyar's counterpart in North) was the sole politician who advocated for preferential treatment to oppressed castes and women of all castes. On January 1, 1979, the Morarji Desai government chose Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, a Lohiaite & former chef minister of Bihar, to head the Second Backward Class Commission. Mandal submitted his report two years later, on December 31, 1980. Reservation for the OBCs was implemented in the North in 1993 based on Mandal report.
The kings of the princely states, Periyar and Lohia were also responsible for this affirmative action. But it is politically not convenient for Modi to give any credit for the erstwhile Maharajas, Periyar and Lohia. His singling out Ambedkar for the entire credit is a crude attempt to appease the Dalits.
Modi just cannot afford to blame others, if Dalits are annoyed at him. Rohith's suicide in UoH and the terrorist attack on Bacha Khan University happened almost at the same time. Modi condemned the latter incident immediately in the twitter. But poor Rohith had to wait for a couple of days to get the attention of the PM. Dalits are clever enough to understand the subtle message.
While he is eulogised by his camp followers for the one lakh crore rupees bullet train scheme between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, Dalits will certainly ask him how many thousand green toilets were fitted in the railway coaches and how many stations were freed from manual scavenging .
In the 20-month Modi rule, no sincere attempt was made to enumerate the number of Dalits engaged in manual scavenging, despite the pressure from NHRC and courts. In spite of all the big propaganda about Swachh Bharat, manual scavenging and the consequent Dalit deaths in gas chambers continue unabated. His finance minister imposed unprecedented cuts in the Special Central Assistance to Scheduled Castes Sub Plan in all his budgets.
His latest icon Babsaheb Ambedkar once told, "The system of untouchability has been goldmine for the Hindus. This system affords 60 millions of untouchables to do the dirty work of scavenging and sweeping to the 240 million Hindus who are debarred by their religion to do such dirty work. But the work must be done for the Hindus and who else than the untouchables?"
Can the human excreta collection or cleaning of gutters—which has condemned lakhs of people to a life of indignity since ages—be considered a 'Spiritual Experience'? Definitely not. Everybody would yell. Well, Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, had a different take on this, which he mentioned in the book 'Karmayog' (publication year 2007).
Herein he discussed the age-old caste-based vocation of the Valmikis as an "experience in spirituality". He wrote: "I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation.... At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis') duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business."
Looking at the fact that a section of the Dalits themselves—especially its upwardly mobile and more articulate section—has joined the Hindutva bandwagon, it was expected that there would be no angry reaction to his utterances within the State. A section of the Ambedkarite Dalits and many human rights activists did protest but their voices got drowned in the cacophony of voices of Modi Toadis.
It is a different matter that when Modi's remark got published in The Times of India in mid-November 2007, which was later translated in a few Tamil newspapers, it resulted in a massive reaction of Dalits in TN. Not only did they stage protests for calling their menial job a "spiritual experience" but Modi's effigies were burnt in different parts of the State. Sensing trouble Modi immediately withdrew 5000 copies of the book.
He never apologised for this atrocious writing. Far from that, he stuck to his opinion. Two years later, addressing 9000-odd safai karmacharis, he likened the safai Karmacharis' job of cleaning up others' dirt to that of a temple priest. He told them: "A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers, you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike." Thanks to the upper caste controlled Modified mainstream media, this path breaking discovery was never allowed to reach the Dalit masses.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 prohibits employment of manual scavengers. Engaging manual scavengers is a punishable offence under SC/ST Atrocity Act. NHRC calls it as a gross violation of human rights. Under these circumstances, a person holding a Constitutional post shamelessly glorified manual scavenging as an "experience in spirituality". And he now accuses others for instigating the Dalits against him. What an ironyl
There is an old Tamil poem which reads, "Theedhum Nanmaiyum Pirar Thara Vaaraa" (Bad and Good deeds are not brought by others). It is better to correct his skewed ideas on Dalits and start tackling their monumental socio-economic problems rather than blaming others. It is high time for Modi to switch over to action mode from the election mode.
Vol. 48, No. 35, Mar 6 - 12, 2016