Voice of Reason

The eruption of dalit anger in a somewhat less than orderly fashion in reaction to the dilution of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has created a national stir and already caused eleven deaths. Reportedly eight of the deaths occurred in Madhya Pradesh, and the rest in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan—all the three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states. Looking down upon dalits, i.e., low caste Hindus in the name of the Sanatan Dharma, and oppressing them in various ways including murder and rape are millennia-old phenomena in Indian society. Anyone having some acquaintance with the long history of peasant struggles in India cannot fail to note that the struggling masses consisted predominantly of dalits and those whom those struggles were directed against were mostly upper-caste landlords. In this sense, the struggles of peasants and those of dalits overlapped considerably. Such struggles are now largely a thing of the past, but upper-caste domination over dalits lingers till today even after so many years of dalit struggles and reform movements within the Hindu society. Articulation of dalit voices across regions is however very much uneven in intensity and scale and is ridden with various contradictions.

There can be no denying that after the ascent of the BJP to power at the centre and several states, oppression of dalits (and religious minorities) has intensified, leading to growing accumulation of dalit resentment, although the BJP and its auxiliary outfits have tried their best to blunt its edge by a ceaseless propaganda of Hindutva. Events like the forced suicide of Rohit Vemula or the barbaric Unna episode have come as revelations to dalits that this Hindutva is a clever ploy to mislead them against Muslims and Christians, and this reaction has grown in scale and depth over the years. The alleged dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is only an occasion; the outburst is actually the outcome of accumulation of discontent over time. It might be true that in some cases, atrocities were perpetrated, while the guilty got away with impunity by virtue of their superior social standing and power. The judgment of the apex court must have gladdened them.

What is really frightening, however, to the forces of Hindutva and their upper casteist social base is the possibility of dalits and religious minorities coming closer. One section of dalits unfortunately nurses a strong bias against Muslims and Christians. Among the latter too there is a bigoted section preferring to maintain a distance with dalits. The eruption of dalit anger having taken place mainly in BJP-ruled states, it seemingly has the potentiality to fight these divisive tendencies effectively. The need is to transform this potentiality into actuality.

As anti-establishment agitation by dalit organisations took a serious violent turn, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost no time to pacify dalit anger. So Modi said it was his government that completed the Ambedkar International Centre in New Delhi though the idea was first mooted when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. In other words to promote Ambedkar—the dalit icon—was entirely a BJP affair. To be more precise Congress did nothing to honour Ambedkar during its tenure. To assimilate Ambedkar by the saffron brigade is a calculated move. After all it is not going to affect the vested interests of the status quo-ists while wooing sentiments of the dalit community. Then the Modi government is all set to mark the birth anniversary of Ambedkar as Justice Day. But much publicised Justice Day cannot be anything but another holiday and stereotyped official functions. Nothing is going to improve the lot of Dalits unless they purge themselves of their sub-caste prejudices and get united, not only in speech but in action and behaviour.

Meanwhile, the Apex Court, at the time of writing, declined to stay its March 20 verdict on the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and refused to accept the allegation of dilution of certain provisions of the said Act which triggered the current phase of country-wide dalit stir. The Centre, however, resorted to a fine-tuned balancing act by filing a review petition against the controversial judgement and the Supreme Court, after initial hesitation, finally entertained the petition, possibly to be heard after ten days. No doubt the agitation will subside after some time because spontaneity, cannot sustain a social movement for long. Without a long-term plan it is bound to die in due season.

Observing Ambedkar’s birth anniversary apart the Modi government played the dalit card well by paying tribute to another dalit stalwart Babu Jagjivan Ram on his birth anniversary on April 5. Jagjivan Ram was a millionaire dalit who did precious little to uplift his dalit community socially and politically. Then icons have some use-value in elections. And the Modis are counting on every aspect of the game called parliamentary poll which is just a year away.

Strangely, the way opposition Congress reacted to the present phase of dalit assertion is unique in the sense that they too are not interested in doing anything substantial for the community beyond valourising Ambedkar. They were just happy to accuse the BJP of unmasking its anti-dalit face through indiscriminate arrests of innocents who participated in April 2 Bharat Bandh. As for the Left they don’t matter in dalit discourse—it is between BJP and Congress. Leftists in general are still in a dilemma as to how to resolve the puzzle of caste and class or for that matter how to address the problem of social inequality. It is a tragedy that despite rise in education and consciousness among dalits over the years, the community is getting more and more fragmented much to the satisfaction of the so-called advanced communities. The purpose of reservation is getting defeated because of outsourcing of government jobs and introduction of massive contractual practice even in perennial nature of job in contravention of the existing Law. The marginalised will have to wait for another spontaneous upsurge to take place to express their anger but spontaneity is no answer to this age-old caste discrimination.


Vol. 50, No.41, Apr 15 - 21, 2018