‘Nothing Changes’

Finally Congress has a new president Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit face and a first from non-Nehru family to lead the 137-year-old party in 22 years. This is perhaps Congress Party’s reply to Bharatiya Janata Party’s Droupadi Murmu—President of India. Murmu is a tribal and Kharge a Dalit. Kharge succeeds long-time party Chief Sonia Gandhi who managed the Gandhi dynasty since 1998, barring two years when her son Rahul Gandhi was in charge (2017-209). Kharge will be second from Karnataka to lead the Congress after S Nijalingappa and the third leader to hold AICC president post after D Sanjeevaiah (1962) and Jagjivan Ram (1969) and tenth from South India to head the age-old Congress. Whether a Dalit can revive Congress party’s electoral fortunes in 2024 parliamentary polls is open to question. Right now they are in power in only two states. It is not that easy to get back what they have lost—Dalit vote bank. The Dalit support switched to Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. Of late even Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to woo the Dalits by assimilating Baba Saheb Ambedkar in so many ways. For one thing the privileged Dalits who are being continually integrated into economic space and elite club are totally isolated from oppressed Dalit masses. The Kharges have no power to stop the systematic Dalit-bashing even if they hold high positions in mainstream parties or administration. Some people from the Dalit community are trying to escape caste persecution by changing their religious identity. Very recently a large number of Dalits embraced Buddhism in Kharge’s home state Karnataka to protest against the evil called casteism. Over 450 Dalits renounced Hinduism in Karnataka’s Shorapur city recently in a bid to get rid of ‘untouchable’ tag. This type of ‘revolt’ against caste prejudices lacks structural change. The event organised by Golden Cave Buddha Vihar Trust, was held on the eve of 66th Dhammachakra Pravartan Din when Ambedkar adopted Buddhisim in 1956. It’s 2022 but they are still being called untouchables.

Condemning Hinduism doesn’t change the ground reality for the Dalits in totality. Embracing Buddhism might be a sign of protest against Hindu orthodoxy but it is not going to add any dimension to Dalits’ cultural outlook. Even after conversion to Buddhist order “their occupation remains the same, their village remains the same, their names also remain the same. So this does not really change the perception of others on them, until there is a cultural transformation”. That was Kancha Iliaiah Shepherd, an expert on Dalit society. Despite conversion to Buddhism with a lot of fanfare nothing really changes. If anything the Hindutva brigade sees Buddhism and Shikhism as part of Hinduism. Their main problem is with Islam and Christianity—the aliens. The members of Dalit community have been converting to Buddhism since the days of Ambedkar but nothing has changed radically for the Dalits. They are Dalits still! Atrocities against Dalits go on unabated, mainly in rural India. They are denied drinking water in upper-caste dominated villages. The issue of forcible stoppage of entry to temples by Dalits gets currency frequently in the media. One reason they prefer Buddhism over Islam and Christianity where cultural changes take place after conversion is reservation benefits. The Dalit Christians are fighting for quota in job and educational institutions. The same is true for those who have been converted to Islam.

Annihilation of caste is next to impossible without a social reform movement. And that is not on the agenda of so-called Dalit parties or Kharge’s party—Congress; they are more interested in enjoying parliamentary privileges even by allying with the casteist and communal outfits that continue to treat Dalits as untouchables, directly or indirectly.

In his first statement after winning the Congress presidential election, Kharge asserted that he would fight for the ‘restoration of democracy’, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been trying to vanquish by destroying all democratic institutions. It sounds fine but Congress has no popular action programme to challenge the BJP. For one thing Kharge is a Buddhist by inclination as he had said in 2008 during the inauguration of the renovated Buddha Vihara in Bengaluru. But why he is silent about the social brutalities the Dalits are being subjected to across the country almost daily deserves attention. Kharge belongs to the creamy layer of Dalit society and it is unlikely that Dalit voters will go to the Congress fold again because Congress party is now being headed by a Dalit.

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Vol 55, No. 19, Nov 6 - 12, 2022