The voice of new Dalit consciousness in Gujarat
Redeem Dalit movement by linking class and caste questions, it’s high time for a broad front of Lefts, Dalits and liberals against Moditva - Jignesh Mevani

Biswajit Roy

Gai ke punhh aap rakhlo, hame hamare jamin de do (keep the cow’s tail with you, give us back our land)”, says Jignesh Mevani, the young face of Gujarat’s emerging new Dalit movement that has been exposing Narendra Modi’s much-hyped Gujarat model. He was speaking at a four hours long interactive session with students and youth at Jadavpur University this week. The slogan has become popular in the wake of Dalit assertion against atrocities on those among the untouchable castes who skin dead cows traditionally.  The public brutalization of Dalits by RSS-inspired upper caste Hindu cow protectors at Unnao in the home state of Indian prime minister, dubbed as Hindu Hriday Samrat by his saffron acolytes has stirred Dalits across the country and triggered a new phase of the community’s continued struggle against social oppression.  The new element in it is the revived demand for land for the cluster of most dispossessed and disadvantaged social groups who have been pushed into the lowest depth of caste hierarchy by the Brahmanism or most orthodox Hinduism.

Alternative Gujarat model: antidote to Moditva?
The journalist turned social activist, himself an educated Dalit, emphasized on the organic relation between the demands for land and social justice in order to bring real changes to the socio-economic ground reality for Dalit community.  Expanding the original coinage, he linked the demands for roti-kapra aur makan( food-cloths and shelter), livelihoods, health and education as well as for a corruption-free society to the issues of social oppression of Dalits and ultimately a society free of caste and class exploitations. According to him,  prevailing divisive saffron campaign on cow protection, love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi etc must be countered by harping on Modi and his party BJP’s failures to deliver on its electoral assurances like jobs for two crores of youth, reclaiming black money from foreign banks and sharing it with poor etc. 

Calling the demands for land reforms and other economic rights vital for exposing and fighting back the forces of Moditva; a mix of Brahmanical Hindutva of the RSS brand and corporate plunder of natural and national resources at the cost of toiling masses, he said that the reigning communal fascism can’t be allowed to set the agenda for the masses in the name of Hindu religion and Indian nationalism.  Instead, economic issues and material concerns of everyday lives must be brought back at the centre of the public domain and political discourse in addition to the issues of social justice to expose the politics of hatred and polarization.

 Recounting the ascent of Modi and his consolidation of power in Gujarat through state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom in post-Godra days in 2002, Mevani pointed out that the hype on Modi’s annual ‘vibrant Gujarat’ jamboree and invocation of Gujarati Asmita (pride) (to deflect the criticism of his bloody rule) only helped big corporate like Adanis and Ambanies in last 15 years. The myth of Gujarat model of economic development is now getting shattered as land discontent among Dalits and other castes against land-grab by the state government-corporate nexus and agitations of influential Patel community are growing. Also reality of substantial child malnourishment, lack of drinking water in half of the state and staggering unemployment are coming to the fore despite powerful government propaganda.

Admitting that section of Dalits and tribal’s were used by the Singh Pariah in the anti-Muslim murderous campaign in 2002, he spoke of the efforts for building social-political bridges in post Unnao-days as some Muslims participated in the Ahmadabad- Unnao march and Dalit congregation in the state capital. Notwithstanding the deep penetration of RSS in Gujarati Hindu mindset across the caste hierarchy and popular reference to 2002 pogrom as the ‘befitting lessons for Muslims’, he said that Hardin Patel-led unrest by Patels, once the spearhead of pro-Modi mobilization of affluent castes is symptomatic of the gradual disillusionment with Modi-led BJP and his brand of politics. Mevani was a close associate of late Mukul Sinha, the activist lawyer who along with Teesta Sitalwad was instrumental in exposing Modi government’s role in the 2002 pogrom.

“In the wake of our threat to stop Modi’s motorcade during the VG meet in post-Unnao days if our demands for land was not met, the state government handed over 650 bigha land to Davits which had been denied for last 26 years despite governmental sanction for distribution. This is a small achievement but it has given a new direction in Dali movement and created new hopes among us.  Thousands of acres of land have been distributed among landless Davits but only in papers. Anti-terror laws are being used against Davits when they try to take possession of the allotted land. ’’ The activist of Jan Sangharsh Samity said. 

Land question, class-caste conundrum and Ambedkar’s legacy
If the composite economic and social demands catch the political imagination of the millions of Dalits across the country, he felt, it would rekindle the strand of Dalit land movement that had begun with Dadasaheb Gaikowad, a key collaborator of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the fifties. According to him, the Dalit icon and maker of Indian constitution realized the potent of land issue in the evening of his life and asked his disciples to organize the movement. Around four lakhs Dalits went to jails demanding land.  But it waned following the divisions among post-Babasaheb  Dalit ideologues and parties and dried up after the resurgence of reservation-oriented identity politics in the eighties in post-Mandal days. The revived demand for land has found resonance in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala.

 It would also address the caste-class conundrum that has been plaguing the lefts and Ambedkarite movement for long and pave the way for coordination of lefts and Dalit movements, he felt.  Sparing neither the mainstream Dalit parties nor their left counterparts, Meany said creamy layers of Dalit communities and the middle class leadership of their political formations had delinked the class and caste exploitations to suit their own ambitions at the cost of millions of landless Dalits. It has bogged down the most subaltern castes in the mires of competitive caste politics including demands for reservation within reservation for most disadvantaged among Dalits.

“Despite the fact that most of the landless and wage-laborers are Dalits, the loss of class perspective in Dalit movement is a great tragedy for us. People now hardly remember Dadasaheb Gaikowad but Kansi Ram, the father of BSP.  None of the mainstream Ambedkarites are fighting for annihilation of caste system that Ambedkar had called for but resorted to a tunnel vision with no light at the end.” 

The young activist even sounded critical to the Dalit icon’s decision for mass conversion to Buddhism to get rid of untouchability and curses of Bhraminical Hinduism. “ Dalits must understand that there was no emancipation for them in Buddhism.  I would ask Buddhists whether the religious conversion would hike the wages for Dalit wage-laborers in the fields and factories and lessen their troubles with livelihoods”.

However, he also pointed out that economic determinism is no answer to the complexities of class-caste entanglement. “The land ownership is no panacea for all the economic ills as agriculture is losing its attraction among rural youth including Dalits.  The stark reality of suicides by thousands of debt-ridden farmers every year reminds the depth of rural crisis. Neither is it going to end social oppression for Dalits. But land reforms is important to dismantle the remnants of feudal system including castiesm that had created the age-old social job divisions, which in turn made us untouchables for doing manual scavenging and other dirty works for millenniums. That why we are keen on the struggle for social equality with economic leverage.”

Calling the lack of Dalit participation in land movements ‘unfortunate’, he said, the ongoing people’s movements against the land grab by corporate-state nexus are important for Dalits as the loss of farmland also hits the landowners and landless laborers among them.

Fight for Dignity and fault lines in Dalit consciousness
“We took pledge at Ahmadabad rally that no more Dalits would skin the dead bovines or enter the gutters and elsewhere to do manual scavenging. Instead, we demanded land for our livelihood. The assertion of self-respect and economic rights must go hand in hand.” However, he was at the receiving end of rebukes from some of skinning practitioners for asking them to change their traditional livelihood. Indicating the state of post-Unnao agitation, he felt that Dalit resistance against upper caste atrocities has a ‘soda water like’ temperament as the community fury fizzles out fast in absence of a sustainable and clear vision. Here lies the challenge for the activists who want to infuse fresh impetus by focusing on land and other economic issues.             

Unlike many Dalit activists, Jignesh also admitted the fault lines in Dalit consciousness and drawbacks of their movements. Reflecting on the prevalence of intra-Dalit prejudices and sub-caste hierarchy, he referred to rural studies in Gujarat which had pointed to 95-97 types of discriminatory practices among Dalits which is no less than the forms of upper and middle caste social oppression of untouchables altogether. The impact of Brahmanism and patriarchy is also dominant in Dalit customs and rituals. He mentioned a custom of seeking food in the evening at other’s places to remind the lack of self respect even among the relatively well-paid urban Dalit municipal workers. For him, the deep imprint of castiest and communal culture and mutual prejudices cannot be wiped out at a single go or by any single means—economic, social, political and cultural. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and other social mingling including multi-group habitation are among the ways to strive for social cohesion.  

Refuting the politics of scheduled castes –Other Backwards Castes alliance against upper castes as the safeguards for Dalit cause, he pointed to increasing atrocities by OBC landowners on Dalit agri-laborers . Instead, he insisted on class-based alliance of oppressed and poor.

Left- Ambedkarite dialogue
While it takes him closer to classical Marxist position, he also criticized Indian lefts for not understanding the complexities of class-caste interface and its overlapping dimensions in economic as well as social and political movements. “ Lefts opposed untouchability in a progressive but rhetorical manner but did not try to fathom, let alone formulate their responses to those dimensions. Even if some of them have realized the import of class-caste contiguity lately, they are not sincere in changing their ways. Nevertheless, it is the high time for lefts and Dalit movements should form a broad front to link the land question and social justice.  It will help both sides to broaden their social base and sustain it.”

Looking for an ideological synergy between the lefts and Ambedkarites, he  said: “ Ambedkar was opposed to capitalism and casteism. He was critical to Marxism and spoke of its limitation but did not reject the ideas of socialism. He could not offer a conclusive formula for annihilation of castiesm.

Neither the left could explain India, let alone change it, with its straitjacket understanding of classes here. So both sides should learn from each other”.             

Admitting that progressive class and caste movements including votaries of radical Dalit consciousness either glossed over or deliberately avoided the question of gender equality in their demands or sensitization of rank and file against patriarchal culture, Mevani said that their land demands now focus on gender issues too. “ We are prioritizing the land right to most disadvantaged among the Dalit sub-castes and then by asking for it for the women and in turn, widows among them’’.  

Offering the broad framework for new Dalit movement and Left-Ambedkarites dialogue, Mevani called for broader unity among activists of all hues and social movements. Pointing to the fact that Gandhi did raise the issues of untouchability even he had supported caste-based Hinduism and opposed class and caste antagonism to resolve land disputes. So we should not be sectarian to Gandhians and liberals. Intra-left and intra-liberal sectarianism and isolationism are one of biggest impediments to the unity of grassroots peoples movements. Enough is enough, ‘’ he said urging for broader networking against communal fascism and corporate plunder.

Call to students and youth
To make a breakthrough and infuse new energy in the movements, Mevani reposed faith in students and youth and exhorted them to reach out to workers and farmers as well as marginal communities. “Campus churning and seminars on ideological debates are important. But more important is the task of building a nationwide bulwark of resistance against Moditva . Students and youth at large are also gullible to Hindutva campaigns. In this backdrop, the anti-fascist students and youth must forge unity and develop a brigade of dedicated volunteers who will be ready to join people’s movements across the country and stay put at grassroots as long as the situation demands.” 

May 17, 2017

Biswajit Roy may be contacted at [email protected]

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