Dalits as Political Orphans

Atrocities on Dalits are not a new phenomenon. What is a stark and indisputable fact, however, is that whenever in the past, such atrocities occurred, Dalit political leaders did not have their lips sealed. They raised the issue in the Parliament, gave their statements in newspapers, even staged protests. In the past 18 months it is noticeable that the significant rise in atrocities against Dalits have been matched by few protests, and not even a statement condemning these by any Dalit leader.

This is a matter of serious concern and worry. Dalits, who constitute approximately 17 per cent of the Indian population are left with not even one Dalit political leader who can represent them at the national level or raise their voice in the Indian Parliament. With the exception of Ms. Mayawati, the supremo of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who has a substantial following mostly in Uttar Pradesh and in some Hindi speaking states and is also a Rajya Sabha member, no one raises Dalit issues in the Parliament. A sorry state of affairs.

Neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both national parties, have a single Dalit leader who can boast of a substantial following in north India. With the exception of Thawar Chand Gehlot, the present minister for social justice and empowerment, there is no known Dalit face with whom the community can identify with. Even he has not been a mass leader, rather, he has always been within the bureaucracy of the party. That means BJP does not have a single leader belonging to the Dalit community in the major states of India: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana. The situation is worse in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Orrisa.

The BJP has in fact evolved a unique strategy for gaining legitimacy among Dalits: they have aligned with small or regional Dalit-led political parties. For example, in the last general elections (2014), they aligned with Ramdas Athawale in Maharashtra, Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar, inducted Udit Raj (who was the president of a self-floated, Indian Justice Party) and Kaushal Kishore (who was president of self-floated Rashtravadi Communist Party). In fact, in the recently concluded State Assembly elections of Bihar they tried to repeat this strategy to import Dalit leaders from outside, yet again. In Bihar, they brought in another Dalit party of Jitan Ram Manjhi, Hindustan Avami Morcha (HAM) along with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party to garner Dalit votes and support. This however did not happen. Both the parties lost miserably winning one and two that is, in all 3 seats out of the 82 seats they contested between them.

If we look at Maharashtra, although BJP is in power in the state, they conspicuously avoid projecting any Dalit leader from within their ranks with whom Dalits can or may identify. Instead they have roped in Ramdas Athawale, leader of RPI (A) as the BJP-Shiv Sena’s Dalit face. This can be easily inferred from the fact that it was he who was the only Dalit face visible in both ceremonies commemorating memorials to Babasaheb (within the nation and abroad) in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi also participated.

These ceremonies were organised for building memorials of Babasaheb, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; one at Mumbai’s Indu Mill and the other at the house where Babasaheb lived on rent during his stay as a student of London School of Economics. The decision to buy this house was taken by the previous government and formalities were completed after the present government came into power in Maharashtra.

The other national party, the Indian National Congress, is plagued with the same problem. The Congress does not have a single Dalit mass leader from the Hindi-speaking belt who can speak for Dalits. With the sole exception of Mapanna Mallikarjun Kharge, who is the leader of party in the 16th Lok Sabha there is no one to speak on behalf of the Dalits presently. Congress leader Km. Shailja from Haryana has been virtually silent on the spate of atrocities against Dalits in Haryana.

In the past 18 months it is noticeable that the significant rise in atrocities against Dalits have been matched by few protests, and not even a statement condemning these by any Dalit leader.

This silence is particularly significant because Haryana has, just about a month ago, witnessed a gruesome incident of anti-Dalit violence. The burning alive of two young children at Sunpedh, Ballabgarh in Haryana is a case in point. Dalits of Haryana feel that the atrocities on them have been on the rise since BJP assumed power in the state. The Dalits are also aware that until May 2014, representation of Dalits in the previous UPA II national government, was better than that in the BJP-led NDA II today. The previous central government had a Speaker of the Lok Sabha, a home minister, a railway minister, the social empowerment and justice minister, and also the culture minister who belong to the community. But in spite of this, the fact that few of these politicians were Dalit leaders with a mass following, did not make the representation effective.

What is the real problem of the Dalit in Indian politics in contemporary India? Effective and independent representation in respective political parties (organisations) and within the government of the day (as and when the parties they belong to, come to power). By this, what I mean is, that Dalits can and should have the self-confidence to raise ‘their’ issues with freedom on the floor of the house within the Parliament, as and when the need arises. Second, the Dalit leader, woman or man, should be a face from within the ranks of the party who is easily approachable and accessible to all within the Dalit community. This, so that they can identify themselves with him or her with ease.

This leads me to the third aspect. This will be possible only when all political parties give Dalits their rightful space to be representatives of their own aspirations which in turn would mean that they could influence the programmes and policies of their parties and the government of the day. This can happen only when they participate in the decision making processes of both. 

The poor effective representation of Dalits is not a healthy sign for the Indian democracy, nor does it herald a strong, healthy State. Can Indian political parties take a lesson and evolve a system that draws out effective and independent leaders from among their own rank and files? Within the BJP, a pretext like ‘Samrasta’ (harmony) is used to play down the caste divide. In Congress, a hierarchical ‘high command’ politics denies the self-representation and aspiration of Dalits. Until this drastically changes, Dalits will remain political orphans within the Indian political ambit.
 (Prof. Vivek Kumar is Professor of Sociology, at the CSSS/SSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India and has been visiting faculty to Columbia University, New York and Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany).

A total of 131 seats (18.42 per cent) are reserved for representatives of Scheduled Castes (84) and Scheduled Tribes (47). These seats are reserved in proportion to the SC/ST population as a share of the total population of the State. As per the 2011 census, these sections comprised about 16.6 per cent and 8.6 per cent, respectively, of India's population. For the first time in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP won the largest number of seats in these constituencies — 66 out of a total 131 seats. This is also the highest number of reserved constituency seats won by any single largest party ever, since 1991. The BJP retained almost 88 per cent of the seats it had won in 2009. http://indiatogether.org/bjp-sweep-in-scheduled-caste-and-tribes-reserved-constituencies-2014-government





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