Why Dalits are turning against the BJP

With Hindutva baring its anti-Dalit fangs, the BJP is bound to feel the heat in the next elections.

Image: Indian Express

The recent stream of spontaneous agitations of the Dalits has a distinct anti-BJP tinge. Whether it was countrywide students’ protests over Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, or the statewide protests in Gujarat over a shameful incident of public flogging of four Dalit youth in a full public view, or the 19th July protest in Mumbai over the demolition of the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan, or the outrage over a minor school girl’s alleged rape and murder in Rajasthan, or the massive protests in Uttar Pradesh over the state BJP vice-presidents’s prostitute remark for Mayawati, the Dalit anger against the BJP was palpable. Howsoever BJP’s Dalit hanumans may try dousing the fire it is unlikely to be extinguished until the next years’ state elections. Moreover, there is a tinge of awakening to these demonstrations, a sense of being cheated, which, if true, could be devastating to the Hindu Rashtra project of the Sangh Parivar.

Rohith’s Repeated Murder

Rohith’s institutional murder is too well known to be discussed here. But the manner in which it is sought to be suppressed is no less criminal than the original murder. The Gachibawdi Police had filed a case under the Atrocity Act against Appa Rao Podile, the controversial vice-chancellor of the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Bangaru Dattatreya, the BJP MP and minister in Modi’s cabinet and N Sushil Kumar, the president of ABVP in the HCU for abetting the suicide but the police never acted upon it. His death sparked off a massive agitation of students who formed Joint Action Committees all over the country. It forced Appa Rao to flee the campus.

But on March 22, after two months, when the tempers had receded, he made a sudden comeback. Naturally, the agitating students staged a protest at the vice-chancellor’s residence, surrounded by abnormally huge contingent of police, where he held a meeting. When the protesting students sighted ABVP members inside the building, they were shocked and wanted to get in. Making an alibi of the scuffle at the door, the police resorted to a severe lathi charge. The two faculty members who pleaded with the police were also not spared. They chased students into the bushes up to kilometers thrashing students and molesting girls.

In all 27 students and two faculty, Prof KY Ratnam and Tathagat Sengupta, were shoved into two police vans and a new round of brutal assault was mounted on them as the vans made rounds of Hyderabad for hours. Until late evening, there was no news about their whereabouts. They came out on bail only after seven days of incarceration. There was no question of doing justice to Rohith; instead those who demanded it were punished.

As if this was not enough, the professors who were arrested were later suspended. When they protested with an indefinite fast outside the gate of the university a flood of support poured in from the public and several progressive organisations. Scared of the consequences, a sense dawned on Appa Rao to take back the suspension orders.

Smriti Irani, the controversial minister, singularly unqualified to head arguably the most important ministry of human resource development, displayed her theatrical skills in Parliament reeling off lies after lies in justification of her and her minions’ actions. Instead of regret over what happened, she aggressively attacked those who agitated for justice to Rohith. There were hideous attempts to divert the issue by questioning Rohith’s caste as though his dalitness would have brought him instant justice and lack of it would lessen the crime of the culprits.

The full force of the Telangana state – for which nearly 600 people, many of them Dalits, gave their life – was unleashed on the aggrieved mother to prove her caste. Despite Rohith possessing a caste certificate as Dalit, despite having lived and died as a Dalit, the Telangana administration spread a canard that he was a Vaddera and not a Dalit. The family was made to run around to prove that Rohith was indeed a Dalit, leaving aside their pain of losing him. Fortunately all the tricks of the government failed and Rohith’s dalitness has been established.

Expectedly, it made no difference to the culprits. They are well ensconced in their respective positions of power, while the students who are struggling for justice are driven to their wits end as Appa Rao removed the Dalit vidhi, the temporary shelter Rohith and his four expelled friends had erected at the Shopcom, which worked as symbolic pivot for the current agitation. Ambedkar’s bust therein was stolen and Rohith’s portrait at his makeshift memorial was disfigured.     

Gundagardi in Gujarat

On July 11, a group of Shiv Sena men styled as Gau Raksha Samiti came across a Dalit family skinning the carcass of a dead cow, its caste-ordained vocation, in Mota Samadhiyala village in Una taluka of the Gir Somnath district of Gujarat. Accusing them of cow slaughter, they beat up the entire family and then picked up four youth. They stripped them up to waist, chained them to the back of an SUV and dragged them to Una town, where they were beaten right near a police station for several hours in full public view.

The assaulters, confident that they would never be prosecuted, filmed their sinister act and published the video which, however, backfired, enraging Dalits to come out on streets in a spontaneous protest. Although Gujarat has never been a model as far as the condition of Dalits in the state was concerned, such a blatant atrocity on Dalits in broad daylight was never witnessed before.

There were massive protests all over the state in a spontaneous wave. Nearly 30 Dalits tried to commit suicide to expose the injustice to their community. But the sanest act was to dump the cattle carcasses before the collectors’ offices at many places. Dalits stopped their traditional work of lifting carcasses and skinning them, sacrificing the income it entailed in an unusual act of solidarity. According to a report in The Times of India dated July 28, carcasses were rotting in Gujarat everywhere threatening an epidemic. According to animal husbandry department figures, there are nearly one crore cows and buffaloes in Gujarat with a mortality rate of 10%, which  means every day 2,740 animals die all over the state. Even the stench from a stray carcass rotting anywhere could make it unbearable for the public and hence the above number could spell a veritable calamity.

Cow protection outfits have been brought to their senses, forced to admit that they were not aware about the problem and they would now have to devise ways of disposing the carcasses. Dalits engaged in manual scavenging (they do exist in thousands despite the government’s sworn denials) should join this protest and so also all the sanitation workers all over the state, if not the entire country.

Destruction of Ambedkar’s Legacy

In the wee hours of June 25, hundreds of bouncers masquerading as Ambedkarites came with two backhoes and demolished the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan and Ambedkar’s press in Dadar at the instance of one Ratnakar Gaikwad, a retired bureaucrat who managed to get himself a plum post-retirement assignment as chief information commissioner. The press had historical value being associated with Babasaheb Ambedkar. Two of his important papers, Janata and Prabuddha Bharat, were printed and published from there and it was also a center of the Ambedkarite movement from 1940s. It continued to be so even after his death; most agitations like land struggles, agitation over the ‘Riddles’ controversy and the Namantar struggle were planned and executed from here.

The other structure, the Ambedkar Bhavan, was a single story inverted ‘U’ shaped structure built in 1990s. The alibi for demolition of these two structures that they were structurally dangerous was obviously ‘manufactured’ by Gaikwad. People were aghast at his dare-devilish act, more so at his shameless and arrogant defense of it. As the prior and subsequent events revealed, he was just a stooge for the BJP bigwigs in the state.

The chief minister, well aware of the disputed state of the trust had surreptitiously performed bhumipujan (funnily at some other place) for the proposed 17-storey Ambedkar Bhavan and declared a grant of Rs 60 crores to it. What happened on June 25 was a blatant criminal act which Gaikwad was forced to publicly admit. He should have been arrested but a false alibi of his constitutional status was projected for not doing so.

Enraged by the misdemeanour of Gaikwad and the BJP government, a massive protest morcha was taken out in Mumbai on July 19. The entire episode exposed the class divide among Dalits in the ugliest possible manner. While upper middle class Dalits, including the Dalit Diaspora and the Buddhist monks who live in comfort on the ill-gotten money from the Dalit bureaucrats supported Gaikwad, the vast majority of Dalits angrily demanded his arrest and supported the Ambedkars who stood against Gaikwad. The three grandsons of Babasaheb Ambedkar have generally been independent and have refused to be co-opted by either the Congress or the BJP.

Politically they have taken a pro-people stance lending support to peoples’ struggles. Howsoever weak, they represent the only Ambedkarite establishment today that is firmly against the Hindutva forces.

It is therefore imperative for the BJP to tarnish their image. A section of middle class Dalits is being covertly instigated to accomplish this task. They have slowly built up the propaganda that Babasaheb Ambedkar’s heirs are not Ambedkarites but supporters of Maoists. At least one Dalit paper, Mahanayak, has been feverishly spreading this canard over the last five years. Through the demolition drama the BJP intended to achieve the same objective. Gaikwad described the three grandsons and their father, Yashwantrao Ambedkar, as unworthy usurpers and goondas.

The demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan and sullying the image of the Ambedkar family were the twin tasks before Gaikwad in which he is being supported by the BJP government ignoring the mass ire erupting all over the country. The government’s approach is clear from the manner in which police and the state machinery have behaved and are behaving in dealing with this blatantly criminal case.

Shamelessness of Dalit ‘Hanumans’   

BJP has succeeded in transforming all three Dalit Rams into its ‘Hanumans’. They have also lured some so-called Dalit intellectuals to do their bidding. In the heat of the countrywide outrage over the flogging of Dalit youths in Gujarat, one such Dalit ‘Hanuman’ was shamelessly projecting how Gujarat was not to be identified with atrocities on the Dalits. His slavishness and intellectual dishonesty was evident from his wrong and out of context reading of the crime statistics of National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB). While other non-Dalit panelists were rightly condemning the outrage in Gujarat, this stooge was awkwardly arguing how Gujarat was better than many other states on caste atrocities.

The fact is that Gujarat has the dubious distinction of consistently ranking among the top five states in terms of incidence of atrocities on Dalits. In 2013, when Narendra Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ mantra had reached the crescendo in the wake of ensuing general elections and his imminent coronation as the prime ministerial candidate, the number of atrocities per lakh population of the Scheduled Castes (SC) was 29.21, up from 25.23 in the previous years, marking it as the fourth worst state in the country.

In the past the NCRB had been erroneously using incidents of atrocities per lakh of total population; it is only since 2012 that it has been collating figures vis-à-vis per lakh of the SC population. Therefore, the rates of incidence of crime against the SCs as given in NCRB tables would necessitate correction in absolute figures but they are unlikely to alter Gujarat’s relative rank among the states. In terms of major class of atrocities like murder and rape also Gujarat is among the worst states. Table 1 provides the rates of these atrocities for the years 2012 and 2013 for the major states of India to show how Gujarat ranks among the top few for the crimes against Dalits.   

Table 1: Rate of incidence of Murders and Rapes (per lakh population of the Scheduled Castes)

Andhra Pradesh0.391.490.381.64
Madhya Pradesh0.786.750.687.31
Tamil Nadu0.260.470.190.39
Uttar Pradesh0.571.450.541.91

Source: Crime of India, 2012 and 2013. National Crime Research Bureau, Govt. of India, New Delhi

The table clearly shows that in terms of the rate of murders, Gujarat was ahead of all the states except for the two in 2012, viz., Uttar Pradesh (0.57) and Madhya Pradesh (0.78); in 2013 it was the worst offender. Thus ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ was more or less on par with Uttar Pradesh, the much maligned state for crimes against the SCs even in 2012. In terms of the rate of rapes, it was ahead of all the states in 2012 except for five, viz., Chhattisgarh (3.86), Haryana (2.79), Kerala (6.34), Madhya Pradesh (6.75) and Rajasthan (3.44). In the year 2013, it did worse, ranking fifth behind Kerala (7.36), Madhya Pradesh (7.31), Haryana (5.45) and Rajasthan (5.01).

Modi’s crocodile tears

Narendra Modi, it is reported, was disturbed to learn about the incident in Una as though such atrocity was happening in his ‘model’ Gujarat for the first time. In September 2012, in Thangadh, a small town in Surendranagar district of Gujarat, three Dalit youth were gunned down by Modi’s police on two consecutive days (September 22 & 23, 2012). But he did not utter a word although he was barely 17 km away from the spot, leading a Vivekanand Youth Vikas Yatra.

On September 22, police opened fire on the protesting Dalits against the Bharwards, who had beaten a Dalit youth over a minor clash, seriously injuring a 17-year-old boy Pankaj Sumra, who later died in a hospital in Rajkot. News of the death sparked outrage among Dalits who took to the streets demanding that a complaint be filed against police officials responsible for the death.

The next day, the police again opened fire on the agitating Dalits injuring three Dalit youths, two of whom, Mehul Rathod (17) and Prakash Parmar (26) died in the Rajkot civil hospital. These killings, just before the state assembly polls in 2012, had sent shock waves across the state and complaints were lodged against four police officials. Investigation was handed over to the CID (Crime).  However, despite three FIRs filed against policemen, charge sheet has been filed only in one case and one of the accused B C Solanki was not even arrested.

Gujarat has a long history of feudal repression of the Dalit community, which being relatively small – 7.1 per cent of the population, as compared with the national average of 16.6 – had largely remained politically inert. In recent history, after a flash of Dalit Panthers in early 1970s, they were rudely shaken out of their Gandhian slumber by the 1981 anti-reservation riots. For the first time, there was a spate of celebrations of Ambedkar jayantis all over the state. But this awakening proved short-lived. 
When the BJP realised the electoral importance of the Dalits and began wooing them, they easily succumbed and found themselves participating in a big way in its 1986 Jagannath rath yatra. Later Dalits even acted as the BJP’s foot soldiers particularly during the 2002 post-Godhra anti-Muslim carnage. However, nothing changed for them on the ground. The discrimination, humiliation, exploitation and atrocities continued unabated with a complicit state overtly or covertly backing anti-Dalit acts.
A recent study has demonstrated that of all the atrocity cases that occurred across four districts in Gujarat, 36.6 per cent were not registered under the Atrocity Act. Of the cases where the Act was applied, 84.4 per cent were registered under the wrong provisions, thus concealing the intensity of the violence in the cases.[i] Earlier, the Ahmedabad based Council for Social Justice had studied 400 judgements delivered over a decade under this Act since April 1, 1995 by the Special Atrocity Courts set up in 16 districts of the state. It found wanton violation of the rules by the police to weaken prosecution. The judiciary also contributed its own prejudices to render the Act toothless.[ii]
No wonder the conviction rate in atrocity cases in Gujarat is six times lower than the Indian average over 10 years for crimes against SCs and STs. In 2014 (latest available data), only 3.4% of crimes against SCs in Gujarat ended in convictions against 28.8% nationally. That is, one conviction for every eight across the country. Not surprisingly, the practice of untouchability is rampant in the state. A study titled ‘Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages’, conducted in Gujarat during 2007 to 2010, by Navsarjan Trust, an organisation working among Dalits in Gujarat, in collaboration with the Robert E. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, revealed widespread incidence of untouchability being practiced in rural Gujarat.[iii] The new generation of Dalits, faced with dark future in the sea of prosperity around, would not stomach it. It is this buildup of anger accentuated by the sugar coated anti-Dalit policies of the BJP that has now burst out in the form of spontaneous flare up of Dalit anger in the state.

Curse of the Wretched

The chain of recent agitations indicates a new Dalit awakening. BJP’s duplicity and one upmanship vis-à-vis the Congress, building monuments for Ambedkar and projecting itself a bigger Ambedkar Bhakt stands fairly exposed through its serial anti-Dalit acts. When in October 2002 the cow vigilante gang of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) goons had lynched five hapless Dalit youth at Dulina in Jhajjar, Haryana, and set them on fire right under the nose of police, VHP’s vice-president, Giriraj Kishor had thus justified the killing: “In our religious scriptures (Puranas) life of a cow is more important than any number of people.” The then BJP Haryana chief Ram Bilas Sharma had promised to treat cow slaughter as a crime as heinous as murder. Dalits perhaps considered the incident as a one off act and pardoned the BJP.

But this time, such incidents in quick succession appears to have woken them up to the real anti-Dalit character of the BJP. Although the Hindutva camp has lately realised the critical importance of Dalit votes in accomplishing their agenda of Hindu Rashtra, the historical and ideological contradictions between them are not easily resolved. Anti-Dalit sentiments keep manifesting themselves through the rant of a swami or Sadhvi, or the atrocities committed by Hindutva hooligans.

Howsoever it is camouflaged Hindutva is all about pride in Hindu customs, tradition and culture, which are mere euphemism for the caste system and hence in contradiction to the agenda of Dalit liberation. Hindutva’s obsession for the cow and its progeny has hit the Dalits, just next to the Muslims. It deprives both of their favourite beef, a cheap source of protein. It has rendered lakhs of them jobless. As marginal farmers Dalits are cattle breeders. The cow slaughter bans severely affects their economy.

The most alienating aspect of Hindutva’s agenda is its irrationality and doublespeak. The irrationality has been exposed by scores of economists and could turn out to be the single biggest economic disaster for the country if persisted with for some years. The doublespeak is evident from the fact that while the cattle slaughter is banned for thousands of small slaughterhouses rendered lakhs of Muslims and Dalits unemployed, the big six export-oriented slaughterhouses, four of which are owned by the Hindus, two among them Brahmans, have thrived during the same time. Whether it is cattle slaughter or its cultural nationalist overtures, they are directly in contradiction to Dalit interests and aspirations.

With Hindutva baring its anti-Dalit fangs, the BJP is bound to feel the heat in the next elections.

Anand Teltumbde is general secretary of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Maharashtra.





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