Communities without leadership

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

DALITS in Maharashtra are in a bind. Despite their numerical strength and political consciousness, the absence of a constructive leadership has forced them to depend on political parties other than the Republican Party of India (RPI), the political formation they have traditionally supported. Unfortunately, the trend has been for Dalit concerns to be ignored once such alliances are forged. Raja Dhale of the Prakash Ambedkar-led faction of the RPI says: "It is a fact that since 1960 Dalit votes have been making a difference, but no Dalit has been elected with such votes." Their rudderless situation is a crucial reason why the major political parties did not campaign for the community's support in this election despite, as Dhale says, "the well-known fact that Dalits vote as a bloc".

For the RPI, it is a case of Hobson's choice. It can associate with either the Congress(I) or the Shiv Sena. Partnering with the Shiv Sena would mean associating with the caste-Hindu-dominated BJP, which is the former's ally in the State and at the Centre. Aware of the Dalit antipathy to the party, the BJP has allowed the Shiv Sena, whose support base largely comprises Other Backward Classes (OBCs), to reach out to the community. In a slum in the Mumbai suburb of Worli, a local Shiv Sena corporator who belongs to an OBC community is an Ambedkarite. Dalit-Shiv Sena proximity is also strong in the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation. In an attempt to derive the maximum political advantage, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray called last year for Shiv Shakti and Bhim Shakti to bind together.

None of this has furthered the Dalit cause. While the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), with whom Dalits feel they have closer ties as far as secular politics is concerned, have made no move towards an alliance, the Shiv Sena, whom Dalits are wary of politically but feel closer to socially, has proposed a partnership.

In his book The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India, Owen M. Lynch wrote: "The formation of the RPI was an adaptive response to a political system in which [Dalit] interests were not being realised nor articulated to the extent that they desired." To be effective, such identity politics has ultimately to translate into social power. Unfortunately, infighting in the RPI has prevented this and left the ordinary Dalit powerless.

Until a decade ago, the Dalit movement's political praxis helped the section win many rights, but in recent years there has been a slide and the RPI's fractured condition has affected the Dalit cause. A Dalit social worker said: "The main allegation against the RPI is that it has done nothing to take the movement forward. Where is the land reform, for instance? There are laws in place. Why not see that they are implemented? It is the shortcomings of our leadership. The patience of our workers is exhausted. That is why they are welcoming this alliance [between the Shiv Sena and Dalits]."

A historical perspective of the relationship between the Shiv Sena and Dalits shows that though at the social level the party does not discriminate against Dalits, its commitment to Hindutva is anathema to the community. Instances such as the Shiv Sena's opposition to the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University, its hostility to Ambedkar's book Riddles of Hinduism, its policies related to job and education reservations for the community, and the police firing in a Dalit slum in Mumbai during the Shiv Sena-BJP rule indicate that the party has always been openly antagonistic to Dalit interests. Evidently, any partnership with the Shiv Sena might be politically convenient for Dalits but will not further their cause.

The RPI, once a force to reckon with in the State, has been reduced to several factions. Even the manner of the split has been unorthodox, leaving as it did many unresolved issues. For instance, the RPI flag, with its distinctive indigo colour, is used by both Namdeo Dhasal, a former Dalit Panther leader, who is now part of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, and Prakash Ambedkar's group. Prakash Ambedkar's status as a leader largely owes it to the fact that he is B.R. Ambedkar's grandson. Prakash Ambedkar has to some extent established that his is a separate faction and his party is called the Bharipa-RPI (Bharipa is the Marathi acronym for Bahujan Mahasangh Party). In terms of numbers Prakash Ambedkar does not command as many votes as his former RPI partner Ramdas Athavale. Although currently the most popular Dalit leader in the State, Athavale lacks the support of the Dalit masses. His popularity is largely dependent upon support from the Congress(I) and the NCP, which help him win from a constituency. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, Athavale contested and won from Pandharpur, a constituency reserved for the S.C.s. Athavale fought the election as an independent candidate as part of a pre-poll understanding.

ADIVASIS form another important but politically weak community in Maharashtra. Despite forming a large group, they have apparently not realised their collective strength and hence have no leadership. Political parties have used this factor to claim to be champions of the Adivasi cause.

The most apparent indication of this new political trend was the spurt of political rallies held in areas dominated by the tribal people. Of the four seats in the State reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, three are in the north Maharashtra constituencies of Nandurbar (with Adivasis constituting 62 per cent of the electorate), Dhule (40 per cent) and Malegaon (40 per cent). The trend was started in 1998 when Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi visited Nandurbar and addressed a rally of more than two lakh people. It was an unorthodox choice of place. When Sharad Pawar, who had managed her 1998 Maharashtra campaign, was asked why Nandurbar, he replied: "She wanted to reach out to the tribal people." Sonia Gandhi returned to Nandurbar for her 2004 campaign, as did some BJP leaders, including Varun Gandhi. The Prime Minister too did not neglect the tribal people, though he chose not to visit the same area as Sonia Gandhi.

Ironically, although Sonia Gandhi was the first national leader in the past few years to openly appeal to Adivasi voters in Maharashtra, her attention was drawn to Nandurbar primarily because of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) active "conversion" campaign in the region. The VHP used to carry out aggressive campaigns against Christian missionaries, even entering Adivasi homes to check for pictures of and books about "the foreign God". While Church functionaries concede that VHP followers "are quiet at the moment", they say that an undercurrent of unease persists.

However, in the battle to get the Adivasi vote, the actual concerns of that section have been forgotten. Instead of addressing specific Adivasi concerns directly in their campaign speeches, Congress(I) leaders spoke broadly of unemployment and rising prices. The BJP campaign was largely based on attacking the Congress(I)'s poor record in government. Neither party addressed the basic concerns of employment, ownership of land, access to forests, food security and, in the case of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project, resettlement and rehabilitation.

In the just concluded election campaign, the Congress(I) found an unexpected and unintended ally in the local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose work has benefited Adivasis. The so-called NGO model of development has found favour with Adivasis because it neither exploits natural resources nor imposes new development paradigms on them. On the other hand, the BJP's model of development is typified by the Sardar Sarovar Project because of which more than 1,280 Adivasi families in Nandurbar have been displaced and await resettlement. "If this is development, we want no part of it. It has not helped us in any way. It has torn our village apart," said Kewalsingh Vasave of Nimgavan village in Nandurbar. Although NGOs like the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the Punarvas Sangharsh Samiti see the Congress(I) as the lesser evil, they concentrated on creating awareness among the Adivasis about various parties rather than campaign for one.

A Congress(I) activist who is an Adivasi Christian pointed out: "If the BJP wins they will bring in their brand of development which will first benefit BJP sympathisers and then might benefit some Adivasis. They will also start harassing us [Christians] again. If they win it is just a matter of time before the VHP is allowed a free hand. We can never forget that Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are just over the border."

"We can never forget Gujarat. Could we vote for a party that is responsible for the massacre of our community?" asks Mohammed Anwar, a furniture shop owner in Bhendi Bazaar, which falls under the South Mumbai Lok Sabha constituency. "The BJP may try and stay away from their communal agenda for this election. But it is very much present. Nobody should forget that," he added. Several others who came to vote on April 26 echoed Anwar's opinion. Similar sentiments come from community members in other parts of the State. Residents of Itwara, a Muslim quarter in Nanded town in the southeast of Maharashtra, say that they will vote only for a secular party. "Gujarat is a clear example of what the BJP can do. We cannot support such a party," says Sayed Khayum, a schoolteacher.

Although the communal carnage in Gujarat did not spill over to Maharashtra, it has had an impact on the community, which will be reflected in the election results, says Irfan Engineer, a human rights activist. "Whenever the physical existence of the community is threatened, the community tends to think en masse." But the community's voting pattern is a problem. Muslims, who constitute 8 per cent of the State's population, generally vote for either of the two secular parties - the Congress(I) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.). Unfortunately, this split in the vote helps the Shiv Sena or the BJP win the seat.

Traditionally more Muslims have voted for the Congress(I). In recent years, however, the S.P. has emerged as some sort of an alternative. In fact, the peculiarity in Maharashtra is that the S.P. is viewed as a party that represents Muslims. Apparently, most of its senior members belonged to the erstwhile Indian Muslim League. Although the S.P. professes to take up issues for the community, the general opinion is that it acts as a spoilsport, only looking for a good bargain on seats.

"In some ways the community wants to punish the Congress(I) for its ineffectiveness and failures in several areas. Therefore it opts for the S.P.," says Engineer. For instance, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) has made life miserable for the community. Muslim youth are arbitrarily arrested and charged under POTA. The liberal use of POTA has led to much disappointment with the ruling Democratic Front government. POTA, in fact, has become one of the most important issues for the community in this election, and the Congress(I) may pay for its misuse.

There is no longer a "Muslim vote bank", says Asif Khan, founder of the Neo-Educational and Economic Development Society, an NGO working towards helping Muslim youth gain employment. He added: "The community, like any other, votes strategically." Khan says that though Muslims consider secularism a primary issue in supporting a party, livelihood issues too are important.

"We want peace and we need work," says Mohammed Haroon, a daily wage earner from Bhendi Bazaar. Khan Nadeem, a trader, said: "They have made people believe that all Muslims are terrorists. We never had to protect ourselves the way we do today. Not only do they inflict harm on us physically, but discrimination and intolerance are rampant. Voting for a secular party is important, a party that pays attention to the poor and the middle class."

In a paper entitled "Indian Muslims and Lok Sabha elections", renowned Islamic scholar and activist Asghar Ali Engineer says: "Gone are the days when Muslims could be swayed just by winning over leaders like the Shahi Imam or other leaders of his ilk." An important factor when it comes to observing the voting pattern of the community is the contemporary trend of regionalisation of politics. "Muslims have never been a homogenous mass as many political leaders reduced them to for their own vote bank politics." Muslims now vote on a regional pattern, keeping their regional interests in mind, says Engineer.

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