‘Mission Dalit’ gone awry

Print edition : September 02, 2016

In Ahmedabad on July 31, Dalits gather to protest against the attack on Dalit youths in Una on July 11 for skinning a dead cow. Later, Dalit and other organisations came together and organised a march to Una, which began from Ahmedabad on August 5 and was to cover a distance of 370 km by August 15. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tributes after laying the foundation for a B.R. Ambedkar national memorial and delivering the Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on March 21. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Attacks on Dalits in several parts of the country by vigilante gau rakshaks spoil the BJP’s carefully crafted plan to retain Dalit support for the forthcoming Assembly elections in key States.

IN the Lok Sabha on August 11, during the debate on cow vigilantism and attacks against Dalits, speakers from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sought to portray Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “shoot me, not my Dalit brothers” exhortation at a public event four days earlier as a watershed moment in the history of political solidarity expressions for the Scheduled Caste communities of India.

The NDA had lined up an impressive array of speakers—Ministers Rajnath Singh, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Arjun Ram Meghwal of the BJP and senior Minister Ram Vilas Pawan, a Dalit leader of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)—to make this presentation forcefully. Replying to the debate, Rajnath Singh claimed that Narendra Modi was the only Prime Minister since 1947 to have spoken openly on the problem though crimes against Dalits were a constant phenomenon in Indian society. He also contended that the highlighting of the issue in this manner itself imparted greater authority to State governments and other authorities to take stringent action against the perpetrators of crimes against Dalits. The other speakers from the NDA, too, held forth on similar lines. All of them asserted that Modi’s “shoot me, not my Dalit brothers” declaration was a path-breaking one by the topmost political leader of the country and would pave the way for greater Dalit empowerment.

However, a close look at the sequence of events that led to Modi’s admonishment of vigilante gau rakshaks exposed this to be a hollow claim. Instead, what it showed was a rattled and cynical politician who had subsumed all his social and political instincts to the compulsions of acquiring power and holding on to it by any means. It also revealed the apprehensions of “Team Modi”, led by BJP president Amit Shah, about the party’s prospects in the forthcoming electoral contests, particularly in Gujarat, Modi’s home State, and Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous State. Central to this fear is the depletion of support among Dalit communities in the wake of the onslaught against them by gau rakshaks. This depletion is a substantive shift from the inroads that the BJP made among Dalit communities in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. While this depletion is widespread, its political impact is being felt most conspicuously in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

Determined resistance

The close inspection of the sequence of events leading up to Modi’s declaration also highlights the determined resistance put up by Dalit communities to atrocities and discrimination in general against them and in particular to attacks motivated by cow vigilantism. This resistance has been anchored in the unique organisational manifestations of the new politics in Gujarat which has no direct associations with conventional political organisations. However, its political impact extended to electoral gains for conventional political organisations such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in Gujarat. Since Muslims have been at the receiving end of cow vigilantism for long, this resistance has also given rise to Dalit-Muslim unity at the social level in some regions in different States. All this has added to the apprehensions of the BJP leadership.

Besides, the timing of Modi’s “historic intervention” exposed the expediency and realpolitik behind it. On July 11, exactly a month earlier, a shocking video of seven Dalit men being beaten brutally by a group of gau rakshaks for allegedly skinning a dead cow in Gujarat’s Una district surfaced. The video showed the Dalits, tied to a car, being beaten. Inquiries into the circumstances that led to the public flogging revealed that the Dalits were also beaten as they were paraded to the police station.

The response to this incident came from different parts of Gujarat, including Una, first as small protests and later as big rallies. The protests gathered momentum a week later when a Congress councillor and four other Dalits attempted suicide in front of a police station in Gondal. From then on the protests intensified to the extent that by the last week of July their political reverberations began to be felt across Gujarat and it became increasingly clear that Chief Minister Anandiben Patel would not be able to continue in her office.

But even as these developments unfolded, Modi continued to ignore the attack and its political impact in Gujarat. Indeed, the Prime Minister has used this shut-eye approach right from the early days in the post when confronted with assaults unleashed by Hindutva organisations and groups associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar.

First sign of a storm

But by the last week of July some other developments unfolded in Uttar Pradesh too. An important political strategy of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh over the past three months has been to consolidate the electoral inroads it made among Dalit communities during the Lok Sabha elections. “Mission Dalit” involved several programmes and an important event was the Dhamma Chetna Yatra under the leadership of the 87-year-old Buddhist monk and former MP Dhamma Viriyo. The veteran monk is also the leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangh, a national-level organisation of Buddhist monks with considerable influence among Dalit communities.

The principal participants of the Dhamma Chetna Yatra were a group of Buddhist monks who proposed to spread awareness about Buddhist teachings and simultaneously be involved in a campaign to explain how the Prime Minister and his supporters were true followers of the teachings. Naturally, BJP units were actively involved in organising receptions and meetings for the yatra, which Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh flagged off at Saranath on April 24. It is a meticulously planned six-month-long yatra which is to conclude with a huge gathering in October in Lucknow. Modi is expected to be the chief guest at the concluding event. A mid-yatra high point was also scheduled in Agra for July 31, and this gathering was to be addressed by Amit Shah.

By July 24, however, there was unrest among the principal yatris themselves on account of the developments in Gujarat. The yatra reached Aligarh on July 24 and the local BJP unit was all geared up to give infrastructural and other support as the monks got ready to address a gathering of Dalits. But the interactions between the Dalits who had gathered and the yatris impelled a group of yatri Buddhist monks to ask the local BJP leaders to leave the meeting. As they left they were jeered by Dalits of the area.

This was the first sign of a brewing storm. In meeting after meeting over the next few days, the yatris gave clear directions to the local BJP units to keep away from their spiritual gatherings. Barely a week after the Aligarh meeting, a much bigger embarrassment awaited the BJP in Agra. In the early stages of planning, the Agra gathering was billed as a rally at the sprawling ground at Kothi Meena Bazar, for which at least 50,000 Dalits were to be mobilised. But as D-Day approached it became clear that the mobilisation would be nowhere near that figure. Amit Shah promptly backed out of the rally, and the venue was shifted indoors, to a Saraswati Shishu Mandir. A crowd of around 1,000 was rounded up for the meeting. Clearly, “Mission Dalit” was floundering. The reverberations of the Dalit resistance that started in Gujarat following the Una incident were beginning to be felt by the BJP in far away Uttar Pradesh too. And, in many ways, this was a shock-and-awe moment for the party’s central leadership and stung Modi to resort to rhetoric.

Record of BJP-ruled states

Even as the Agra rally collapsed, the anti-BJP, anti- government movement in Gujarat was gathering greater momentum. Some of the social and Dalit organisations which came together for the protests announced the Dalit Asmita Yatra, a march from Ahmedabad to Una. It was to cover a distance of 370 kilometres, starting in Ahmedabad on August 5 and concluding on August 15 at Una. Along with the preparations for the march, the organisers also highlighted the track record of other BJP State governments in dealing with Dalit atrocities, as reflected in the National Crime Records Bureau. The NCRB records showed that Rajasthan, with just 6 per cent of the country’s Dalit population, accounted for 17 per cent of total crimes against the community in the country. Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Jharkhand also showed a huge rise in atrocities against Dalits between 2013 and 2015. Thus, a larger case was being built up through the Dalit Asmit Yatra against the BJP.

“Town Hall” anger

Unable to withstand the political pressure generated by the mass movement, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel offered to resign on August 2. A day later, the BJP central leadership accepted her resignation and made Vijay Rupani the Chief Minister. Rupani’s elevation was formalised at the Gujarat BJP’s legislature party meeting on August 5. The next day, Modi used the “Town Hall” meeting convened to observe the anniversary of a government initiative to make his first statement on the assaults on Dalits.

He stated that he was angry with the self-styled gau rakshaks who were running “shops” in the name of cow protection. He went on to ask State governments to prepare dossiers on the so-called cow protectors as 80 per cent of them were into illegal activities at night and became cow protectors in the day. In another 24 hours, he travelled to Andhra Pradesh for a couple of government functions and addressed public meetings where he accentuated the pro-Dalit, anti-gau rakshak rhetoric with the theatrical “shoot me, not my Dalit brothers” statement.

This sequence highlighted the preponderance of the expediency factor in the Prime Minister’s statements. The subtext in them was indeed simple and was about concerns of realpolitik. It was addressed to the protesting Dalits and pointed out that the BJP had even changed its Chief Minister in Gujarat in the face of their opposition, so they should continue to support the BJP.

The striking contrast between Modi’s statements now and his indifference to earlier assaults carried out by Hindutva vigilante groups throughout his 15-month tenure since May 2014 underscores the compulsions of realpolitik and expediency. He employed a similar approach when gau rakshaks lynched Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh on September 28, 2015. He made a convoluted reference to the incident 10 days after it happened. Even then it was the oft-repeated platitude that Hindus and Muslims should not be fighting each other but should jointly fight poverty. He was apparently forced to react because President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee had made a reference to the incident a day earlier. But this platitude was followed a few days later by a blatantly communal campaign that talked about cow protection and castigated his political opponents for not having the issue in their agenda.

In March 2016 in Jharkhand, gau rakshaks branded two persons, Mohammad Majloom and 12-year-old Inayatullah Khan, cattle smugglers and hanged them from a tree. There was no response from Modi then too. Again, when leftist, rationalist intellectuals Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi were killed at different points of time in 2015 by self-proclaimed Hindutva groups, Modi did not take up even cursorily the issues behind the murders. But with Dalit resistance and its impact creating political difficulties, Modi was once again forced to speak, this time coming up with the bombast that he was ready even to sacrifice his life to protect Dalits.

Ground-level reports from different parts of the country after this braggadocio affirm that it has not changed anything for Dalits in terms of protection for them, not to speak of their empowerment. From Andhra Pradesh to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, gau rakshaks have continued their attacks and caused grievous injuries to members of the Dalit and Muslim communities. At Janakipeta in Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district, two Dalit brothers were stripped and thrashed by a mob of gau rakshaks after they skinned a cow that had been electrocuted. Similar incidents continued to get reported from different parts of Uttar Pradesh.

Gau raksha organisations in different parts of the country have maintained that Modi’s statements are not about them and they would continue their operations. Adding to this climate are the statements of BJP leaders such as Thakur Raja Singh, MLA from Uttar Pradesh, who asserted that the Una assault was a good thing because a “few dirty Dalits who eat cow meat make other Dalits get a bad name”.

The coexistence of Modi’s rhetoric and Thakur Raja Singh’s bluster within the Sangh Parivar once again points to the time-tested multi-speak strategy that the Hindutva combine has employed for several decades. One of the high points of such a strategy was in the run-up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the early 1990s. Different Sangh Parivar organisations from the BJP to the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to the Bajrang Dal spoke in many voices that generated widespread confusion. The BJP government asserted that it would protect the Masjid, while some BJP leaders said they would offer symbolic kar seva before the structure, and BJP and Bajrang Dal leaders said nothing short of demolition would do. Ultimately, amidst the cacophony the Sangh Parivar advanced its own time-bound strategy, which ended in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Two dimensions

The Lucknow-based political analyst Sudhir Kumar Panwar said the country was witnessing a repeat of the Sangh Parivar's multi-speak, but he added that it would be difficult for the Parivar now to derive concrete results similar to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

He said: “The Dalit project of the BJP had two dimensions all through. A political dimension, where several Dalit communities were incorporated into the BJP’s electoral plans through a number of cosmetic political and administrative manoeuvres. A parallel social dimension, which worked towards assimilating Dalit communities in social roles that fit in with the Hindutva values and world view, which naturally sought to sustain upper caste hegemony.

“With the Dalit resistance that has come up in the context of the Una incidents, the Dalit project’s political plank is getting unravelled significantly. The social project of the Sangh Parivar in relation to the Dalit communities is increasingly evident to these very communities. This can only add to the disenchantment of these communities and result in their drifting away from the BJP and other associate organisations of the Sangh Parivar. Of course, Modi’s pronouncements and certain steps like the dismantling of the Gau Vansh Vikas Prakoshths (a cell of the BJP that works to create public awareness about the importance of cow protection) mark the persistence of cosmetic efforts to regain lost political ground.

“But at the other end of the multi-speak are VHP leaders such as Sunil Parashar who have stated openly that Modi has only the agenda of self-preservation and that is why he is branding 80 per cent of the gau rakshaks as criminals. If the ‘Mission Dalit’ political project continues to unravel, there is every possibility that the social project of perpetuating upper-caste Hindutva hegemony will be pursued shorn of all pretences.”

However, the signals emanating from the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits are that the primacy in the short term will be to retrieve lost ground and persist with the political project. But, as a first-time Lok Sabha member of the BJP told Frontline on condition of anonymity, the manner in which the situation in Gujarat was allowed to degenerate and the phenomenal political proportions it has acquired, it would require much more than pulpit pronouncements for the BJP to bounce back electorally in the forthcoming elections.

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