Dalit protest

Sea of troubles

Print edition : April 27, 2018

The police lathi-charge protesters in Gwalior on April 2, when Dalit organisations called a Bharat bandh. Photo: PTI

Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi along with opposition MPs staging a protest demonstration against the atrocities on Dalits and government’s failure to protect farmers, outside Parliament House in New Delhi on April 5. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

Dalit activist and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani protesting against the death of Dalits during the Bharat bandh, in Bengaluru on April 4. Photo: PTI

Arijit Shashwat, Union Minister Ashwini Kumar’s son, who was arrested for allegedly triggering communal violence, in Patna on April 1. Photo: PTI

BJP MP Savitribai Phule defied party diktat against taking part in the bandh. Photo: PTI

Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. Photo: Nagara Gopal

The violent protests by Dalits across north India add to the discomfiture of the Narendra Modi government, which is already rocked by failures on several fronts.

“THESE are straws in the wind. The country as a whole and especially the marginalised sections of society are in a ferment seeking justice on diverse counts but the government is running away from facing Parliament and turning away from the people. These are clear signals of an imminent collapse.” This is how senior Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav reacted as several parts of the country were rocked by agitations and clashes during the Bharat bandh on April 2 called by Dalit organisations in protest against the March 20 Supreme Court order modifying a provision in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The impact of the protests against the perceived dilution of the law was massive in the north Indian States of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, where widespread clashes took place between the protesters and the police. Even as Sharad Yadav shared his concern with Frontline on April 3, reports coming in said that seven people had died in the clashes and hundreds had been injured, many of them seriously. (At the time of writing the report, the death toll had risen to 12.)

Sharad Yadav, who was part of many governments in the past, pointed out that while the violence and deaths were a matter of great concern, more disconcerting was the manner in which the leaders of the government were handling the issues that had led to the protests in the first place. “Evidently, abdication of responsibility is at its nadir and a sense of being rudderless is palpable in the official machinery. This feeling is evident not just in this case. From communal clashes in Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh to the sputtering investigations on fiscal and banking crimes to colossal inadequacies in addressing the agrarian crisis, the sense of drift is manifest all around. When leaders of the government run away from facing Parliament, despondency in the official machinery gets aggravated.”

Sharad Yadav’s perception was supplemented by M.B. Rajesh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Lok Sabha from Kerala, in a separate interaction. Rajesh, a two-time M.P. from Palakkad, was of the view that the narrative that was emerging through several social, political and administrative elements had striking similarities with the last months of Manmohan Singh’s second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (2009-14). “Just as it was in the case of UPA II, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance [NDA], regime, too, is rocked day in day out by one problem or the other. Developments in all sectors, including the judiciary, are impacting the principal ruling party negatively. Amidst the pronounced stasis in governance, its allies, too, are turning critical and many of them are deserting the coalition with extremely bitter expressions. The last few months of UPA II was such that the leaders of the government could do nothing right. It seems the Modi regime is in a similar situation.”

Rajesh’s observations were made from the precincts of the Central Hall of Parliament. With the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha setting a dubious record in terms of successive “no-business” days in the second half of the Budget session, the Central Hall became a major hub of activity, albeit through the conventional informal get-togethers and meetings.

Delhi had many important political visitors, including Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, during this period. Both of them separately buttressed the point made by Rajesh in their own nuanced ways. Spending considerable time in the Central Hall and after a fairly long one-on-one talk with veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, who has been resolutely sidelined by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, Chandrababu Naidu met journalists and launched a virtual tirade against the current leadership of the BJP. He emphasised that the current leadership, unlike the one provided by former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, was narrow-minded and had devious vested interests, in political and governance terms.

He said: “They do not understand democratic political interactions. They seem to believe that there is no place for regional parties here. They do not realise that regional parties represent the aspirations of millions of people of a particular region.” He added that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had been completely fair and straightforward in its dealings with the BJP and had followed coalition dharma and the courtesies and responsibilities that came along with it. But the BJP leadership’s response was not on the same plane. It seemed as though it had a hidden agenda to undermine the TDP.

Lack of trust

Akhilesh Yadav underscored this growing lack of trust in the Modi regime. “It is not just allies such as Chandrababu Naidu ji who are doubting it. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country share this loss of trust,” he told Frontline. Akhilesh Yadav specifically referred to the agitation against the ruling on the Prevention of Atrocities Act. “On record, this Union government filed a review petition on the order in the Supreme Court on the same day when the bandh was organised, but how do the general public, especially Dalit organisations, view this? They see it as an out-and-out eyewash. In fact, all Dalit organisations have accused large sections of the ruling dispensation of being bent upon diluting the Act and making it pliable to other devious interests.”

Significantly, several BJP M.P.s from Uttar Pradesh, especially those belonging to the Dalit and Most Backward Castes (MBCs), privately agreed with Akhilesh Yadav’s observation. They added that hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in response to the bandh call evidently shared the growing distrust of the government. “The vehemence with which the protests erupted across the country underscored this, and the violence that led to several deaths was a pointer to the intensity of loss of faith,” a Dalit BJP MP told Frontline.

The efforts made by Modi and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to counter this perception has obviously not had much impact. Modi took recourse to his tested rhetorical skills and argued that his government was the one that had done the most to preserve and advance the ideals of the Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar as also to protect and elevate the marginalised communities. All other political and social organisations using Dalit issues to confront the government were merely politicking in the name of Ambedkar and his ideals, he claimed.

Ravi Shankar Prasad’s primary objective was to try and prove that sections of the BJP were not in favour of diluting the Prevention of Atrocities Act. He argued that there was no delay on the part of the government in filing the review petition and added that opposition parties, including the principal opposition Congress and the Dalit assertive Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), may have abetted violence. “The BJP-ruled States were the worst-hit during the bandh violence. The circumstances are suspicious,” he said.

Spontaneous protest

That this argument was not effective was clear from the response of Ravi Shankar Prasad’s ministerial colleague, Ramdas Athawale, of the Dalit-oriented Republican Party of India (RPI). Athawale termed the protests as a spontaneous act by the Dalit community and different organisations representing them. According to him, the protests were an expression of the long-pending grievances of the Dalit communities, and their intensity and scale underscored the pent-up hurt. He said: “There was considerable distress when the Supreme Court gave directives against reservation in promotion [for S.Cs and S.Ts in government employment]. Dalits and Adivasis were already angry about it. When the recent court order diluting the Prevention of Atrocities Act came, they must have felt even more aggrieved. They had no option but to take to the streets. There was no single party or organisation behind it. It is not an act against the government.” Athawale, however, added that the Congress was trying to make political capital out of the situation.

Responses from the ground, especially from Dalit activists and members of different Dalit communities in the aftermath of the bandh incidents, agree with Athawale’s contention on the eruption of pent-up anger.

Lakhan Lal Ahirwar, a Dalit hailing from Hatta in Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh, the State worst affected by bandh-related violence, was of the view that the build-up for the show of Dalit militancy was palpable in the villages and towns of the State for many months. “The all-round domination of the BJP in other north Indian States such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, and the social climate of upper-caste domination being built by sections of the party aggravated the discontent. The Supreme Court’s November 2017 judgment on reservation in promotions and the March 20 verdict on the Prevention of Atrocities Act, became the final trigger.”

Upper-caste domination

Talking to Frontline over phone from Meerut, Mehar Chand, a middle-level BSP activist, pointed out that since the elevation of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, upper-caste social domination had become more oppressive, with the administration turning a blind eye to their crimes against Dalits. “There is systematic targeting of enterprising youth from Dalit communities, including in the form of maiming and killing. It is continuing even after the Bharat bandh clashes.” Mehar Chand pointed out that the killing of 28-year-old Gopi Pariya of Shobhapur village in Meerut was a clear instance of targeted killing by members of the upper castes. Apparently, there was a list of “Dalit arsonists” in circulation after the bandh and Pariya’s name was at the top. Mehar Chand was of the view that the BJP governments in the north were steadily advancing the upper-caste agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, and “one is not going to see the end of social tensions and violence emanating from this any time soon”.

K. Ananda Rao of the All India Dalit Rights Federation, one of the organisers of the bandh, does not mince words. In his view, it is the BJP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal that are to be blamed for the violence during the protests. “These Sangh Parivar outfits, including fringe outfits such as the Karni Sena, were actively perpetrating violence by throwing stones or beating up peaceful protesters in many States.” Balwinder Singh of the Jan Samman Party said it was the government’s duty to give security for the protest but it did not.

Significantly, the perception that the dominant sections of the BJP was pushing an upper-caste agenda has taken strong root even among Dalit BJP leaders. Chhotelal, the BJP’s Dalit M.P. from Robertsganj, in a letter to Prime Minister Modi, complained that Yogi Adityanath threw him out of his office when he went there to discuss some issues. Chhotelal’s letter clearly suggests social discrimination on the part of Yogi Adityanath. Equally significantly, Savitribai Phule, the BJP’s Dalit M.P. from Bahraich, openly defied party diktats against promoting and taking part in the Bharat bandh.

At the level of larger politics, this is strengthening the impression within the BJP and among political observers that the carefully planned social engineering agenda advanced by the Sangh Parivar for several decades to create a pan-Hindu political constituency is coming unstuck on account of the urgency of upper-caste communities to reassert social hegemony through the BJP’s upper-caste leadership. There was an impression after the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2017 that Amit Shah had finally perfected the social engineering manoeuvres and that the pan-Hindu political constituency was on firm foundations. The nomination of Ramnath Kovind as President of the country was supposed to further strengthen this political constituency and attract more Dalits to the Sangh Parivar.

However, what the current situation reveals in unmistakable terms is that the whole social engineering exercise was essentially a cosmetic one and did not percolate into the veins and arteries of the Hindu social system and the caste structure.

There is also the growing perception within the Sangh Parivar that the only way to recreate the pan-Hindu political constituency will be to revive the aggressive Hindutva manoeuvres. The recent communal clashes in Bihar and West Bengal are perceived to be part of a larger Hindutva plan that is being advanced in a systematic manner. The fact that, Arijit Shashwat, the son of Union Minister Ashwini Kumar, was himself involved in the rioting in Bihar is a pointer to the level of political involvement in the exercise. The developments in Bihar have also advanced the political, administrative and organisational objective of marginalising Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United), which has revived its alliance with the BJP after fighting the last Assembly elections as part of an anti-BJP front consisting of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress.

Nitish Kumar’s justification for dumping his alliance partners and going back to the BJP was that the RJD leadership was corrupt. He also argued that there was a greater level of comfort in working with the BJP. Since reviving the alliance, however, the BJP leadership has been systematically snubbing him politically and sidelining the JD (U) administratively. Among other things, the rise in the number of communal incidents is also a pointer to this tactic of the BJP. Bihar Home Ministry records point towards a huge rise in communal clashes. It is estimated that around 200 incidents with communal overtones have taken place since July 2017, 64 of them in the first three months of 2018.

At the level of larger politics, the Sangh Parivar has, in the run-up to all major elections, sought to deploy a mixture of the “development gains” of the BJP and Hindutva polarisation. But the composition of the mixture has been different from time to time. Such permutations and combinations have been visible since the 2004 general elections. In 2004, the Hindutva polarisation element was not prominent because the BJP was convinced that India was “shining” and that it could win on that plank alone. But the campaign boomeranged, leading to a shock defeat for the party. There was a revival of the Hindutva plank but victory eluded the BJP. The formula that was created in 2013-14 for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was considered the most potent because it combined the projection of “Hindu hriday Samrat” cum “development man” Modi and intense communal violence in western Uttar Pradesh which had far-reaching and widespread polarising effect across different parts of the country. It has been the general belief in the Sangh Parivar, after the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, that the potency of the 2013-14 formula persists.

However, the “new Dalit uprising”, as the young Dalit icon Jignesh Mevani terms the current movement, has raised doubts about the potency of the Hindutva formula. Leaders of Dalit organisations that enforced the Bharat bandh have announced that if their demands, including the one on strengthening the Prevention of Atrocities Act, were not met by August 15, over 10 lakh “Bahujans” would assemble in Delhi to raise their voice against the Modi government. Undoubtedly, the Modi government seems to be hurtling from one tough call to another in much the same manner as Manmohan Singh’s UPA-II did at the fag end of its second term in office.