Dalit protests in Maharashtra sharpen Hinduatva fault lines
Clashes between Dalits and right-wing groups at the Koregaon-Bhima in Maharashtra on the very first day of 2018 are ominous on several counts. Around 10 lakh Dalits had turned up at Koregaon-Bhima on January 1 to mark 200 years of the British battle with Peshwas also known as the Third Anglo-Maratha War in which the Mahars, a Dalit sub-caste, were fighting on the side of the East India Company.
The bicentenary commemoration became the precipitating factor for the clashes in Maharashtra where Dalits have a recorded long history of protest movement. One of the tallest icons of Dalit identity Dr B R Ambedkar and his Republican Party of India (RPI) are deeply rooted in ethos and history of the state.
Not only violent protests by Dalits spread across Maharashtra, the movement is threatening to move to other states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Some protests and agitation by Dalit outfits erupted in these areas. Cases of atrocities on Dalits have been on the rise in states like UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and even in Bihar.
Developments are part of a larger pattern of protests by Dalits in three and half years of the BJP-led NDA regime. Dalit anger has expressed itself against rewriting of history, right wing interpretation of certain historical events, Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, cow vigilantism around the issue of beef ban, Hindu majoritarianism, attempts to flatten cultural diversity and other similar issues. This is bringing into open old fault lines existing in Hindu caste ridden society.
These fault lines are acquiring sharper edges particularly at a time when the country’s economy is slowing down and employment opportunities are shrinking. Demands for reservation in jobs by Marathas in Maharashtra, Pattidars in Gujarat, Gujjars in Rajasthan or Jats in Haryana and UP are evoking fears and apprehensions among the Dalits and other backward castes.
Dalits along with Muslims have become victims of the beef ban politics of cow vigilantism of the RSS-BJP. Dalits have been the integral part of the traditional agrarian economy where milching animals have played a leading role. Strict enforcement cow slaughter, livelihood of Dalits is directly affected. There have been violent incidents in UP, MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other states in which Dalits have come under attack of groups of cow vigilantes.
In ordinary times, this would have carried no political significance but some violent incidents since assumption of throne by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2014 and coming to power of the BJP in 19 states Dalit politics in the country has come under sharper focus.
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept to power winning 71 out of total 80 Lok Sabha seats from the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh. All the 17 reserved Scheduled Caste seats went to the BJP. It clearly meant that a sizable portion of Dalit votes went to the BJP account and indicated that there was a division among SC voters.
While in Maharashtra caste tensions between Dalits with some other backward castes on the one hand and Marathas along with some upper castes particularly the Chitpavan Brahmins on the other are reopening historical wounds, in north Indian Hindi speaking states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh it is Dalit versus higher castes particularly the Rajputs and Brahmins.
What is adding insult to injuries of Dalits and other weaker sections of society is the way the BJP ruled states treat agitations and protests. It is a typical hallmark of the BJP ruled state that leaders of such protests are treated rank criminals. Unlike previous times, they are not seen as upcoming political leaders. Treatments meted out to leaders like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani in Gujarat or the founder of Bheem Army Bharat Ekta Mission young lawyer Chandrashekhar Azad in UP clearly shows the mind set of BJP leaders.
The RSS and BJP leaders paint these young aspirational leaders as anti-Nationals or casteist as it was done in Gujarat.
Consciousness among Dalits and other weaker sections has been steadily rising. With this, these sections are becoming more assertive. Gone is the time when the administration could suppress their voice or ignore their genuine demands by coming heavily on the leaders of such protests and agitations.
Instead of engaging with leaders politically, the BJP leaders tend to depend on the law and order machinery of the state and invariably give a free hand to state Police to deal with protests and agitations.
As a result, a feeling is growing louder in the community that crimes against them are neither seriously pursued nor thoroughly investigated by a caste-biased state administration. A growing perception is that guilty are either not adequately punished or manage to go unpunished.
Results of the 2014 general election and subsequent assembly elections clearly established that Dalit politics is under a flux. It is undergoing a change. Symbolism of making a Dalit reach the highest constitutional post of the country is not enough and it seems it is not helping the BJP to consolidate its political base among the SC community and spread it.
In coming months when the BJP will be engaged in electoral battles in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Dalit votes are going to be very crucial. Carefully calibrated outreach of the BJP to this community in recent years is under serious threat.
If the opposition particularly the Congress succeeds in tapping rising Dalit anger to its electoral advantage as it did to some extent in the recently held Gujarat assembly elections, the BJP’s domination on the political map of the country would begin to roll back.
In such a scenario, 2019 general elections may no more remain a one sided battle with the BJP under Modi an invincible force.
Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.