Promises alone will not satisfy Dalits

Another Ambedkar jayanti, another homage to the Dalit icon, another word of honour for the marginalised. Come April 14 and the birth anniversary of Dr B  R Ambedkar will be celebrated with the usual garlanding of his statues and recalling of his contribution for a caste-free society. But this year will be quite different from all others– a deep sense of alienation, an undercurrent of hostility,  an assertion of right will sharply mark the mindset of a Dalit.

 For, so much has happened in the past few weeks, too much water has flowed under the bridge that things would never be the same again, it appears as of now. If previous years have seen violence against the Dalits, this year the violence has risen manifold. If last  year has  seen acts of defiance by the Dalits in the form of moustache-twirled selfies, this year that assertion has been widespread and more forceful. A Dalit man, after fighting for more than two months in court, has finally won permission to carry his marriage procession through the Thakur-dominated areas of the village in Kasganj district of Uttar Pradesh, something that has not happened in the history of the village

 It was only a month ago that a 21-year-old Dalit man was hacked to death in Gujarat by three Kshatriya men, apparently because he owned and rode a horse. But the tale did not end the way it usually was ending for the past centuries. In a symbol of Dalit defiance, Pradip Rathod’s funeral procession was led by his horse, Raju. These two incidents have the broken the centuries-old tradition, the ‘parampara’, that did not allow Dalit wedding and funeral processions and celebrations with band baja, horses and expensive cars. But the straw that broke the camel’s back, to put it figuratively, was the Supreme Court’s order, banning automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which the Dalits perceive as a  dilution of a law meant to protect them, watering down of a powerful instrument sanctioned by the Constitution to fight caste humiliation.

That order united the Dalits– nearly 100 sub-castes of Dalits– across the length and breadth of the country to rise in protest against the ‘injustice’. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, hundreds of thousands of Dalits poured into the streets to take part in the ‘Bharat Bandh’, called by Dalit organisations. The violence that ensued during the Bandh left 11 persons dead and several others injured in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Odisha, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh.

 There have been credible reports that the killings of Dalits during the Bandh were committed by the upper caste men. Reports are pouring in that those Dalits who participated in the agitation on April 2 are being tortured and false cases slapped against them. There are also reports that most of the residents of  Shobhapur village in Meerut district have fled fearing torture and arrests.

   The reports of torture has been highlighted by nobody else but a BJP MP himself, Udit Raj. He has also alleged that the atrocities were taking place mostly in BJP-ruled States. Etawah MP Ashok Kumar Dohre has also alleged that Dalits in Uttar Pradesh were being pulled out of their homes and beaten, and false complaints registered against them.

Another BJP MP, Yashwant Singh,  has targeted his government for doing nothing for the 30 crore Dalits despite being in power for the past four years,  while the BJP Dalit MP from Robertsganj, Chhote Lal Kharwar, has alleged caste discrimination by the Yogi Adityanath government.

These have been serious charges, kind of charges the BJP’s own party men have never made against their own government before. This has forced the top leadership to sit up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself asking his MPs to spend two days with the Dalits. Dalits, who constitute 16.6 per cent of the population, are an electorally decisive chunk, and were wooed by the BJP to win the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a thumping majority. The saffron party can ill afford to lose that chunk, because combined with the Muslims (14.2 per cent) Dalits can make or break a government.

  Even in Karnataka, which goes to the polls on May 12, Dalits form 19 per cent of the population. They influence the results of nearly 60 of the 224 seats. But the Supreme Court order, the government’s late response in filing a review petition, the violence during the Bharat Bandh and the subsequent torture and filing of false cases, and painting of an Ambedkar statue in saffron seem to have aggravated the caste tensions. The Dalits are now up in arms. It would be so very difficult to tempt them with mere slogans and promises.

 Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.