Dalits

Dalits asserting their rights, posing question to BJP

August 28, 2016 01:04 PM
PM Narendra Modi offering rose petals before B.R. Ambedkar's portrait

Writer: A.G. Noorani*

Ironicallyat a time when the BJP government headed by Narendra Modi has been praising B.R. Ambedkar, the great champion of the rights of the ‘untouchables’, the Dalits, as they are now called, have been in angry revolt against the BJP. Modi’s own state Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh go to the polls next year. In 2019, the country will have a general election.

On Aug 23, Modi claimed, “more than 80 per cent of the BJP’s workers are from the Scheduled Castes [untouchables] Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes”. Like its predecessor, the Jan Sangh and their parent the RSS, the BJP has ever been a party of the upper classes.

Cruel traditions of 2,000 years have trapped Dalits into occupations dubbed unclean by the upper castes, such as tanning and scavenging. It drove an angry Ambedkar to ask: “You take the milk from the cows and buffaloes, and when they are dead, you expect us to remove the dead animals. Why? When you can carry the dead bodies of your mothers, why can you not carry the dead bodies of your ‘mother cows’ yourselves?”

Prof Sumit Sarkar wrote: “The votaries of Hindutva have tended to come in the main from high castes quite self-conscious about their status privileges, and yet the conflicts that tended to emerge from hierarchical rigidities needed to be resolved or kept in check if unity was to be achieved.”

Cruel traditions of 2,000 years have trapped Dalits. 

Another scholar Badri Narayan focused on the BJP’s dilemma. “The political strategy that the BJP, in connivance with the Hindutva forces … is now following is aimed at, on one hand, giving representation to leaders of Dalit communities in state and national politics and trying to satisfy their urge of representation in power politics, and, on the other, appropriating cultural symbols and folk icons popular in Dalit oral traditions by providing them a saffron colour and redefining local societies in north India society.

“… [I]ts efforts are to search for communal spaces in the folk memories of the Dalits and use them at the right communal moment to stir up passions against the Muslims.”

Modi exhorted 350 senior functionaries of the BJP to “promote the agenda of nationalism”. His conception of nationalism deserves a separate study for its disruptive implications.

In the 2014 general election to the Lok Sabha, the Dalits largely voted for the BJP but matters have slipped. In January, research scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide at the Hyderabad Central University. Smriti Irani, the then minister of human resource development, set up an inquiry headed by a high court judge to ascertain whether he was a Dalit and the offence alleged against the VC and a minister fell under the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989.

Vemula’s family said: “We live like Dalits. We were raised in a Dalit community.” This is less a denial than an assertion. The Dalits, far from being embarrassed, proudly proclaim their identity.

Vemula’s suicide shook the country. Earlier, in November 2015, the university had expelled five Dalit students and banned their access to public places on campus, while allowing them to attend lectures and pursue their studies. They were all Dalits who were charged with assaulting a leader of the BJP’s front body, the ABVP. A fact-finding committee, set up by the university held the university responsible for the suicide.

Last month, a shocking video surfaced showing seven Dalit men being beaten by a group of cow-protection vigilantes (gau rakshaks) for skinning, allegedly, a dead cow. This was in Gujarat’s Una district. The video showed the men being beaten while tied to a car and beaten also as they were paraded to a police station. Protests against the outrage spread to the entire state. Ripples surfaced in UP.

Last September, the gau rakshaks lynched Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in UP. In March, gau rakshaks accused Mohammed Mazloom and 12-year-old Inayatullah Khan of smuggling cattle and hanged them from a tree. Modi did not denounce them. He broke his silence after Una for political reasons. He fears a Dalit-Muslim alliance in the UP polls.

Ghanshyam Shah, a distinguished sociologist based in Ahmedabad wrote, “Though the causes for atrocities on Dalits have been generally related to land, wages, water, housing, sexual assault and the practice of untouchability, clashes over cultural practices are not entirely unknown.”

In Una, Dalit tanners were beaten up as they didn’t bow to the diktat to give up tanning, their traditional occupation, and bury dead cows instead of skinning them. The tanners’ resistance was against the vigilantes dictating new “nationalist cultural” practices. The Dalits have no alternative means of livelihood. A sizeable section has not given up eating meat.

Cruel traditions of 2,000 years have trapped Dalits into occupations dubbed unclean by the upper castes, such as tanning and scavenging. It drove an angry Ambedkar to ask: “You take the milk from the cows and buffaloes, and when they are dead, you expect us to remove the dead animals. Why? When you can carry the dead bodies of your mothers, why can you not carry the dead bodies of your ‘mother cows’ yourselves?”

Now, Dalits have begun stridently posing this and other questions. They can be crushed no longer.

*The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai

Have something to say? Post your comment