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Caste in stone

For Dalits, Mayawati’s statues are not useless, but they want development as well, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Aug 17, 2009 21:04 IST
Paramita Ghosh

All political parties talk to their constituencies by building a series of connections with the past. This is a seamless process that is continued from the podium, through the distribution of appropriate literature, by erecting ‘national’ symbols, and by an overall arrangement of experience and invention of traditions. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has followed that example by erecting statues of Mayawati, Ambedkar, and the party symbol, the elephant, on prime property in Lucknow and Noida. So, are the statues working? The Dalit view is that Mayawati has got it right. And she has got it wrong.

Twenty-five years since the Dalits formed themselves into an electorally effective party, Uttar Pradesh has been the BSP’s primary field of politics. It marked itself as the ‘party’ of B.R. Ambedkar. It gave the Dalits a face, a voice and a forum from which they could build a political vocabulary, largely drawn from a collective memory of age-old social injustice.

Before 1990 — when the party won two Vidhan Sabha seats for the first time in UP, and stunned the BJP and the Congress by winning the Rewa Lok Sabha seat in Madhya Pradesh — caste was not an issue. Except when October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, came along. Young Dalit intellectuals such as Anup and Laxman Singh say the contradictions of Gandhi diluted the Mahatma’s stand on untouchability. Gandhi supported caste-based occupation because in the eyes of God, even menial jobs, had their place. But what if the Dalit didn’t want those jobs?

The Dalit memorials are, in that sense, the BSP’s counter culture to the political symbolism the Congress, the BJP and, in fact, all political parties have always propagated to capture public space. From Ghazipur to Muzaffarnagar, Dalits feel this is history-building and a permanent memorial to a movement — at present stagnant— not a party. It is an attempt by Mayawati, in her own time, to claim the legacy of subaltern leaders from Sant Ravidas to Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar, in the face of the Congress’s appropriation of them. That is why in each of Mayawati’s return to power, the Ambedkar parks have been her first project, just in case others got the same idea.

Why are Mayawati’s memorials a target? That is because her thrust on identity-based empowerment is seen as an initiative at the cost of ‘development’. But do the existing development models in India guarantee social uplift? The success of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has not guaranteed Dalits job cards. They know the road ends where the upper caste villages end. That the handpumps will be built but before the house of the priest. Muzaffarnagar, one of the richest agrarian districts from where Mayawati launched her political career, knows this well.

The Dalits of Muzaffarnagar, who constitute 20 per cent of its population, consider the statues an act of defiance in the centre of a north Indian capital. For them, identity and visibility constitute a link with political power that will determine the character of development. But they also want development! The current idea of development is clearly inadequate. The talk in most Chamar homes (the biggest beneficiaries of reservation, and Mayawati’s kinsfolk), is that if Rs 453 crore is the budgetary allocation for setting up statues and parks, programmes like the Balika Ashirvad Yojana should get equal attention.

The Yojana, for example, is half-baked and its income limit should be raised. According to it, Rs 25,000 and a cycle will be given to matriculate girls of families that earn Rs 24,000 a year. It is illogical that families, which earn Rs 2,000 a month, will be able to fund their daughters till matriculation. If the BSP brings electricity, builds roads and schools, there will be many more Ambedkars in their homes. And not just on pedestals in parks. The need, as far as Dalits go, is for an alternative model of development in which socio-economic uplift of the community is one with its political empowerment.

For them then, the statues are merely a question over which they are rethinking their positions. But unfortunately, the ‘Dalits for Development’ may increasingly be pitched against the ‘Dalits for Visibility’. And that, above all else, will determine the future of the BSP’s politics. Mayawati’s Dalit critics have no quarrel with her statues but the making over of her party and government based on electoral equations in which they feel redundant.

The claims of crossing over to the Congress or Ram Vilas Paswan-Udit Raj’s Dalit Morcha may not be empty threats but are certainly after-effects of being taken for granted. There are signs the BSP cadre from Morna Assembly constituency in Muzaffarnagar, where a bypoll has been announced, will rethink their votes if party candidates do not visit their homes and listen to their problems.

If Mayawati does not perform, her statues can also be broken. Perhaps 10 years later. For now, the Dalit would rather tie himself up in knots than give her a rope with which to hang herself.