Soon after Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), had committed suicide in January this year, professor Prahlad Jogdand of Bombay University had told me this would be the last time Dalits would take it lying down.
He had been discussing the fallout with various groups and he said, “I can see that people are at the end of their tether. They are not going to stand for any nonsense anymore.’’
Most of the experts I had spoken to then had been lamenting the lack of a credible leadership among these communities -- self-serving people had appropriated the movement to themselves and they worked at the behest of the mainstream political parties, not for the upliftment of their people but to serve their own interests and those of the the upper castes, they said.
Prof Jogdand, however, was almost prophetic in his conviction that the Dalit movement no longer required any of these leaders. “The people will rise on their own and demand their rights as equal citizens.’’
At the time Vemula’s friends at the HCU had thrown out Ramdas Athawale, now a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, and Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, a former member of the Planning Commission under the UPA, who had rushed to Hyderabad to offer their sympathies to Vemula’s family. Prof Jogdand had cited that example as the reason for his optimism – people had realised that such leaders were mere puppets of various ruling dispensations and they could no longer be fooled by such lip sympathy, he said.
Under the circumstances, I believe, Prof Jogdand was almost prescient – in neighbouring Gujarat where some Dalits were attacked and humiliated for doing just their jobs – skinning dead cows – I do not see any leadership of the movement. Yet, in district after district, Dalits have risen – though it cannot yet be called an uprising as some have labelled it – to assert themselves and their rights. Firstly, they have refused to skin dead animals any more. Moreover, they have been dumping cow carcasses at all government properties by the dozens creating a major spectacle and embarrassing the government no end.
Even in Bombay when the trust running the Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar unthinkingly brought down the building, where Dr BR Ambedkar used to run a printing press, for commercial exploitation of the land, Dalit assertion was overwhelming. The only time I had seen such a unified representation of their ire was when Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was opposing the Maharashtra government’s attempts to publish Dr Ambedkar’s collected works during his centenary. Among these was a volume titled “Riddles of Hinduism”, which raised some legitimate questions on Hindu myths related to discrimination against the lower castes – like why should Dronacharya have sought Eklavya’s thumb as guru dakshina and why should Lord Rama have listened to the priestly class in his kingdom and conducted a “tapasya bhang” of a lower caste so that the latter should not attain greater heights than the Brahmins.
These are the reasons why Dr Ambedkar had concluded that Hinduism was not designed for liberty, fraternity and equality and so he wrote those values into the Indian Constitution. But something more was needed to equalise Dalits and soon he lit upon Buddhism – in one fell swoop former untouchables became the equals of upper castes. They would no longer perform scavenging activities (like skinning dead cows) and Ambedkar’s followers took him seriously at his word – to educate, organise and emancipate themselves. Aided by the principles of Buddhism, of course.
No wonder, in recent weeks, as Dalit assertion rises, Bappa Rawal, the mouthpiece of the Rajasthan Vanwasi Kalyan Parishad, an RSS affiliate, has been raging against emperor Asoka, who popularised Buddhism in India and made it a tool of state craft, which the mouthpiece believed had endangered Hinduism. Not strictly true – Hinduism, after all, still survives to this day and Hindus by far outnumber Buddhists or any other religion’s followers in this country. That is, if you include Dalits and OBCs in their ranks.
But the fear is real, in view of the Gujarat incidents, that Dalits everywhere in the country might tear a leaf out of Dr Ambedkar’s book and take in large numbers to Buddhism to escape the poverty, untouchability, economic deprivation and discrimination that continues to dog them.
After all Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother did just that very recently. At the Ambedkar Bhavan. As Prof Jogdand told me, a new social churning has been unleashed in this country.
This genie is not going back into its bottle.