How Hathras can hurt the BJP in UP
Long before Boolgarhi village in Hathras, there was Bisada village in Dadri. Exactly five years ago, in September 2015, 50-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched to death for allegedly storing and consuming beef. The killers were all upper caste men who were eventually let off on bail. The local Member of Parliament (MP), Mahesh Sharma, then a Union minister, attended the funeral of one of the accused, the body draped in the Tricolour. Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath began the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 2019 election campaign from the village in the presence of the accused. There was not a word of regret for Akhlaq’s death, but instead a ringing endorsement of the anti-cow slaughter campaign. The BJP had won the Gautam Buddh Nagar (Noida) Lok Sabha seat, where Bisada is located, in 2014, before the incident, and it did so again, after the incident, in 2019.
Like in Bisada, fear and intimidation has replaced any genuine sense of remorse at Boolgarhi. Rather than empathising with the family of the victim, the CM’s office claims that there is an “international conspiracy” to foment caste and communal violence in the state. The police have filed FIRs against “unknown persons”. The ex-BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Hathras has organised a panchayat of the predominantly upper caste villagers to defend the accused. A vicious campaign of character assassination has begun: The girl’s dying declaration where she claims to have been gang raped is also under the scanner. Amid conflicting narratives, the truth is a young girl suffered a traumatic death, her body was cremated in undignified haste at night, and her family was forced to grieve in their barricaded homes.
At both Bisada and Boolgarhi, the Yogi government has shown itself to be an insensitive regime. And yet, there is a crucial difference. Akhlaq was a Muslim, a community which has been systematically demonised in Yogi’s UP and whose social and political marginalisation is part of a conscious majoritarian agenda. Which is why his government could openly line up behind Akhlaq’s killers without any compunction. In fact, any civil society or political campaign to seek justice for Akhlaq suited the BJP: It only made it easier for the party to polarise the electorate. Which is why Akhlaq’s killers will get away. Which is also why a Dr Kafeel Khan, the Gorakhpur doctor, who dared to raise his voice against the Yogi government, has spent months in jail on specious charges or in hiding. Which is why anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters in UP are being arrested under stringent provisions.
But while Muslim lives might not matter, Dalit votes do. Dalits may still struggle to socially confront upper caste dominance in deeply hierarchical rural societies such as Hathras. Many are still burdened by preordained caste occupations in an unjust and unequal Hindu social order. And yet, Dalit support to a cross-caste Hindutva appeal has been a vital factor in the BJP’s recent electoral supremacy, especially in UP. The Centre for Developing Societies (CSDS) 2019 post-poll study reveals that the BJP’s vote share among Dalits went up by a striking 10 percentage points from 24% to 34% in five years. The party dominated a majority of the reserved seats in north India. While Mayawati was locked into her Jatav vote, the non-Jatav Dalits, in particular, voted for the BJP in large numbers. This includes the influential and sizeable Valmiki sub-caste to which the victim belongs.
Moreover, the accused in the Boolgarhi case are all Thakurs, a community which the Yogi government is alleged to have patronised excessively. That many of the CM’s opponents now choose to refer to him by his original name of Ajay Singh Bisht is part of a calculated political strategy to remind the voters of his Thakur roots. Being accused of “Thakurwaad” is politically suicidal in UP’s complex caste matrix. The BJP’s resurgence in the state has revolved around breaking its upper caste stereotype. This is also why a number of the BJP’s Dalit MPs and also one of its original Other Backward Classes mascots, Uma Bharti, have been critical of the handling of the Hathras assault. Underlying such criticism is the recognition that the BJP’s upper caste manuwaadi image had allowed the Mayawatis and Mulayams to build their counter challenge in the past.
And that is why the Yogi government is playing with fire if it acts with reckless impunity and denies justice to a Dalit family in the media glare. Where once a Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party filled the void, today it is a new generation of younger Dalit leaders such as Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army who may well emerge as champions of another bout of Dalit political assertion. That the Congress too is seeking to revive itself in UP with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as its face is another reason to shake the BJP out of its seeming complacency. The UP assembly elections are still more than a year away, and the BJP is easily the most formidable election machine on the ground. But even well-oiled machines need to be handled with care and caution. While Muslim as “enemy” suits the BJP’s political strategy perfectly, alienating the Dalit vote could exact a heavy price.
Post-script: The National Crime Records Bureau figures show that almost 10 Dalit women are raped every day (88 women every 24 hours). I just wonder: Would a girl sexually assaulted in a remote village in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh get the same visibility as Hathras? The fact that many national channels are located in Noida in UP is an inescapable reality that has come to haunt the Yogi government.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal