Four years of Modi govt: Welfare crucial to capping Dalit anger
On April 2, violent protests swept northern India when Dalit protesters took to the streets against the Supreme Court’s order banning automatic arrests under the Scheduled Castes (SC)and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. Ten people died. This manifestation was the latest crisis the National Democratic Alliance government has had to handle concerning Dalits, who comprise about 16% of the country’s population.
Even as many SC-ST communities and the Opposition blamed the government, the ministry of social justice and empowerment filed a review petition in the apex court. The government also hinted at an ordinance to nullify the verdict and proposed a bill to put the Act in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution and thus insulate it from judicial scrutiny.
The 2016 campus unrest that started with the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula and the flogging of a Dalit family in Gujarat’s Una by cow vigilantes the same year, has meant that the BJP government has been accused of failing to ensure equal rights for the SC and STs. But the government rejects the charge, underlining the benefits the communities received from social schemes such as Ujjwala (free gas cylinders to below-poverty-line women), Mudra loans and even toilet construction under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The government has moved to celebrate the legacy of BR Ambedkar, and open a number of institutions and programmes in his name, a move the Opposition has termed as an attempt to appropriate the Dalit icon. The government has also underscored that it has been trying to get Parliament’s sanction to set up a national commission for the Backwards Classes (NCBC). Though the bill to grant constitutional status to the NCBC was passed in the Lok Sabha, it failed to get the necessary support in the Rajya Sabha.
This delay has been leveraged by the Bharatiya Janata Party as a point to prove the Opposition’s alleged obstructionist politics and anti-backward class bias. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself an OBC, and his cabinet colleagues have often affirmed their commitment to protecting the rights of the OBCs, during the recently concluded Karnataka assembly polls, party president Amit Shah blamed the Opposition for stalling the passage of the bill.
While analysts see the commission’s appointment as a move by the BJP to woo the OBCs, the government says the commission’s mandate is to examine the sub-categorisation for a “more equitable distribution” of quota benefits. A BJP functionary says the move is in line with the party’s assurance to bridge the gap between communities. The government is also examining the recommendations of the National Commission for De-Notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, to offer reservation in jobs and education to these communities, and bring them under the ambit of the PoA Act. Activist and author Anand Teltumbde, however, thinks the condition of SCs and STs has not improved. “It has been calamitous for the lower Dalits. Atrocities increased, attempts to curb reservations, persistent decline in budget provisions, intrigues in naming special component plans to welfare schemes, repression of Dalit students etc. are the hallmark of Modi rule,” he said.