The great Dalit cauldron and why it matters
With Dalit anger spilling over, HT looks at the significance of their vote in three states going to polls in 2017
IN A STATE OF WAIT AND WATCH
Something different happened in the Gujarat assembly last Tuesday. More than a month after the flogging of four Dalits in Gir Somnath district’s Una town for skinning a dead cow, Congress MLAs created a ruckus over the issue. It was unusual because atrocities on Dalits have not been part of the mainstream politics in Gujarat or elsewhere in the country.
The Una incident triggered a wave of unrest among the community across the state. There were violent protests in Jamnagar, Surendranagar and Rajkot districts. Around 20 Dalit people attempted suicide. During a massive Dalit rally on July 31 in Ahmedabad, community members--under the banner of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti (UDALS)--held a massive rally. Tanners pledged that they would discontinue their traditional occupation and demanded land from the government. In the 10 days march that culminated in a mahasammelan in Una, the UDALS tried mobilising people on Dalits issues.
Congress legislators trying to corner the BJP in the assembly is a clear indicator that the political establishment in the state has taken note of the Dalit upsurge. But it is too early to say if it will change the political equation in the upcoming assembly election in Gujarat.
MOVEMENT IS APOLITICAL
While skeptics have been trying to find a political hand in the agitation, the UDALS has maintained that its movement is apolitical. On second day of the march to Una, Congress workers came to greet the marchers at a stop-over in Ahmedabad district’s Dholka city. They were told that they were welcome only if they wanted to join in the individual capacity. During a halt at Bhavanagar’s Dhasa city, a former Congress MLA came to extend support. Samiti members shouted ‘Congress- BJP murdaabad’ slogans when he left. During the August 15 mahasammelan in Una, organisers left the stage abruptly leaving the audience in a tizzy. “Political people came on the stage against our wishes. We did not want to be seen with them,” said Subodh Parmar, member, UDALS core committee.
Last Saturday, Parmar’s aide and Samiti convener Jignesh Mevani held a press conference at Delhi’s Press Club to announce his resignation from the AAP. “Since the beginning of the agitation, there was criticism that because I was an AAP member, I instigated the protest on behalf of the party.I had to resign to prove my critiques wrong,” Mevani told HT.
“I always kept my political affiliations away during the protest. Nor did the AAP approach me to give it a political color. In fact, the charm of this movement is that it is apolitical,” he added.
Mevani plans to launch an organisation for the Dalits soon but has ruled out going political.
IMPACT ON POLITICS
Prima facie, it appears that Dalits may galvanise against the BJP. As compared to 35 per cent estimated Dalits who voted for the BJP in 2007 assembly poll, the vote share declined to 23 per cent in 2012, as per the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies data. “BJP may lose further,” said Gujarat based sociologist Ghanshyam Shah. “All BJP MLAs are discredited because they were not seen anywhere during violence on Dalits. The gap between the elected representatives and the Dalit masses will widen,” he added.
The Gujarat Congress seems upbeat. “The BJP has utterly failed to save the rights of the Dalits. We have raised the issue in the assembly and held an Akrosh rally in Gandhinagar. Whether our vote-share increases or not is secondary. What is more important is that we keep the ruling party on its toes by continuously raising this issue,” said Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
The BJP is in a denial mode. Saurabh Patel, ex cabinet minister in Gujarat said, “The issue has been blown out of proportion. What has happened is wrong and we have taken action. But Congress is trying to take political mileage out of it.”
Gagan Sethi, co- author of the book Lest We Forget that traces communal violence in the state in 2002 said that there was a possibility of the division of sub-castes within Dalits, orchestrated during 2002, getting over. “With maybe the Patidars joining in and the Muslim groups actively seeking and offering solidarity with the Dalits will change the equation substantially specially in the candidate selection by political parties.”
UNITED WE STAND?
Gujarat’s Dalits will have to project a united front and seek support of other communities for the government to take them seriously.
The Dalit unrest across the state is being hailed for its young leadership. It is credited for making Dalit issues part of the mainstream narrative. But sections of the community did not extend support to the protests because they are not comfortable with Mevani’s background, approach and lack of clarity. The fact that he has not worked with the community at the grassroot, his call for ‘rail roko’ and attack on both caste and class (in all his speeches, he said ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Laal Salaam’ in the same breath) are held against him.
Martin Macwan, founding member of Navsarjan NGO, is a pioneering Dalit activist in Gujarat. Mevani holds him in high regard. Macwan said he was glad that the agitation led to a social and political awakening among the youth but was disappointed because not much thinking went into it. “For a movement to have impact on the ground, it has to be well thought out. Otherwise, it can cause damage,” he said.
The UDALS members do realise that numbers are crucial. They have been trying to garner the support of Muslims and tribals for upcoming protests. “We live in Dalit bastis in villages. Our Muslim brothers live in ghettos in cities. Both have been ignored by the government. Both expose the Gujarat development model,” Mevani said in his speeches in pockets in Dholka and Batod which had significant Muslim population.
The Samiti’s key demands include implementation of the Forest Rights Act and release of Muslims who have been illegally detained on terror charges.
The Una ‘viral video’ has impregnated Gujarat with possibilities.
Mayawati resurrects as the BJP tries hard to make inroads across the state
Ramjivan Gautam, 55, a native of Babuhariya Purwa village in northern Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, proudly calls himself a hardcore supporter of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
A Dalit, Gautam has been casting his vote for the BSP in the assembly and Lok sabha polls.
These days he is a bit perplexed. “The BSP leaders have not visited my village yet but the BJP leaders have held meetings and sent a ‘rath’ carrying the statues of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha. The initiative of the saffron brigade has forced us to rethink. If the BSP candidate is not in a position to defeat the SP nominee, we will not hesitate in supporting BJP,” he said.
Gautam’s comments reflect the efforts the BJP has been making to assimilate Dalits in UP.
Participating in the Tiranga Yatra, BJP president Amit Shah stopped over at party MP Kaushal Kishore’s residence in Lucknow.
Dalits are mystified over the regular visit of BJP leaders. “Our aim is to get rid of anti-Dalit SP government. Before the election, we will hold a meeting to decide to vote for BSP or BJP,” said gram pradhan Ranjit Raidas. Earlier, except the BSP no other political party was discussed in this Dalit dominated village, he added.
In nearby Banihar village, BSP district unit office-bearer Harilal Dinkar is busy preparing the chart of the cadre camps. “We are organising camps in Dalit-dominated village to counter the strategy of rival parties and to consolidate the hold of the Dalits,” he said.
“In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP succeeded in winning the support of Dalits but we are determined to stop their chariot in the assembly election. We have told the Dalit community members that the aim of BJP leaders is to grab their vote. They are not concerned about the welfare of the community,” Dinkar said.
But post Una incident, the BJP is fighting a perception battle. Many cases of cow vigilantes indulging in violence against scheduled castes in UP and Gujarat have sent out the message that the saffron party is anti-Dalit.
Political observer RK Mishra said, “The 21% Dalit vote in UP will be a game-changer in the 2017 assembly election. If the BSP continues to maintain its sway over the Dalits and gets the support of Muslims as well as Backward Castes then it will emerge as the single largest party.
If the BJP succeed in breaching Dalit fort, it will not only stop Mayawati’s march but improve their tally as well,” he said.
The BSP was placid until around a month ago. But the Una incident and senior BSP member Dayashankar Singh abusing party chief Mayawati led to thousands of party workers protest on the streets.Mayawati has been trying to mobilise Dalits over flogging of SC youths in Una, Gujarat. She not only raised the issue in Rajya Sabha but also visited Ahmedabad to express solidarity with the victims. The massive turnout at the BSP rally in Agra earlier this month has generated hope among party leaders that Dalits will stand solidly behind them.
The BSP will find the going tough in western UP where significant number of Dalits has apparently gone to the BJP’s fold during 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
The bus ‘yatra’ – ‘27 saal UP behal’ – launched by AICC president also focused on Dalit-dominated villages. Congress leaders said that Dalit, Muslims and Brahmins were traditional vote bank of the party and they were working hard to regain it.
Can Dalit vote sway one way?
Punjab presents a paradox when it comes to caste politics. The state’s polity has been dominated by Jat Sikhs even though 32 percent of its population comprise dalits, the highest among all states. But the affluent Jat Sikh community -- mainly farmers with large landholdings -- has ensured its main political parties succumb to the compulsion of having a Jat Sikh as its CM face relegating dalits, who are either landless or have small landholdings, to the fringes much like they stay in outskirts of villages called “veras”.
Yet they do not form an exclusive vote bank for any political party as they are divided among all religions, including the majority community of Sikhs that comprises nearly 57 percent of its population, the Hindus which make 38 percent of its population in addition to Muslims and Christians. Among Dalits too, there are as many as 39 sub-castes in Punjab such as Adharmi, Valmiki, Ravidassia and Mazhabi Sikhs, most of the latter regard themselves as Sikhs.
But together they affect the poll outcome of nearly 30 percent of state’s 117 constituencies falling in the reserved category. The number of seats reserved for the scheduled castes (SCs) in Punjab has gone up from 29 in the delimitation order of 1976 to 34 after the delimitation order of 2008. Reasons why no political party of Punjab can afford to ignore the Dalit vote bank.
But unlike other poll-bound states of UP and Gujarat, the Dalit upsurge against atrocities and discrimination may not resonate in Punjab, says Professor Ronki Ram, political scientist at Panjab University. “Though Dalits in Punjab have been seeking their own distinct social identity through deras and own gurdwaras, it has not translated into a separate vote identity. The 32 percent Dalit vote is split across main political parties and different sub-castes within Dalits have their own political affiliations. So the vote scatters between parties they owe allegiance to and there are popular Dalit leaders across all parties,” Ram says.
Dr Pramod Kumar, head, Institute of Development Communication (IDC) in Chandigarh cites the example of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to explain why the Dalit vote cannot sway one way in Punjab. “The BSP’s vote share has fallen from 16 percent to four percent in Punjab in the last two decades. The party could not make inroads into Punjab as its electoral politics is not based on caste dynamics. Culturally, the Dalits want to follow Jat Sikhs and wear white kurta-pajamas like them. Though socially, they want to have a distinct identity which is manifested in separate cremation grounds, deras and gurdawaras, it is mainly as a reaction to the dominance of Sikh institutions such as the SGPC which have excluded Dalits from their centres of faith. The dalit upsurge in UP and Gujarat may not affect Punjab nor can it sway the Dalit vote towards one particular party. Though Dalits in Punjab may have experienced socio-economic neglect, but they are not hounded like prey,” he says.
Emerging Dalit leadership
But almost all mainstream political parties of Punjab are trying to woo the Dalit votebank which is split among various sub-castes and its their deras by conceding high positions in party organisations to influential caste satraps. Even the “upper caste-centric” BJP to now have a dalit state president in Vijay Sampla while the Congress has a dalit face in leader of opposition Charanjit Singh Channi. Even the Jat dominated Shiromani Akali Dal gave substantial representation to the Dalits as ministers and by having a dalit speaker, Charanjit Atwal.
As its makes an ambitious foray into Punjab politics, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too is not behind in “woo dalits” policy. Its national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has joined the list of politicians wooing sects or deras in Punjab. Kejriwal paid a much-hyped visit to Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar -- the Doaba heartland of dalits. Known as the Mecca of Ravidassia sect of Dalits. Kejriwal knew the poll math as over one-third Dalits belong to this sect which translates to 12% of state’s population.
After militancy came to an end in the state in the late nineties, it is not Sikh-Hindu tensions but bloody flare-ups between Sikhs and followers of influential deras dominated by dalits seeking a cultural assertion such as Dera Sachkhand Ballan and Dera Sacha Sauda, which have gained the political muscle to affect poll fortunes of political parties as vote banks.
Though cow vigilante groups have also been overactive in Punjab and the state Police has recently arrested self-styled Gau Raksha Dal chief Satish Kumar, cow vigilantism has not acquired “dalit atrocity” colour in Punjab. It has brought Hindu organisations, those which have lost relevance after terrorism ended in the state such as All India Hindu Suraksha Samiti and various factions of the Shiv Sena and turned into cow vigilantes -- into direct conflict with state’s progressive dairy farmers, mostly Jat Sikhs, who claim their flourishing cow breeding business has been wiped out.