The shameful assault by cow-protection vigilantes on Dalit men in Una on July 11 has once again exposed the deep fissures in Gujarat’s majoritarian Hindu politics.

Apart from religious minorities, those lower down the state’s caste hierarchies have long been subjected to discrimination and socio-economic marginalisation. Even during anti-colonial struggles, these local communities were excluded. Take the Kheda and Bardoli satyagrahas led by Congress stalwarts such as MK Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel almost a century ago. They contested the unjust revenue increases faced by Patidar, Desai, and other upper and middle caste farming communities but left out the substantive interests of landless agricultural labourers, particularly so-called criminal tribe of Dharalas and the backward caste Baraiyas and Patanvadiyas.

After Independence, the Congress projected itself as an all-encompassing cross-caste party. However, it continued to be dominated by Hindu upper castes, with every chief minister being either Brahmin or Patel. The exceptions to this upper caste stranglehold over power came in the 1980s, with the KHAM experiment of building a coalition of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims.

The KHAM years saw the rise of backward caste and Adivasi leaders to the top, with Madhavsinh Solanki and Amarsinh Chaudhary becoming chief minister. Power, in this case was not merely symbolic. The Solanki administration in particular revived the debate on reservations in education and public sector jobs for lower and backward castes. Importantly, it attempted to resurrect policies of land redistribution that would have overwhelmingly benefited landless lower and backward castes. In what is by now a familiar story, both initiatives were thwarted by what scholars Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss would term elite revolts.

Elite politics

The resurgence of elite politics has shaped Gujarat from the 1990s. Across parties, politics is once again dominated by upper caste leaders and proximate agendas. In the economy, for instance, this is reflected in the absolute focus on industrialisation, high-end cash crop production, and the building of a certain type of infrastructure, be it Special Economic Zones and Special Industrial Regions, or Technology Parks, Financial Cities and Smart Cities.

These modes of economic growth do not even bother pandering to trickle-down economics or inclusive development.

The BJP is the flag-bearer of this new Gujarat model. Its leaders may studiously seek to keep the focus on development, but we cannot overlook the social churning out of which this model has emerged. Religious polarisation and violence is central to this mix, and has been much commented on. However, as recent events remind us, the politics and oppression of caste is as important to Gujarat’s identity.

Ironically, an ostensibly backward caste politician has led Gujarat through much of this period (2001-2014). However Narendra Modi, while belonging to the Other Backward Classes, has determinedly steered clear of his caste identity in an attempt to emerge as the leader of all Hindus – the Hindu hriday samrat. As chief minister, Modi may have steered clear of caste, but caste has definitely not steered clear of him. In the many intra-party struggles during his reign in Gujarat, a common refrain among those challenging his leadership has been “ame aa joyto nathi", we don’t want this man – with a derogatory reference to his caste identity.

The ruling party of Gujarat has been regularly drawn into accusations of casteism in its ranks. For instance, in May 1995, newspapers reported that a Bharatiya Janata Party minister had encouraged his constituents to “teach Dalits a lesson” after an argument over prices in Kadi market. This resulted in upper castes torching the shops of 16 Dalits, and raiding and stoning Rohit Vas, the Dalit housing locality.

Everyday exclusion

In such a milieu, Dalits face taunts of being sarkaar na jamaai, the sons-in-law of the government, if they dare to seek out government welfare benefits. Of course, the government is anything but theirs. This is underlined by upper caste village and district officials referring to recent dispensations as amaari sarkar (our government), as opposed to tamaari sarkar (your, or the lower castes’ government), in recent interviews.

Everyday exclusion is embodied and routinely played out in the theatres of the state. This author has witnessed rural development officials preventing lower and backward castes from signing onto government schemes. The officials’ refrain was that these communities are incapable of adhering to the conditions of the scheme, as is obvious even in their comportment or chaal.

In this deeply fragmented society, erstwhile chief minister Modi’s pet Samras Gram scheme, which rewards villages that choose local leaders through consensus rather than a democratic contest, is a device for papering over divisions and reproducing privilege. The same can be said for the BJP’s pan-caste Hindutva coalition which has delivered votes for over two decades, amply aided by the weakness of the Opposition.

In the searing words of a BJP leader, a Dalit (interviewed by the author in Ahmedabad):

… to show high number of Hindus, they [the BJP] will embrace Dalits, but [they] don’t believe… [they have] no sympathy for Dalits…. I say, do something for Dalits, make them feel they are part of you… but neither politicians, nor administrators, are committed…. 

This enduring lack of commitment to anything other than an upper caste, Hindu mode of politics has nurtured the vigilantes who will kill and maim in the name of the holy cow in Gujarat and beyond.

Nikita Sud is Associate Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford