Much has been said about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s penchant for silence in the face of grave provocation by Indians against Indians over these past two years.
Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri in September 2015 over rumours that he had eaten beef and the flogging in July 2016 of four tanners in Una, Gujarat, for skinning the carcass of a cow – leading to widespread protests across the state – have bookended the manner in which cow vigilantism has taken front and centre-stage. Despite this, the prime minister has stubbornly kept quiet.
When Akhlaq was killed, the BJP’s supporters clicked their tongues in concern but refused to say much – after all, the party had won 71 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 despite the state’s 18.5% Muslim population.
Then, when Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide in the University of Hyderabad in January 2016, the BJP leadership looked warily as Smriti Irani, who was then the Human Resources Minister, wagged her finger in the face of Dalit leader Mayawati during a Parliamentary debate – but took action only much later.
Only when Gujarat’s Dalits brought the fight to Ahmedabad – where a massive rally was held on Sunday – did the prime minister finally see the writing on the wall. Hardik Patel’s Patidar movement last year, demanding Other Backward Classes status for the community, had already started the fire in Modi’s home state. Now, with elections scheduled in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat next year – all of which have significant Dalit populations – Modi realised he could not afford to take the Dalit vote base for granted.
Certainly, the sacking of Anandiben Patel as Gujarat chief minister earlier this week is a start. But the BJP’s 40 Dalit Members of Parliament, who are part of the 160-strong Forum for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes MPs want more. These Dalit politicians are now afraid that if the BJP doesn’t give them adequate status or representation within the party, they may be in danger of being ostracised by their own community.
“There is a new politicisation of Dalit-ness taking place, cutting across Dalit castes across the country,” said Surinder Jodhka, professor of Dalit Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This younger generation of Dalits, like Rohith Vemula or the young man who committed suicide protesting the Una incident, has grown up in the post-liberalisation period and do not subscribe to the politics of patronage. Something very different is going on and India should wake up and listen to these young men and women,”
Jodhka said he wasn’t surprised that Dalit politicians, especially in the BJP, were fearing for their positions as representatives of their community.
“When something new is taking place, when Dalits reject the politics of quotas that the Dalit elite has employed these last many decades, then these Dalit leaders will undoubtedly be scared of being marginalised by their own people,” Jodhka said.
It is this churning within the Dalit community that is having a big impact not only on politics in general, but on Dalit politics in particular. Dalit leaders like Udit Raj, who joined the BJP when the pro-Modi wave was gathering steam in the country on the eve of the 2014 elections and was elected on a party ticket from Delhi’s North-West constituency, are now concerned that the party is not protecting Dalits from its gau rakshaks, or self-styled cow protectors.
“The atrocities in Gujarat and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh (where a Dalit couple was murdered for failure to repay a Rs 15 debt) and Telangana (from where a BJP legislator spoke up in favour of the flogging of youth in Una) will definitely have an impact on the coming Assembly elections,” Raj said on Sunday.
“If the upper caste people feel Dalits are citizens of this country, then they should stand up (against the attacks),” Raj, who is the chairman of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organisations, had said after a conference of the body in Delhi. “If they don't feel so, then what moral right do they have to give slogans of nationalism?"
"These so-called protectors of the Hindu religion, the ‘gau rakshaks’ must answer if they consider lives of Dalits to be of less value than animals," he further said.
Off the record, Dalit BJP leaders point out that they are also concerned by certain decisions taken by the party. For example the Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan, which allocates funds for Dalit empowerment as part of the annual planned expenditure, had been slashed from Rs 50,000 crore to Rs 30,000 crore. Meanwhile, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, had not been implemented with the required vigour after it was passed last year.
In fact, the dilemma of Dalit BJP MPs who have not come from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stream – unlike Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot – is growing rapidly. The RSS and BJP only give importance to those who have risen from within the ranks of the Sangh. For instance, barring Gehlot, all Dalit members in Modi's cabinet are junior ministers. As leaders from non-RSS backgrounds are passed over in favour of so-called RSS Dalits, they fear they will soon become the butt of derision within their community.
As the Dalit agitation gathers steam and throws up activists from the ground, they may well replace the more moderate leaders who had recently joined the BJP.
This fear of the double jeopardy is wracking several Dalit BJP leaders – afraid to speak out against the BJP, for fear of losing their recent standing in the party, and now afraid of becoming marginalised by their community.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has staked his claim to the political credit accruing from the ouster of Anandiben Patel, has already asked Raj why he won’t leave a party that doesn’t really care for him.
The question now is: in what direction will the Dalit agitation snowball in the coming weeks? Dalit activists at the Ahmedabad rally last week insisted that their agitation was taking place “within the framework of the Constitution”, a reference to the path-breaking work carried out by Dalit leader BR Ambedkar.
But they also pointed out that if cases filed against Dalits during protests in Gujarat were not taken back, then the community would come out on the streets in even larger numbers.
Jodhka points out that the greater contradiction – between the BJP’s determined adoption of Ambedkar and the Dalit icon’s writings against the caste superstructure – will not be resolved so soon. Adding to this tension is the growing awareness among younger Dalits who will not stop asking questions, he said.
“We see this in JNU everyday, as Dalit students keep challenging accepted theologies,” he said. “They worship Ambedkar. They simply won’t take no for an answer.”
Jhodka spoke of the spate of suicide attempts by Dalits to protest the Una incident last month. “What is even more frightening is that some of these students, as we saw with Rohith Vemula and in Gujarat, consider suicide a form of protest,” he said. “Their personalised anger and anguish is being expressed very differently. And yes, the Dalit elite political class better watch out.”