‘Are Dalits really oppressed?’: Five predictable responses to the Bhima Koregaon bandh

From ‘why do they have to disrupt the city?’ to ‘the problem is caste politics, not the caste system’.

Wednesday’s Maharashtra-wide bandh, called in response to the violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon, came as a surprise to many in the scale of the mobilisation. There were very few reports of violence, but the demonstrations were otherwise widespread, bringing much of Mumbai to a halt and being felt in many other districts across Maharashtra. By evening, once the point had been made, the bandh was called off by Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar.

While the protests offered a rare opportunity for Dalit activists to mobilise and make their voices heard, some of the conversation – in the news media and online – was nevertheless dominated by voices that are much more familiar and predictably blind to the caste dynamic that comes with a protest like this.

Here are a few of those reactions:

1. All this traffic and disruption

At this point it has become a cliche about protests in Mumbai that the coverage and conversation around them will focus on the impact of the demonstrations – on traffic. Indeed, well-off Mumbaikars have found a way to entirely dissociate the protests from their political content and instead simply complain about the disruption to city life that comes with a bandh.

This particular strain of thought tries mostly to avoid a straight-up political comment, retreating instead behind the argument that any disruption to city life is bad, no matter what the reason. Unless, of course, it is a cause that resonates with the middle class, such as say protests against rape.

2. Why do they have to be so political/disruptive?

This is, in some ways, the more self-aware version of the previous response. Here the person complaining usually claims to sympathise with those who are protesting, but wishes they did not end up paralysing the entire city while attempting to do so. This argument again makes the error of ignoring entirely the specific context of the protests – centuries-old oppression of Dalits that makes it hard for voices to be heard – and instead expresses equal concern for the “common man” who was unable to go to work that day. That common man, in this case, usually does not include oppressed Dalits, just the nameless faceless workers of the city.

3. How are they any different from the Shiv Sena?

A third variant of this attitude that again seeks to detach any actual context from the protests. In this case, the people complaining may or may not sympathise with the cause, but they seek to draw an equivalence with other groups that have also taken to the streets to protest in the past. In Mumbai, this is usually a reference to parochial Maharashtrian groups, like the Shiv Sena, which have often used violent agitations with impunity in order to achieve their aims. Again, context is key here: The Shiv Sena represents a majoritarian, often xenophobic impulse, and one that gets ample avenues to be heard. Dalits are often on the receiving end of this ideology, and rarely are heard by the authorities, unless they manage a show of force – and even that can often lead to nothing.

4. Are Dalits really oppressed? (aka does caste still exist?)

By this point, we are out of the territory of those who at least claim sympathy for those protesting. Instead, this strain of thought, familiar in middle-class circles, seeks to delegitimise the very nature of Dalit politics by asking whether they are indeed oppressed at all. This goes beyond the caste-blindness that is depressingly common in well-off circles, insisting that historical injustice has not only been corrected, it has led to oppression of the once dominant.

There is a subtler variant of this that acknowledges some caste division, but blames it on the British and not the caste system itself.

5. Caste politics is divisive

You can usually trust TimesNow and Republic TV to parrot the thoughts of the Bharatiya Janata Party, not least because of the latter’s direct connections to the ruling dispensation. In this case, the line both are taking is instructive: TimesNow’s hashtag for the day is #IndiaAgainstHate and Republic went with #EndCastePolitics. Both are making efforts to argue that it is leaders like Jignesh Mewani, who have spoken up about Dalit oppression that are responsible for division in society.

Republic even went further, publishing an appeal for politicians to end caste politics and asking whether anyone who directly or indirectly refers to it should be jailed.

In case the deeply disturbing nature of this line of argument is unclear to you, let me spell it out: These channels are arguing that it is those who talk about caste oppression, and not the caste system itself, that are responsible for dividing society. In their estimation, anyone speaking up about the plight of backward castes in modern India, where discrimination is still all-too-familiar, should be jailed.

And of course, this echoes the broader Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh argument that anyone who speaks up about caste oppression – and therefore dismantles the broad Hindu votebank it is seeking to build – is attempting to break and Balkanise India.

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