Dalit groups have called for a country-wide strike on August 9 to press for a charter of 20 demands with a focus on alleged caste bias in the higher judiciary.

This comes in the backdrop of a Bharat Bandh on April 2 that saw Dalits come out in large numbers to protest what they termed a weakening of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court. On March 20, the apex court had barred the arrest of public servants under the Act before a preliminary inquiry is conducted – a move it said was aimed at curbing misuse of the law. During the bandh, at least 11 people were killed and hundreds jailed across several states.

The 20 demands that have now been raised include ending the preventive detention of Chandrashekhar, chief of the Dalit rights organisation Bhim Army, the release of anyone arrested in connection with the April 2 protests, land distribution for Dalits and Adivasis, reservations in private sector jobs, release of caste census data, a law on mob lynchings, reservations in the higher judiciary, and measures to undo the alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, among others.

Caste in the higher judiciary

While the April 2 strike was on the specific matter of the Supreme Court judgement, the principal organiser of the proposed bandh on August 9, Ashok Bharti of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, said the protests this time would focus on the larger role of the judiciary and how it deals with matters of caste. “Poor, disadvantaged groups are not making it to the judiciary,” Bharti said. “The institution is dominated by a few families and nepotism is widespread. This is why we demand the establishment of an Indian Judicial Service under Article 312 of the Indian Constitution and the implementation of caste-based reservation in the judiciary.”

Bharti added, “The courts have a caste bias. This is clear not only from the [March 20] SC/ST ruling but also previous judgements. Right now the judiciary is an upper caste and upper class oligarchy. We want this oligarchy to end.”

An image circulated on social media to mobilise Dalits for the August 9 bandh. The text reads "Be ready for the second time", referring to the April 2 strike.

BJP allies support demands

Since the April 2 bandh, Dalit anger against the March 20 Supreme Court judgement has been compounded by the government’s appointment of AK Goel as chairman of the National Green Tribunal on July 6. Goel was part of the Supreme Court bench that delivered the judgement restricting the scope of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. “We want to ask the government, why have you rewarded him? For giving a judgement against the SC/ST Act?” asked Bharti. “This shows that the judiciary is hand in glove with the government.”

This contention has received support even from partners in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. The Lok Janshakti Party, whose president Ram Vilas Paswan is Union minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, has made its displeasure with Goel’s appointment public several times in the past week. Paswan has written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh while his son and Lok Sabha MP Chirag Paswan has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking Goel’s removal.

On Sunday, the demand to remove Goel was supported by another Union minister, Ramdas Athawale, from the Republican Party of India (Athawale). Both his party and Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party have support bases largely comprising Dalits.

Udit Raj, a Dalit BJP MP with a long background in Ambedkarite politics, has also spoken against Goel’s appointment in the Lok Sabha on July 24.

Doubts on success of bandh

In spite of this political support, observers do not see the same scale of mobilisation in the lead up to August 9 as had happened for the April 2 bandh. “April 2 was an open source movement; it was not held under any political banner,” said Satish Prakash, a professor at Meerut University and a Dalit intellectual. “This cannot be replicated with an agitation under one organisation.”

On April 2, Hindaun city in Rajasthan had seen successful Dalit mobilisation along with an upper caste backlash in which the homes of prominent Dalit politicians were attacked. This time, however, there is caution. “There is no such preparation in Hindaun yet,” said Manoj Jatav, a municipal ward member and Dalit leader. “No one is talking about it and people are still wary of the mass arrests the last time around. Cases against many Dalits are still pending. It seems unlikely that there will be a repeat of April 2 [on August 9].”