Given the success of a nationwide strike by Dalit groups on April 2 against the Supreme Court’s changes to a law against caste atrocities, and the violence that ensued then, authorities in three North Indian states that had seen the worst of the violence had taken precautions for another Bharat Bandh, this one planned for Thursday. On Wednesday, though, the Dalit group that had put out the word for the strike said that it had been postponed. Conversations with various organisations connected to the Dalit cause, however, reveal a degree of ambivalence and even suspicion about the strike call and the announcement calling it off.

The strike was called by the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, a Dalit umbrella group spearheaded by activist Ashok Bharti. It had pressed for a charter of 20 demands, including action by the Centre during the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament against the alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. On March 20, the Supreme Court had barred the arrest of public servants under the Act until a preliminary inquiry is conducted – a move it said was aimed at curbing misuse of the law. One of the judges behind that verdict, Justice AK Goel, was appointed chairman of the National Green Tribunal by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government on July 6, fanning the anger of the Dalit community even more.

The All India Ambedkar Mahasabha had also demanded the release of Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army, who has been jailed under the National Security Act, and of Dalit youth arrested after the April 2 violence that left 11 protestors dead. Finally, it had brought up the alleged caste bias in the higher judiciary.

On Monday, the Lok Sabha passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2018, restoring the original provisions of the legislation. This was in line with the government’s assurance to Dalit groups after the April 2 strike.

However, until Tuesday afternoon, Bharti maintained the strike on Thursday was on as the government was yet to meet most of the other demands. “The strike shall happen and we are most likely to gather at Jantar Mantar [in Delhi],” Bharti told on Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, the strike was called off. What changed?

In Bharti’s words, nothing changed as such. He said the agitation would continue until all demands to restore the dignity of Dalits and Adivasis, their rights as enshrined in the Constitution and the laws passed by Parliament and the Assemblies are implemented in letter and spirit.

He said the major demand regarding the Act had been fulfilled and the organisation was willing to give the government some time to consider the remaining demands. “We do not believe in unnecessary confrontation and want our demands to be met,” he added. “Therefore, we have decided to postpone the Bharat Bandh [scheduled on August 9].”

Calling off the strike planned on Thursday, the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha's Ashok Bharti said the organisation was willing to give the government time to consider its demands.

Ambivalence, lack of awareness

However, Dalit groups, activists and political parties in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – where the 11 deaths took place on April 2 – suggested there was more to the entire episode than Bharti’s explanation. Conversations with them pointed to a lack of leadership, differences of opinion, insufficient awareness and ambivalence about the planned strike.

“The August 9 protest would have happened if Parliament had not cleared the amendment bill and it would have potentially turned into an April 2-like violent situation,” said Laxman Badera, a Dalit activist in Barmer, Rajasthan.

Badera supported Bharti’s decision to call off the strike but had a slightly different take on Bharti’s assertion – till Tuesday afternoon – that the protest would go on as planned despite the Lok Sabha clearing the amendment bill. “The bill was the primary demand. All other demands are secondary and can be addressed with time,” Badera said. “It did not make sense to assert that the protest would continue once the bill was passed [in Lok Sabha].”

The bill is yet to get clearance in the Rajya Sabha though.

On the subject of Goel’s appointment, Badera said, “Now that Paswan ji [Ram Vilas Paswan] has assured us that the Centre will also take up the matter concerning removal of AK Goel from NGT, the strike makes no sense.”

Union minister Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, has sided with Dalit groups in their demand for Goel’s removal.

In Rajasthan’s Hindaun town – where angry mobs had set fire to the homes of two Dalit politicians, one from the BJP and the other from the Congress, on April 3 – Dalit leader Maan Singh Jatav said, “We had heard about the strike [on August 9] called by some Dalit groups but did not exactly know what it was about, so nobody took it seriously.” Jatav is a relative of former Congress MLA Bharosi Lal Jatav whose house was burnt down.

Former Hindaun MLA Bharosi Lal Jatav's gutted house after the mob attack on April 2.

‘RSS conspiracy to gain Dalit votes’

In Uttar Pradesh, leaders of the Bhim Army, a Dalit organisation that has emerged as a powerful grassroots group in the last two years, and Dalit activists spoke with alleged the strike call was a hoax and a conspiracy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent.

“Firstly, it was clear the call for the strike was a hoax and it wouldn’t have happened in any case,” said Vijay Jatav, a leader of the Bhim Army. “Even if something had happened, no Bhim Army member would have participated in it. This strike call was nothing but an RSS conspiracy to gain Dalit votes.”

Mamata (no last name), a Dalit activist in Saharanpur, expressed a similar view.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which counts Dalits as its core support base, was on the same page as the Bhim Army – an organisation it has often attacked on ideological grounds, even accusing it of having links with the Sangh and BJP – about the proposed strike.

“We did not join the April 2 protest because it was [in response to] a Supreme Court decision and we would not have joined the August 9 protest because the BJP is playing its own vote bank politics by playing with the amendment to the SC/ST [Prevention of Atrocities] Act,” said Rakesh Jatav, the party’s coordinator in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district. “The order had come from the top and BSP members across the country were asked to stay away from the strike on August 9 if it had happened.”

Leadership question

In Gwalior district of Madhya Pradesh, Dalit activists and the district administration alike grappled with the question of the leadership behind the strike call.

“News about the August 9 strike spread through social media but the question was, who was going to implement it,” said Dalit leader Ramavtar, who does not use a last name. “On Monday, the district collector held a meeting with representatives of all political parties and social workers. We were asked what we knew and what we had planned for the August 9 protest. We told the administration that no strike will happen in Gwalior.”

He added, “However, we did not take responsibility for the unknown individuals who had emerged as Dalit leaders from several localities during the April 2 protest.”

In the weeks following the strike and violence in April, the Gwalior Police had identified and arrested six such leaders. A senior police official said they were still in jail.

In preparation for the strike on Thursday, the district administration in Gwalior had issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prohibits the assembly of more than four persons.

In neighbouring Bhind district, a government official said the district administration had made it clear that it was open to talks about the strike, but no Dalit leader had come forward. “The district administration had decided to impose prohibitory orders on August 9 but then news of the strike being called off flashed on the TV,” the official added.

Before the strike was called off, the district administration in Morena, too, was bracing for a particularly troublesome time with the local Congress unit having called for a Dalit rally on the same day. However, the police on Monday withdrew permission for the Congress rally, said Rakesh Mawai, the party’s district coordinator in Morena. “At least 10,000 persons would have attended the rally,” he added.