July 24, 2016

BJP's Dalit Conundrum: The Slipping Mask

R Arun Kumar

DALIT youth in Una, Gujarat were stripped, tied and publicly flogged for skinning a dead cow on July 11. The self-styled Hindu cow protection vigilantes had not only committed this heinous crime, but shot a video and posted it 'as a warning to others'. This had sparked outrage among the people of Gujarat and dalits in particular. Huge mobilisations are being witnessed, and at places dalit youth are threatening to commit suicide, unless action is taken against the perpetrators of the crime.

In the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai, a building built by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar out of his own money to provide space for ostracised dalits and from where he ran the Buddha Bhushan Printing Press was demolished on June 26. Thousands of dalits, led by various dalit organisations and political parties gathered in Mumbai protesting the action.

It is not coincidental that both these states are under the BJP rule. In spite of all its sweet talk, the fact is, BJP is not concerned about dalits. The way the BJP led central government pushed Rohith Vemula, a bright and upcoming research scholar of the University of Hyderabad (HCU as it is popularly known) to suicide, is still fresh in popular memory. The deep rooted bias and hatred against dalits harboured by the BJP came out in the open once again when a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh called Mayawati, the leader of BSP, as 'worse than a prostitute'. This statement, perfectly showcases the casteist, and sexist mindset of the BJP leaders.

Though all these three incidents appear to be separated by time and space, they are in reality bound by a common ideological thread – the upper caste bias of the Sangh Parivar and its inherent hatred towards the dalits. After all, the strings of control over all the BJP functionaries and the governments they run are in the hands of the RSS.

One should not forget that not very long ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the present cult-figure in the BJP, wrote the following about manual scavengers in Gujarat: “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation…At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business”. Of course it is not to be questioned why no other caste was 'so privileged' that it did not have such 'spiritual enlightenment' to perform this activity. One is only expected to hear 'mann ki baat', not question haat ka kaam. Period.

It is this mindset that pervades among all the leaders of the BJP and dictates their 'raja dharma'. The famous 'Gujarat model' of development that is now slowly losing its halo reflects this inherent caste bias against the dalits. For example, a survey conducted in 2011, found that more than 90 percent of dalit children have faced discrimination while getting treatment at government hospitals, clinics in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Another report points out how in Saurashtra, dalits face an acute water crisis as they are not allowed to draw water from the river Narmada. Justice K G Balakrishnan, after concluding a two-day visit to Gujarat as the head of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), stated that there is only 5 percent conviction rate in the atrocity cases registered by the dalits in the state (against an all India average of 20 percent, which in itself is atrociously low). All these things reveal that anger among the dalits in Gujarat was up to the seams, waiting to burst. The present flogging incident and the usual governmental lethargy in reacting to the incident and its failure to act upon the perpetrators of the crime, infuriated the dalits and made them come out in large numbers expressing their resentment and protest.

The statements of Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS head on reviewing the policy of reservations is another expression of upper caste prejudices of the Sangh Parivar and its aversion to dalits and other backward castes. It should not be forgotten that their ideologues, in their mission to re-write Indian history wanted to project that untouchability was a result of Muslim 'invasion'. Even the special issue of their official mouthpiece, Organiser brought out to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar states that untouchables were victims of Muslim invasion, deliberately remaining silent on their plight during the earlier periods. The game-plan is simple, divert the attention of people from understanding the real reasons for their oppression, pit Muslims and dalits against each other and break the unity of people in the name of their religious and caste identities. By bringing out a 'special issue' and through such similar other symbolic gestures, the RSS wants to lead the Sangh Parivar in their attempts to misinform dalits by camouflaging their real interests. As a part of this design, they are misrepresenting Ambedkar and attempting to appropriate him, by projecting him as a 'reformer of the Hindu society'.

Of course, the BJP is not alone in attempts to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar. Even the Congress, to take an example, is trying its best to regain its lost ground among the dalits. The neo-liberal policies pursued by it had wreaked the livelihood of dalits, who primarily constitute the most downtrodden sections in our society. It failed to ensure a course correction all these years, when it was heading the government at the centre. Even now, instead of doing something concrete for their benefit in the states where it is in power, it is trying to woo them by resorting to various symbolic acts. For example in Karnataka where it is in power, it is siding with the perpetrators of caste discrimination and untouchability instead of acting against them. Its apathy in responding to the various instances of atrocities committed on dalits, speaks volumes about its 'concern' for dalits. The attitude of Congress should not be surprising to any discerning observer, as both the BJP and the Congress are representatives of similar ruling classes – the bourgeoisie and the landlords – who see their interests in the continuation of caste based inequalities.

The fight against caste discrimination, untouchability and atrocities on dalits should be broad based involving all the democratic minded and progressive sections in the society. It is only through struggles that dalit issues can be made part of the political agenda, irrespective of elections. Though it is appreciable that dalit issues are finding a mention in the media these days, it should not be forgotten that media is one of the most unrepresentative institutions with a bare minimum presence of dalits in decision making positions. The class and caste bias, together with the nominal presence of dalits in media rooms is the reason why only a death or a major atrocity on dalits – an ‘eyeball grabbing story’ – forces it to take cognisance of the existence of dalits and forces them to report the dissenting and protesting voices in the society. This, in itself, can be considered an advance, as many a times earlier, the atrocities on dalits were virtually sought to be kept away from the gaze of people by the biased media. Without doubting the credentials of some good journalistic work, we should remember that even through such reporting, media tries to ensure that no real threat that challenges its class rule emanates. Instead of brazenly displaying its class bias, it now tends to subtly send the message by colouring its reportage. This does not mean that media today has lost its class character. After all, one cannot be oblivious to the fact that it is this very same media which sold the idea of ‘Gujarat model’ and carried the present prime minister on its shoulders with all the permissible hyperboles.

Building unity in struggles is hence a necessity to fight caste discrimination and atrocities on dalits, particularly in today's juncture, where it is already 125 years since the birth of Dr Ambedkar, who sacrificed his entire life fighting against untouchability and for the rights of dalits. The BJP tried its best to use this occasion for laying claim and usurping the legacy of Dr Ambedkar in order to service its political aspirations. The coming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where dalits constitute a substantial section of the population, determined their attempts. Unfortunately for them, their deep rooted affliction to the caste system and manu dharma could not hold the veils of deception for long. The mask had to come off ultimately and it is coming off rather fast to their discomfit. It is our task to expose the 'emperor and his new clothes'.