While Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel was the first casualty of their anger, the next year’s polls in Uttar Pradesh will prove the final clincher
By Kalyani Shankar
In politics, fortunes change in a minute. This was evident in poll-bound UP and Gujarat last week. The BJP has been making all-out efforts to come back to power in UP after 12 years and retain Gujarat. The BSP, which has been languishing after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, got a boost by a single utterance of BJP state vice-president Dayashankar Singh recently. He hurt Dalit pride by calling BSP leader Mayawati something akin to a prostitute. This and Dalit atrocities elsewhere have revived and spurred Dalit assertion everywhere. Added to that are vigilante groups like cow protection committees which are allegedly committing atrocities on Dalits in Gujarat. The first victim of the Dalit uprising in Gujarat was Anandiben Patel who has quit.
It is clear that Dalit politics will pick up in the coming months in view of the ensuing elections in big states like UP and Punjab where Dalits and Muslims hold the key. There will also be a corresponding Dalit uprising despite almost all parties taking up the Dalit cause by paying lip service to them. Unfortunately, even after 69 years of Independence, Dalits continue to bear the brunt of violence and humiliation.
ATROCITIES ON DALITS
As per data from the National Crime Detection Bureau, 49,064 cases were reported against Dalits in 2014 as compared to 39,409 the previous year, an increase of 19 percent. So why have violent incidents against Dalits increased rather than decreased over the years in spite of constitutional protection and legal safeguards? An assertion of Dalit rights, whether in terms of identity politics (in UP) or class politics (Bihar and Andhra Pradesh), leads to such a backlash. The new Dalit demands equality and equal opportunity. Education and exposure make them want a share of the power.
“I am referred to as behenji (sister) all over the country… I preferred not to marry and remain a single woman because I wanted to serve the country and its underprivileged people”—Mayawati in the Rajya Sabha
Mayawati was smart enough to seize the Dayashankar moment and raised the issue inside and outside parliament. Her only difficulty will be to sustain this “Dalit pride” issue until the UP polls, scheduled for early next year. BSP strategists have already begun rolling out a plan wherein the party would revive Dalit honor under the garb of this issue. After all, UP leads in crimes against Dalits (8,075 in 2014), followed by Rajasthan (8,028).
Neither Dayashankar nor the BJP expected such a backlash from his irresponsible statement. Mayawati, the tallest Dalit leader, claims: “People see me not just as Behen (sister) but as Devi (goddess).” She did not waste a single moment to attack the BJP, alleging that a “Dalit ke beti” has been insulted. “The country will not forgive the BJP for the statement. The BJP has the audacity to make such a comment even as Dalits are protesting in Gujarat over the atrocities… I am referred to as behenji (sister) all over the country… I preferred not to marry and remain a single woman because I wanted to serve the country and its underprivileged people,” a hurt but furious Mayawati told the Rajya Sabha in a passionate speech recently even as the opposition applauded her.
Mayawati’s new strategy is to unite the 22 percent block of Dalits and then woo the 14 percent Muslims, a section that feels victimized by the same politics as Dalits. She wants to subtly send a message to create doubts in the minds of Muslims about what she calls a nexus between the SP and the BJP.
She warned the BJP: “What that BJP leader (Dayashankar Singh) has said, he said it not to me but to his sister and his daughter because people treat me like their daughter and sister… people will come on the streets.” And so they did in Lucknow and other cities in UP as well as other states. She successfully played on the fears of Dalits that upper caste people (read BJP) were trying to suppress them.
The BJP, which has been wooing Dalits assiduously for some years, was taken unawares when the tornado hit it. Expelling Dayashankar Singh did not work as the damage had already been done. Mayawati had completely outmanoeuvred the BJP, and established her supremacy. She got a boost when Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, the chief ministers of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, respectively, condemned Singh.
Mayawati has taken a lead in the current Dalit assertion, while in Gujarat and elsewhere, there is no leadership at the local level. Other Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Uditraj have made muted statements.
This is a change from the 2014 general polls when Mayawati’s support base gravitated towards the BJP. In 2007 when the BSP got an absolute majority in UP, the party’s vote share stood at 30 percent—the highest since it was formed in 1984. It came down to 27 percent in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, further reduced to 25 percent in the 2012 assembly elections and was about 19 percent in the 2014 general elections. No wonder the BSP supremo is trying to re-build a new coalition between the Dalits and the Muslims in the state. The BSP has always projected itself as a secular party and Muslims did vote for her earlier.
MUSLIMS & DALITS
Mayawati’s new strategy is to unite the 22 percent block of Dalits and then woo the 14 percent Muslims, a section that feels victimized by the same politics as Dalits. Instead of directly asking them to switch loyalties, Maya wants to subtly send a message to create doubts in the minds of Muslims about what she calls a nexus between the SP and the BJP. It is to be seen whether this strategy will work in UP.
Also, although she has been working for the 2017 assembly polls since 2014, she had been weakened after senior BSP leaders such as former general secretary Swami Prasad Maurya and one of the founding members, RK Chaudhary, deserted her recently. More were on the point of leaving. This trend might be reversed if the Dalits and Muslims see her as a winning leader.
The present Dalit assertion began as early as last year after the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad when ABVP, BJP’s student wing, was blamed for it. The government was on a back foot as the issue became political with Left parties and the Congress jumping in. Mayawati accused the Modi government of being anti-Dalit in Parliament and outside. What annoyed the Dalits was the fact that the government tried to play down the incident and Rohit’s Dalit identity.
Post-Vemula, BJP chief Amit Shah met other RSS senior leaders and gave a final shape to woo the Dalits as part of their damage-control exercise. For some years, the RSS has been working on Dalits at both the social and the political levels as part of its Hindu consolidation project. While the BSP followed the bottom-up formula, the BJP-RSS followed a top-down policy. They planned a concerted outreach program.
It was at this point that the Dayashankar incident took place. Even before that, a storm was building up when Dadar’s famous Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai was demolished overnight on June 24, 2016, sparking outrage. This was followed by the political storm in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi where some vigilante groups thrashed seven Dalit youths in Una. This resulted in various political party leaders including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi making a political pilgrimage to Una. Dalit assertion in Gujarat has now become more violent even without a strong leader. The protests have spread across the state and Muslims have joined hands with them in spreading the agitation. The immediate fallout was the exit of Anandiben.
These ugly incidents have come as a jolt to Modi’s personal efforts of wooing Dalits. Modi resorted to this for two reasons. In the 2014 polls, one in four Dalits voted for the party and one in three voted for the NDA. Almost 15 percent of the BJP’s Lok Sabha strength consists of a block of Dalit MPs elected from reserved seats. This gain for the BJP came at the expense of the Congress and the BSP. This was also attributed to pre-2014 poll alliances with Dalit leaders like Paswan in Bihar, Athawale in Maharashtra and the induction of Uditraj in Delhi. Athawale was rewarded with a ministerial berth last month. Secondly, the BJP thought that Mayawati’s popularity was declining and wanted to move in. Before the Dayashankar incident, reports from UP had predicted an upswing for the BJP.
Modi too has taken on the mantle of being an Ambedkar bakth. In this connection, he organized a Samvidah Yatra on Amebdkar’s 125th birth anniversary in April 2015 and laid the foundation stone for an Ambedkar memorial at Indu mill in Mukbau. A two-day parliament session was organized in November to remember Ambedkar. The Maharashtra government bought the house in which Ambedkar stayed in London while studying and the central government announced that it would develop five places connected with Ambedkar as “Panchteerth (Five holy places.)” In February this year, Modi offered prayers at the Ravidas Temple in Shir Govardhan in Varanasi on Ravidas Jayanti and also joined in a community feast. In May, Amit Shah took a customary holy dip in Shipra River in Ujjain along with religious leaders of Dalit communities at Simhasth Kumbh. Above all, Modi recently inducted five Dalit leaders among the 19 new ministers. And though the BJP has been able to stake claims to the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, in the case of Dalits, despite all the above programs, there is a backlash due to the atrocities committed on them.
Dalits as a vote-bank are attractive to all political parties. There was a time when the Congress attracted Dalits and Muslims into its fold. But it’s been a long time since both moved away. Upward mobility by gaining acceptance looks far more tangible rather than the abstract and rather utopian idea of annihilating caste. Dalits have mostly converted to Christianity and some have moved to Islam. They think that accruing political power can be a successful option. This was how Mayawati came to power. She is right when she says: “We should treat the problems of Dalits above politics. Instead of making Dalits a weapon of politics, we should work on resolving their issues.”
Unfortunately on the ground, it is the Dalit vote-bank which matters. The obvious ways to ensure that the lot of Dalits is improved is through education, rise in economic status and transforming their often pathetic conditions.
Otherwise, the Dalit uprising will only become stronger.
Lead Picture: BSP activists protesting against the derogatory remarks made by BJP leader Dayashankar Singh. Photo: UNI