The wrath, or more accurately, the frustration, of India’s dalits is palpably rising. So far, apart from the incidents in Gujarat, where dalit crowds set fire to buses, protests — whether the march in Mumbai against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan or the turnout in Uttar Pradesh against the remarks by BJP leader Dayashankar Singh against Mayawati — have been peaceful. What will happen if this rage gets out hand? Analysts have been quick to note that the perception among dalits, that the BJP is endemically against the Scheduled Castes, could cost it heavily in the elections. The reverberations of this will not be limited to Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat, where elections are due next year, but also in Punjab, where dalits constitute almost one-third of the population. In Mumbai, where crucial municipal polls are due in January 2017, the BJP may as well say goodbye to the dalit vote.
It’s not as if the BJP is unaware of this. It has always been seen as a party that represents upper class interests and is inimical to dalits and even OBCs. Some attempts have been made over the years to change this image, but with mixed results. Bangaru Laxman was made BJP president in 2001 but soon fell to a sting when he was caught on camera accepting a bribe. In Maharashtra, Gopinath Munde was a successful leader of OBCs and may have one day made it to the top in the state but for his untimely death in an accident in 2014. It is widely known he was feeling stifled in the BJP and had thought about leaving it, but eventually stayed on. His daughter Pankaja is a minister in the Maharashtra government and is facing all kinds of allegations of misjudgment and misdemeanour; to her followers, it is one more sign of an upper caste conspiracy.
Still, dalits were not particularly inimical to the current government and to Narendra Modi. He could not have won handsomely in 2014 in UP and elsewhere without some dalit and OBC support. But that was then. After the suicide of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula in January and recent incidents, like the Gujarat lynching, the BJP can wave goodbye to dalit support. Mr Modi brought in five dalits into his Cabinet in an obvious move to appeal to voters, but his silence in the face of the atrocities has negated any impact that gesture may have had. But even though caste and communal polarisation is a given in Indian politics, it would be excessively cynical to link the brutalities on dalits with “upper caste consolidation”, as some pundits have tried to do. Elections have nothing to do with what happened in Gujarat or in Madhya Pradesh, where two women were beaten up on the suspicion of carrying beef. These sordid incidents diminish all of us as Indians and are an assault on all the values this country was built on.
Many supporters of the current government claim dalits have been beaten up and even killed in the past too. So why blame everything on this government? They may have a point — atrocities against dalits are a shameful fact of Indian society. But this shouldn’t let off any government, including this one. Nor can we ignore the fact that the current upsurge, not only against dalits but also Muslims, is because of the frenzy around “gau raksha”, which has grown exponentially in the last two years. Defenders and saviours of the cow were very much around in the past too — as far back as 1966, they went on a rampage in Delhi after Indira Gandhi turned down their demand to ban cow slaughter in India. Since then, the cow has been used to mobilise Hindus and after a lull, we are seeing it emerge in an aggressive and virulent form.
Among the first decisions of the new governments of Maharashtra and Haryana after being elected in 2014 was to ban cow slaughter and impose heavy fines and jail terms for anyone who tried to sell and consume beef. This has hurt not just butchers or beef-lovers but also farmers, who now cannot sell old cattle stock, as was the practice earlier. It was predicted at the time of the ban that soon cows will be seen wandering around in towns and cities, and that has come to pass. The vigilantes have been going after people on the merest suspicion of consuming it; on the borders of Maharashtra, gau rakshaks wait to pounce upon any truck carrying cattle. Some stories, such as the thrashing of four dalits, make it to the media, but how many more must be happening? The rest of the world may not hear about such incidents, but the dalits know and they are simmering. And they will give vent to their ire in the best way they can — by voting against the BJP.
The fear is that there will be more such instances in the coming months. The monster — in the shape of these vigilantes — is out of the bottle. Elections are furthest from their minds — they are driven by hatred for lower castes and minorities, even if it is cloaked in the love for the cow. How long will dalits remain silent? The bigger fear is that in any conflict, the state will come down on the side of the perpetrators, as we saw in the case of Akhlaq Khan, whose family is facing prosecution even though it was he who got lynched on a false allegation. This could really set the stage for a conflagration....