Clashes between Dalits and right-wing groups at Koregaon-Bhima in Maharashtra on the very first day of 2018 are ominous on several count as it has brought structural incongruences and deep rooted social conflicts of the RSS’s (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) Hindutva nation building project into open.
Around 10 lakh Dalits had turned up at Koregaon-Bhima on January 1 to mark the 200 years of the British battle with Peshwas, also known as the Third Anglo-Maratha War in which the Mahars, a Dalit sub-caste, were fighting on the side of the East India Company.
The bicentenary commemoration became the precipitating factor for the clashes in Maharashtra where Dalits have a recorded long history of identity assertions and protest movement for their rights. Few of the tallest icons of Dalit identity, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, Dr B R Ambedkar and his Republican Party of India (RPI) are deeply rooted in ethos and history of the State.
Not only did violent protests by Dalits spread across Maharashtra, the movement is threatening to move to other States like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Some protests and agitations by Dalit outfits have erupted in these areas. Cases of atrocities on Dalits have been on the rise in States like UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and Bihar.
These developments are part of a larger pattern of protests by Dalits in the three and half years of the BJP-led NDA regime. Dalit anger has been expressing itself against the RSS’s nation building project that finds its manifestation in the rewriting of history, right wing interpretation of certain historical events, Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, cow vigilantism around the issue of beef ban, Love Jihad, Hindu majoritarianism, attempts to flatten cultural diversity and other similar issues. This is bringing into open old fault lines existing in Hindu caste ridden society.
The RSS’s long-cherished and ill-conceived project of a new nation replacing the concept assiduously built by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle and sustained by post-1947 regimes, including that of the BJP-led NDA government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, was rooted in historical wrongs, particularly committed during Muslim rules, and hurt pride. However, the project failed to take into account the antagonistic nature of caste hierarchy of the Hindu society. Possibly, the RSS ideologues were confident that anti-Muslim narrative would be enough to subsume caste contradictions and centuries-old domination of upper castes over weaker sections and lower castes.
These fault lines are now acquiring sharper edges, particularly at a time when the country’s economy is slowing down and employment opportunities are shrinking. Demands for reservation in jobs by Marathas in Maharashtra, Pattidars in Gujarat, Gujjars in Rajasthan or Jats in Haryana and UP are evoking fears and apprehensions among the Dalits, other backward castes and weaker sections of society.
Dalits along with Muslims have become the victims of the beef ban politics of cow vigilantisms of the RSS-BJP. Dalits have been the integral part of the traditional agrarian economy where milching animals have played a leading role. Strict and literal enforcement of cow slaughter directly affects the livelihood of Dalits. There have been violent incidents in UP, MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other states in which Dalits have come under the attack of groups of cow vigilantes.
In ordinary times, this would not have carried much political significance, but this has come under sharper focus following some violent incidents since the coming to power of the BJP at the Centre in 2014 and then 19 States.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept to power winning 71 out of the total 80 Lok Sabha seats from the biggest State of Uttar Pradesh. All the 17 reserved Scheduled Caste seats went to the BJP. It clearly meant that a sizable portion of Dalit votes went to the BJP account and indicated that there was a division among SC voters.
While in Maharashtra, caste tensions between Dalits and some other backward castes on the one hand and Marathas along with some upper castes, particularly the Chitpavan Brahmins, on the other, are reopening historical wounds, in the north Indian Hindi speaking States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, it is Dalit versus higher castes, particularly the Rajputs and Brahmins.
What is adding insult to injuries of Dalits and other weaker sections of society is the way the BJP ruled States treat agitations and protests. In these State, leaders of such protests are labelled as anti-nationals and are treated as rank criminals. Unlike the earlier times, they are not seen as upcoming political leaders. Treatments meted out to leaders like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani in Gujarat or Chandrashekhar Azad in UP, the founder of Bheem Army Bharat Ekta Mission and a young lawyer are few examples that reflect the mind-set of the ruling dispensation. The RSS and BJP leaders paint these young aspirational leaders as anti-nationals or casteist as it was done in Gujarat.
Consciousness among Dalits and other weaker sections has been steadily rising. With this, these sections are becoming more assertive. Gone is the time when the administration could suppress their voice or ignore their genuine demands by coming heavily on the leaders of such protests and agitations.
Instead of engaging with leaders politically, the BJP leaders tend to depend on the law and order machinery of the State and invariably give a free hand to police to deal with protests and agitations.
As a result, a feeling is growing in the community that crimes against them are neither seriously pursued nor thoroughly investigated by caste-biased State administrations. A growing perception is that guilty are either not adequately punished or manage to go unpunished.
The results of the 2014 general elections and the subsequent assembly elections clearly established that Dalit politics is under a flux. It is undergoing a change. Symbolism of making a Dalit reach the highest constitutional post of the country is not enough and it seems it is not helping the BJP to consolidate its political base among the SC community and spread it. Electoral interests that forces the RSS-BJP to accommodate Dalits and other weaker non-Muslim castes often come into conflict with the new nation concept that seeks to revive the ancient glory of ‘Bharat varsha’.
In the coming months, when the BJP will be engaged in electoral battles in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Dalit and other weaker caste votes are going to be very crucial. Carefully calibrated outreach of the BJP to this community in recent years is now under serious threat.
If the RSS-BJP is not able to resolve serious contradictions between its electoral arithmetic and its concept of a new nation, then a new political narrative is bound to emerge, paving the way for new political alignments challenging the RSS-BJP sway over the country.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).