It’s Not That Easy Being a Dalit Leader

Agitation against any regime is easy. However, to sustain a movement and give an ideological alternative to the existing system is a whole different proposition.

Dalits gathered in Ahmedabad for a rally. Credit: PTI

Two years after his death, Rohith Vemula’s mother is still running from pillar to post seeking justice for her victimised son. Delta Meghwal’s father – she was a budding girl artist allegedly raped and killed in Rajasthan’s Bikaner – is fighting a lone battle for justice. The scars of humiliation meted out to Dalits in Una, Gujarat were not even healed when on October 1, 2017, a 21-year-old Dalit man was allegedly beaten to death by a group of men belonging to the upper caste Patel community for attending a garba (the Gujarati dance form).

Similarly, Dalits are not able to forget the way their tallest leader Mayawati was repeatedly humiliated by the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership. First, we saw the use of vulgar language by a BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh. When she raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha, in spite of an assurance by Arun Jaitley on the floor of the house, the erring leader was only symbolically removed, only to be taken back once the UP state elections were over. On top of this, his wife was not only given an assembly ticket but made a cabinet minister in Adityanath’s government.

In the same vein, how can a conscious Dalit forget the humiliation heaped on Dalits by the civil administration in UP that distributed shampoo and soaps to them, telling them their bodies are malodorous and not to fit for a meeting with Adityanath? There was also a Union minister who humiliated Dalits by comparing them with dogs, and offering no remorse when criticised for this.

The list is unending. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2014, there were 40,300 cases of crimes against Dalits. In 2015, this figure dipped slightly to 38,613, only to rise again to 40,743 in 2016.

In this context, one can safely argue that Dalits are feeling alienated. This alienation is pan-Indian. It is the reality of contemporary India. Although Dalits have suffered exclusion and atrocities since time immemorial, since 2014 they are feeling alienated because the authorities at the helm of affairs have either maintained a telling silence or given a very tepid response to the plight of the Dalits.

Dalits feel alienated also because they are not able to identify themselves with the high echelons of government either in the states or the central government. It is so because not even one Dalit leader with mass following and effective power is in office anywhere.

This, when Dalits send at least 85 members of parliament and at least 517 members of legislative assemblies. Further, Dalits are feeling alienated as even the commissioner for Scheduled Caste under Article 338 of the Indian constitution – who is supposed to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes – has been keeping his lips shut on the atrocities and exclusion of the Dalits. Under these hard-pressing circumstances, one can imagine the reaction of Dalits when Union minister of state Ananthkumar Hegde declares in public that the BJP has come to change the constitution and gets away with this statement. One should remember Dalits have always pinned their hopes on the constitution because that is the only permanent ally which can ensure social justice to them. Even that is in perpetual danger.

Also read: Rohith Vemula’s Suicide Triggered a New Political Wave

The BJP’s national president humiliated Dalits by patronising them with an exclusive lunch and bath. However, the most depressing moment came when the prime minister gave them the solace of empty words – saying ‘shoot me if you want, but don’t target the Dalits’,  instead of giving them any concrete solution to their misery.

In this complex socio-political scenario, how can an individual challenge such a formidable organisation and system?

It is here I would like to analyse the Dalit assertion via the youth leader Jignesh Mevani. He is everywhere, at rallies and events, in the media and social media. One can only congratulate him for his extraordinary courage in speaking against the present dispensation and catching the imagination of the people. But how far will he succeed? Agitation against any regime is easy. However, to sustain a movement and give an ideological alternative to the existing system is a whole different proposition. Indeed, challenging the RSS-BJP without any organisation, finances and cadres may even be called foolhardy or adventurist. Second, aggressiveness attracts people‘s imagination without letting them analyse whether it is moral or immoral. But when one analyses the process cautiously and carefully, then one realises where the exact pitfalls are.

Dalit leader and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani during Youth Hunkar rally in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

I have never seen an upcoming and independent Dalit leader being interviewed by so many channels and newspapers as Mevani. Why? It is unprecedented in the history of the Dalit movement. It has never happened in the history of the Dalit movement that a Dalit has become darling of the mainstream media in such a short span of time. Of course, he is also being viciously targeted by a section of the big media too. In UP, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ of the Bhim Army has also been attacked by the media and portrayed as ‘violent’.

I am reminded of the 1970s when young Dalit leaders – Namdeo Dhasaal, Raja Dhale, Jogendra Kavade, to name just a few – launched the Dalit Panthers after a lot of struggle. They were all grassroots leaders who spoke a new political language that had never been heard before in the Dalit movement. However, they did not get any media coverage. Of course, there was no electronic media or social media at the time. There was only print, which did not give them any coverage and they remained blacked out.

At the very same time, Kanshi Ram, who was only 35 years of age, launched a separate movement – Backward and Minorities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) – in Pune. He relaunched it in Delhi in 1978, then the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Samiti (DS4) in 1981, and finally, in 1984, he launched the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Throughout his struggle, he was so fed up with the blackout of his movement by the mainstream media that he dubbed it casteist (manuvaadi media) and started his own monthly and fortnightly magazines (Untouchable Indian and Oppressed Indian) and newspaper (Bahujan Sangthak). He kept the mainstream media at arm’s length and meticulously explained to his followers to never trust it and more so, to avoid it.

Also read: Interview: Jignesh Mevani on the Azadi Kooch, Solidarity and the Future of Dalit Politics

BSP’s national president Mayawati has maintained the same distance and tells her cadres to avoid the manuvaadi media. That is why she delivers written speeches in her meetings to avoid any controversy that can be created by journalists. She is of the opinion that mainstream media deliberately creates controversies by imputing meanings to her statements. Because of her mistrust of the media, she has never appointed a spokesperson of her party.

In the same vein, we are also reminded of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who, way back in 1943, was so critical of the Indian press that he went on to say the “Press…knows only to criticise, rebuke, and revile me for everything I do and to misreport, misinterpret and pervert everything I say”.  Therefore he concluded, “Journalism in India was once a profession. It has now become a trade. It has no more moral function than the manufacture of soap”. Having this mistrust of the mainstream media, Babasaheb went on to publish several newspapers – Mooknaayak, Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, Samata, and Prabuddh Bharat during the 1920s till 1956.

Even if the national media has not been uniformly supportive, Mevani’s electoral performance in Gujarat in the recent assembly polls owes much to the Congress, which did not field a candidate in his constituency. The Left has also supported him all along. A question Mevani himself ought to ponder over, is whether these parties are driven by the aim of undermining and delegitimising the established Dalit parties. The Congress would certainly like to create confusion among Dalits by making it seem as though the existing Dalit leadership has run its course and that now is the time for a new leadership. I for one found it surprising that some journalists and political analysts have begun comparing Mevani with Mayawati, who has given four decades of her life to organising the Dalits politically, and runs a national political party.

As he ponders his own political future, Mevani ought to consider how he will ensure a fair share for the Dalit community in the seven modern institutions – the judiciary, polity, bureaucracy, industry, university, civil society and mass media – which were supposed to be established on the criterion of achievement. How will his movement strive to ensure that the diversity of Indian society is reflected in these institutions? In contemporary times, all these institutions have been monopolised by so-called upper castes. That is why Dalits are involved in a perpetual struggle so they can get whatever is constitutionally mandated to them.

The lack of representation of Dalits in the aforesaid institutions since the promulgation of the Indian constitution, the commencement of democratic government and 16 general elections, has led Dalits to assert themselves in various spheres of life. That is why as society has progressed they have launched different types of movements and mobilisations to counter their deprivation and exclusion. There are at least eight types of tendencies among them – the socio-religious movement, the economic and political movement, the movement of Dalit government employees, the Dalit literary movement, the Dalit women’s movement, Dalit NGOs, the Dalit diaspora and Dalit activism on social media.

However, they still lack an independent organisation that can mobilise Dalit youth or students at the pan-India level. The challenge for Mevani as an independent individual without any organisation or mass following is to find a way to engage with all these movements. As of now, it is not clear if he has grasped the enormity of this agenda.

Vivek Kumar is a professor of sociology at the school of social sciences, JNU.

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