How Dalit Anger Across States Has Put the BJP on the Back Foot

The excessive prominence the BJP has given to its cow protection campaign seems to have backfired. The Dalit and opposition parties have now found adequate space to capitalise on the brewing anger within the community.

Dalit community members hold wooden sticks and shout slogans during a protest in Ahmedabad. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Even as union finance minister Arun Jaitley promptly apologised in parliament for former UP state party vice president Dayashankar Singh’s appalling remarks against BSP leader Mayawati, the controversy continues to haunt the BJP. As thousands of Bahujan Samaj Party supporters and cadres staged an aggressive dharna in Lucknow on July 21, the event marked the beginning of the party’s all-out campaign for the assembly elections which are due early 2017.

Over the last few days, Dalits in Gujarat and Maharashtra have taken to the streets to register their protest against recent incidents of violence and administrative high-handedness. In Gujarat, they have dumped carcasses of dead cattle at collectors’ offices after a video showing the so-called gau rakshaks brutally beating four members of a Dalit family who skin dead cows for a living went viral. In Mumbai, thousands of Dalits gathered to protest against the BJP-led state government’s decision to bring down the historically significant Ambedkar Bhawan.

Clearly, these parallel mobilisations of Dalits has put the BJP on the back foot. The excessive prominence the party and its foot soldiers have given to their cow protection campaign, from the brutal mob killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri last year to the lynching of two cattle traders in Jharkhand early this year, seems to have backfired and caught the party unawares. In the last two years, the cow protection campaign has been the single-most important tactic of the BJP in a bid to consolidate Hindu votes in the upcoming assembly elections in four states.

While the campaign itself targeted Muslims, the Sangh parivar ignored the fact that a section of Dalits depends on traditional occupations that it considers anti-Hindu, among which is skinning dead cattle. The recent uprising of Dalits in various regions could, therefore, be a big blow to the BJP’s persistent efforts to woo the marginalised population, especially in the politically crucial state of UP.

The inclusion into the union cabinet of five Dalit members in the recent reshuffle was seen as a move to send a positive message to the Dalit community. However, the party’s inability to read the complexities of  caste-ridden Hindu society, combined with the government’s largely cosmetic efforts to make any material improvement in the lives of Dalits, has precipitated a boomerang moment for the BJP.

Dalit and opposition parties have now found adequate space to capitalise on the brewing anger among the community. The Dalit parties say that a combination of many factors – both historical and contemporary – have exposed the BJP, which has been trying to project itself as a transformed party from being largely upper caste and upper class party to an anti-caste one.

Speaking to The Wire, Thol Thirumavalavan of Tamil Nadu’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a political party that has been the most vocal in raising Dalit issues in the state, said: “The Dalits protests expose the multi-headed hydra-like nature of the BJP. At one level, the party leaders go and eat in Dalit houses, celebrate Ambedkar’s birthday, and at another level its cadres brutally attack Dalits daily. The Gujarat incident is barbaric”.

Thirumavalavan, who is planning to intensify the protests in Tamil Nadu and has already planned a massive dharna on July 25, said that recent incidents exposes the “original face of the BJP”.

“Whatever the BJP leaders on top may do, their cadres are both casteist and communal. Expelling Dayashankar Singh is a mere eye wash. The party can never divorce itself from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is known for its anti-Dalit, anti-reservation standpoints,” he added.

In a similar vein, Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar and president of Maharashtra-based political party, the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, said, “With each passing day, the Dalits are realising that the BJP is an antagonistic group. A large number of Dalits in government jobs were demoted after being promoted, following a Supreme Court judgement. The Modi government did not intervene at all. Then you see, Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak of the RSS, announced on the eve of the Bihar elections that there should be a review of the reservation policy. Why would he do that on the eve of elections? This means that it wants to show that the Sangh parivar is against reservation”.

“Social sector expenditure has been reduced by at least 40% by the Modi government. The government did not entertain even a case of abetment against some of its leaders after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. This, despite a pan-Indian movement criticising the government’s move. All these factors had a multiplier effect on Dalits,” he added.

“Most Dalits,” said Ambedkar, “are beginning to believe that the administration is not on their side. Look at the Gujarat case. The police were completely partisan against them. Even during the Congress, there was hardly any justice for Dalits but at least a case would get registered. The police could not refuse to file a FIR. But today the Dalits fear the government. And this has never happened in the past.”

“One, Dalits have historically fought against caste hegemony whereas the BJP wants to perpetuate it. Two, Dalits have fought for constitutional guarantees like individual freedom. The BJP has only been subjugating those rights,” he added.

Gujarat’s militant Dalit movement is clearly a spontaneous one, whereas in UP and Maharashtra, there has been a historical presence of Dalit political groups. However, given all these factors, the outpouring onto the streets of Dalit anger against the government is definitely not a positive signal for the BJP in the UP polls next year. “If the people would not have been angry, they would have never come on streets. The organisation can only help them vent and direct their anger. But I can say that they will show their anger in the ballot in the upcoming elections,” Ambedkar said.

According to Raju, a member of the All India Congress Committee’s Scheduled Caste cell, told The Wire, “What is becoming evident is the core ideology of the BJP and the RSS – a casteist-communal idea of a Hindu Rashtra; precisely an idea that is antithetical to the interests of the Dalits. A drastic reduction of budget in affirmative policies like the SC/ST sub-plan, almost a 20% rise in atrocities against Dalits and many such instances have led to a situation where Dalits are revolting. Gujarat Dalits are revolting. Dalits have never found their voice under any BJP government and they will never find it in future, despite all pretensions of the BJP”.

One would have imagined that the BJP would have asked its Dalit faces to do some damage control but the BJP, despite being nervous about the reactions, is in no mood to back down. When Udit Raj, a prominent BJP Dalit leader, was asked how he plans to raise the issue within the party, he said, “I would have raised it in the party had the party not taken proper action. Dayashankar Singh has already been expelled. We have unconditionally apologised against his remark. The matter stands resolved. Now whoever is raising the issue only wants to emotionalise the issue”.

“I must say that this is not a party specific issue. The society as a whole is responsible for casteism. Only the politicians should not be blamed for it,” he added.

As the BJP plans for the UP polls next year, it may have to tread a cautious path. Dalits comprise almost 20% of the state’s population. Hurting their sentiments may damage the party’s prospects. Most ground reports suggest that there seems to be a vibrant Dalit movement, mostly comprising youth, is fast emerging in various parts of rural India. While the BJP refuses to acknowledge it, many other parties have upped the ante and launched both direct and indirect attacks against the BJP, including the Aam Aadmi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Congress. As Dalits begin to fiercely assert themselves in mainstream politics, even traditionally upper caste parties like the BJP will have to rethink their political strategies in future.