In conversation with activist Prakash Ambedkar on the recent Dalit protests and how for the Dalits, this is a fight to the finish.
Dalits all over the country are in agitation mode at the atrocities and injustices being meted out to them. Public protests on a scale never seen before have taken place in different states. In Gujarat, protestors came out on the streets after a group of Dalits were thrashed for the ‘crime’ of skinning a dead cow.
In Maharashtra, Dalits, angry at the sudden demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan, a building where B.R. Ambedkar had worked, came out in large numbers on Mumbai’s streets. Leading them was Prakash Ambedkar, Babasaheb’s grandson and a two-time former MP, who is the leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh. A lawyer by training, Ambedkar has has written several books, including Arun Shourie Ek Fraud, a riposte to Arun Shourie’s book Worshipping False Gods.
An astute observer of national politics, he believes this is a blowback against attempts by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) to impose its upper caste agenda on the nation. He is now coordinating with Left parties for a public meeting in Delhi in September to spearhead an anti-BJP campaign. In an exclusive interview to The Wire, he said he had not seen this level of Dalit unity ever before.
How do you perceive the national scene today and the upsurge in Dalit resistance?
First you have to understand that this is an RSS government; the RSS ideology is in the forefront of all of the government’s policies. I have read M.S. Golwalkar’s works. His followers strongly strongly believe in race and caste and in the idea of racial superiority. It firmly believes in Manuvaad – that castes which are ‘intelligent’ should control the economy and society. Dalits must always remain enslaved. So you have their leaders making anti-Dalit statements.
Secondly, the RSS does not believe in national boundaries. The nation for it is a cultural entity; they want to go beyond the boundaries of India. You are seeing that in the government’s policies and statements.
Under Modi and Shah, the upliftment of Dalits is not going to happen. It was said at one time that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had broken away from the RSS, but what he had done is created his own space within the RSS; Modi has done the same. Tell me, he kept on harping on his OBC status during the latter part of his campaign. Has he created any freeships or scholarships for OBCs?
Are Dalits being specifically targeted?
There is a pattern to what you are seeing regarding atrocities on Dalits around the country. Dalit society is divided into two parts – the educated and somewhat well off, which is around 20%, and the poor, spread all over the country, which accounts for 80%. The RSS has a strategy to create a fear psychosis among both. The creamy layer, especially those in the government, is being blackmailed with threats and intimidation or by co-option. Dossiers are being created against officers of a particular rank and above. The educated, successful Dalits are being silenced in different ways.
Have you heard a peep out of Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athavale or even Narendra Jadhav, who have been bestowed posts and favours by the BJP? Ratnakar Gaikwad, who used to be MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) chairperson is facing cases in which no one else who was involved is being touched. Gaikwad was used as an instrument to get the Ambedkar Bhavan demolished, even though he was not an office bearer of the society.
But why demolish the Ambedkar Bhavan in the first place?
Ambedkar Bhavan was a place closely associated with Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was set up in the 1940s and had become a meeting point for Dalits where real issues were discussed. It had symbolic value for us. They didn’t want it to survive.
You are suggesting there is some kind of larger plan, a conspiracy against Dalits.
Yes, there is. I will give you an example. See the new laws for panchayati elections in Rajasthan, Haryana and elsewhere. All kinds of restrictions are being imposed. The new regulations on who can contest elections will subjugate and disenfranchise the poor, especially the Dalits; the Raj disenfranchised the Indians, now these people are doing the same with Dalits. Caste hegemony is their objective – they will use every instrument to achieve that.
You know, over the years, Dalits had begun to think that while atrocities would not ever completely end, things were changing in the country. The law was there to protect them. Dalits have very strong faith in the constitution, because they know that it will protect them. They have confidence that no one will ever tinker with it. That confidence has been shaken. Now they are worried-they think that there are plans to change the constitution. Mohan Bhagwat’s one statement about reviewing reservations has scared them.
Is that why we see the protests, the resistance in Gujarat, Maharashtra and elsewhere?
Yes, and this resistance has surprised the BJP and the RSS, shocked them. They did not expect this kind of fightback. What is even more significant is that there is unity of a kind never seen before among Dalits. In Punjab, the Mazhabis, Khatis, Ramdasis and Valmikis have come together. In Gujarat too, different segments, such as Valmiki, Meghwal, Khati, Khuja have all united. You have seen the demonstrations in Gujarat.
In 2013-14, according to official figures I have, there were 1,156 atrocities on Dalits in Gujarat; in 2015 that figure has gone up to 5,656. The Dalits are seeing what is going on, they understand it and there is new consciousness.
There is anger, real anger. Now there is no going back, for Dalits, this is a fight to the finish.
None of the usual political leaders seem to be in the forefront of these agitations.
These new movements are not created or led by the usual Dalit politicians. Today if Ram Vilas Paswan holds a public meeting, not more than ten people will come. Mayawati has lost her game; when that BJP leader called her some names, she could have seized her moment, but then her own leaders started using filthy language.
So who will Dalits turn towards, especially at the national level?
Yes, that is a dilemma. The Congress is now playing its last card, Priyanka in the UP elections. The Left never really understood caste. State level leaders, such as Nitish Kumar, Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, who could move to the Centre have yet to fully build up second level leadership which will allow them to leave their states. As for Mayawati, she finds it difficult to adjust to anyone – I keep telling my Leftist friends that.
So how do you see things unfolding for Dalits?
New leaders will emerge. Young Dalits from different parts of the country. There is a new consciousness. They may not get media coverage or have a national media of their own, but they are quite digitally savvy. Today’s young Dalit reaches out to other Dalits through Facebook.