New Delhi: While Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah has assured the Dalit community that the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and reservations will remain in place as long as the saffron party is in power, anxiety and discontentment against the BJP among Dalits is still rising.
The dilution of the SC/ST Act by the Supreme Court and changes in rules about reservations in universities by the University Grants Commission (saying that a department, and not the whole university, is to be treated as a unit for the implementation of reservations) are the two main reasons for Dalits’ disillusionment with the party. The Centre had initially asked states to enforce the Supreme Court order, only to reverse that stand 24 hours later. Subsequently, of course, the government introduced a bill to reverse the effect of the judgment and the same was passed in Parliament earlier this month, though some BJP leaders continue to express their disquiet over the law.
Perceived as an organisation supporting the supremacy of ‘upper’-caste Hindus, engagement with Dalits has always been at the core of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s social engineering. And for the last few years, the RSS-BJP combine has been working overtime to bring Dalits into the larger Hindu fold and thereby consolidate the Hindu vote. From ‘Samrasta Bhoj’ to ‘Spend a night at a Dalit’s house’, the group has been trying to bridge the gap between the BJP and Dalits, but Dalits, especially the younger generation, are not impressed.
The Dalit community feels that the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, used their support to win elections – both the 2014 national elections and the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections – but has not delivered on the promises it made. Meanwhile, the BJP is not unaware of the growing unhappiness and disgruntlement among Dalits, but accuses the Congress of spreading rumours against the BJP in the community.
Thawar Chand Gehlot, Union minister for social justice and empowerment, one of the few most prominent Dalit faces in the BJP, is considered to be close to Modi. Before being given the charge of the ministry, Gehlot has been a member of 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas from the Shajapur constituency in Madhya Pradesh. An old party loyalist, he was also elected to the Rajya Sabha first in 2012 and then in 2018.
In an exclusive interview with The Wire, Gehlot replied to a variety of questions on topics ranging from the dilution of the SC/SC Act and insecurities among Dalits to reservations for Dalits in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia and the Modi government’s policies on persons with disabilities. In this hour-long interview, Gehlot gave the impression that the party is fully aware of the rising anger among Dalits, and spoke about the party’s commitment to bringing a new law in parliament on both issues – removing the barriers on arrest placed by the Supreme Court in SC/ST Act and reversing the reservation formula in universities.
“Unfortunately, the main opposition party is spreading disinformation and rumours among Dalits that the law does not exist anymore. I, along with minister for law and justice Ravi Shankar Prasad, have acted on this promptly and have tried to communicate through the media that we are working hard to reverse the court order. And if this does not work, we will bring an ordinance,” said Gehlot
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP received 24% of the total Dalit votes, and as many as 44 Dalits won on BJP tickets. Ironically, after managing to garner nearly a quarter of the Dalit votes, a historic high for the party, the party is now fighting the perception that it is ignoring Dalit aspirations and not giving the community due representation. However, Gehlot rejected the charges of discrimination against Dalits within the BJP and said he does not feel that there is any issue around the representation or inclusion of Dalits in the party structure.
“The president of India himself comes from the Scheduled Castes. I am the member of the parliamentary board for the fifth consecutive term and it is the highest unit of the party. In all the states units, we have representatives from the Dalit community.”
Facing wrath over Dalit reservations, the BJP appears to be taking recourse to a strategy of pitting Dalits against Muslims. While the party is on the back foot on charges from SC groups that it has made SC/ST reservation almost ineffective in teachers’ appointments in universities, it is raking up the issue of SC/ST reservation in AMU. National Commission for Scheduled Castes chairperson Ram Shankar Katheria recently said that the commission would pass relevant orders if the university did not comply with providing reservations to Dalits.
“We have always protested against the minority status for AMU and Jamia, HRD ministry had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the status and implement the SC/ST reservation in both AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. Since we recognise them as central universities and they are funded by the Central government, they will have to implement the reservation.”
Gehlot vehemently argued in favour of Dalit reservations in these minority institutions and said if the court fails to give a favourable decision on this, the government is keeping the option of bringing an ordinance open.
From attempts to appropriate the biggest Dalit icon, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, to the nomination of Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit from UP, as the president, the BJP has tried all possible ways to bring Dalits into its fold. But in the last three years, a range of anti-Dalit incidents – the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Una flogging, the Saharanpur violence and attacks during the Bhima Koregaon protests – point to the problems in the BJP’s approach to the issue.
Gehlot may be defending his party against all odds, but in a party that is clearly dominated by ‘upper’ castes, in terms of both numbers and policies, Dalits are still struggling for a place of significance – not merely in terms of official positions but government policies. While promises of social inclusion and economic development may have won the BJP the 2014 elections, it remains to be seen if Dalit voters will be as enthusiastic about the party in 2019.