Bharat Jodo at Badanavalu: Why Symbolism Alone May Not Take the Congress Very Far

Can the party, with its centrist politics, savarna outlook and neoliberal economics, really heal villages like Badanavalu, which have suffered from neoliberal economic policies and caste violence?

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There is no doubt that the Congress party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra – the anti-hate march led by Rahul Gandhi – has successfully created political interest and curiosity amongst the public of Karnataka. It has been given unconditional support by large sections of the progressive intelligentsia and recent images of Rahul addressing a public meeting near Mysuru city in heavy rain even received much appreciation from the silent majority – those among the population who generally do not vocally participate in politics. 

Rahul’s simplicity, stamina, ease of interaction with people and generosity with his time – the way he spends hours listening to people who want to share their stories and their woes with him – are slowly challenging the image of him created by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of an irresponsible and reluctant leader. 

With the yatra, the Congress party is also trying systematically to create an image of itself as the country’s ideological and political alternative to the BJP. But symbolism of this type, while generating hope among the helpless, also raises many serious questions.

Rural India exemplified 

One of the very important symbolic acts that Rahul and the yatra engaged in took place in the village of Badanavalu in Mysore district’s Nanjangud constituency on October 2 – Gandhi Jayanti

Badanavalu is the village where, in 1927, four Dalit women inspired by the message of Gandhiji and fully supported by the progressive Maharaja of Mysore, Nalmadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, started a hand spun Khadi Gramudyog. Gandhi himself had visited the village twice, in 1927 and 1936, and hailed the enterprise and the village as a model village. 

For the next few decades, flourishing along with the freedom movement, the khadi centre thrived, making reasonable profits and providing employment to the villagers in and around Badanavalu irrespective of their caste and gender. 

But the same village became infamous in 1993 when people belonging to the dominant Lingayat caste attacked a group of Dalits in a dispute over temple entry and killed three of them. One of the three persons killed was the headmaster who had taught them in school. 

Since the last two to three decades, activities at the khadi centre have declined drastically due to the neoliberal policies legislated by the Congress party in the 1990s, which are being aggressively implemented by the Modi regime today. Meanwhile, after the caste clashes of 1993, the Lingayats and Dalits of the village established a working relationship of “peace based on mutual non-interference”. 

Thus the situation at Badanavalu in a way symbolises the country as it is now – its economy and society broken by the dual attack of neoliberal policies and caste-based Savarna Hindutva politics. 

Goodwill gestures

The ostensible motto of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is to reintegrate this broken economy and society. But does the Congress have the glue required to ‘jodo’ India? 

Congress party workers painted the dilapidated buildings of the khadi centre at Badanavalu and prepared them to welcome Rahul Gandhi on October 2. They also repaired an infrequently used lane that links the neighbourhoods of the two castes. 

On October 2, Rahul visited all the khadi centres in the village and acquainted himself with the production of khadi and the plight of the workers. It was reported that he was taken aback when he was briefed about the meagre income earned by the workers at the Khadi Gramodyog and that he promised them higher wages if the Congress came to power. 

Later that day, Rahul inaugurated the infrequently-used lane between the neighbourhoods of the two castes which had been paved and named the “Bharat Jodo Road”. 

Rahul Gandhi at Karnataka’s Badanavalu village as part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

But aside from these goodwill gestures, does the Congress party have a vision or programme to rebuild and ‘jodo’ the ruined rural economy and social relations in Badanavalu? Whether it does or doesn’t, both the Congress and the supporters of the yatra need to dive deep into the history of Badanavalu. 

Mirage of an economic solution

The decline of the Khadi Gramudyog had begun after independence, but the fall was precipitous from the 1990s onwards, when the country’s development model shifted from welfarism to unbridled corporate capitalism. 

The bureaucratic regulatory regime and the vicious control of middlemen, facilitated by the subsequent legislation governing Khadi Gramudyogs and other cottage industries, pushed the industry into a chronic supply and demand anaemia. The neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s and the liberalisation of sectors hitherto reserved for cottage and small industries sounded a death knell for the industry. 

Since then, the khadi and other cottage industries have been at the mercy of consumerism driven by the urban upper classes. The public finance architecture governed by the policies of fiscal discipline has classed the investment and promotion of khadi and such other industries as unproductive expenditure. The possibility of the revival of the industry is visualised as an adjunct to the appetite of the urban elite for the exotic and the ethnic and the wholesale  privatisation of the whole industry is conceived as the only possible avenue for its revival. Of course, this blueprint is completely against the very basis of the khadi concept and the proposed perestroika will only end up completely devastating the khadi and allied rural industries, further marginalising the workers. 

Also read: Khadi Workers on ‘Satyagraha’ Against Government Neglect

What solution does the Congress offer to ‘jodo’ the khadi enterprise with rest of the economy? How can Rahul actualise his promise of raising wages, at the very least? Without the party acknowledging the  role played by its pro-corporate economic policies in causing such devastation, and without pledging a radical departure from pro-corporate policies, is the revival of Badanavalu’s economy even possible? 

The irony of the situation is that the local BJP member of the legislative assembly has been trying to co-opt the symbolism of Badanavalu as a village visited by Gandhiji by presenting a plan worth Rs 10 crore to his government to develop the khadi centre of Badanavalu along the lines of the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat and make it a tourism destination. 

In the absence of a substantial plan for the revival of the industry, this symbolism dreamed up by the BJP may fare better than the Congress’s symbolism in the eyes of the common people.  

The caste cauldron

A deeper look into the developments leading to the killing of three Dalit youths in 1993 in Badanavalu and the further political and social developments in the village over the subsequent three decades throws up many questions about the symbolism of the ‘Bharat Jodo Road’ inaugurated by Rahul Gandhi. 

The dominant Lingayats and the Dalits have almost equal populations in the village.

While the Lingayats traditionally dominate land holdings, Dalits were traditionally wage labourers. After Independence however, the Dalit population took to education. Due to the affirmative action of the state and the proximity of Mysore city, Dalits began to outnumber Lingayats in literacy, the number of graduates and post-graduates and government jobs. This upward mobility was complemented by a robust political education through the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS), which heralded a progressive and humanitarian cultural revolution in Karnataka in the 1970s and ’80s. 

Even though Badanavalu village itself had never witnessed any caste clashes up to then, the casteist intolerance of the dominant Lingayats against the upwardly mobile Dalit community was silently brewing.

When the Congress government led by S. Bangarappa introduced the Aradhana scheme for the renovation of temples, the Lingayats of Badanavalu formed a committee to renovate the age old Siddheshwara temple in the village and sought contributions from Dalits as well. The Dalits contributed a sum of Rs 30,000 on the condition that they should be given access to the temple. But on January 30, 1993, during the inauguration of the renovated temple, Dalit worshippers were denied access to the temple and a clash erupted in front of the local Congress MLA, ‘Benki’ Mahadevu, a member of the Lingayat caste.

Instead of facilitating the Dalit worshippers’ entry into the temple, the Congress MLA sided with the Lingayats. Some Dalit worshippers complained to higher police authorities – who facilitated the entry of Dalits into the temple – but the archak or temple priest fled the village before their entry. This created animosity between the two castes and the Lingayats took their revenge on March 25, attacking a group of Dalits with swords and killing three of them including Narayanasvamy, the headmaster of Badanavalu School, and his son Madhukar, an engineering student. 

Immediately after these killings, members of the Dalit community, under the leadership of the DSS, held big demonstrations in the nearby city of Nanjangud and also in Mysore, demanding justice and the arrest of Mahadevu. The then Congress member of parliament of the area, Srinivasa Prasad (who is now with the BJP) supported their demand. In retaliation, the MLA mobilised thousands of Lingayats in his defence and demanded the banning of the DSS which, according to him, was worse than the ‘nationalist’ Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had been banned after the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

The case was referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, but the inquiry was delayed since elections to both the assembly and parliament were around the corner. Some impatient Dalit youth burned down several Lingayat houses in a nearby villages, supposedly to teach the members of the ‘upper’ caste a lesson. Finally, in 2010, 23 people accused of the 1993 killings, were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

BJP leaders campaign for V. Srinivas Prasad at Karnataka’s Nanjangud. Photo: Twitter/@DVSadanandGowda

Just before he died in 2015, Benki Mahadevu joined the BJP. Srinivas Prasad, the Dalit leader and the then Congress MP whom the Dalit population of the region held in high esteem, has also recently defected to the BJP. Badanavalu village, which is under the Nanjangud assembly constituency, was declared a reserved constituency after the 2013 elections. Harshavardhan, the sitting MLA today, belongs to the BJP and is a relative of Srinivasa Prasad.

The BJP, which was a nonentity in Nanjangud constituency before 1993, polling just about 5,000-7,000 votes in any election, won an unprecedented victory with more than 75,000 votes in the by-election held in 2017. While most of the Lingayat community voted for the BJP in that election, more than half the Dalit voters also voted for the BJP in the by-election and later, the parliamentary election as well. 

It was also reported that later in 1993, the Dalits and the Lingayats of Badanavalu village got together to send bricks to Ayodhya for the Ram Temple. 

After 1993, no overt incidents of caste clashes were reported in the village. According to the residents of Badanavalu, a long pending jatra or religious congregation was held after a gap of 20 years in April 2022. Though the archak and the rituals remained the same, some ‘concessions’ were made to accommodate the entry of Dalit worshippers in the temple. 

A temple at the Badanavalu village. Photo: Prof tpms/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

There are still some temples in the Lingayat neighbourhood that prohibit entry to Dalits. Some eateries there are known to serve Dalits only in plastic cups. But the villagers appear to have made peace with this.

The April jatra itself was organised by a local committee that included three Dalits, and though the road connecting the two caste localities was unpaved, it was not unused. Both neighbourhoods developed their own approach roads leading to the highway. 

Rahul Gandhi’s visit thus did not initiate any new beginning in the village. The villagers themselves had negotiated with the past and settled into a new equilibrium without altering the caste order. 

Savarna Congress to BJP’s Hindutva

The three decades after the killings of 1993 reflected the inherent inability of the savarna Congress party to safeguard the interests of Dalits. The BJP’s growth in the area comes from precisely this lack in the Congress. 

The BJP and the RSS are making deep inroads into the Lingayat and Dalit communities on an anti-Congress platform politically and an ‘inclusive Hindutva’ platform ideologically. Though the progressive DSS movement and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have strong bases in the region, the BJP has successfully poached their leaders, including Srinivas Prasad, who still wields influence over Dalit voters in and around Badanavalu, and the lone BSP MLA from the neighbouring constituency of Kollegal.

N. Mahesh, who had been the mentor of thousands of Dalit youth against the ‘manuvadi’ (Manu is the writer of Manusmriti) politics of the BJP and the Congress, defected to the BJP using the excuse of “better development of my constituency with the ruling party”. Of late, Mahesh is learned to have become an ideological votary of Savarkar and is trying to discover an ideological affinity between Savarkar and Ambedkar.

Thus the new strategy of the RSS to retain the caste order is to avoid overt exclusion by selectively including Dalits in political and administrative positions, as reflected in the temple committee and the April jatra itself, and also accommodating the Dalit leaders of other parties. Part of the RSS’s agenda is to engage both the communities on a Hindu card against the bogey of the Congress’s ‘appeasement’ of Muslims, or corruption or some other issue. This is the time tested ‘subaltern Hindutva’ strategy that they are always successful in implementing, and it makes the Congress’s status quoism – its resistance to changes in the caste hierarchy – seem elitist in comparison.   

Did the Congress’s symbolic activities to celebrate the Bharat Jodo Yatra in the village come with a vision to ‘jodo’ Badanavalu into a casteless, egalitarian social order? 

In fact, the ‘jodo’ on both the counts of the ruined economy and the devastated social cohesion demands a radical political agenda more than the mere message of love and inter-caste dining. Rahul Gandhi’s acts were good gestures. But they were, at best, innocuous and, at worst, something which helped solidify ‘subaltern Hindutva’ and neoliberalism. 

The larger question this symbolism raises is whether Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party can ‘jodo’ villages like Badanavalu into secular-socialist-republics through their centrist politics, savarna outlook and social base and neoliberal economics.

Will such centrism not help the neo-Brahminical Hindutva forces, as proved in Badanavalu, in the long run but also in the very short run itself? 

Only a genuinely radical-egalitarian social-political agenda can expose the ‘neoliberal-subaltern Hindutva’ of the Sangh Parivar for what it actually is. But this seems a tall order for the Congress today.

Shivasundar is a columnist and activist in Karnataka.