The Post-Hathras Conundrum: Striving for a National Dalit-Bahujan Agenda

While the social group of Dalits is active in furthering the cause of justice, the political class needs to play a more active role.

The Hathras gang-rape and murder was an alarm bell for the Dalit movement. The terrible incident showed that Brahmanical forces have been criminally emboldened under Yogi Adityanath’s Hindutva regime. People’s protests were widespread, challenging the lethargic response of the state government.

A large section of civil society activists participated in the mobilisation to seek justice for the victim. However, the victim’s family was harassed and threatened, the protests were mocked or called as conspiracy, and a PR team was appointed by the state government to notify the press that the teenager was not raped.

The growing rage amongst the Dalit community and civil society was depleted soon, without achieving anything significant. The Hathras incident become yet another incident of rape and atrocities that failed to shake the conscience of the nation and the state.

Importantly, the Hathras case also showed that the Dalit social and political worlds are divided. The Dalit social group has been showing tremendous courage and power, condemning the hegemony of the social elites and building promising resistances on the ground. However, the Dalit political class craftily remained distant, and only flagged some ceremonial condemnations of the incident on social media.

Dalits have continuously reacted to everyday casteist slurs, discrimination in schools and government institutions, harassment and rape of Dalit women, social boycott by the upper caste elites, non-payment of wages, social prejudices and exploitative customs, and lapses in filing FIRs against caste-based violence. Dalits are engulfed in such social tragedies persistently, and only through numerous small, local and sporadic struggles are discriminatory social attitudes challenged. Such sporadic protests by Dalit masses, like after the Hathras violence, is testimony to the fact that Dalits can take militant street action against Brahmanical forces to secure their human rights.

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It is the ‘Dalit social’ that acknowledges that even under the impact of economic globalisation and massive urbanisation, a majority of the Dalits are still surviving under wretched poverty, class discrimination and class exploitation. Often, constitutional provisions available for their empowerment appear insignificant and limited, as there is no political will to implement these safeguards, policies and programmes with firm conviction. The ‘Dalit social’ is often delinked from its political counterparts. Local Dalit leaders, social activists, NGOs, Buddhist organisations or university students’ groups often take the lead in mobilising people for protests or gatherings.

In recent times, Ambedkarite protesters have faced extreme hostility from the state-society combine, and are being projected as militant hate-mongers against Hindus and the Hindutva-led nationalist-state. In the current context, there is an increasing imposition of tags like miscreants, lawbreakers, Naxals and even anti-national to the protesters. The government’s attempt to arrest Dalit activists and intellectuals (like the arrest of Anand Teltumbde on a false premise of sedition and anti-state activities) in the Bhima Koregaon case is a visible example of the state’s anti-Dalit character. The media often evokes a nationalist collective ‘Hindu’ to target the ‘separatist’ political voices of the Dalits. Like the earlier protests by students, Muslims, Adivasis and now farmers against the current regime, the resistance of Ambedkarite Dalits is also projected as an unlawful act or targeted under criminal categories.

From being revolutionary and radical, like the Dalit Panthers of the 1980s, the vocal and agitating Dalits in current times are cornered as Maoist or anti-national. These strategies have cunningly projected the ‘Dalit social’ as a troublemaking minority. However, the political class that claims to represent Dalit concerns has shown little muscle or ethical impulse to protect local activists, intellectuals and community leaders from the aggressive offensive of governments. There are very few platforms on which the growing ruptures within the Dalit movement have been addressed substantively.

In the post-1990 period, there is a impressive increase in Dalits’ political presence in states like Tamil Nadu (VCK), Maharashtra (RPI, Dalit Panthers and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi), Uttar Pradesh (Bahujan Samaj Party and the latest arrival Azad Samaj Party) and Bihar (Lok Janshakti Party). In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, because of the states’ historical legacy, social and cultural mobilisations are often very vocal, aggressive and influential. These mobilisations are intellectually vibrant, and have influenced the literary and cultural milieu significantly.

However, in both these states, Dalit parties have failed to achieve durable political success. The stories of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh stand in contrast with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. In Bihar and UP, though we have not witnessed a strong social base of Ambedkarite or radical caste consciousness, Dalit mobilisation has successfully enlarged its political voice and representation in power.

Plural Dalit political subjectivities have enriched social democracy and sharpened the struggle for recognition and redistribution at national and regional levels. These political forces could have further emerged as a radical challenge to conventional political authorities and promoted the Dalit-Bahujan masses to become new claimants of power. However, these parties remained rooted in local arrangements, often distanced from the other Dalit parties and organisations, and rarely showed sincere conviction towards organising a national Dalit agenda. Instead, any rising Dalit voices (for example the arrival of the Bhim Army) are often seen as competition that may disturb the conventional political authority of the BSP.

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The possibility to imagine a national political movement of Dalits for social and economic justice appears a passive idea today. Dalit ideological imperatives are often parochial or arrested by the vision of the local or regional leader. Even imagining a fraternal comradery on the fundamental teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar appears to be a difficult exercise today. The multitudes of local and regional assertions are not contemplating forming a national Dalit unity.

Now, with the growing domination of the rightwing Hindutva forces, one can see that the advancing Dalit social groups face disadvantages, burdens and even repression by the state. Without a loud and promising political voice, there is a growing fear that even the sporadic democratic awakening of the ‘Dalit social’ would be throttled by the counterrevolutionaries.

A combined force of Bahujan social and political classes can provide a much-needed apostle for the idea of social justice and can create a vital opposition to rightwing domination. Promising Dalit-Bahujan fraternity at the national level would ensure a much-needed social and psychological support system for the numerous Dalit activists and local leaders. It is possible that the Dalit fragments, while retaining their distinct regional objectives, may form an ideological fraternal alliance on the principles of social justice and provide impetus to democratic struggles, ensuring radical social and political transformation.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi.