Electoral politics have become a litmus test for democracy in India. The scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A was the last nail in the coffin of constitutional morality and inclusive democracy. Since 2014, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there have been a series of calculated moves to consolidate the electoral arithmetic decisively in favour of Hindu majoritarian.
In his first term, Modi demonstrated that Muslims and Dalits were not safe under his watch as there was a spike in lynchings by cow vigilante groups across India. In maintaining a deadly silence, Modi enabled inaction from state institutions and emboldened the criminals to act with impunity.
The unprecedented electoral victory of 2019 established Modi and Amit Shah as unchallenged leaders within the party and the government. Shah is known to be a lethal operator and a shrewd strategist. Having been jailed on charges of murder, extortion and kidnapping, Shah’s elevation to the position of the home minister is truly ironical.
He is using all available legal avenues to render Muslims powerless, including the BJP’s brute majority to subvert and undermine constitutional provisions through parliamentary procedures. The scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution has brought the project of Muslim persecution to complete fruition.
The future of Dalits under the Hindu right
Intrinsic to the pattern of anti-Muslim propaganda by the Hindu right is hidden contempt towards Dalits. The Hindu right deploys anti-Muslim propaganda as a political tool of polarisation to assimilate Dalits. It’s the projection of Muslims as a burden to the state and the accusation that Muslims take undue advantage of their status as minorities which is similar to the argument that caste Hindus make against reservation for Dalits.
They depict reservation as an undue privilege and an aberration to the idea of equality of all Indian citizens. Thus, the aversion to Muslims and reservations, especially towards Dalits, runs as a hidden thread intertwined within the Hindu right’s ideology.
The Hindu right’s blatant hatred during the anti-Mandal protests in 1990 is a stark reminder for every Dalit of its true colours. The anti-Dalit agenda hidden in the actions of the government in Jammu and Kashmir cannot be discerned easily. But the pattern of violence unleashed by cow vigilante groups began as a smear campaign and transitioned to physical violence, first against Muslims and Dalits.
In the Hindu right’s perception, Muslims and Dalits fall into the same category as both the communities are connected to the cattle economy and also remain outside their imagination. It is not a surprise then that after Muslims, Dalits will be at the receiving end of Shah’s lethal strategies.
After his failure to make inroads into politically assertive Dalits communities, Shah engineered a clandestine social project. He pitted the numerically small and educationally, politically and economically less advanced communities against the well-educated and politically assertive Dalits.
According to electoral arithmetic, even in reserved constituencies, electoral fortunes were not solely dependent on Dalit votes and relied on caste Hindus to tilt the balance. By fielding numerically marginal political non-entities against each other, Shah is making Dalits complicit in their oppression. The divide and win strategy or the caste politics of Shah amongst Dalits has reaped good dividends and inflicted irrecoverable damage to Dalit identity and the social transformation agenda.
Meanwhile, Shah knows that this strategy will not be sustainable in the long term. He needs to inflict permanent damage of the sort that will ensure the death of the very idea of a Dalit. The existence of the Dalit as an independent and rebellious identity is incompatible with the idea of a Hindu rashtra.
Moreover, Dalits have the capacity to embarrass caste Hindus by exposing their inhumanity and puncturing Hindu unity. The source of a radical Dalit assertion is education and employment. After securing a massive mandate, Shah is working to permanently destroy the sources of Dalit assertion.
Before the reading down of Articles 370 and 35A, the Hindu right ran a decades-long smear campaign against Muslims and Kashmir’s special status. Now they are starting a vicious debate on reservations. The goal is to poison the minds of caste Hindus who already harbour enormous contempt against assertive Dalits.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat brought the debate on caste-based reservations back when he asked people to hear both sides of the argument peacefully. After he had raised objections against reservations, BJP leaders had downplayed his comments by calling it his personal opinion and not the government’s official stand.
After the success of the Hindu right’s polarising politics and its demonisation of Muslims, the strategy now is to marginalise and demonise Dalits as they remain an important threat to its politics and ideology. The debate on reservations can incite caste Hindus against Dalits – who are portrayed as receiving undeserving privileges and as a threat to Hindu unity.
In some ways, this debate is very similar to the debates on Articles 370 and 35A, which the BJP said barred the complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union. As the 2019 parliamentary elections demonstrated, the Hindu right is not reliant on assertive Dalits for its electoral fortunes and is determined to cut down their size. It will not be a surprise if Shah soon declares in parliament that reservations are redundant and must be scrapped. This is another way to demolish the Dalits legally.
Dalits must stand with the people of Kashmir
The perils of majoritarian mobilisations across the world are threatening the ethical foundations of democracies and tearing apart the fabric of inclusive societies. Brute majorities consolidate their power and use procedurally democratic avenues to impose their will and power over vulnerable sections. The effective way to counter them is by building solidarity amongst people at the receiving end. Unless the oppressed stand together and challenge the powers that be, we have no option but to live with the oppression and violence.
Prima facie, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the predicament of Dalits in India appear to be completely unconnected. However, the crisis for Dalits and Muslims in modern India are intertwined. B.R. Ambedkar was defeated by the determined Congress in the Bombay province so as not to let him into the Constituent Assembly. He was elected to the constituent assembly from Bengal, facilitated by the help of Jogendranath Mondal and with the support of the Muslim League.
As Amit Shah is determined to break the avenues for emancipation and pulverise Dalit politics using constitutional means, it is incumbent upon every Dalit to read and protect every page of the constitution. Most importantly he is using parliamentary procedures and constitutional provisions to attack the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
One day he might even shred the Constitution if he believes it no longer serves his purpose of furthering divisive politics and the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank. Thus, every Dalit has an ethical responsibility to stand with the people of Jammu and Kashmir as the Hindu right threatens their very future in India.
Chinnaiah Jangam is an assistant professor in the department of history, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. His book Dalits and the Making of Modern India was published by the Oxford University Press, 2017.