New Delhi: Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, on April 8, announced celebrations for the 130th birth anniversary of Dalit icon Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Yadav coined the event, to be held across Uttar Pradesh, “Dalit Diwali”.
“As part of the celebrations, party leaders and workers will light lamps, visit Dalit bastis and celebrate the day to pay homage to Ambedkar. These will be done keeping the COVID-19 situation in mind,” a party representative told The Wire.
Yadav also announced the creation of a Baba Saheb Vahini – which he said would be a wing to raise Dalit issues. The move is ostensibly aimed at bringing Dalits into the Samajwadi fold and assuring them protection against social exploitation.
Yadav’s efforts to woo Dalit voters in the state ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections hit a wall with rounds of criticism that the ‘Dalit Diwali’ announcement received from Dalit groups under the fold of Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party. Leaders of these groups alleged that Ambedkar was not just a Dalit leader and that Yadav’s party was attempting to “narrow him down” to that.
Udayveer Singh, member of the state legislative council and Samajwadi Party leader told The Wire that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), considered to be the custodian of Ambedkarite philosophy in the state, is losing its ground. Singh indicated that at such a juncture, the SP has had to step in.
SP’s decision to go big in celebrating Ambedkar and his ideology is being seen as dealing a direct jolt to the BSP that had abruptly broken ties with SP after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, amid the growing perception of there existing an “understanding” between BSP and BJP.
Singh, too, claimed that a large number of BSP members have joined SP and BSP chief Mayawati has joined hands with BJP for political gains. SP has been seen trying to fill the vacuum thus created.
However, attempts by SP to woo Dalit voters appear to be following a path set by BJP in the state.
Singh says that BJP has not been able to fulfil its promises to the Dalit community. “They fielded candidates from the downtrodden communities and gave false hopes to those communities. People thought there could perhaps be leaders from their castes, but ultimately the BJP turned out to be a predominantly ‘upper’ caste party. Now these people are asking, ‘Where is our share, our representation, our development’?” he said.
“SP is now accommodating those who have been disenchanted with the BJP,” he added.
In April 2019, Nishad Party leader Sanjay Nishad, whose community has been demanding inclusion in the Scheduled Castes, had parted ways with the SP-BSP-RLD alliance to join BJP. SP members had alleged that he had taken Rs 50 crores for this.
Expelled OBC leader and former BSP MP Dara Singh Chauhan had joined BJP in 2015. “But these people have served their purpose – that of being tokenistic Dalit leaders – and currently don’t have space in the BJP,” Singh alleged, adding that SP does not have such inherent prejudices.
“[Prime Minister] Modi ji going and touching the feet of a Dalit person doesn’t ensure that his party members’ bias against Dalits goes away,” he said.
BSP has countered this move by SP differently than the other parties in the state. While BJP and Congress have attacked SP for being a “hypocrite” citing its previous “anti-Dalit” stances, BSP has said that SP is trying to look for votes in people’s misery.
“What is the challenge facing the country today? Coronavirus and the dip in the economy. The country is losing everything. Why is SP looking for votes at such a time when the general public is suffering?” Sudhindhra Bhadoria, spokesperson for BSP told The Wire.
He further said, “Is there an air of celebration at this time? It is Akhilesh’s diwaliyapan (moral bankruptcy) to celebrate Diwali at a time when Dalits, women and minorities are suffering. What kind of Diwali is he celebrating? Nobody is in a mood to celebrate Diwali.”
He added that BSP will wait till the situation gets better to campaign. He also accused Modi of ridiculing the surge in COVID-19 cases through his ‘Teeka Utsav’ (vaccination drive). “What kind of utsav (celebration) is Modi talking about?” he asked.
SP’s rejection of reservation for Dalits
BJP’s Lalji Prasad Nirmal, chairman of the Scheduled Caste Finance Development Corporation and president of Ambedkar Mahasabha accused SP of following BJP’s framework to make inroads among Dalits.
“But they will not be successful, as Dalit intellectuals from across the country have themselves criticised this ‘Dalit Diwali’. Akhilesh Yadav has never read Ambedkar, or else he would have known that Ambedkar sacrificed not just for Dalits, but also for women and workers,” he told The Wire.
He added that Yadav has done more harm to Dalits than “anybody could ever think of”.
“He didn’t support reservation in the assembly. What more proof do we need to know that he doesn’t really want the upliftment of Dalits, and that his motive is purely politics of opportunism?” he asked.
In 2012, the SP had vehemently opposed reservation in promotions. An SP MP had also torn the Bill in the Lok Sabha while the Congress was trying to consolidate the house in favour of it.
Nirmal also said that SP has changed names of several places in the state to appease minorities and other communities – in this list was the district Kanpur Dehat, which had earlier been called Ramabai Nagar after Ambedkar’s wife.
“Even Bhadohi was Sant Ravidas Nagar, named after the big Dalit icon,” he added. Meanwhile, Mayawati in 2020 made a promise to rename Bhadohi if they come to power.
“They are simply trying to copy us. They have realised the importance of Dalit votes and are getting desperate now,” Nirmal further said.
He added that it was Modi’s policies and schemes such as the Awaas Yojana and Swacch Bharat Abhiyan are focused on the upliftment of the downtrodden Dalit community.
Alok Prasad, president of the Scheduled Castes department of the Uttar Pradesh Congress says that the “Dalit Diwali” move was “pure hypocrisy” by Akhilesh Yadav.
Prasad said that when Yadav was the chief minister of the state, there was Dalit atrocity everywhere. Reiterating BJP’s point – that SP had opposed reservation for the Dalit community in the Lok Sabha – he said, “This is a stunt and vote bank politics.”
He accused Yadav of not visiting or bringing up issues related to atrocities perpetrated on Dalit people in the state, referring to the Hathras gang-rape and murder case of 2020.
Meanwhile, a senior leader of Congress told The Wire, requesting anonymity, that certain communities among Dalits are currently vulnerable and this is the right opportunity to consolidate the Dalit vote in the state.
SP’s Udayveer Singh, responding to the criticism surrounding “Dalit Diwali”, said, “Dalit is a holistic term and includes everybody. Other parties are criticising it just for the sake of it. The academic debate over it is unimportant. What is important is that the BJP government has on several occasions disrespected the constitution of India. Their intolerance towards freedom of expression and freedom of religion have put a dent on the secular nature of this country.”
The assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are scheduled next year and the politics of social engagement of Dalits, once effectively used by BJP, now appears to be appealing to other parties.