India has witnessed, since 2014, a labyrinthine communal agenda enforced by the Sangh parivar through various projects, laws and public policies. While fighting the ‘significant enemy’, namely Muslims, the ‘insignificant enemy’ – Dalits – have also been in the cross-hairs of the communal forces in several contexts such as the ban on beef and the violence of cow vigilantes. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that the Dalit question has now surfaced as a challenge to the Hindutva agenda.
The Central ban on cattle sales in 2017 was meant to target Muslims, as many depend on cow/cattle slaughter for their livelihood. However, Dalit activists and ideologues vehemently questioned the decision since it affects the livelihoods and food habits of Dalits, who are part of the ‘Hindu population’, also. Similarly, cow vigilante violence may be perpetrated mostly against Muslims, but it is also directed towards Dalits.
Historically, there has been a fundamental difference between the way Hindutva forces deal with the Muslim question and the Dalit question. Hindutva forces have been stigmatising the Muslim community by making laboured connections to terrorism and Kashmir. But, the Dalit question is immanent to the Hindu community especially given its potential as an antidote to Hindutva ideology.
Arrest of rights activists
The recent arrest of various rights activists due to their alleged connection to Bhima Koregaon can be understood as the abrogation of human rights and right to privacy. On January 1, 2018, Mahars in Maharashtra came together to celebrate 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle in which the East India Company had defeated Peshwa Bajirao II. The oppressive regime of the Peshwas is considered to be the darkest phase in the history of Dalit oppression, when Dalits were given sub-human status and treated worse than animals. The Bhima Koregaon battle was fought with the help of the Mahar regiment, in which Mahars formed the majority. It was also believed that in order to fight the oppressive Peshwa rule, Mahars had joined the East India Company to overthrow the Peshwas. The assertion of Mahar pride and self-dignity with respect to the Bhima Koregaon victory has been reiterated by B.R. Ambedkar’s visit to the Bhima Koregaon monument in 1927. In 2018, the Dalits of Maharastra celebrated Bhima Koregaon as an act of Dalit political assertion. The celebration was countered by some extremist forces, who construed Dalit resistance as ‘anti-national’ and a threat to national integrity. This led to violence and many Dalits were killed.
Anand Teltumbde presents a fascinating critique of the idea of the Bhima Koregaon battle as Dalit resistance. According to him, the very construction of Bhima Koregaon as Dalit resistance is nothing but a “pure myth”. The disproportionate numbers of Parayas in Madras, Namashudras in Bengal and Mahars in the Maharashtra armies only suggest the East India Company’s military aspirations, but not Dalit unity and resistance.
Whether the Mahars’ participation in Bhima Koregaon was an act of Dalit resistance or not, the celebration of the 200th year of victory in January 2018 was certainly an act of Dalit political assertion.
The raid on professor K. Satyanarayana
Approximately six months after the Bhima Koregaon violence, various rights activists across the country have been arrested for their alleged connections to the violence and also Maoism. In the midst of these arrests, EFLU professor K. Satyanarayana’s house was also raided. The professor has stated that his books on Marx, Ambedkar and his manuscripts on Dalit literature have been seized by the police.
The police raid of Satyanarayana, on the pretext of his father-in-law Varavara Rao’s alleged involvement in Bhima Koregaon, served the purpose of denouncing the Dalit question as nothing but a ramification of Maoism. Satyanarayana alleged that he suffered two levels of state oppression in the police raid. Firstly, all his manuscripts and study material on Dalit studies were seized, invoking the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is a blow to his career and activism. Secondly, he alleged that the police humiliated him and his wife Pavana with casteist and sexist remarks such as, “why there is no sindhoor and taali? (symbols of Hindu middle-class upper-caste married women)” and “why are there no portraits of gods, but only Marx and Ambedkar?”. According to Pavana, the police also told her, “Your husband is a Dalit. He might not be interested in observing rituals and celebrating festivals. You shouldn’t have followed him. You should have been a role model to your daughter.”
Autonomy of a woman
These remarks are essentially sexist in nature, that suspend Pavana’s autonomy in choosing a lifestyle, misattributing her choices as a faithful imitation of her father and husband. The sexist and patriarchal nature of the state actors only substantiate their inability to imagine a middle class married woman as an autonomous independent thinker. Therefore, they have constructed her as a “victim of patriarchy” because the lifestyles of her father and husband have been enforced upon her.
The statement the police made – “Your husband is a Dalit” – is nothing but an atrocity against Dalits because using caste remarks to humiliate Dalits is a crime according to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Ironically, the SC/ST Act had undergone changes in 2018 because it was construed as a draconian law that leads to the arbitrary arrest of citizens. Alleged misuse of the law by the members of SC/ST communities was also cited in this context. The SC/ST (Prevention) of Atrocities Act is the only hope that can provide a legal protection to the members of SC and ST groups who face brutal violence at the hands of upper-caste adversaries. The reluctant, belated effort to amend the law to strengthen its provisions in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down a key provision only substantiates the present regime’s lack of commitment to the Dalit question.
The police statement – “your husband is a Dalit. He might not be interested in observing rituals…” – signifies that Dalits are traditionally denied access to ritualistic life as they lack caste purity. Therefore, the police have refused to acknowledge even a Dalit scholar’s atheist, secular lifestyle as an individual choice.
Satyanarayana announced in a press meet on August 30 that the raid on his house was because of Varavara Rao’s Maoist sympathies. He then alleged that the police have not only seized books on Marx and Mao, but also on Ambedkar. Here, one may wonder whether it was only the left ideology that threatened the present regime or the emerging Dalit movement as well. At a time when right wing organisations are trying to appropriate Ambedkar, the seizing of manuscripts of Dalit literature and books on Ambedkar tells its own story about the attitude of the present regime towards the Dalit question.
Attributing Dalit resistance to Maoism
The state’s act of attributing the autonomous Dalit resistance of Bhima Koregaon to Maoism serves two different purposes. Firstly, to castigate and stigmatise the Dalit movement and secondly, to set the actual perpetrators of violence free in order to appease extremist forces. The Muslim question has been dealt by stigmatising Muslims as “anti-national” and by constructing them as the “other” to the larger Hindu community. Such a construction of the ‘common perpetual enemy’, the Muslim, also helps to divert the attention of lower castes from the caste question, which may bring in some perfunctory unity for Hindus.
A similar process of stigmatising Dalits is not possible because Dalits are an essential part of the ‘Hindu community’. Therefore, by attributing Dalit resistance to Maoism, the Hindutva forces are attempting to construct a negative image of the Dalit movement and thereby construe Dalit activism as an unlawful activity. Though, the communal forces cannot easily stigmatise the whole Dalit population, the alleged connection between the Dalit leadership and Maoism – something the recent arrest of rights activists attempts to make – helps to stigmatise emerging Dalit voices. This is perhaps the only viable way for the current regime to suppress the Dalit question, which has long been posing a threat to its communal and casteist agendas.
Sowjanya Tamalapakula is an assistant professor at school of gender studies, TISS, Hyderabad.