SOME years ago, Narendra Jadhav whom I interviewed soon after he was appointed to the Planning Commission of India, presented me with a family biography called Untouchables which had become a bestseller internationally. The opening chapter is a searing account of how Jadhav’s father Damu flees to Bombay to escape the brutal abuse he faces as a Mahar, a Dalit caste whose duty it was to sweep village roads and remove the carcasses of dead cattle in Maharashtra. In return, Mahars were ‘entitled’ to some grain and the meat and skin of dead cattle.
Thanks to Damu’s act of defiance, his son was able to free himself from the caste system and become the success story he is. Jadhav, who has been unabashed about his political ambitions, is a rare Dalit success story, an economist who was given plum posts after three decades with the Reserve Bank of India by former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Three months ago, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, by BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As the country erupts in Dalit anger in several states after four Dalits were stripped, thrashed mercilessly and paraded in Una town of Gujarat for skinning a dead cow by self-styled gau rakshaks (cow protectors), who falsely claimed they had killed it, it is clear that 86 years after Damu ran to freedom very little has changed. Jadhav implied in his speech to parliament the horrific incident was symptomatic of a deeper malady that has plagued India for a very long time.
Under Modi’s watch, the brazenness of the savagery against the long persecuted Dalits is unprecedented.
He is right. Dalits were lynched in 2002 for skinning dead cattle. Yet, something fundamental seems to have changed now. Seldom before has the Dalit rattled the government in such a marked way. The 201 million people belonging to various scheduled castes — these fall outside the recognised four Hindu castes — account for nearly 17 per cent of the population but they have seldom been on the warpath in this manner. Confined for the most part to the most demeaning work, the worst being manual scavenging, they are even today expected to carry out their ‘traditional’ menial occupations such as digging graves and disposing of dead animals. India’s slave society would not function otherwise.
Dalits, despite decades of affirmative action enjoined in the constitution, remain impoverished, illiterate and still untouchable. Last year, a young girl was beaten up because her shadow fell on an upper-caste man. The Hindu notions of pollution, which stem from the belief that Dalits are unclean, means they remain outside the pale of society.
A revolution, however, is hopefully in the making, especially in the universities, against caste oppression. This is the reason why the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the central authority overseeing education, has been on a collision course with student organisations in a campaign led by the minister Smriti Irani, a former TV actress with questionable educational credentials. She has now been shifted to another ministry, possibly to signal a change of heart by the Modi regime, but the question of equity and justice for Dalit students has become a rallying cry in progressive institutes of learning such as Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University where left-wing students continue to be harassed for their Dalit sympathies. The Dalit cause, long a simmering issue, boiled over after the suicide by Rohith Vemula, a popular Dalit student leader of Hyderabad Central University who was the target of the ABVP. This is the student wing of the RSS, which is notorious for its regressive views and its focus on stamping out progressive ideas.
As the ABVP capitalises on the political protection it enjoys since its patrons are now in power at the centre and in several states, the counter movement has been surprisingly strong. For the first time, Dalit students and the communist-affiliated student unions that have been facing the brunt of the right-wing onslaught are making common cause. This alliance against the saffron upsurge has prompted the main left parties such as the CPM and CPI and the smaller Marxist-Leninist outfits also to do a rethink and make the Dalit cause a significant plank of their new strategy to revive flagging political fortunes.
It was, perhaps, not surprising that a mammoth rally on a rain-drenched afternoon last week in Mumbai to protest the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan by BJP authorities brought the comrades out in force to support the Dalit struggle. Ambedkar Bhavan is a historical building where Bhimrao Ambedkar, the extraordinarily erudite Dalit leader who helped write India’s constitution, ran a printing press, and Dalits have viewed this act as a deliberate affront to the memory of their leader. There is also another reason for the Dalit upsurge. Recently released figures by the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that in the past two years the atrocities against Dalits have spiked sharply, a disquieting development that the BJP can hardly put a gloss on. In 2014, the year BJP came to power, 47,064 cases of crimes against Dalits were registered, up from 39,408 in the previous year and 33,655 in 2012.
The BJP, desperate for Dalit support in the impending assembly elections in Punjab — the state has the largest concentration of Dalits who make for 32pc of its population — and Uttar Pradesh, notorious for caste atrocities, is often tripped up by its innate antipathy to the lower castes. Some, however, make no bones about their ideology. Like Ram Bahadur Rai, former ABVP general secretary, who heads the prestigious Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, nailed his colours to the mast when he said emphatically that Ambedkar did not write the constitution. “Yes, myth hai, myth hai, myth hai,” he raged in an interview last month. The plain fact is that the RSS-BJP combine finds it difficult to stomach Ambedkar whose views are antithetical to its core philosophy.
As for Modi himself it is doubtful if the Dalits could ever trust him. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had said publicly that Dalits were like mentally retarded children. For good measure he added that the Valmiki (a Dalit community) was involved in manual scavenging as it was a “spiritual experience’’.
Between the saffron brigade’s love for the holy cow or gau mata and its newfound concern for the oppressed, the Dalits know what their chances are. The video of the barbaric thrashing which the perpetrators themselves released says it all.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2016