I am a dalit, who are you?

Threat of Caste Wars

By Poonam I Kaushish

An old proverb is haunting India. He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount lest the tiger devours him. The caste genie unleashed by our polity nearly three decades ago threatens to consume the country in sectarian violence again. Already it has re-ignited the flames of hatred among Dalits and Marathas whereby casteism is the cause celebre this week.
On New Year day caste hatred barred its poisonous fangs in Pune’s Koregaon Bhima when 10 lakh Dalits congregated to celebrate 200 years of British Mahar Dalit unit’s victory over upper-caste Peshwa army, pay respects to Dalit soldiers and assert their identity. A practice which gained currency since Ambedkar visited the spot in 1927.
Alas, this affirmation and call for a bandh was viewed as a challenge by Marathas triggering violence across Maharashtra wherein one person was killed, vehicles torched, property damaged, roads and railways blocked and normal life crippled in Mumbai and beyond over three days.
But more important it underscored when the mirror of memory cracks it widens the crevices of present reality and exposes the socio-political undercurrents at play. While Dalits leaders Prakash Ambedkar and Gujarat’s new caste cowboy Jignesh Mewani see Koregaon as a conscious and deliberate celebration of Dalit militancy, right-wing Hindutva leaders view it as “anti-national”.
Thereby, snowballing into a political controversy with the Fadnavis Government worried over how it should balance the Dalit-Maratha implosion and its political fallout countrywide with 8 States going to polls soon. Threatening to strike at the edifice assiduously built by Modi’s outreach to the community resulting in BJP’s stupendous victory in UP where Dalit messiah Mayawati was vanquished.
Confessed a senior BJP leader, “The Maharashtra incidents coupled with the Opposition’s efforts to reignite the Hyderabad Rohith Vemula and JNU’s Kanhaiya issues and paint us an anti-Dalit Party are extremely damaging as it could consolidate the community against us. This would be fatal and drown all efforts by the Modi-Shah combine to win at the hustings. Alongside, it has breathed new life in the comatose BSP.”
Hence, the Party has initiated a major firefighting exercise by fielding leaders to underscore its credentials as a beckon of the poor and downtrodden besides instigating many schemes to woo Dalits. But this is easier said than done as elections are now fought on caste considerations whereby voters are regressively but decisively voting along caste lines.
This social engineering via the ballot has become the mainstay from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Maharashtra to Manipur where caste explosions and exploitations dominate. Shockingly, it has become the most luscious mistress to be measured through the prism of power glass politics with Parties defining it according to its warped and selfish needs.
Touch any sphere of national life – political, social, economic, administrative, educational, even judicial. Cancerous caste has already pervaded its vitals. Today, Bihar resembles a battle ground of caste senas. If yesterday it was a tussle between the Ranveer Sena, private Army of Upper caste landlords vs the Left, Marxist Communist Centre today it is the Jai Shri Ram Sena floated to defend farmers against the two. What to speak of the revolutionary homegrown armies of political warlords: Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs, Thakurs and, lately, Yadavs and Dalits. All, merrily turning the State into killing fields.
Consequently, this social chasm widened with the emergence of “Made in India” leaders like Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati. If Lalu kid gloved the forwards with his massive backward following, Mulayam played his Yadav and Muslim card to the hilt in Government and judicial appointments. Mayawati revealed in “transfer Raj”, replacing many upper caste officers with Dalit officials. Thereby, giving the rootless down-trodden a new identity and attitudinal outlook.
In fact, things have reached such a pass that caste is even tearing asunder our Constitutional fabric. Who could have ever imagined that the country’s highest Constitutional offices – President and V President — would be elected under the caste influence.
Undoubtedly, the rising tensions between communities over perceived injustices and demand for quotas stem from unfulfilled aspirations of employment and upward mobility. As a result, community affiliations are becoming pronounced in the hope that collective bargaining will yield special benefits. Maharashtra’s Marathas, Haryana’s Jats and Gujarat’s Patidars agitation for reservations in Government jobs and education are cases in point.
Simultaneously, quotas have failed to either solve the job problem or promote inclusion. The socio-political trajectory of the Dalit community is marked by frustrations and entrapments. Think, Dalit political activists have risen to political prominence thanks to their alliance with either the BJP or Congress. But as a community, they routinely fail to make an impact on the political process.
True, there has been a slow emergence of the “middle class” among the community characterised by organisations like the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries but joblessness, informalisation and consequent lumpenisation have been afflicting the community.
Also, inter-caste differences and stratifications among Dalits have exacerbated. So, the community takes recourse in assertions of pride and status through symbolism. Thus, in its quest for justice it falls back on struggles of historical memories and fight for material existence.
Trapped in the distortions of the political economy and rendered rudderless by the political bankruptcy of their leaderships, communities inevitably retreat to three things: Mutual suspicion, assertion of caste pride/identity and a confrontation in the shadows of history and memory. A sure recipe for inter-community violence.
Sadly, our leaders are unable or unwilling to break out of the caste mould, refusing to take a clear-cut stand as it would jeopardize their vote-banks and increase dissatisfaction all around. Therefore they make noises and find scapegoats to protect their interests.
Think. Purely caste-based politics entails getting a larger share in the caste cake. Forgetting that it is equally dangerous to indulge in political power games based on caste rivalries. By that token, the whole social reform movement will become meaningless.
Woefully, our polity is unwilling to learn from history. The past tells us that all clashes in India have been based on caste, religion, region or tribe. It is rarely based on class. From Bihar’s Thakur-Dalit violence in Belchi 1976, Punjab’s Jat-Sikh insurgency 1980-1990’s and Kashmir’s two-decades of continuing Hindus-Pandits ethnic cleansing by pro-Pak militants.
Clearly, if political consciousness terminates at the caste level, divisive caste combinations will continue to dominate politics. True, it will be suicidal not to take cognizance of the backward castes new found political aspirations. At the same time, it is equally dangerous to indulge in politics of brinkmanship and political power games based on caste considerations.
In a milieu where caste has cast a long shadow and quotas and queues have become the mainstay of political India, the tragedy is that our leaders refuse to see the Frankenstein they have unleashed wherein a day is not far when it could lead to a full-fledged civil war
The crucial need is to undergo catharsis — a course in emotive cleansing and in cementing a cohesive society. Undoubtedly, India stands testimony to the fact that power in privilege stands further transformed through electoral competition into power in numbers. Which, if not arrested, could boomerang and spell danger to our democracy. What gives? — INFA