Politics on Roads
By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
New Year season is celebrated this year in Mumbai with violent street level politics virtually paralysing normal life. Various Dalit organisations, which normally meet to visit a memorial in Bhima-Koregaon on the outskirts of Pune on 1st January, used the occasion to reinvigorate Dalit politics.
In Maharashtra, it is the day to commemorate the memory of a battle fought in 1818 between the Peshwas (Maratha rulers) and the East India Company which won with the support of Mahar soldiers. Bhima-Koregaon is a historic reminder of Dalit valour. While textbooks speak of East India Company’s territorial expansion, the victorious role of their ancestors is recalled by Mahars ever since Ambedkar’s visit to this place in 1927.
In the context of democratic elections fanning caste affiliations and animosities, this year’s celebration of the day, which completes two centuries, revived strong caste feelings. The occasion was celebrated as a milestone in the repudiation and defeat of notions of caste superiority and inferiority and victory of Dalits over Brahmins.
This was reason enough to give rise to violent clashes between Dalits and Marathas causing widespread incidents of violence and arson causing deaths and injuries. Maharashtra bandh was called by Dalit leaders and organisations in the State which brought all activities to a standstill.
The incident, though localised at State level, has made an impact across the country. It is viewed as current course of mainstream national politics signifying the return of Dalit politics to claim its political space.
Dalit politics is presently taking shape in India in which protests form an important part. Real events are getting exaggerated with imaginary fears and provide opportunities for consolidation and joint actions by Dalits. Most of the big States that are presently caste-ridden in different ways for various purposes are subject to this identity politics.
It seems very easy to ignite trouble among the masses. History can be distorted and old events can be reenacted to keep alive animosities and kindle hatred to fan violence. This is what happened in Mumbai in reviving lost memories of an obscure battle and twist it as a caste war and not the empire-building ambition of the East India Company.
The idea of protest is normally associated with the image of a dissident minority taking a public stand in matters affecting their interests in some way. Protestors are generally groups of people outside the mainstream that lack influential inside connections with the wielders of power because of being a numerical minority or having unequal access to power centres. Protest movements are integral part of history in any country. From Boston Tea Party (1773) to Women’s March after Trump assumed office (2017), US history is full of protests. The biggest was the protest against Viet Nam war in 1969.
In recent years, protest politics has become common all over the world — West Asia, North Africa, America, Russia, and India — against repression, and economic inequality. It could be interpreted as conscious awakening of the people to the immense power of joint action to bring about the change they want in contrast to sudden and spontaneous revolutions of previous centuries. Protest has become an effective tool of democratic action.
Protests in the form known as “bandh” take place all over India for economic, territorial and administrative demands. Anti-corruption crusade, reservation for Jats, sub-categorisation of OBC, closure of Kudankulam nuclear plant, revival of jallikattu, Cauvery water dispute, controversy over nationalism, and farmers’ plight are some issues that have moved young and old alike and have caused prolonged protests on streets.
Rohit Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad provoked protests across the country promoting integration of Dalit groups despite controversies surrounding the caste status of the person. Permanent protest venues have also come up in many cities like the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and the Marina in Chennai.
Dalit consolidation has models to emulate. The most recent is in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where consolidation of the Backward Classes politically under Yadavs in the 1990s brought a decisive change in State politics. Two influential political parties emerged — Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal — to lead and guide the politics of backward classes.
This development can reasonably raise a hope among Dalits to enhance their political influence through Dalit consolidation and uprising. The start is already strong with Mayawati’s BSP in UP. Her recent threat to quit Hinduism and join Buddhism is re-enactment of Ambedkar’s strategy. The BSP is based on a vision of Dalit unity and identity along with expanded meaning of Dalit to include Other Backward Classes and also Dalit-Muslim unity necessary to win elections.
There are already some indications of integration of Dalit movements politically taking place as a nation-wide movement. But, in reality, Dalits, in the absence of a precise definition, comprise the SCs and also the “more” and “most backward” of the castes designated as “OBC”, and are scattered in various parties. They have also formed independent parties that ally with bigger parties in elections.
Even within a State, there is no consolidated Dalit front. The Republican Party of India, founded by Ambedkar, is now split in groups. There are two parties claiming to represent Dalits in Tamil Nadu – Viduthalai Chiruttaigal and Pudiya Tamilagam. Other States are no different.
In the political game of elections and ministry formations, leaders fall a prey to appeasement politics and the community does not get its “fair” share. As a result, they have become significant accompaniments to other parties rather than strong independent parties.
Maharashtra, the home State of Ambedkar, is a natural breeding ground for Dalit politics now openly starting protest politics. But, like other politically mature castes, they are also caught in the web of electoral politics and thereby subservient to the dictates of their political bosses. Dalits in Maharashtra and in India as a whole constitute a numerically significant minority but with no hope of becoming majority without expanding the umbrella of Dalit. Politically, it is a weakness of the minority.
Maratha-Dalit conflict is not new to Maharashtra. In the early 1980s, the two communities indulged in major violence over renaming of the Marathwada University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University. It continued for over 15 years and ended in achieving the new name in 1994.
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra as a force to reckon with. Still, it had to grow under the patronage of major political parties in elections. The resourceful Maratha politics drowned the chances of independent Dalit politics.
Temple entry and equal right to worship in Hindu temples and eradication of vestiges of the practice of untouchability still continue as principal Dalit problems in the south.
The causes that surface are not the real causes of Dalit unrest. We deceive ourselves by twisting real issues of inclusive development to appear as caste conflict while Dalits are misled to pursue non-issues and forget reality. What is wanted is education and jobs for all.
If party politics is allowed to play its mischief and exploit social divisions for electoral gains, the outcome will be a dangerous future in front of us. —INFA