Dalits now cannot be taken for granted: Chandra Bhan Prasad
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New Delhi: In the past one week, there has been several incidents of violence against Dalits in Gujarat and Maharashtra, while derogatory remarks were made by a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and a popular Dalit leader.
In an interview, Chandra Bhan Prasad, writer and Dalit thinker, talks about the violence and its political ramifications. Edited excerpts:
There has been a recent spurt in violence against Dalits, specially in Gujarat and Maharashtra. What are your thoughts?
To be fair to the BJP, violence against Dalits has a long history, irrespective of the party in government. So, it’s a common phenomenon in the entire country. But, there has been a change since this government came to power in 2014. Before this, there were individual cases of violence against Dalits but here, instance of violence against Dalits are related to organized groups— like in the case of Hyderabad, it was the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is the students’ group of the BJP, versus Dalits.
The instances of violence on the issue of cow protection, which is also related to “Gau Rakshak” which is controlled, guided and mentored by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)...the point I am trying to make is the 2014 elections were fought on the question of development, but a section of Hindu society, which is pre-dominantly upper caste and conservative has assumed that this mandate is for a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) and hence the conflict. Modi says something—nation building, economic freedom—but the Sangh Parivar and associates think people have given them the power to rule the country and to instil cultural nationalism.
The government is trying for Dalit outreach through initiatives like Stand Up India etc. What do incidents like these or the remarks by the BJP leader against Mayawati do to these efforts?
People think somehow that smartphones and Internet are accessible only to the cream of the society but everyone now, including Dalits has smartphones; phones of young Dalit boys have Internet and WhatsApp. The message, whether good or bad, gets spread very quickly. The government thinks we are doing a lot of things for Dalits so let the RSS have their own agenda and we have our own agenda and Dalits would think in a positive manner.
What about the outreach efforts of the government?
People are loving it—the schemes that are launched—but the feedback I get is that Dalit asmita (pride) cannot be traded at the stock exchange. You have Stand Up India and you have Dalits getting lynched here and there. Or the fear of getting lynched—this fear that has got into Dalit minds specially the underclass Dalits, those working in leather industries, is worrisome.
With urbanization setting in, the aspirations of Dalits have changed and they have become more developed; do you think this violence is a manifestation of this new dynamic?
The urban expansion and industrial development that happened post the economic reforms, freed Dalits from working in the farmlands of upper caste landlords. Bullocks have vanished from north India, there is no one to till farmlands as Dalits have taken a vow not to work on farms again. This is something that a section of the upper caste society is extremely uncomfortable with. The society can now accept a Dalit crossing an upper caste area on a bicycle but it still hasn’t accepted the idea of a Dalit riding a Royal Enfield. Upper castes feel threatened as Dalits now feel equal to them and even confront them.
Dalits now cannot be taken for granted. Nowhere in the world do people trade their honour with anything else. However, the BJP’s core conservative social base think that Hindu Raj has come into being and is very nostalgic about past and caste.
Why do you think someone like Mayawati still struggles to consolidate her original support base?
Mayawati created a spark in every Dalit mind—this is a much bigger thing than handing over people billions of rupees. That, yes, India belongs to us also. However, she did not graduate further and kept on quarrelling over the past. Dalits did not exist in the memory of town planners so she made memorials and parks. She began well but got stuck.
A section of youth Dalit voters did vote for the BJP in the 2014 election because they got attracted to the idea of development. However, that magnetic attraction has now reversed.