New Delhi: Last week’s events in Uttar Pradesh where the chief minister threatened to take a farmer group’s leader to court after he abused her using a caste-based epithet could be among the first instances of the law being used to enforce political correctness in Indian politics. Moreover, it could also signal the emergence of potential fault lines in the caste coalition backing the state’s ruling party, say experts and other politicians.
Last May, when chief minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) swept the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh by winning 206 of the 403 seats, political analysts had attributed the victory to her strategy of expanding on her mass base among Dalits by reaching out to the upper castes such as Brahmins and Jats—one in every three candidates fielded by the BSP was from an “upper caste.”
“It was a tactical alliance that paid rich dividends in the last elections, but now she can no longer take her alliance with the Jat community for granted,” A. K. Singh, director of the Lucknow-based Giri Institute of Development Studies, said.
Changing equations: BKU leader Mahendra Singh Tikait.
That’s because of what transpired last week when Bharatiya Kisan Union president Mahendra Singh Tikait, a powerful leader of upper-caste Jat farmers based in Sisauli village in west UP’s Muzaffarnagar district, hurled a caste-based epithet at Mayawati at a rally.
Mayawati had little choice but to react, even as she took ample care to minimize the affront to Tikait and his followers. She did so by threatening to invoke the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which forbids intentional insult of a member of a SC or a ST by even uttering the name of the caste.
Tikait was as surprised as he was defiant. He, as well as his supporters, hundreds of whom swiftly gathered around him to block the police and paramilitary forces rushed to surround his village, reasoned that references to caste were commonplace in everyday conversations in the villages.
The storm finally blew over after three tense days, when Tikait apologized for his remarks and agreed to surrender rather than provoke a confrontation between his supporters and the police. He was later released on bail by a district court in Bijnore.
“Behenji takes political decisions after careful consideration,” said Bhai Lal, a Lok Sabha member of the BSP, referring to Mayawati. “Despite unnecessary politicizing of the issue by the opposition parties, the state government acted with restraint and only made sure the law was implemented. There was never any intention to cause offence to the farmers’ leader.”
Singh explained that the confrontation was as inevitable as it was undesirable from Mayawati’s point of view. “Tikait is a leader of the landed Jat farmers of western UP where Dalits form the bulk of farm labour. So their relationship has historically been that of the employer and the employee, with considerable abuse of the employee,” he added.
“Now, with political empowerment of the Dalits, there is a natural resentment among some farmers, even as the BSP managed to woo a section of them in the last elections. Besides that, the sugar cane farmers of that region have long been demanding their dues owed by government and private-owned sugar cane mills. In fact, the rally in question was called to press for these demands,” Singh said.
Others see the incident as a step forward in enforcing political correctness—legally, if required.
Ramachandra Guha, a historian and a commentator, said though the incident couldn’t be divorced from the burden of history, it should be treated as a welcome enforcement of the Constitution.
“In the context of Uttar Pradesh, landed communities, especially the Jats, have a long history of abuse against the Dalits, which can neither be condoned nor pardoned in present-day India,” Guha added. “If a male leader from a landed community in Uttar Pradesh calls a female Dalit leader an offensive name, and if action is taken against him, it should be seen only as a case of adherence to the Constitution, which abolishes untouchablity, including verbal abuse.”
“The SC/ST Act prohibits denigrating anyone on the basis of caste. Several prosecutions have taken place under this law,” senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi said.
Perhaps since the law itself is unequivocal, none of the political parties that seized the opportunity to register their solidarity with Tikait condoned his act but questioned the severity of the state government’s response.
Arun Jaitley, a senior advocate and a Rajya Sabha member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which lent its support to Tikait, said the legal position was quite clear in that making casteist remarks did amount to a violation. “Moreover,” he said, “it is not so much about the law but about usage of dignified vocabulary in politics. You can’t convert vulgarity into a right.”
“The UP government must explain why it treated the respected farmers’ leader as if he were a terrorist,” said Mahmood A. Madani, a Rajya Sabha member of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Ajit Singh-led political party most closely associated with the BKU, which itself does not contest elections.
Manish Tiwari, a spokesperson of the Congress party said the Mayawati government had overreacted in the matter.
Mushirul Hasan, vice-chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia, however, said the episode only exposed the wide gulf between the ground reality and the provisions laid out in the Constitution. “Mayawati could act and enforce the law because of the resources at her command. But think of the vast majority of Dalits who have little recourse to justice. This is the huge challenge that India faces.”