Mumbai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of social equity in his Independence Day speech on 15 August, his comments the previous week on atrocities against Dalits, and recent efforts by the Maharashtra government and the central government to reach out to Dalits need to be seen in the context of the broader narrative of Dalits versus Bharatiya Janata Party/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh building up across India.
The Times of India reported last week that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis conceded to a request by Dalit sweepers to let them attend the flag-hoisting ceremony with him on 15 August to “end the stigma of untouchability associated with their profession". Five Dalit sweepers attended the ceremony with Fadnavis at the Mantralaya on Monday morning.
In another initiative reported by The Indian Express, Maharashtra’s BJP government has decided to develop 125 Dalit localities across the state with special emphasis on infrastructure. The number 125 was decided to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Dalit icon from the state. Dalits account for around 13% of Maharashtra’s population.
Political analysts expect more such outreach efforts targeted at Dalits, and in more BJP-ruled states and even from the central government.
The flashpoint for the recent Dalit protests was an assault on four Dalits in Gujarat’s Una, where they were flogged for skinning a dead cow. The attack was carried out by members of a local cow protection group (such groups are called Gau Rakshaks or cow protectors). Many such groups owe their allegiance to RSS, the ideological parent of BJP, as well as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, also affiliates of the RSS.
Prime Minister Modi has spoken out against such groups, although RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya has said the Prime Minister should not have said that “80% of Gau Rakshaks were anti-social elements". VHP leader Pravin Togadia too demanded that Modi withdraw his statement.
Meanwhile, the Union home ministry has asked states to act against cow vigilantes.
The protest against the attack at Una has snowballed into a larger protest against how Dalits are treated—in Gujarat (which has a BJP government) and across India. Dalits account for around 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion population, according to the 2011 Census. Around half of them are concentrated in four states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, none of these states is ruled by the BJP, although the party would dearly like to win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year. That could perhaps explain its desire to not be seen as encouraging or nurturing anti-Dalit elements and sentiments.
In Gujarat, as Mint reported on 15 August, Dalits, who account for 7.1% of the population, have given the state government 30 days to meet their demands, which includes five acres of farm land for every family, and alternative livelihoods. After the Una attacks, many Dalits have forsworn removing and skinning dead cattle, or cleaning drains—jobs once relegated to Dalits. “The incident was painful but it sparked a revolutionary trigger among Dalits of Saurashtra region who said they will no longer skin dead cows. This is what Ambedkar wanted Dalits to do, to stop what their caste ordained them to do. The Blacks’ movement for civil rights in the US went through similar pain to achieve liberation," said Milind Kamble, chairman and managing director of MPK Group of Companies and founder chairman of the Pune-based Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI).
The Una attack came around six months after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research student at the University of Hyderabad. The university suspended him, and stopped his fellowship after an alleged clash between members of the Ambedkar’s Student Association, which he was part of, and the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student arm. Vemula’s death sparked protests by Dalit and civil rights groups across India, and was the subject of a heated debate in Parliament.
Vemula’s mother was part of the protests at Una on 15 August and unfurled the national flag there.
In poll-bound Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, Dalits who have been forced into their traditional family trade of skinning dead cows are displaying a new assertiveness after the Una incident. In political and electoral terms, this is a serious wake-up call for the BJP.
The BJP governments both at the Centre and Maharashtra have rolled out quite a few initiatives aimed at the Dalit community. Chief minister Fadnavis has followed up on Prime Minister Modi’s Stand-up India initiative for Dalit entrepreneurs by launching a state-level incentive programme for Dalit businessmen.
Kamble claims the industrial incentives policy in Maharashtra was announced at the behest of DICCI in February 2016 at the Make in India event. “Maharashtra became the fourth state to have this policy after Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka."
The BJP government has also made sure that all procedural bottlenecks have been cleared and paved the way for building a grand memorial to Babasaheb Ambedkar on the Indu Mill campus in Mumbai, something that Dalit organisations and political parties have been demanding for years. In a symbolic but significant gesture, the Fadnavis government bought a house in London where Ambedkar stayed between 1921 and 1923 when he was a student at the London School of Economics.
Milind Mane, one of the 13 Dalit BJP legislators in Maharashtra said the BJP’s Dalit outreach “is an ongoing programme both at the national and state levels". It has nothing to do with the Una incident, he added. “The decision to develop 125 Dalit dominated localities (in the state) as model areas was taken six months back."
Analysts say the BJP would do well to build the momentum of its Dalit outreach initiatives and even look beyond immediate electoral concerns in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Mumbai (where elections to the civic body are due). They add that this is a necessity for the Sangh Parivar if it wants to provide a credible alternative to the post-independence version of an all-inclusive Congress party.