The large scale protests on 2 April as part of a “Bharat bandh" call given by various Dalit organizations surprised many. The surprise was not just at the scale of the bandh which affected normal life in many parts of North India but at also the fact that the bandh was not officially sponsored by any political party.
This was unlike the farmer protests which have been organized in many states of the country, mobilized by various political outfits and farmer organizations for demands such as loan waivers and remunerative prices for agricultural produce.
The Dalit protest was not for a specific demand but to express general anger against the government. While the Supreme Court judgement on 20 March, which imposed restrictions on immediate arrest of the accused in The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or SC/ST Act, may have acted as the trigger, it will be naïve to suggest that the protest was only about this issue. The protest was the result of accumulated anger against policies of the government and instances of discrimination which seem to have worsened under this government.
Surprising also because the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came on the support of a significant sections of Dalits. However, four years down the line, there is a sense of betrayal, indifference and, worse, lack of trust on the government’s intentions. This has affected almost all sections of the Dalit community but much more among the youth who saw hope in the Modi government. Several decisions and utterances of the government have only reinforced the lack of trust among the Dalits.
Among the most important is the general feeling that the incumbent government led by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is against reservations. This became a political issue during Bihar assembly elections but has gained strength after the University Grants Commission’s order of changing the formula for calculating reserved posts.
The fact that many higher education institutions including Jawaharlal Nehru University have failed to fulfil constitutional quotas and the general feeling among the upwardly mobile youths from these communities that they face discrimination in higher educational institutions have only added to the mistrust.
It has also been accompanied by a decline in the number of scholarships, increasing fee and denial of fellowships to these students who often are among the first generation of university students in their family or village.
The suicide of Rohith Vemula was one such incident and has been followed by a feeling of alienation among a large majority of these youth.
While constitutional safeguards were weakened or violated, the feeling of alienation also gained ground after the rise in violence by cow vigilantes and a ban on cattle trade and cattle-related activities which engaged a substantial majority of the Dalits. It was a deadly blow to the youth who were already suffering from lack of jobs and decelerating wages. The Una agitation following an attack on four youths by cow vigilantes led to spontaneous protests.
But this has not led to any decline in attacks on Dalits engaged in the cattle trade or leather work. The deceleration in economic activity suffered by the informal enterprises after demonetization and hurried rollout of the goods and services tax further worsened the economic situation, since the informal sector was a major source of employment for most of those moving away from agriculture.
In many ways the anger among Dalits is no different from the anger among farmers and youth. Both these groups have been on street in many parts of the country for almost two years now. The protest by Dalits has to be seen in continuation of the trend of a large majority of the poor and aspirational class feeling alienated. This is true of the protest by the Jats, Marathas and the Patels who for different reasons have been protesting against the declining fortunes of the community and the lack of educational and employment opportunities.
In many ways, these are symptoms of a larger anger against rising inequality in the country. The impunity of the rich and stories of crony capitalism raise questions not only on the economic model of the government but also on the commitment of the government to the marginalized and Dalits.
Worsening economy and rising inequality have contributed to the anger among Dalits; it is also a reflection of the sense of betrayal by the Modi government which came on the promise of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’.
While economic recovery may help the government create jobs and reduce distress, Dalit anger will be difficult to deal with as long as it is accompanied by rising inequality and an increasing sense of alienation.
Himanshu is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi