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Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh chief Prakash Ambedkar. Photo: PTI
Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh chief Prakash Ambedkar. Photo: PTI

Can the new Dalit anger reshape national politics?

The question of Dalit resurgence is of critical importance in a year that will see elections in eight states

Mumbai: A week after caste violence, bandh and the ascent of yet another Dalit leader in Maharashtra, the question remains: Will the new Dalit tumult reshape national politics?

On 2 January, a day after clashes broke out between Dalits and non-Dalits near Pune, Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted that “Una, Rohith Vemula, and now Bhima-Koregaon" were potent symbols of the resistance. On cue, the Congress party raised the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Parliament, and sought to link atrocities on Dalits and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Hindutva regime".

Congress parliamentarians claimed that Maharashtra, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was the latest site of Dalit oppression, triggering a backlash. The violence in Bhima-Koregaon, they said, was another stop in the march of ascendant Hindutva, which began with alleged acts of caste discrimination leading to the 17 January 2016 suicide of Rohith Vemula, a 27-year-old PhD student at the University of Hyderabad.

The question of Dalit resurgence is of critical importance in a year that will see elections in eight states. Apart from four northeastern states, three states headed for polls are Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the ruling BJP will face a direct challenge from a resurgent Congress. In Karnataka, Congress will be fighting to retain power.

Prakash Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ambedkar’s grandson and president of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh who gave the ‘Maharashtra bandh’ call on 3 January, certainly thinks so. Two days after he brought Maharashtra to a halt and emerged as the face of Dalit angst, Ambedkar travelled to Bhopal. At an event there, he said if the BJP returns to power at the centre in 2019, it would take away even the right to speak and called for a fight to save the Constitution. Ambedkar has also been insisting that the resistance to Hindutva in Maharashtra did not come from Dalits alone, but also from the larger sections of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Marathas. He also demanded the Congress declare Arun Yadav, president of Madhya Pradesh Congress and an OBC leader, as its chief ministerial candidate. Dalits account for more than 15% of Madhya Pradesh’s population, and chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is from the OBC community.

Vemula’s suicide continues to be a milestone in the narrative built by the opposition parties and Dalit organizations that atrocities against Dalits or the Scheduled Castes (SC) who, as per the 2011 Census, account for 16.6% of India’s population, have risen under the BJP government at the centre. Bhima-Koregaon—where thousands of Dalits had gathered on 1 January to observe the 200th anniversary of a battle in the 1818 Anglo-Maratha war in which Mahar (a Dalit caste) soldiers fought on the British side to defeat the Brahmin Peshwas perceived as tormentors of Dalits—seems to have become another landmark of this new Dalit anger which could reshape the national politics.

Whether atrocities against Dalits have increased under the Modi regime or not is a matter of debate and data; what’s clear is that some egregious cases of atrocities against Dalits since May 2014, when Modi assumed charge, have certainly led to the rise of a new Dalit leadership. The public beating of Dalit men by cow vigilantes in July 2016 at Una in Gujarat, another BJP-ruled state, sparked the rise of Jignesh Mevani, who became the face of Dalit anger and in the December 2017 Gujarat elections got elected as an independent legislator.

Days later, Mevani was speaking near Pune’s Shaniwarwada, the symbol of Peshwa power, at a conference called Elgar Parishad where he gave a call to dethrone the new “Peshwas" represented by Modi and the BJP. If Una created the context for Mevani to debut, Bhima-Koregaon helped him consolidate and relaunch.

Similarly, it was the combination of old grievances as well as the new context of Hindutva that led to the 2015 founding of Bhim Army in Uttar Pradesh by two youngsters fresh out of college—Vinay Ratan Singh and Chandrashekhar. The Bhim Army, with its aggressive and unconventional ways, has caught the imagination of Dalit youths in other states as well, including Maharashtra, and in the wake of Bhima-Koregaon violence, several Bhim Army activists were on the streets protesting.

Anand Teltumbde, a political analyst, author, and observer of Dalit politics, does not think the Bhima-Koregaon issue in itself has the potential to shake up national politics. “If it was not violence, no one would have even noticed the event. These are old symbols and they are not required for the new brand of Dalit mobilization which we of course need. Dr. Ambedkar used the symbol of Bhima-Koregaon as an emotive leitmotif to rally around Dalits, though he obviously knew that narrative of Mahars versus Brahmins was flawed. He used that battle with a specific purpose but he was not static. Dalit politics and its manifestation in contemporary India cannot use the same symbols," Teltumbde said in an interview. He, however, agreed that the Hindutva politics as pronounced in the last three years had created a new Dalit leadership which spoke a new aggressive language and was ready for a fight. “Mevani or Chandrasekhar speak an aggressive language, and it is natural, given the context. Like everything else, Dalit politics has also evolved. They also lack coherence, but I think they will gain it as they progress," Teltumbde said.

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