New Delhi: When thousands of Dalits marched through Delhi on Monday protesting against a Supreme Court ruling that dilutes the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Act), it was as if they had been washed in blue.
Blue flags stand out as the most visible marker of the Dalit protests in recent years. Be it at the massive Dalit protests that followed the Khairlanji massacre of 2006, or those after the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in 2016 or the Una floggings the same year; or even after the bicentenary celebration of the Bhima-Koregaon war in a remote village in Maharashtra early this year. It’s not just in rallies where blue flags are used—when a group in July last year tried to claim 12 acres of land that belonged to four Dalit families in Lavara, a village in Gujarat, they planted a blue flag on the contested land to ensure that it was handed over to its rightful owners.
“The idea behind it was that blue is the colour of sky—a representation of non-discrimination, that under the sky everyone is believed to be equal. There are many theories around this, but there is no settled history on why blue became the colour of Dalit resistance," Says Raosaheb Kasbe, a former professor of political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, and a scholar on Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar and the Dalit movement. According to a paper, Fabric-Rendered Identity: A Study of Dalit Representation in Pa. Ranjith’s Attakathi, Madras and Kabali, published in Artha-Journal of Social Sciences in 2017, “Ambedkar is known to have introduced the blue Mahar’s Flag as his party flag for the Independent Labour Party. It is representative of identifying with Dalit consciousness that is non-discriminatory. It also appeals to the masses as in the blue-collar workers".
Mahars are the largest Dalit group in Maharashtra.
Statues of Ambedkar wearing a three-piece blue suit and holding the Indian Constitution are seen in many villages and towns across the country. The suit as well as the colour blue hold a symbolic meaning for the Dalits because historically, upper-caste oppression, as a Mint Lounge story published in April last year stated, “found expression in sartorial superiority".
Beena Pallical, national coordinator of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights says Ambedkar’s blue suit is one of the main reasons Dalits adopted the blue flag. But the colour that needs to be discussed more, she says, is the saffron colour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party: “What is happening now is that one colour is washing off all the colours – the colours of secularism, the colours of unity in diversity, the colours of communal harmony."
While Dalits have used blue to signify empowerment, there have been instances when the same colour has been used to discriminate against them and socially exclude them.
In 1995, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra enforced a policy to dress Dalit children in blue uniforms—to mark them out from other children, according to the book Civil Society, Public Sphere and Citizenship: Dialogues and Perceptions edited by Rajeev Bhargava, Helmut Reifeld.