The recent flare of caste violence in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh has once again exposed the deep fault lines of Indian society. Despite the attempts to deflect the issue by blaming political parties or the alleged Naxal links to the clashes, the fact remains that such instances of caste violence have been routine in India. And there is no wisdom in running away from the issue by blaming it all on the ‘breaking India forces’, which has become a standard line during such episodes. The truth is that the caste system turn our villages into an arenas of low-intensity perpetual civil war, and so it has been for centuries. Wherever there is more than one caste powerful enough to assert itself, conflict invariably arises for control over resources, institutions and opportunities.
This is how caste system works in practice, the romanticism of an imagined idyllic caste-system notwithstanding.
What happened in Saharanpur may be a deliberate political conspiracy to instigate violence but is it not a matter of concern that how easily people in India can be plunged into mindless violence in the name of caste?
In Saharanpur, there was a verbal contestation between Jatavs and Thakurs over playing of the loud music at a procession to commemorate Maharana Pratap, which soon turned into a violent clash. A Ravidas temple was desecrated, and a Thakur died in the ruckus. Later, a mob of hundreds of Thakurs descended upon the Dalit locality, burnt homes and shops and attacked helpless people. Here, it is an inexcusable failure of the police and administration and they must answer that why there was a delay in action after the initial clash.
In the following days, a militant group of Dalits, the Bhim Army, entered the fray and fought pitched battle with the police on the streets of Saharanpur on the pretext of demanding justice and compensation for the Dalits victims, which were not forthcoming up until then.
The Bhim Army emerged in 2015 after resolving the issue of discrimination against Dalit boys in drinking water from the common tap at a local college. The main force behind it was a lawyer named Chandrashekhar Azad, who apparently used more than just persuasion to resolve the issue.
This again is the result of the deep-rooted systematic caste-based discrimination and the failure of the state machinery to tackle such issues even after seven decades of independence. The gap is then filled by various organisations, political parties and individuals whose aims and methods may or may not be in the long-term best interest of the society. And with the vacuum created due to the electoral decimation of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and increasing irrelevance of Mayawati, we can expect more and more such groups to rise to fill this gap. And these will compete by each taking a more radical posture than the other, which may very well result in a downward spiral not only for the Dalit movement but also for the entire society.
It is here that we must appreciate the politics of Kanshiram and BSP in the historical context. Despite his earlier radical rhetoric, Kanshiram channelised the Dalit anger and aspirations towards non-violent democratic political action. And there is nothing surprising in it as if we look into history. Dalits have almost always chosen the same path to raise their concerns and struggle against oppression.
One of the reasons why democracy has taken a firm hold in India and survives despite doomsday predictions is the faith of the subalterns in the promise and potential of democracy. For Ambedkar, democracy was an instrument of enacting revolutionary changes without bloodshed and violence. And it seems that the Dalit assertion in the post-colonial era has internalised this mantra. Even if one looks at the radical Dalit literature, one will find that in the end emphasis is always on the democratic and constitutional methods.
But this can’t always be taken for granted. The dynamics may change with the rise of the new generation of Dalits who are educated, have more resources than their predecessors and have tasted political power under the BSP rule. This younger generation can’t be expected to be tolerant of the caste discrimination or be patient for change. They want it now! The rise of social media has given them a powerful platform to share concerns, disseminate information and organise socio-political actions. The recent rally of more than 50,000 at Jantar Mantar in Delhi was not organised by any well-oiled machinery of a political party but was the result of various amorphous and scattered Dalit organisations and activists coming together for a common cause. Social media played the central role in this mobilisation as a large number of protestors didn’t belong to any group but joined the protest in their individual capacity in a show of solidarity.
Where does it leave the Uttar Pradesh government and the Bhartiya Janata Party? First of all, it must be agreed that the situation was mishandled from the very beginning. Faced with repeated flare-ups in the district, the administration was found surprisingly callous and inefficient. A swift political intervention bringing together the elders and responsible members of both the castes could have defused the situation before it acquired unmanageable proportion and the positions were hardened on both sides.
The acts of violence have continued well into days after the original clash. Now it is like a catch-22 situation for the BJP. On the one hand, it can’t antagonise the powerful Thakurs, who are one of the core constituencies of the party. And on the other, it can’t risk squandering the significant gains it has made among the Dalits, whose support was critical in both the 2014 and 2017 elections. Dalits also form a central pillar of the BJP’s strategy to expand into the Bengal and the southern states where they have been marginalised for decades under the left and Dravidian rule. But instances like the one involving Rohith Vemula, Una and Saharanpur are a breach of the newly created trust and acceptance of BJP among Dalits and make the task ever more difficult for the party.
But there is one more thing, the BJP should realise that the promise of Vikas is not enough. The party must take up socio-economic issues on the ground. The party which calls itself the ideological successor of Veer Savarkar must launch a grass-root level efforts to eradicate caste discrimination and untouchability in the countryside. It must be seen that the party stands for the ideals of equality and justice or else it risks dissolution of the rainbow alliance of Hindu castes it has so successfully created.
The issues of dignity, equality and justice can easily trump Vikas, no matter what’s the progress on the economic front.
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