BJP’s Kovind strike encircles, isolates Jatavs

The RSS and BJP continue to question constitutionally mandated affirmative actions for Dalits, which is why their Dalit outreach remains thin on the ground

Written by Chandra Bhan Prasad | Updated: June 21, 2017 5:23 pm
Ram Nath Kovind, Presidential Election, Dalit Ram Nath Kovind (PTI Photo)

The announcement of Ram Nath Kovind as the BJP’s presidential candidate only proves the old axiom, that India’s political class has a remarkable ability to divide and rule its Dalit population, thereby ensuring that it never accumulates the clout to leverage its rise to the top.

Punjab is a classic example with its more than 32 per cent Dalit population. As long ago as 1975, the Congress government headed by Giani Zail Singh announced a job quota for Dalits, except that it split the community into two – 12.50 per cent for the Balmiki subcaste and Mazhabi Sikhs and another 12.50 per cent for the Jatav sub-caste and other smaller castes.

Punjab’s wealthy Dalits, especially in the Doaba region, never had the leverage to claim, leave alone, run the Chandigarh Secretariat.

Bihar chief minister is hardly any better. Although Nitish Kumar wants to be seen as a political leader who fights for the weak and the downtrodden, the truth is that he has also divided the Dalits into Dalits and Mahadalits. Ostensibly, this is to target governance delivery to those who need it most, such as the Mahadalits. But in effect the Janata Dal (United) leader has ensured that division at the poll booth renders Dalit leaders largely ineffectual.

One can even accuse the Bihar chief minister of being half-Socialist and half-Sanghi, meaning, he is in effect following the prescriptions of the RSS.

As for the RSS/BJP, deception is a common tool in the pursuit of power and hegemony. The BJP can be brutally open about letting its agenda known to the world, for example with Muslims, who it considers unequal citizens of India. The party didn’t field even a single token Muslim in the recent UP Assembly polls, and made this divisiveness a poll plank. It stopped short, thankfully, of calling for a “Muslim-free Uttar Pradesh.”

We should look at the example of America, who after World War II began to think about integrating its sizeable African-American population. As it emerged as a superpower, its political class and civil society began to seriously introspect about the racism that was dividing the country within. Richard Nixon came up with the idea of Black Capitalism in 1963, which was followed by a series of Affirmative Action models, all of which resulted in the rise of a formidable Black middle class.

Not that the BJP hasn’t tried to reach out to Dalits in the last couple of decades. None other than former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee raised in Parliament the horrendous attack on Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader Mayawati at the State Guest House in Lucknow, in June 1995. I watched in horror how frenzied Samajwadi Party goons tried to break down the door to her room; how RSS workers formed a human chain around the Dalit leader on that terrible day, and escorted her to the Governor’s House where she took the oath of office the following day

I haven’t since stopped admiring Vajpayee ji and RSS workers for their incredibly brave act. In fact, the Vajpayee regime did something more for Dalits that even the Congress couldn’t do — it ordered that the vacancies in jobs reserved for Dalits be filled up by reducing the qualifications needed for them.

And yet the BJP’s Dalit outreach never gained legitimacy. The RSS especially has questioned the constitutional affirmative actions for Dalits both in jobs and education. None other than the current RSS ‘sarsanghchalak’ Mohan Bhagwat, on the eve of the Bihar polls in October 2015, called for a “social review” of the reservation policy for Scheduled Castes that has been constitutionally mandated since Independence.

To the RSS and its associates, Dalits are acceptable if they sung the Vande Matram. Remember the RSS description of Muslims as being of Hindu origin? Instead of examining its own highly repressive caste system which keeps whole communities beyond the pale, the RSS sees Dalits in general and the Jatav caste in particular – which comprises as much as 60 per cent of North India’s Dalits, making it politically powerful and socially influential — as a major obstacle to its pursuit of cultural hegemony, a Hindu Rashtra.

Certainly, even in independent India, the Jatav have never been given their due. A racially distorted edge has been imparted to this traditionally cobber community — but the Jatav have a long tradition of challenging the Brahminical order and have proved their service to the nation, over and over again.

In the 14th century, the saint Ravidas took on Kashi’s legendary pundits and defeated them in the knowledge of the “shastras.” Towards the end of the Second World War, the embattled British raised a Chamar regiment in 1943 to fight the advancing Japanese imperial army into Burma and India; it fought very well and pushed the Japanese back.

The Congress party coopted the Jatav for years and created a formidable Brahmin-Dalit political alliance. The RSS and BJP have been less successful in their search for a Dalit icon who could help them tap into the emotional wellsprings of this community. It is in this context that one must see prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s applause for B R Ambedkar. Those who carefully watched the ruling party’s strategy in the UP elections knew that it was supporting the non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs. This is because the Jatav largely owe allegiance to Mayawati, while the Yadavs are sworn to defend the Samajwadi Party.

So who are the “non-Jatav” castes in Uttar Pradesh the BJP favours? The Khatik and Dhobi castes are found all over the state, the Pasis in Avadh and the Koris in Bundelkhand reaching all the way to Avadh. All these castes can be served by Brahmin priests. They share Hindu rituals and follow Hindu customs. They suffer from caste discrimination, but rarely find fault with the Hindu system that gives divine approval to the caste order.

This is where Ram Nath Kovind becomes important. Mr Kovind comes from a Kori sub-caste, whose traditional occupation is weaving; they are called Bunkars as well. Thankfully, unlike other Dalit occupations, “weaving” is not despised. Thus, Koris are considered “pure enough” for the RSS, which means that they can shake hands with them even if they haven’t bathed.

Ram Nath Kovind fits perfectly into the RSS strategy of encircling and isolating Jatav. In fact, after the Koris, the BJP is planning a Pasi outreach program, the second largest sub-caste in UP. Some Dalits who know Kovind ji say he is a gentleman, but he remains a BJP man amongst Dalits, not a Dalit man in the BJP. Through him, the RSS can now market ‘Vande Mataram’ amongst non-Jatav Dalits as well.

Chandra Bhan Prasad is an influential Dalit thinker and writer. He tweets @cbhanp
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