Symbols are, or may become, representations of statements and mindsets when used in politics. They can both energise and enervate. In commerce, they represent a brand which may stand for different attributes. Unlike in politics, since the objective is commercial gain, they cater to some attribute of excellence in terms of quality and durability. For those to whom price matters, the two attributes which determine choice are: Quality and affordability. The poor have little space to make choices. They have to make do with what is offered.
When a party proposes a candidate for the highest office in our republic, what are the attributes that we should be looking for? The person nominated must, at the outset, represent the ethos that underlies what our nation stands for: A liberal, inclusive, tolerant India; not a divisive, intolerant, exclusive India. In addition, the face of the republic must have the gravitas to attract attention beyond our territorial contours. The republic must command respect in every quarter.
Tokenism breeds cynicism. Had Ambedkar been in our midst today, he would have been an ideal candidate, not because he was a Dalit, but because he opposed caste and bigotry, as being contrary to the constitutional values we wish to nurture. His conversion to Buddhism was a revolt against a caste-ridden hierarchical structure that bred inequality and intolerance. He himself was the victim of such intolerance and was deeply moved by its constant manifestations within our culture.
I am worried that the candidature of Ram Nath Kovind will be projected as if it represents the empowerment of Dalits. The BJP, which has historically been anti-Dalit, will now use the caste of their nominee to seduce Dalits into believing that the party is pro-Dalit because of this symbolic gesture. Not that Dalits will be taken in. The image of Amit Shah breaking bread in a Dalit home in Naxalbari and earlier in a village in Varanasi, are all indications of tokenism in which symbolism is all that matters. The Opposition should take this opportunity to expose the BJP.
It should highlight recent events in which Dalits have been targets of violence. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the main culprits in crimes against Dalits. Data from Gujarat shows that such atrocities make up 163 per cent of all crimes in the state. It is also reported that in Gujarat 95 out of 100 suspects for crimes against Dalits are acquitted. Besides, 52 to 65 per cent of all crimes in Rajasthan have a Dalit as victim. Please ask what is the track record of the Governor of Bihar vis a vis the rise of such incidents in Bihar.
The other two states where the BJP is in power have hardly come off with flying colours. The inhuman thrashing of Dalits by gau rakshaks at Una, and the silence of the prime minister hardly match the BJP’s symbolic concern for Dalits. What is the response of the BJP to the 50 families in Sehore in Madhya Pradesh seeking permission for euthanasia from Shivraj Singh Chouhan after their land was occupied by musclemen? The killing of two children in Faridabad in 2015, despite the deployment of police in the area, shocked everyone.
Please seek Rajasthan’s response to the incident in May 2016 when three Dalits were crushed under a tractor in district Nagaur. The tragedy surrounding Rohith Vemula’s suicide (January 2016) who said “My birth is my fatal accident” is evidence of the wanton infiltration of casteist politics in universities. His crime was that, as a member of Ambedkar Students’ Association, he opposed the death penalty to Yakub Memon, and condemned the ABVP for objecting to the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar baaqi hai in Delhi University.
The ABVP allegedly roughed him up and complained about him to Minister Bandaru Dattatreya for his “anti-national” activities. The then HRD minister, to whom the complaint was forwarded, obliged, resulting in the vice chancellor of Hyderabad Central University suspending him and depriving him of seven months of fellowship. The recent show of strength of the Bhim Sena at Jantar Mantar, protesting against atrocities committed in Uttar Pradesh at the hands of Thakurs, is evidence of Dalits continuing to be victims of intolerance and violence. All this sits rather uneasily with the symbolism of anointing a Dalit as president.
Voicing objections to the recommendations of the Ranganath Commission that both Muslim and Christian Dalits be included in the Scheduled Caste categories, Ram Nath Kovind, in 2010, is reported to have said “Islam and Christianity are alien to the nation”. If he made that statement, he needs to assure the minorities that, when and if elected, he will stoutly defend the values of the republic. If he made no such statement, he must issue a clarification forthwith. Otherwise, it will make the minorities feel very uneasy. The real aliens are those who promote the culture of violence, contrary to our constitutional values.
Given the fact that every 18 minutes a crime is committed against Dalits in India and the conviction rate in prosecutions is less than 6 per cent, the office of the president will be under constant pressure, now that a Dalit will be occupying it. This is particularly so when every morning we are informed of yet another gory attack against Dalits. It is well-nigh impossible to overnight bring about a social transformation, eliminating practices and transforming mindsets embedded in a caste-ridden society. I hope this government is aware of the danger that lies ahead. This is a great opportunity for the prime minister, if he genuinely cares for Dalits, to rein in the elements who believe that they can target Dalits with impunity. The gau rakshaks will have to be swiftly dealt with.
Yogi Adityanath must be advised to go to Dalit homes without sending them soap and shampoo in advance and without ensuring for himself a comfortable environment before he meets them. The government will have to change its policy and support their adequate representation in the civil services and the demand for reservations in promotions. Will Modi have the courage to do this? Tokenism and genuine concern for a caste cannot go hand in hand. In commerce, a brand which cannot deliver will lose value. We can ill afford to have the office of the president be exposed to such a possibility.