The anti-Dalit violence in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh does not augur well for the Narendra Modi government that came to power with the slogan, sabka saath, sabka vikas. The violence reportedly started with the dominant Thakur community preventing the Dalits in Shabbirpur village from installing a statue of B.R Ambedkar at the Saint Ravidas temple on the occasion of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, though they had got the necessary permission from the authorities. The Dalits could not reconcile with this outrage. Therefore, when the Thakurs took out a procession to celebrate the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, they opposed it. The Thakur community treated this act of resistance as a challenge and took to violence. Dalit houses were torched, their cattlesheds ransacked, and belongings destroyed. Two Dalits were killed; one of them, a 22-year-old, while returning from a public meeting addressed by Mayawati. The Yogi Adityanath government has taken some action. Some persons who attacked the Dalits returning from Mayawati’s meeting have been arrested and the district magistrate and SP of the district suspended. However, the atmosphere is tense and peace remains elusive.
When one examines the anti-Dalit violence in India over a period of time, the four northern states of UP, Bihar, MP and Rajasthan, popularly known as the “cow-belt” states, top the list. As per the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, the total number of crimes against SCs in the country in 2010 was 32,643, of which UP accounted for 7,522 (23 per cent). The number of crimes increased to 47,064 in 2014, in which UP’s share was 8,075. Though its share in the national tally fell by four percentage points to 17 per cent, it continued to top the list. UP’s share declined because crimes against SCs increased in MP and Rajasthan.
Clearly, Saharanpur is not an exceptional incident. However, the implications of the anti-Dalit violence need serious consideration. First, this reaffirms that caste constitutes the “basic structure” of Indian society. Though its pervasive influence has somewhat weakened due to the spread of literacy and education, the development of the means of communications and transport, urbanisation, upward occupational mobility of various backward castes, notably the SCs and the STs, due to affirmative action, notions of caste superiority and prejudices and ill-feelings against the Dalits are largely preserved. However, due to the slow progress of these material development indicators, such a mindset is more dominant in the “cow-belt” states compared to the southern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Second, the rationalist anti-caste Dravidian movement initiated by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy in Tamil Nadu and Narayana Guru’s reformist movement in Kerala set the tone for social change in the south in the 20th century. The “cow-belt” states have not experienced any radical progressive social movement in this period. Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s Arya Samaj focussed on the supremacy of Vedic culture, which only reinforced the rigidity of caste-based hierarchy. This explains why cow vigilantism is largely confined to the “cow-belt” states.
Third, caste-based hierarchy, to use Ambedkar’s words, created “graded inequality” that gave a sense of caste superiority not only to the intermediate castes such as Thakurs, but also to many OBCs. Though this is a pan-Indian phenomenon, it is more pronounced in the “cow-belt” states. Fourth, caste remains the most influential factor in India’s electoral politics, particularly in rural areas, more pronounced in the “cow-belt” states’ rural locales. The anti-Dalit violence in Saharanpur reveals that despite the lip-service paid to Ambedkar’s legacy by the upper and intermediate castes and the OBCs, he remains for many just a Dalit leader. Our political class has failed to convince the masses about Ambedkar’s great contribution towards the making of modern India.
Until about four or five decades ago, the Dalits would meekly surrender to the wishes of the so-called upper-castes in social, economic and political matters. This is no longer true. Access to higher and professional education has enabled horizontal and vertical social and economic mobility for Dalits. It has led to the creation of a class of writers, professionals, administrators and entrepreneurs within the Dalit community. This new class has started to refuse the conventional social stigmatisation and subordination of the Dalits by the upper castes. Ambedkar’s movement of Dalit liberation created a sense of confidence and assertion in the community, which in turn enabled it to overcome traditional feelings of defeatism. Dalit literature played an important role in sharpening confidence.
This Dalit assertion has started posing a challenge to the age-old hierarchy-based supremacy of the upper and intermediate castes and even the OBCs. The latter are finding it increasingly difficult to accept this new Dalit assertion as it threatens their various interests. Protests by students at the Hyderabad Central University in the wake of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, who faced caste-based harassment, Jignesh Mewani’s mobilisation of thousands of Dalits over the flogging of five Dalit youth for skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, and now, mobilisation by the young lawyer Chandrasekhar and the Bhim Army at the Jantar Mantar in the national capital, are examples of Dalit assertion that seem to have upset casteist sections. These protests till now have been peaceful. One wishes that they would continue to be so.
This article is not meant to evaluate the Modi government’s three years in office. But a highlight of this period has been the rise and spread of intolerance across the country on one excuse or an other. Self-appointed vigilantes in social and cultural fields are destabilising a fragile social equilibrium. The sense of insecurity in society calls for Prime Minister Modi’s intervention.