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Monday, January 24, 2022

Reading Behenji in Dandakaranya

As the heat in Delhi hits forty three degrees,the crowd waits patiently under a massive blue-white cloth-tent.

Written by Vinay Sitapati |
May 7, 2009 11:25:03 pm

As the heat in Delhi hits forty three degrees,the crowd waits patiently under a massive blue-white cloth-tent. Women sit huddled on one side,men on the other,patrolled by nervous policemen and uniformed cadre of the Bahujan Volunteer Force. Local politicians lurk on the stage’s edge,allowing a clear view of the lone,empty chair in the middle. No one wants to block the chair,even when empty,even by mistake. An hour passes,then two. Suddenly those on stage go rigid,and those in the audience get on their feet. Security guards rush on-stage,slowly parting to reveal a cream silk-wearing diminutive lady waving mechanically at the audience. And then,in rustic Hindi,she speaks of Constitutional provisions and proprieties.

It’s a forum (and audience) as far as can be from the air-conditioned sobriety of the Supreme Court,the central hall of Parliament,or even the discussion room at the India International Centre. Yet,if you closed your eyes and just listened,you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For BSP chief Mayawati launches into a lengthy exposition on the provisions of the Indian Constitution,quotes clauses,articulates many of her demands (arakshan,or reservations,being the leitmotif) in legal terminology,and tells a lengthy tale on the Congress,Ambedkar and their roles in founding independent India’s most vibrant document. Her audience of 6,000 — mainly Dalits — listened in pin drop silence at Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds on Sunday.

Why does someone who’s made a career sneering at the elite nature of Indian polity,repeatedly rely on the very document from which the Indian state sources its legitimacy?

Part of the answer lies in the symbolism of B.R. Ambedkar,chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. Mayawati’s speech on Sunday was peppered with “Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar’s” role in guaranteeing rights to “the weaker sections of society”. But the answer also lies in Mayawati’s ability to interpret the Constitution to suit her political strategy. Most legal commentators view individual rights as being the core of the Constitution,group identities as mere political concessions. Mayawati subscribes to the inverse idea — of the Constitution being a power-sharing agreement between groups.

This is not to say that Maya is right. It can equally be argued that B.R. Ambedkar — and the rest of the Constituent Assembly — did not consider the Constitution to be a mere power sharing arrangement. For instance,article 330,which he helped draft,called for legislative reservations to lapse after 10 years — something that Mayawati doesn’t account for. He also helped draft the all-powerful article 14,whose emphasis on the equality of the “person” seems an express rejection of Mayawati’s theory.

But viewed Behenji’s way,the Constitution’s many provisions for Dalits (the phrase used is ‘Scheduled Caste’,technically different from ‘Dalit’,though colloquially interchangeable) are the product of a political compromise,stemming from the Poona Pact of 1932. In return for renouncing separate electorates and perhaps even a separate nation,Dalits enjoy group rights including provisions that prevent discrimination,and those that provide for affirmative action. Mayawati herself was studying to be an IAS officer (15 per cent of all IAS seats are reserved for Dalits) before she dashed the ambitions of her father — Prabhu Das Dayal,himself a central government employee — by joining Kanshi Ram in his ambition to capture political power.

Maya has also been able to use the Constitution for electoral gain. The Constitution reserves legislative seats for Dalits; the BSP began its rise to power by first contesting and winning reserved seats in UP. The steady consolidation of dalit votes ( around 22 per cent in UP,on average) meant that in a four-horse race where the finish line is short,BSP began to win in other seats too. But even deeper,says Ajoy Bose,whose book on Mayawati has set a benchmark in Indian political biography,is “the psychological use of the Constitution and Ambedkar to provide a sense of history to the BSP movement.”

No other group has leveraged the Constitution the way Dalits have. Tribals enjoy the exact same legal guarantees as dalits,but they are neither as networked within government service nor as politically grouped outside (name one tribal party or leader,barring the JMM’s Shibu Soren?). For ‘Other Backward Classes’,it was political mobilisation that came first; constitutional changes/reservations followed later. Ghosh points out that “even within the Dalit community,Mayawati stands out in how much she defends the system.”

Under siege from the right (former RSS chief Sudarshan once accused the Constitution of being “the root cause of most of the country’s ills”),the extreme left (Naxalism),and regionalists (in Kashmir,the North-East,and lest we forget,Bal Thackeray),the Constitution’s ability to accommodate the intensity of Behenji’s ambition,and variance of interpretation,says something for its elasticity.

Naxalite chief,CPI-Maoist General Secretary Ganapati,vows to capture state power by planting the red flag on the red fort. Mayawati on the other hand,might well capture state power by sticking with the tricolour atop the red fort,but by standing below it on August 15th — and all without ever firing from the barrel of a gun. In her autobiography, My Life of Struggle and the Path of the Bahujan Movement,Mayawati praises the Constitution for empowering “weaker sections”,and suggests its use as a tool to capture power. In between re-reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in the forests of Dandakaranya,Ganapati could perhaps find the time to read Behenji.

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