Impunity is the common thread that runs through Una and Dadri, connecting Dalits and Muslims in India today. Dictionaries define it as exemption from punishment, or more broadly, as the sense of security born of the assurance of protection from the consequences of one’s actions. Crimes are committed even in healthy societies, but the society in which criminals flaunt their sense of impunity is seriously ill. It is precisely this sick self-assurance that has been on display in far too many places in the last two years, from Muzaffarnagar to Atali and Badaun to Dangawas.
But is the impunity with respect to Dalits essentially the same as that with respect to Muslims? If it is not, then how are they related? Most important, what do these pathologies presage for our collective future as a nation?
Despite obvious differences in their ideological origins and historical evolution, mainstream society’s animosity towards Dalits and Muslims is very similar in practice. The internet offers macabre visual evidence of the basic similarity of vigilante crowds across India, from Una in Gujarat to Dimapur in Nagaland. However, in modern societies, impunity cannot be an exclusively social matter — it must involve the state. In fact, popular imagination leans the other way, seeing impunity only as the state’s politically enforced biases for or against particular social groups. The public and the media are not interested in the fact that impunities of this sort are woven into the warp and weft of our society. They only want answers to the political questions, preferably boiled down to electoral predictions: Having won a general election by a landslide despite telling Muslims (in effect) that he neither wanted nor needed their votes, will Narendra Modi be able to say the same to Dalits and still win Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and India in 2019?
Regardless of the answer, it is amply evident by now that the Modi regime is committed to treating Muslims in a particular way, and that it does not want to look like it is treating Dalits in the same way. On every atrocity inflicted on Muslims, the regime’s pronouncements have taken the form of a familiar double-speak that is no longer ambiguous. Though party functionaries habitually issue multiple statements, their joint message is singular and perfectly clear because of the underlying coherence of the regime’s stance towards Muslims. By contrast, incidents involving Dalits have provoked a slew of divergent reactions, ranging from a patently insincere rhetorical excess (“Shoot me but not my Dalit brothers”) or the crass effort to question Rohith Vemula’s Dalit-ness, to the swift action against the party official who made derogatory remarks about Mayawati or the concerted attempt to celebrate and appropriate Ambedkar.
The Hindu right-wing’s ambivalence on caste is almost as old as Hindutva itself. It dates back to the 1930s’ stand-off between what might be called the Ratnagiri line and the Nagpur line, or the Savarkar-inspired anti-caste radicalism of the Hindu Mahasabha and the conservative gradualism espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership. Eight decades later, the same basic ambivalence is heavily overlaid with electoral anxieties. The leadership is aware that the Hindutva agenda cannot succeed without lower caste support, but it is unable to take a decisive stand on how to handle the Dalit-backward caste antagonisms without alienating its own upper caste core. The 2014 electoral boat of the BJP-RSS floated on the demographic dominance of the backwards and the economic promise of neo-liberal nirvana has run aground on the Dalit-backward caste conflict and the inability to create jobs. In the current context, the broad direction of mobilisations and the next few moves on the political chessboard are obvious enough. The BJP-RSS dream — and the nightmare of its rivals — is to integrate both backwards and Dalits into the Hindutva cause by somehow empowering both. Given a comatose Congress and a Left confined to its Kerala corner, the game is for the Hindu right to win or lose.
What about Dalits and Muslims themselves — are there objective reasons that will enable them to come together regardless of the agendas of others? It is true that Dalits and Muslims are of similar economic status, with the latter having sunk below the former in urban contexts. Socially, they are both at the receiving end of social impunities. There is also the buzz created by the exciting possibilities that are emerging in isolated spaces like universities. But despite these suggestions of convergence, the political chances of an alliance in the larger world are remote. Given the global climate of opinion, allying with “Muslims” of any shade is politically expensive if not self-defeating. Moreover, the differentiation process has affected Muslims and Dalits as well, with region and sub-caste exerting a powerful centrifugal push that threatens to splinter identity-based formations. Keeping all this in mind, one cannot help coming back to the ironic conclusion that, today, the only force capable of facilitating a Dalit-Muslim alliance against such heavy odds is the Hindu right itself.
But the Indian appetite for political speculation misleads us into missing the big picture. This is particularly true of the “we” that is neither Muslim nor Dalit. Regardless of their electoral encashability, impunities of the kind we witness today are social creations. The confidence that forces four men into a vehicle, transports them from village to town, ties them up near a police station, and insists that bystanders participate in their flogging is not cultivated in a day or by a single individual. It is a confidence secreted from the pores of a society that inscribes caste hierarchies into our bodies and souls. We may realise only too late that the impunities embedded into our social framework are corrosive rather than reinforcing. The real question, therefore, is not whether Modi will muster a majority, or whether categories called Dalit and Muslim will unite. The real question is whether those of us who are neither Dalit nor Muslim will continue to be complicit in the cultivation of corrosive impunities.