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Friday, July 30, 2021

What is the revolt against Chirag Paswan really about?

Abdul Khaliq writes: The implosion in the Lok Janshakti Party is connected to the age-old tradition in our caste-ridden society of showing the Dalit his place.

Written by Abdul Khaliq |
Updated: July 7, 2021 8:23:02 am
Chirag Paswan. (Express file photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

The superficial assessment of the unfortunate developments in the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is that it is a family feud and power struggle. While it is true that the two main protagonists are closely related, the family angle is a mere sub-plot in a many-layered tragic drama, with powerful participants behind the scenes.

The man in the eye of the storm is Chirag Paswan. Indubitably, what happened on June 13 was an attempted coup, aimed at ousting Chirag from the party that his late father, Ram Vilas Paswan, had founded and nurtured to its present stature as a political force to reckon with — and which Chirag shepherded to great success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

It is ironic that the beneficiaries of the party’s success have raised the banner of revolt. Some of them were chomping at the bit since the Bihar assembly elections, which LJP fought alone after being offered a demeaning reduction in seats by its allies in the NDA. For the LJP, the assembly results were a disappointment in terms of seats won, but to garner 6 per cent of the total votes polled, even when it contested only 135 seats, was no mean achievement. The LJP was successful in its collateral intent of ensuring the defeat of the JDU candidates in at least 50 assembly segments.

Predictably, Nitish Kumar will not forget or forgive the bloodied nose at the hands of the young upstart. The JDU first brought over the only LJP legislator to its fold, and now has engineered a split in the party. Through the crisis, the BJP has appeared aloof, but the Speaker’s haste in recognising Pashupati Paras as the leader of the LJP in the Lok Sabha tells its own story.

At a more profound but subterranean level, the LJP implosion has a visceral link to the age-old saga in our caste-ridden society of showing the Dalit his place. Dalit political parties came into being out of an aspiration for an equal place in the sun. With Ram Vilas Paswan gone and Mayawati fighting her demons, Chirag has emerged as the leading Dalit political voice. But given a highly stratified social structure of graded inequality, the Dalit leader knows that he has to overcome a deeply ingrained cultural bias that underestimates his worth. Socially powerful and privileged groups have joined in the effort to stifle the rising Dalit politician. But that’s the story of every Dalit in the country.

Laws have changed, but not society’s inhuman attitude toward the Dalit. Dr B R Ambedkar recognised this lethal societal infirmity, which explains his passionate espousal of a separate electorate for Dalits, but Gandhiji’s gun to his head and the subsequent Poona Pact of 1932 ensured the continuing subordinate status of the Dalit. As compensation for giving up his demand for equality, he was offered the sop of reservation as a means of empowerment.

Ambedkar was emphatic that political reform without reformulating social relations was an insult to the Dalit. In his treatise, The Annihilation of Caste, he asked Hindus the inconvenient rhetorical questions: “Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow untouchables to use public schools… public wells… public streets…wear what ornaments they like…eat any food they like?” Over eight decades later, the vicious legacy of caste discrimination still persists in every walk of life. There has been a 19 per cent increase in reported atrocities against Dalits from 2015 to 2019.

An irrational, wicked belief in Dalit inferiority is embedded in our culture. There are myriad social disabilities imposed on Dalits in everyday life. In many villages in the Hindi belt and Gujarat, Dalit grooms are forbidden from riding horseback. Recently, there have been three reported cases from MP, Gujarat and UP of Dalit grooms being assaulted by upper-caste men for the temerity of riding a horse.

Reservation in jobs and academia for Dalits has been the grudging political response to the most inhuman hierarchical stratification mankind has known. But, with affirmative action restricted to government institutions and cleverly manipulated to keep Dalits from the higher echelons of the establishment, the reservation policy has hardly made a dent in the tightly controlled network of upper caste and class privilege. Further, by mischievously creating a false binary of merit and efficiency versus affirmative action, the traditional elite have succeeded in slotting the reservation policy as a concession for the undeserving.

Over the years, the reservation policy has been systematically weakened. A series of “meritocratic” judgments have called into question the “creamy layer” among Dalits and reservation in promotions, making it difficult for Dalits to be in decision-making positions, which is what Ambedkar always feared. Out of 89 secretaries in the Government of India, there are only three from the ST category and one from the SC community.

Instead of red-hot rage at the whittling down of benefits for the Dalits and the smallness of heart of the privileged, Dalit leaders have passively accepted dilution of the reservation policy. Even a self-assured, fiercely proud Dalit like Chirag Paswan is being defensive and conciliatory when he calls for reservation for the EWS, despite knowing that the raison d’etre of the reservation policy is not economic considerations but untouchability and all its painful consequences.

The pervasive disinformation regarding the Dalit experience drew the following comment from an anguished Dalit colleague: “Instead of annihilating caste, as Ambedkar hoped, we have annihilated the stark truth of caste discrimination in our midst!”

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 7, 2021 under the title ‘Behind the battle within LJP’. The writer, a former civil servant, is secretary general of LJP. Views are personal

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