Last week, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan assured upper caste groups protesting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that his government will not allow the Act to be “misused”. Coming ahead of assembly elections in the state, and the general election next year, Chouhan has taken a risky political gamble by backing the claims of upper caste organisations in the state.
Chouhan’s promise flies against the stated position of the Modi government that it is against any attempt to undermine the Act. In August, the government had amended the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to override a Supreme Court order that was seen by Dalit groups as diluting the stringent provisions of the 1989 Act. The Centre had moved the amendments after Dalit leaders, including allies of the BJP, protested the SC order and called a Bharat Bandh. The Act is a central law and a CM is duty bound to implement it in letter and spirit. Hence, Chouhan’s assurance is more about optics, which, however, puts the BJP in a spot at a time it is aggressively wooing Dalits across India. Madhya Pradesh itself has a significant Dalit presence — 15.2 per cent of the total population — and the BJP had won a majority of the reserved seats in the 2013 assembly elections. However, the community has turned restive in recent months: MP ranks fourth behind UP, Bihar and Rajasthan in the list of states with the highest number of atrocities reported against SCs. At least six Dalits were killed in MP during the Bharat Bandh.
The SC/ST act is seen as a legal bulwark against Dalit oppression and opposing it is perceived as pandering to anti-Dalit forces. Though political parties in the post-Mandal era have often tactically supported claims of upper and middle castes for reservations in education and employment, rarely has the head of a government openly backed the demand of upper caste groups against the SC/ST Act. This is a classic dilemma that the BJP faces as it tries to look beyond its core support and build a broad social coalition including the Dalits. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah and other senior leaders reach out to the Dalits, contradictions within the Hindu social order seem to challenge the BJP’s initiatives to forge a consensus on politics as well as policies. The opposition to using the term Dalit to identify scheduled castes to enabling legislations like the SC/ST act point to the deep divisions that define power relations in India and the BJP’s inability to transcend them as it seeks to expand its constituency.