The nation-wide protests by Dalit groups on Monday was triggered by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the SC/ST Atrocities Act, but it eventually turned out to be a mobilisation against the central government and the BJP. The government, clearly, had failed to understand how deeply the Dalit communities have invested in the Atrocities Act, which they see as a powerful instrument to resist and fight caste-centered harassment and oppression. That it took the government days to file a review petition in the SC was perceived by Dalit outfits as a tacit approval of the apex court’s order. The government lost the plot as the Dalit anger simmered and culminated in the bandh on Monday, in which at least nine persons were killed.
However, it will be too simplistic to limit the restiveness among Dalits to the developments over the Atrocities Act. Numerous incidents reported from across the country have accentuated the alienation of the Dalit communities from the social mainstream. The failure of established Dalit outfits in meeting the political, social and educational aspirations of the youth has led to the emergence of a new, militant Ambedkarite leadership.
Unlike the Kanshi Ram generation, which prioritised winning political office over other aspects of socialisation, this section of Dalit leaders are focussed on movements that assert Dalit identity and rights. Meanwhile, the rise of Hindutva politics has coincided with the decline of Dalit parties like the BSP and opened up caste faultlines in northern India.
The shift in the balance of political power is now manifest in the anti-Dalit violence, reported at alarming frequency from villages and small-towns, that target both private and communal events involving the community like marriages, festivals and commemorations. The sense of political and social exclusion is widespread that even Dalits MPs from the BJP are seen at mobilisations to safeguard the Constitution.
The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since winning office in 2014, have tried to reach out to Dalits and dispel their suspicion that the Hindutva ideology is inimical to Ambedkarite politics. However, these outreach attempts have been tripped by events that ranged the party or its core interest groups against Dalit aspirations. Incidents like Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the Una floggings, ministers talking about rewriting the Constitution, the RSS chief calling for revisiting the reservation policy have only sharpened the contradictions between the BJP’s ideological certainties and the political vision of the Dalit street. Monday’s bandh point to the deep chasm that exist between the two worlds.