The Lok Janshakti Party, an ally of the BJP in the ruling NDA, has demanded the rollback of the appointment of Justice AK Goel as chief of the National Green Tribunal. Justice Goel was on the SC bench accused by Dalit groups of diluting the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act through its order in March. The LJP’s two top leaders, Ram Vilas Paswan, and his son Chirag, have also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding a bill in Parliament to restore the provisions of the SC-ST Act, or an executive order, or an ordinance. With an ally publicly up in arms, the Dalit crisis seems to have come home to the NDA. But look closer, and it is clear that it is neither only about Justice Goel’s appointment nor about the SC’s controversial order on the law for Dalits alone. Both of these, in fact, have become pretexts and rallying points for a larger Dalit disillusion that has grown and flared in the last three years or so, in large part due to the NDA government’s perceived unresponsiveness to it.
Looking back, it is almost possible to see a continuity, to connect the dots from the suicide of a young scholar on the Hyderabad University campus that triggered a wider Dalit mobilisation in January 2016 to the Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups to protest the SC order on the SC/ST Act in April this year. In June 2016, a video that went viral from Una showing seven members of a Dalit family being flogged by alleged cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow, had sparked an agitation that spread from Gujarat and propelled into the limelight a new leader called Jignesh Mevani. In May 2017, Thakur-Dalit clashes in UP’s Saharanpur shifted the spotlight to the Bhim Army amid a Dalit churn that seemed to have caught all parties, not just the ruling BJP, unprepared. In January this year, the 200th anniversary commemoration of a longago battle victory won by Mahar soldiers of the East India Company against the Peshwa army in Koregaon became the trigger for another confrontation between Dalit groups and Hindutva organisations. A few months after that, government ambivalence on a UGC order tinkering with SC-ST reservation norms in universities sparked controversy.
To be fair, Dalit unrest also has to do with rising aspirations in a community becoming increasingly empowered by education and technology and asserting itself against older constraints. And through it all, the government has not made any notable missteps. In the latest instance of the SC/ST Act, in fact, it has set up a GoM to reconsider the SC order. It has also held out an olive branch of sorts by reviving talk of SC/ST reservations in promotions in government jobs. On several occasions, in many speeches, the PM has reiterated his government’s ownership of the ideals of Babasaheb Ambedkar. And yet, the perception that the government is unable or unwilling to address Dalit concerns continues to grow. The government should address this sense of siege that is spreading in India’s most marginalised — not because a general election is around the corner, but because all development claims and boasts will ring hollow if this discontent continues to grow.