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Caught in a bind

By Manini Chatterjee

The Bharatiya Janata Party has relentlessly accused its opponents of indulging in “vote-bank” politics. Any party which upholds the rights of minorities to be equal citizens of the country is charged with “appeasement” in order to win their votes.
It was ironic, therefore, to hear a chorus of voices from India’s heartland last week hurling the charge of “vote-bank” politics at the BJP. What made it doubly so was that the voices did not belong to members of the Congress or the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party? Nor did they belong to “anti-nationals” or “urban Naxals”. It was the BJP’s very own who were in open revolt.
On September 6, an assortment of groups belonging to the upper castes – or savarna as they proudly call themselves – came out on the streets of many a town in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in response to a call for a “Bharat bandh” to protest the restoration of provisions in the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that had been diluted by an order of the Supreme Court.
According to reports from the ground, rail and road traffic was disrupted in Bihar by members of the Savarna Sena and allied organizations such as the Brahman Mahasabha, Khatriya Mahasabha, Rajput Samaj Samiti and Savarna Sanghatan. The towns of Ara, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur and Nawada were affected and there were protests outside the offices of the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) in Patna.
In Rajasthan, the bandh had an impact in Jaipur, Udaipur, Alwar, Karauli, Jodhpur and Dausa. There were clashes in Agra, among other places, in Uttar Pradesh. And some of the most vociferous voices against the amended SC/ST Atrocities Act were heard in Madhya Pradesh where there had been a gherao of legislators in the districts of Morena, Bhind, Gwalior, Mandsaur and Neemuch by upper caste activists, demanding a rollback of the amendments for several days leading up to the September 6 bandh.
Anyone who watched Hindi news channels, which covered the protests and held studio discussions on the issue through the day, could see that the protesters were not just angry with the BJP – they also felt intensely betrayed.
Their sense of betrayal is all too understandable. The BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, may seek to create a unified “Hindu” identity by marking out the minorities as the enemy, but their core constituency has always been the savarnas. Over the last few decades, the BJP has used a combination of religious mobilization and patronage politics to expand its electoral base to include the backward castes, the Dalits and the adivasis.
But these accretions have not brought about any fundamental change in the RSS-BJP’s primary allegiance to upper caste Hindus. And their avowed goal of transforming the secular Indian republic into a Hindu rashtra seeks to restore India’s “ancient glory” – which privileges “social harmony” over social justice; hierarchical order over equality and fraternity.
These are no abstract formulations. A central reason behind the success of Narendra Modi was that the dominant classes and castes of India saw in him the strongman -backed by a strong parivar – who could fight back the forces unleashed by democracy to impose “discipline” and “order” on society.
The Modi regime sought to do just that. The sustained attacks on minorities over the past four years and the latest offensive against “urban Naxals” are key aspects of the mission to be a “disciplining force”, to make entrenched elites feel safe from threats posed by the demands of justice and equality. With the BJP winning election after election, the party leadership was convinced that its strategy was working – the “national mainstream” was not backing Modi in spite of his assaults on democracy but because of it.
But while Muslims, Christians and Left-Liberals are easy to paint as enemies of the nation, a much more potent threat to the dominant social order comes from the assertion of lower castes including, and especially, the Dalits. The Modi government has sought to deal with this dilemma in two ways. At one level, it has sought to co-opt the Dalits into the “Hindu” fold and also brazenly appropriate Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar by building monuments in his honour – while seeking to obliterate Ambedkar’s searing critique of Hinduism and the caste system from public memory.
At another level, it has also systematically attacked an emerging radical Dalit leadership which is no longer willing to be a mere recipient of RSS’s “benevolence” or the government’s largesse, but is demanding a dismantling of the oppressive structures that continue to cage its people. The government’s response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide; to the flogging of Dalits in Una in Gujarat and attacks on the young Gujarat activist, Jignesh Mevani; the crackdown on the Bhim Army and continued incarceration of its leader, Chandrashekhar Azad; and the sinister move to paint Dalit assertion at Bhima-Koregaon as a “Maoist” plot reflect its fear of the assertive Dalit.
This two pronged approach – seeking to appease the Dalit masses through symbolic gestures while trying to crush the voices of more radical Dalit scholars and activists – was working fine till the Supreme Court order on March 20. A two-judge bench, comprising the judges A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit, diluted the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 by allowing anticipatory bail to a person accused of insulting or hurting a Dalit, and allowing a “preliminary enquiry” by a deputy superintendent of police or the head of the department in a government office before registering a case.
The order led to massive protests by Dalits across the board. While upper castes have consistently accused Dalits of “misusing” the law, Dalit leaders have argued that oppression at the hands of upper castes is still rampant in rural India and discrimination pervasive in the government and in other institutions. Given this persistence of upper caste violence and harassment of Dalits – which led to the law in the first place – its dilution would set the clock back on the still painfully slow journey to emancipation and equality.
The demand to undo the Supreme Court verdict was made not just by activists but also by ministers in the Modi government such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale and by the BJP’s own Dalit members of parliament.
Yet, the Modi government made no move for several days, and finally filed a review petition in the Supreme Court on April 2 – the day Dalit groups across the country observed a Bharat bandh which saw violent clashes in which several Dalits were killed.
Since the Supreme Court kept the review petition pending, the government could have brought in the bill to amend the Act and restore its provisions in April itself. But it refused to make any move. It was clearly afraid of a backlash from its upper caste base. It also hoped that the movement by Dalits would run out of steam.
The opposite happened. The movement spread, and another nationwide protest was announced for August 9. With impending elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and the general elections not too far off, the BJP leadership realized that it simply could not afford to be labelled “anti-Dalit” at this stage. And so, in the first week of August, it brought in the bill to restore the provisions in the Act which was passed unanimously in Parliament.
The BJP’s upper caste base which came out on the streets last week made it clear that their demand was not just against the SC/ST atrocities bill but they wanted an end to reservations altogether. Many were holding aloft placards that said, “Aarakashan Hatao, Desh Bachao”. Although they did not carry BJP flags, the protesters made it clear that they had been ardent Modi supporters but now saw his capitulation as a cynical move for electoral gains, a classic case of “vote-bank” politics.
The Dalits too see it that way. They know that given their numerical strength, the BJP cannot afford to alienate them on the eve of elections. The sops, however, cannot hide the Modi regime’s numerous attacks on Dalit rights and activists.
Caught in a bind between aggrieved upper castes and assertive Dalits, the BJP chief, Amit Shah, has asked party cadres to focus on “Bharat Mata” to win the 2019 elections. In other words, communal polarization and hyper nationalist rhetoric will once again be attempted to cover up the inherent caste contradictions in Indian society – and the Hindutva project’s intrinsic inability to deliver either social justice or social harmony.