Dalits staging a protest during ‘Bharat Bandh’ in Allahabad on April 2. Photo: AFP/Sanjay Kanojia
Close to a 100 Dalit organizations called for a ‘Bharat Bandh’ on April 2 2018 against the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In response, Dalit masses in many places in North India expressed their dissent against the decision of the honorable Supreme Court. Dalit organizations showed their strength and unity in this bandh. Shops, schools and many public institutions were forced to close under the duress of the protestors. Violent incidents were reported in various parts of North India. At many places the police felt helpless to handle the situation. It seemed that both the police administration and the government were not fully prepared to handle the situation or could not assess the intensity of the protest.
This movement is being seen by many political analysts as an indicator of disillusionment among various Dalit communities about the government and the political system. It also indicates the culmination of a gradually growing fear and doubt among a section of the Dalits against our welfare state or government system. They are in a state of distrust, where fear and doubt is caused by their growing belief that over time the benefits and policies implemented for their welfare may be reduced.
A shift in the Dalit-Bahujan movement
Dalit middle and higher classes, youth, educated Dalits and Dalit government employees were some of the groups that became visible and active during the April 2 movement. One of the peculiarities of this movement was that it was quite spontaneous and was not led by one particular leader or group. In the past, such movements have displayed features of a mass movement with a conventional form of leadership. However, a new development or shift became exceptionally visible in this recent Dalit movement. In fact, it may be described as a shift in the character of the Dalit-Bahujan movement led by Kanshiram and Mayawati.
Prior to the April 2 agitation, most of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-led Dalit-Bahujan movements were tightly controlled by its leaders Kanshiram and Mayawati. Another important feature of these Kanshiram-Mayawati-led Dalit Bahujan movements in Uttar Pradesh and in other Hindi states was that they were largely non-violent. After this movement, in one of her statements Mayawati criticized the violence that took place during the processions carried out during the day-long bandh.
Social media in the form of Facebook and Twitter played an important role in the mobilization of Dalits during the Bharat Bandh. Social media brought people together on this issue. They gathered in the chaurahas, in the bazaars, in the parks and in front of government institutions.
At the local level, small Ambedkarite and Dalit organizations worked as the nucleus of the organizational structure of this movement. In Allahabad, an important city of Uttar Pradesh, around 25 Dalit organizations worked together for this agitation. The names of some the organizations who were active in the bandh were not even heard of before. Similarly in various cities, towns and quasbas many Dalit local organizations came together.
In fact, during last 70 years after Indian independence an active and politically conscious Ambedkarite public sphere has been evolving and gradually expanding. It involved millions of big and small social, cultural and Dalit civil society organizations all over the country that disseminated Ambedkarite ideology among the masses. They considered it as their own struggle, and evolved to assert their right and claim as provided by BR Ambedkar through the Indian constitution. The opinion makers of the Dalit community such as the middle classes, government employees, community leaders, and civil society activists lead this movement.
It is interesting to note that the April 2 movement was mostly centered in urban areas-cities, towns, quasbas and in some of the local bazaars in the Hindi belt States. It couldn’t penetrate the spaces of villages and rural areas.
The movement was also facilitated by political organisations like the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh, something that might be described as a unique development. In fact, it is believed that in the 2012 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi party had benefitted due to the annoyance of non- Dalits with the misuse of the SC/ST Atrocities Act under the Mayawati-led BSP government. This time the Samajwadi Party came out openly to support Dalit mobilization against the Supreme Court decision meant to prevent misuse of this same Act. Congress, the national party, also supported this movement as did the Left. Various regional parties like RJD in Bihar also lent it supported. So this movement accumulated flags of various colours together against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
The BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other affiliated organizations were in dilemma as how to respond to this issue and this movement. Dalit MPs of the BJP such as Udit Raj, Savitri Bai Phule and Ashok Kumar Dohrey showed their dissent against the State government on the issue. Undoubtedly, it created an odd situation for the BJP.
However, the Narendra Modi-led government is trying hard to appropriate Ambedkar as a symbol. Through various symbolic acts and measures he and his team have tried to satisfy the Dalit urge for social respect. But the reality is that contrary to what they are trying, it is producing disillusionment among Dalits. The growing incidence of atrocities, unemployment and other problems are fuelling dissatisfaction among Dalits. This disillusionment along with growing distrust with the system is creating a situation of unrest and dissent among them. The Central government needs to address these issues in a more effective and productive manner. This is the message of the April 2 protests.
(The writer is Professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad)