Opinion

4 years of Modi: Dalits are being stripped of their dignity

Dalits under the BJP regime in India are feeling discriminated against. Cow vigilantism is just one aspect. The Modi regime is stripping them of every vestige of dignity and denying them a livelihood

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

At the BJP office in Mumbai, the daughter of a top rank party leader acting as his assistant curls up her nose when the discussion veers round to Dalits. She has no sympathy for their plight and thinks the fuss over them is wasted.

However, in the modern era you cannot quite survive in politics without taking them along. In comfort at the fact that she is among her kind who agree with her ideology, she says, “To us they are like a side dish, a pickle. You need a finger-lick (of the pickle) between mouthfuls to get your food down. But they can never be the main course.” If that attitude was not shocking enough, she added for better measure , “It is ok to interact with them in party offices. But our cultures are too different to sit down with them at home.”

When asked to specify how the culture of one Hindu could be different from that of another Hindu, she is taken aback and has no answer. If this is the attitude of someone apolitical, though steeped in the RSS ideology, it is no wonder that Dalits under the BJP regime in India are feeling discriminated against. Cow vigilantism is just one aspect of that discrimination but under the Modi regime that is stripping them of every vestige of dignity and, worse, denying them a livelihood.

The Una incident in Gujarat in 2016 wherein some young Dalits skinning a dead cow were tied to a vehicle and paraded through the town had its consequences for the Modi government in that it not only gave rise to new leadership but also brought about a new awareness of their rights among the community across India. In the immediate aftermath of that incident, Dalits refused to clear or skin animal carcasses immediately bringing home to the administration, at least in Gujarat, of the pivotal role they played in scavenging.

Upper castes in the villages realised they could not do without their services and word went out from the RSS headquarters in Nagpur: do not beat up the Dalits when they are doing their traditional jobs. But also do not upload videos on social media in case something like Una happens again. Clearly giving the impression that they cared less about the lynchings than the bad press they got after the vigilantist activities. Clearly, there was no attempt to address the larger issue of continuing upper caste discrimination of Dalits either by the RSS or by the Modi government at the Centre.

The Una incident in Gujarat in 2016 wherein some young Dalits skinning a dead cow were tied to a vehicle and paraded through the town had its consequences for the Modi government in that it not only gave rise to new leadership but also brought about a new awareness of their rights among the community across India.

But it is not just at the level of the village or in their traditional duties that Dalits have been so blatantly discriminated against under the Modi regime. A year before the Una incident, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research student at Hyderabad Central University, hanged himself at his hostel for the same reason – discrimination in his attempt to be equal to the upper castes at the university. Instead of taking the issue seriously, the attempt by the government was concentrated in the direction of proving that he was not a Dalit.

The haranguing and harassment of his family after his death reached such proportions that in a few months his mother converted to Buddhism to escape the clutches of upper caste vigilantes who cared less about justice to her son than proving that she Was out to milk her circumstances for maximum benefits.

Professor Ramesh Kamble of the Sociology department at Bombay University has always been of the view that no political party in India has really ever cared for Dalits except for token co-opting of them into the scheme of things in order to pay lip service to the equality enshrined in the Constitution of India. However, under the Modi regime the scant respect for Dalits seems to have sunk even further leading to rebellion among the ranks of its own Dalit MPs a few weeks ago.

According to Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Dr BR Ambedkar and president of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, that is happening because the RSS which still continues to cast the Dalit community in the mould of scavengers and servitors has failed to realise that seventy years of constitutional guarantees have indeed enabled many Dalits to rise above their origins, break the shackles of traditional expectations and educate themselves enough to be able to take on their tormentors on their own terms. As did Mewani who continues to be highly vigilant on behalf of his own community and a thorn in the flesh of the BJP regime both in Gujarat and at the Centre.

That there is an attempt to return a nearly equalised society to its caste divisions was also apparent from how Dalits in Maharashtra who were celebrating 200 years of their victory over the Peshwa army at Bhima Koregaon near Pune in Maharashtra were provoked and set upon by upper caste vigilantes who later turned out to be BJP functionaries and ideologues. The subsequent protection to the main conspirator Sambhaji Bhide by the government who, it was discovered, had recommended him for a Padma award the previous year, gives credence to theories of a sinister game plan underfoot to deny them their victories, their heroes, their dignity and peaceful co-existence with other communities who may have less issues with Dalits than the RSS-BJP.

For, as it turned out, the attempt by these BJP ideologues was to drive a wedge between Marathas and Dalits who had had a recent history of atrocities between them. Yet the incidents were not enough to turn the acrimony into a full scale caste war as the BJP Ideologues were so desirous of engineering. Despite the evidence against them, they are still running free. Even as a year before the next Lok Sabha elections the Dalit MPs belonging to the BJP begin to reconsider their party affiliations, it is clear to at least the Dalit community that they have no basic protections or guarantees under the current dispensation, politically. Socially, they could be worse off than at any time after Independence.

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