Dalit politics is coming back to the center stage in India, in good time to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP some serious electoral heebie-jeebies. That the BJP is getting nervous is as much evident as the fact that the Opposition Congress is seeing an opportunity in the emerging dynamics. Elections are a great catalyst that gives shape to political movements, but we can discount that factor and still see how important a Dalit awakening is for the country.
The last great Dalit and backward classes awakening happened in India in the 1980s when VP Singh preached and put into practice the theory of social re-engineering. Since then Dalit and backward class cause has been put on the backburner.
Of course, the neoliberal governments in the last 30 years promised them the trickle-down benefits and various other bread crumbs. That great era or peace, or the sleepy interregnum, in Dalit political identity and activism is about to end, and end it must.
Violence during the events to mark the Bhima Koregaon battle's 200th anniversary was one of the manifestations of the crisis the Dalit identity is facing in the country. What is their social status? Are raw nerves sticking through the country's body politic? Who is threatened by the Dalit assertion of being as good as any other? If someone fought a battle 200 hundred years ago and vanquished the rivals, why can't their successors mark that event? Aren't the Dalits entitled to their right to celebrate their valour?
The most recent jolt to Dalit identify came through a Supreme Court verdict that allegedly diluted the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. By removing the provisions for automatic arrest of anyone accused of insulting or injuring a SS/ST person, the Supreme Court may have only looked at the legal prejudice that unfairly implicates an innocent person in a serious charge.
But for the Dalit community, this worsened the fears over an upper cast usurpation of the rights they have earned by blood, toil and sacrifice. If this pro-Dalit clause is trashed now, will reservation be the next to go? Will the flood gates of racial biases open once again, inundating the Dalit identity in an ocean of scorn, prejudices, discriminations and denied opportunities? Will they have to trundle back in time and then put together another epic struggle to catch up with the rest?
No time to waste
They don't have more time to waste. And they shouldn't waste more time either, sitting on the fence or partaking of the bread crumbs from political parties that keep them as useful vote kitties. It is in this context that the Bharat Bandh of April 2 became portentous. If the Indian karmic thought had given them a fate, the modern realities should give the Dalits the force to break that fate.
Dalits in India, the underprivileged classes who were formerly untouchables, account for more than 25 percent of the population. That way they are the largest single community. But has Dalit politics tapped this latent strength? It hasn't.
Now, let's go beyond the parochial, casteist way of looking at Dalit politics, which is an anachronism in itself. Has the politics of the downtrodden come of age in the country? There is no doubt it hasn't. If Dalits, by a casteist enumeration, account for 25 percent of the population, the real number of the downtrodden, the modern-day untouchables and the disadvantaged is twice that number or more. And that tribe is growing in the country. That's the growing significance of Dalit politics. Dalits are, or should be, at the center of a new movement of the unrepresented.
Dalit politics shouldn't be limited to questions like, how many Indians are Dalits, what do social indexes say about their status and how do they compare with others in terms of education, opportunities and positions of power? There is a growing Dalit body here and that includes the economic pariahs, the gender destitutes, the whistle blowers whose lives are on the line, the rationalists and other activists.
But for the city-bred Indian public, Dalit is still the flotsam and jetsam that flood into the city gates to do an assortment of jobs that they consider 'filthy'. The everyday Dalit lives don't really matter. Or it's better that they remain the way they have been. Their lives and their protests are not worthy of attention. That's probably why the Dalit protests in India are finally turning into spectacles. You can't wish it away.
The famed farmer protest in Maharashtra obtained national attention only when it became a spectacle in the Mumbai metropolis. The farmers in the Long March -- most of them Dalits and the backward classes -- whose voices were not heard from their village hell holes were listened to in Mumbai. Our democracy needs many more great spectacles; it's tired of faking climaxes after every election.
(The opinions are the author's own)