Besides unemployment and the agricultural crisis, dalit unrest is another factor that is likely to impact the outcome of the 2019 General Elections.
The sheer number of reported atrocities against dalits during the past five years has been condemned by all. The case of Rohith Vemula, the beating of dalit youths at Una in Gujarat, incidents in Maharashtra like the demolition of the press of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the riots in Bhima Koregaon — these are only a few among such cases. Dalits hit the streets, protesting against not only these cases but also against the casteist politics of the ruling regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This has happened all over India. In Maharashtra, a state with 48 Lok Sabha seats, the first mega march under the leadership of Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, took place almost two years ago. After the demolition of the Ambedkar press, dalits across Maharashtra united and raised their voice against the current regime. The 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, where dalits defeated Peshwa forces, was another occasion for the community to come together. But riots on January 1, 2018 at the same place angered dalits across India. That was also a point where dalit politics took a decisive step ahead.
Maharashtra has seen the emergence of Prakash Ambedkar as leader. Today he has formed the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) political party. Youths from the dalit community back him in good number. They expect the anger against BJP to be transformed into a consolidation of electoral power.
Bhagyashree Kurane is young girl, handling the social media for VBA at the state level. She is also the party’s Pune city office bearer. She feels that dalit youths consider it not just as a political party, but as a movement. “This kind of political awareness and readiness to start the long-term battle for their own political rights is something entirely new happening with masses. They have found their serious leader in Prakash Ambedkar. So with the results of the 2019 general elections, this uprising will only grow,” she said.
Also read: Bhima-Koregaon: Thousands of Dalits Fear Police Harassment as Polls Near
Bhagyashree also believes that the attempt to bring together all deprived classes, including Maratha youths, to fight this battle for progress is a new narrative of the Dalit uprising. “Now we have the Pune city deputy chief from the Maratha caste. There are a number of OBC and Muslim youths joining in western Maharashtra, as far as I know. So, ultimately this will widen the possibility of politics of the deprived classes. That’s why Vanchit Bahujan is the ideal name now,” said Kurane.
Shrikant Sao of Chandrapur, Vidarbha, said dalit youths were looking at Ambedkar as their preferred choice. “Though their biggest enemy is the BJP and they want to defeat it. But there are a number of youths in the Dalit community who seriously think that Ambedkar deserves a chance.”
Similar voices could be heard in Yavatmal and Nanded constituencies. In ‘Jai Bhim Nagar’ of Nanded, Babita Bhadarge said her basti had already decided to vote for the VBA this time. “We’ve seen Congress. BJP doesn’t deserve to be in power. So let us try Prakash Ambedkar,” said Bhadarge.
At the same time, however, there are a number of dalit organisations and youths actively appealing to Dalit masses to not vote for the VBA. Vishal Hiwale is one such youngster in Mumbai. He is one of the founder-members of ‘Samvidhan Samaj Samiti’, which is appealing to the people to vote ‘decisively’.
“Prakash Ambedkar ji will end up dividing dalit votes. Neither he nor the Congress would win. For whatever reasons, the alliance between the two sides did not take place. So it’s time to unitedly defeat the bigger enemy. BJP is abusing all constitutional institutions and attacking Ambedkarite thought across India. In such a condition, we must see that BJP does not come back to power,” said Vishal.
Also read: Maharashtra Dalit Protests: It’s a Result of Joblessness and Atrocities
Another forum of young dalit leaders, including Sachin Kharat and Sushama Andhare, has also joined hands with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party alliance.
“Our position is clear. The Congress and the NCP are secular parties. They believe in the Constitution. The BJP wants to change it. So, we are going everywhere and appealing to people to not vote for the VBA,” Sachin said.
So, while dalit unrest is among the most important factors shaping these Lok Sabha polls, it remains to be seen whether it ends up changing the government or if the votes end up getting divided.