A motley group of about three dozen organisations claiming to represent the ‘savarna’ castes, that is, the so-called upper castes, had given a call for a ‘Bharat Bandh’ (countrywide general strike) on 6 September 2018 to protest against the govt.’s move to amend the law on atrocities on Dalits after it was diluted by the Supreme Court in March this year. Reports suggest that the bandh was an utter failure barring sporadic incidents of train stoppage, traffic obstructions and some stone pelting in North Indian states. In the rest of the country there was no effect. Clearly, there were not many takers for this reactionary demand.
But some incidents have revealed the politics behind this effort, which was – predictably - given a huge build up by the mainstream media. In many places, the protestors targeted local BJP MLAs or MPs by holding demonstrations at their offices/homes. Live coverage showed most of them struggling to toe the party line of amending the law. In at least one place, in Ballia district of UP, Surendra Singh the local MLA belonging to BJP declared his support to the bandh supporters by reportedly declaring, “Upper-caste people made me the MLA and not Muslims and Dalits. I am ready to sacrifice for the upper caste. If my upper-caste supporters ask me I can also resign (from my seat) for their sake.”
But the real shocker came from no less a personage than Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker of Lok Sabha who has been member of Parliament eight times and was a minister in the Vajpayee led NDA govt. While defending the amendments to the law, Mahajan explained the situation to a gathering of traders belonging to the BJP’s Traders’ Cell in this way:
“Suppose if I give a big chocolate to my son and I later realise that it is not good for him to have so much of it at one go, one will try to take back the chocolate from the child. But you cannot take it as he will get angry and start crying.”
“But some sensible person can make the child understand and take back the chocolate from him,” she said.
“If anybody immediately tries to snatch anything given to a person, there may be an explosion,”
So, this pillar of BJP and of India’s Constitutional Democracy, is saying that protection given to Dalits under the law, and other affirmative measures like reservations in education and jobs, are not really good for Dalits but since they are immature and foolish, and habituated to such measures, you can’t snatch them away. Doing so would cause anger and in fact an ‘explosion’.
It doesn’t require too much to understand the multiple humiliations and condescension that Mahajan’s statement involves: concessions have been ‘given’ to Dalits by others, they are not really necessary, but Dalits being what they are have become attached to these concessions – so it is expeditious not to snatch them away, and somebody sensible can hopefully make Dalits understand all this!
What s the reality? Dalits (along with adivasis) are the most oppressed communities in the country weighed down by centuries of brutal social and economic exploitation, humiliation and violence. Even today, atrocities against Dalits continue unabated throughout the country. According to govt. data, between 2010 and 2016, registered cases of crimes against dalits went up by 10%, while such cases against adivasis increased by 6%. In 2016, 40,801 cases of crimes against Dalits were registered in the country – that’s about 112 cases every single day of the year. The judicial system has been unable (or unwilling) to cope with this as shown by the fact that between 2010 and 2016, conviction rates dropped sharply from 38% to 16% for crimes against dalits, and from 26% to 8% for crimes against adivasis. Over 90% of the cases are pending in the courts as of 2016. A similar situation exists for adivasis.
It was this very law, that provided some partial protection to Dalits from upper caste violence and humiliation that the Supreme Court had arbitrarily diluted in March this year presumably giving credence to upper caste representations over the reality outside. The BJP govt. at the Centre – presumably under the Mahajan type of mentality – kept silent in the Court. It did not dispute the arguments made for diluting the law. The result was that the apex court laid down preconditions for action under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act which included a preliminary inquiry by the DSP concerned to vet the complaint, arrest only after permission by Senior Superintendent of Police of the district and for public servant, permission of the appointing authority and limit the exclusion of anticipatory bail in such cases for the protection of fundamental right of life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The decision of the Court caused a mammoth outrage to break out in the country with Dalit and progressive sections launching angry protests, including a Bharat Bandh on April 2 this year. The BJP govt. was also a prime target for dilly-dallying on the issue besides not vigorously contesting the issue in Court.
Already facing complete alienation from the Dalit communities of India because of increasing violence, especially by ‘gau-rakshaks’, the Modi led govt. went in to a fire fighting mode. BJP itself made ill-conceived attempts to win over Dalits by asking its elected representatives to spend a night in a Dalit home and share meals, and so on.
But all this wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the BJP does not sit well with its pro-Brahminical, pro-chaturvarna ideology that emanates from its umbilical link to RSS. The result is what Sumitra Mahajan said.
Forced by political compulsions (there are Assembly elections in a few months and then the 2019 general elections) the BJP govt. finally brought in amendments to the Act to counter the Court’s dilution. These were passed by the Parliament on 9 August. Note this: all that was done was to restore the law back to what it was before the court intervention.
But this has not been acceptable to the BJP base, the retrogressive sections among the upper castes. They felt betrayed – and rightly so – because the BJP/RSS had been quietly assuring them that the law would be diluted. Hence, the so-called bandh on 6 September.
What will happen in the future is uncertain. Undoubtedly, the reactionary upper caste sections will continue to fret and fume over the legal status. They will also continue to perpetuate violence and exploitation. The BJP will continue to walk the tightrope of political expediency. But one thing is certain – the BJP is losing it from all sides.