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Mainstream, VOL LV No 10 New Delhi February 25, 2017

Dalit Uprising: from Rohith to Una

Monday 27 February 2017

by Sanjay Kumar

The Dalit movement has had a radical legacy of anti-caste resistance against Hindutva and brahminical hegemony in colonial and post-colonial India. Dalit resistance emerged during the struggles in the colonial period based on the strong modern universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity; these were led by radical Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals like Jyotirao Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar. In short, after the long struggle for resistance of the anti-caste move-ment it has achieved to some extent self-respect and dignity. But the question of caste-based discrimination is still haunting the Dalits and their social experiences.

After the death of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dalit resistance was not very much in existence in the mainstream of Indian politics. However, it has to be noted that in April 1970 some radical young Dalit activists like Namdev Dhasal and his comrades along with the Dalit Panther movement radicalised the Dalit masses against the brahminical hegemony in the public sphere. Dalit Panthers had emerged as a movement of radical assertion demanding equality against the upper castes. During a short time, the Dalit Panthers’ impact was politically and ideologi-cally witnessed at the national level. It was with the Dalit Panthers movement in India that the oppressed castes tried to project their reply to the upper-caste Hindus in an aggressive manner.

After that once again another Dalit-Bahujan political activist, Kanshiram, tried to unite all socially oppressed groups under the banner of the All India Backward and Minority Community Employees Federation (BAMCEF). Although the BAMCEF movement in the 1980s and 1990s achieved political success in terms of electoral politics and for the first time Dalits became a political force, this electoral politics failed to ‘annihilate caste’. But at the same time Kanshi-ram had revived once more the Dalit-Bahujan intellectual icons and their ideas, specially those of B.R. Ambedkar. We cannot deny that in contemporary times, Ambedkar is a single voice of the national Dalit movement and provides the theoretical framework and vision for Dalit politics even today.

In the emerging new Dalit resistance Ambedkar’s radical ideas could be seen in the case of the Rohith Vemula movement and the Una agitation, now going on in Gujarat and elsewhere. It needs to be underlined here that both agitations have not only been concentrated on the question of identity like caste but also moved beyond and raised the question of socio-economic inequality among all marginalised communities. Both the movements tried to build a radical mass struggle by uniting all the Left and progressive forces to resist the brahminical and communal fascist forces.

After Babasaheb Ambedkar, for the first time the socially oppressed and downtrodden communities have begun asserting their socio-political rights and challenging the practice of the century-old traditional caste hierarchy. The new Dalit assertion and socio-economic developments have created a new political class among Dalits and this class has spread political awareness among the radical Dalits, who have later launched struggles for achieving socio-economic justice for the masses.

From both the movements the question arises before the mainstream liberal political parties and the caste-based ones about the annihilation of caste and caste discrimination; why is annihilation of caste and caste discrimi-nation still not a priority in their manifestos? So far the Dalit struggles have only concentrated on identity politics and Dalit reservation that has continued for many decades. But the Rohith and Una movements have tried to think beyond identities and Dalit reservation because both the movements have attracted a large section of young radical Dalits, who realised that only implementation of land distribution, end of caste-based occupation, anti-privatisation, resource distribution, execution of strong laws against caste atrocities, political participation in power can liberate them.

The Dalit movement is a mass movement; it alone cannot fight Hindutva and capitalism. It needs a broader alliance with the progressive forces. Historically, the movements had a much wider agenda of social justice instead of remaining confined to reservation-based issues alone. The Rohith Vemula movement and the struggle of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti and other Dalit groups have raised their aspirations for the future vision so that the ultimate goals can be achieved. They want social justice with economic rights, especially in the Una movement they tried to accommodate Adivasi rights, women’s rights and created a new alliance with other movements to fight against the Hindutva forces and capitalism because they said that the BJP Government gave land to corporate houses, but did not give it to the Adivasis and Dalits. For the first time in Gujarat the Dalit resistance has challenged the so-called BJP-RSS-led ‘Gujarat Model’, ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ and ‘developed Gujarat’ and brought about unity among Dalits and Muslims and other progressive sections.

However, it is unfortunate to note that today the BJP-RSS talk about hyper-nationalism under the garb of the Hindutva ideology which means they want to perpetuate the century-old caste and Varna system. For instance, this can be easily noticed in the BJP-ruled States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh etc.

Both the movements are not guided by any political party, their emergence can be traced to the socio-political contradictions in society. The centre of the movements is not just the question of Dalit identity and dignity but a change in political power, land rights, jobs, and equal distribution of natural resources. One of Una’s prominent activists and leaders, Jignesh Mewani, tried to build a new front combining the Dadri and Una incidents to forge a broader movement. He also said: “It is time to move beyond social justice and talk of livelihood issues not just for ‘Asmita’; instead the fight has to be for ‘Astitva’ also.”

On August 15 in Una a massive Dalit Maha-sammelan took place; this has exposed the so-called Hindutva politics. On a massive scale almost 20,000 people from the marginalised communities, particularly Dalits, gathered and protested against the rapidly increasing vigilan-tism of the Gau Rakshak Dal in Una (Gujarat). At a rally organised by the Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti, Dalits took the oath of not continuing with the age-old practice of manual scavenging; and they also refused to remove the carcasses of dead cows. Jignesh Mevani became a leader of the Una movement. Durng this movement, slogans such as ‘Una Aazadi Koch demand’ with “Modi sarkar down down! Gujarat model down down” and “Gaaye nu puchhdu taame rakho, amne amaari jameen aapo (You keep the cow’s tail, give us our land)” were raised by the protesters.

For the last three years crimes against Scheduled Castes (SC) have been increasing day by day. According to the National Crime Control Bureau statistics of 2014, a total of 951 cases were registered in connection with crimes against Dalits and these included murder, rape, kidnapping and abduction, robbery etc. According to the National Crime Control Bureau, the official data on crime against Dalits reveals that there was a surge of 17.1 per cent in Dalit atrocities in 2013 as compared to 2012. The increasing number was even more dramatic between 2013 and 2014—19.4 per cent. Also in the BJP-ruled States such as Gujarat, Chhattis-garh and Rajasthan, the National Commission for Schedule Castes has rightly documented and reported the highest rates of crimes against Scheduled Castes in 2015. The data show an almost 40 per cent increase in incidents of crime against Dalits across India between 2011 and 2014. In the State-wise report on crime against Dalits in 2015, Gujarat stood at the first place with a total number of 6655 cases (163.3 per cent); similarly another BJP-ruled State, Chhattisgarh, appeared at the second place with a total number of 3008 cases (91.1 per cent) and Rajasthan came third with 7144 (58.5 per cent).

In a similar vein, after Rohith’s suicide students formed a Joint Action Committee for Social Justice at the University of Hyderabad (JAC) demanding a ‘Rohith Act’; the demand was made by members of the JAC for Social Justice. The Rohith Act has been implemented and it will ensure legislative protection for students from marginalised societies in higher educational institutions. There is also the need to implement the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act; this was amended recently for the inclusion of new offences and establishment of exclusive special courts to ensure speedy justice to victims of marginalised communities.

However, crime and discrimination against Dalits is rising despite more stringent laws. Also there is lack of political will and lack of democrati-sation of the police and judiciary. The reacurrence of Dalit atrocities connotes a larger ideological background that is attached to it. To counter Dalit atrocities, a powerful ideological resistance movement needs to be built up and streng-thened. Dalit resistance is not to defend the individual identity alone, facets of it resonate with universal human values.

In this respect, a noted academician has recognised the Dalit movement as a ‘demo-cratic revolution’. Indian democracy constitu-tionally acknowledges all kinds of provisions to safeguard the interests of the marginalised communities. Despite the scholarly acceptance of the Dalit move-ment as a fully democratic movement and the institutional provisions enshrined in the Consti-tution of India, the state is prominently seen as having failed to deliver citizens’ rights to the oppressed communities, particularly Dalits. And this invokes a sense of socio-economic alienation. The progressive state apparatus—which includes civil society, political parties, so-called pressure groups and judiciary etc.—has also not substan-tially contributed to the annihilation of caste and the communal Hindutva fascist forces. Several scholarly studies, apart from institutional reports on the violence against oppressed communities and caste-based discrimination, reveal the fact that such violence has increased over the years rather than going down. This puts a question-mark over the credibility of the state and its idea of democracy.

Before concluding, it is pertinent to remember that what the organic intellectual and political philosopher, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, had said about revolution is still relevant. According to him, ‘for a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights.’ It is high time that the new Dalit resistance employs political and philosophical imagination in the political struggle to annihilate caste with socio-economic justice as Ambedkar thought of during his life-time. Una and Rohith have given a new impetus and dimension to the social movement to demolish Hindutva and the brahminical fascist forces. In my view, this has the potential of a radical social transformation and constructing an egalitarian society in the long run.

Dr Sanjay Kumar is currently pursuing research on Black Consciousness in Africa at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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