– Ram Puniyani
(Asian Independent)- India’s caste system is the major obstacle for betterment of the socio-economic condition of the downtrodden. The lowest in the rung of caste hierarchy, the victims of caste oppression are addressed as dalits or Scheduled Castes (SC). There are others who are also on the lower scale of hierarchy, the tribal (ST) and other backward castes (OBC). For centuries the low castes were subject to oppression at multiple levels. Theirs’ was a sort of slavery couched in the wrap of religion. Many Hindu scriptures gave the rigid outline of the social system. One such scripture has been Manu Smiriti which was burnt in a public protest by the greatest of the caste opponents Dr. Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedkar.
As the opposition to caste structure started coming up during freedom movement of India, the reaction to this was Hindu Nationalism, rather Brahmanic Nationalism. It was the Brahmanic stream of Hinduism which has been most rigid about the oppression of lower castes. This Brahmanic Nationalism presented itself as Hindu nationalism and got expressed in Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. RSS thrived over a period of time and currently is the most powerful organization in the country. It is working for restoration of Caste, gender hierarchy and inequality of older times.
It is an overarching formation working in all spheres of life and its progeny working in political arena is Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ruling the country from last seven years. It is very subtle in presenting its agenda which is against dalits and other downtrodden. BJP poses to be associating with dalits while its policies are meant to subjugate this community. It has multiple strategies to win them over for electoral purposes while modifying the policies in a direction which are detrimental to the all round conditions of dalits, including their economic conditions.
BJP-RSS and anti-dalit ideology
BJP came to political forefront when it started its campaign for Ram Temple in the decade of 1980. In 1990 V.P.Singh implemented Mandal Commission, which gave 27% reservation to the other backward Castes. Earlier the SC had 15% of reservation, ST 7.5% and now OBC reservation was added up to that. This made BJP more assertive and its support base, the upper caste, came forward to support BJP campaigns for Ram temple and other divisive agenda, pushing the social equality attempts in the backyard. This identity based Ram temple campaign also served the purpose of distracting the attention from the plight of oppressed sections of society as well.
The period up to 2014, (2004 to 2014 period was the time when Congress led UPA was in power) saw that on one hand despite the opposition to affirmative action for dalits there was effort to implement it. On the other hand BJP was building itself to oppose the policy of reservation for dalits on one hand and to co-opt them into its ideological and political fold.
UPA I (2004-2009) came up with rights based approach, ‘Right to information’, ‘right to employment’, ‘right to education’, ‘right to health’ and ‘right to food’. This benefitted the large sections of dalits living below the poverty line. The ongoing affirmative action’s during many decades after independence did lift the dalit’s conditions to some extent. Still due to the deeply entrenched caste system, the affirmative provisions were not implemented as they should have been. So in a way the process of social transformation till 2014 was at snail’s pace anyway.
The major change in the condition of dalits has been due to reservations which were mandated by the constitution and which aimed to break the shackles of caste backwardness and improve the condition of dalits. RSS-BJP has been opposed to this all through, overtly or covertly. Mandal Commission was a turning point in a way as RSS-BJP activated its mechanism for opposing the same indirectly by raising the pitch of Ram temple campaign. They did float organizations like ‘Youth for Equality’. Social debates were popularised against reservation.
Reservation: Creamy Layer
The overall picture before BJP coming to power was summed up by prominent academic Sukhdeo Thorat. As per him “dalits are employed in manual, unskilled labor jobs in urban areas. Given these facts, only 5% of the working dalit population has actually benefited from the Indian reservation law.” (1) As per him while GOI poverty alleviation programs help dalits, the government does not strictly monitor them and many are never implemented…and the vast majority of dalits are denied upward socioeconomic mobility due to lack of access to education, land, and capital.
Further worsening of the situation began with BJP coming to power at Centre. The first attempt BJP initiated was at state level and then at Centre was to introduce ‘reservation based on economic ground’. Also there is a talk that creamy layers will be excluded from the reservations. The ‘creamy layers’ means those who have better socio economic status. Dilip Mandal, another scholar points out,“ for the first time, the central government is going to include an individual’s salary to calculate household earnings, which would determine the creamy layer category for members of that family. In one stroke, a large number of salary earners will be excluded from the ambit of OBC quota.” (2) Further Mandal elaborates, ”The proposed criteria, if implemented, will exclude even the lower middle class OBCs. Take the example of a family where both parents are primary school teachers. In all probability, their combined annual salary would be above Rs 12 lakh. Now, if their daughter applies for a government job, she will not be considered for the OBC quota.” (3)
Introducing reservation on Economic Ground has further weakened the position of the status of dalits. BJP led NDA passed the resolution approving 10% quota for upper caste on economic criterion. These criterion are liberal enough to include large sections of population at the cost of reservation of the dalits/OBC.
BJP Identity Politics and Lynching in name of Cow-Beef
BJP’s main plank in political arena is identity politics. This politics is based on polarization and creating a sense of fear among majority for the minority community. In pursuit of this while they have been pursuing the Ram Temple issue earlier; from 2014 when BJP got majority for the first time; it took the issue of Holy cow to higher pitch leading to mob lynching of Muslims and dalits. Both these communities are related to occupations of cow slaughter and leather work. The IndiaSpend data tells us the massive increase in the lynching with BJP coming to power and also increase in atrocities against dalits. This runs parallel to the impact on economic situation of dalits as the sale/purchase of old cows has massively declined and those involved in these trades, primarily dalits have suffered huge economic setback. “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86% of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many of 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and about half the cow-related violence — 32 of 63 cases –were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recorded until June 25, 2017.” (5)
Running parallel to this was attacks on dalits who were dealing with Cowhide. In Una (Gujarat) seven dalit youth were stripped above the waist and beaten mercilessly. Following this the usual economic cycle of old cattle being bought and sold got a setback giving an adverse impact to the economic plight of many dalit families. “A new report by ‘Human Rights Watch’ reveals the impact of ‘cow protection’ on agriculture, industries and India’s minorities. The report looks at the issue of cow-related violence and its impact on India’s minorities. The report analyses the socio-political, legal and economic issues around cattle trade and cow-related violence. Indian government should prevent and prosecute mob violence by vigilante groups targeting minorities in the name of cow protection, ‘Human Rights Watch’ said in a report.”(6)
“The government [should] not [be] the one to decide on [what food you can or cannot eat]. This ban will have an ill effect on the lives of the Dalits who are [dependent] upon the labor connected with cows and leather products.” (7)
Due to the rigidity of caste hierarchy prevalent in India; dalits are forced to work in very degrading jobs like scavenging of rubbish heaps, work in slaughter houses, tanneries, leather factories and other menial jobs. To live in segregation from the upper castes such as Brahmins is a part of regular practice here.
Reservation for Dalits in Universities
From March 2018 UGC advertised the faculty jobs and in this only 2.5% of posts were reserved for SC and none for ST. This is totally in opposition to what the norms have been (15% for SC, 7.5% for ST and 27% for OBC) (8) This is going to have very adverse impact on the economic conditions of dalits along with change in the future academic conditions in the country. This will worsen the overall plight of this section of society.
According to a 2014 report to the Ministry of Minority Affairs by Amitabh Kundu, over 44.8% of Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 33.8% of Scheduled Caste (SC) populations in rural India were living below the poverty line in 2011-12, compared to 30.8% of Muslims. In urban areas, 27.3% of ST and 21.8% of SC populations were poor, versus 26.5% of Muslims. (9, 10)
Some Hindu Dalits achieved affluence, although most remain poor. In particular, some Dalit intellectuals such as Chandrabhan Prasad have argued that the living standards of many Dalits have improved since the economic liberalization in 1991 and have supported their claims through large surveys. (11) According to Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, nearly 79 percent of rural Adivasi households and 73 percent for Dalit households were most deprived among rural households in India. While 45 percent of scheduled caste households are landless and earn by manual casual labor for their living and same is for 30 percent for adivasis.(12)
A 2012 survey by Mangalore University in Karnataka stated that 93% of dalit families still live below the poverty line.(13) The budget (2020) has failed to give due share to the Dalits, Adivasis, working class, Women and Children. It has also failed to take concrete steps to resolve the economic crisis prevalent in the primary sector of the economy, i.e., Agriculture. Instead of providing the farmers with substantial financial relief, they have been left in a world of false hopes and promises. Also, education and health have not been provided with the kind of attention they badly need. (14) Congress president Rahul Gandhi has criticized the RSS and the BJP for the plight of Dalits and said he praised dalit community who are coming forward to protest against these policies. He commented this when many Dalit organisations had called for a nation-wide shutdown with strong determination against the dilution of arrest prevalent provisions under the SC/ST Atrocities Act by the Supreme Court.( 15)
BJP’s Strategies to Co-opt Dalits
RSS-BJP faces a unique dilemma. On one hand they want to ensure the subordination of dalits at all social levels. On the other they have to win over the electoral benefits of these communities. Through various of its organizations, RSS, achieves this. They are employing multiple strategies to win over there marginalized communities. Their affiliated organizations doing this are Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Vanavasi Klayan Ashram, Bajrang Dal, Seva Bharati to name the few. They have tried to increase Brahminic religiosity at all the levels. They have picked up some of the icons from these marginalized communities and revived them through Hindu Nationalist lens. In addition they have lured some of the leaders of these communities with the bait of pelf and power.
The BJP’s landslide victory in the 2014 general election was helped by Dalit votes. Currently, 84 parliament seats are reserved for Dalits as those constituencies are dominated by Dalit people. In 2014, the BJP won 40 of them, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies(CSDS).
One such study, CSDS post-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, showed that between 2014 and 2019; support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward castes has more than doubled (16). Incidentally they comprise large section of poor people in the state. Similarly the 2021 post-poll survey also indicates that this support is becoming much higher among Dalits and OBCs than among upper castes.
This has been the strategy of BJP all over. Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai demonstrates the diverse ways used by this party for Adivasis and dalits. These groups find that they feel BJP offered them respect and recognition more than other parties. (17) In their perception this party treats them as equal members of society. It seems these social groups seem to perceive a sense of dignity which motivates them to vote for BJP. This is what explains the BJP’s attitude towards Matua community, which is in large numbers in West Bengal. This is what explains Modi’s visit to Bangla desh and a visit to Matua Mandir.
The situation may not remain the same as this community feels they have been betrayed. A report UCAN News (18) points out this sense of being let down and it is expected that this rising anger among the community will get reflected in 2024 elections. Now by and by this marginalized community is not taking the promises of BJP seriously. Young Dalits are increasingly aware of their rights as citizens. As per one of them “In the past, we were nothing but cannon fodder for both the opposition and ruling parties. The time has come when such exploitation will not be allowed,” (18)
As per the same report another Dalit activist in the northern state of Punjab, told ucanews.com that the present generation of Dalits has learned from the past. “The ongoing agitation wants to send a message across the Dalit people … to break the trap and demand equal rights in society,”.
Emerging dalit leader with great promise Jignesh Mevani, from Gujarat, who is the new face of Dalit political assertiveness; holds meetings, seminars and awareness camps that attract huge crowds of people. He outlines the clear path for advance of dalits in the current despicable situation. In one of the meeting held in Ahmadabad city Mevani criticized the BJP government of disregarding the interests of Dalit people. He called for more nationwide resistance protests as the BJP government is failing to defend the Dalit protection law in the Supreme Court. There are hopes as “Young people are now confronting the government with facts and figures, a trend alien to the community in the past. A new revolution is in the making and the time is not far away when the community will no longer be viewed as taboo or alien to mainstream society,” (18)
BJP’s rise on political firmament has been a big setback to values of democracy, freedom of expression, security of religious minorities and dalits. It has also adversely affected the economic welfare of the marginalized sections of society. Through various measures the affirmative action meant for dalits are gradually being undone. In addition to raising of issues like Cow-beef have affected the livelihood of this section of society. Parallel to this BJP and its associates have unleashed the process of cooption of dalits into HIndutva fold.
Sections of dalits are able to see the agenda of Brahmanic agenda of BJP-RSS and do plan to oppose it through various measures. The awareness among dalit youth in particular is coming up to resist the BJP moves to undermine their social and economic status.