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Dalit fury rattles BJP, as Sangh fuzzy over caste

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right.
Published : Apr 6, 2018, 6:59 am IST
Updated : Apr 6, 2018, 7:01 am IST

The Modi government is conspicuous in its inability to comprehend dalit sense and sensibility.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that his government had done more to promote Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s memory than any previous government. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that his government had done more to promote Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s memory than any previous government. (Photo: PTI)

Forty-four years ago, Balasaheb Deoras, when he had barely taken over as sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), delivered a stirring speech in Pune whose objectives still remains the Sangh Parivar’s kathni (proclamation), but is yet to become its karni (practice). He had taken over the organisation which although just a year from its golden jubilee, remained a peripheral grouping. His predecessor, the ascetic-looking Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, had left behind an embarrassing situation which required a resolution — in an interview to the Marathi paper Nava Kal he had waxed eloquently on the necessity and intrinsic worth of Chaturvarna, or the four-caste system prevalent in Hinduism.

This assertion put paid to the carefully devised strategy to enlist support for the Sangh Parivar across caste lines. Despite Maharashtrian brahmins dominating the RSS leadership as a modernist peshwai, RSS ideologues saw the caste order as an impediment to Hindu consolidation. Significantly, when interned at Ratnagiri, and disallowed from participating in political activity, V.D. Savarkar had participated in campaigns seeking dalits’ entry into temples. Golwalkar’s comments had provided gist to adversaries’ mills — his views showed the RSS in its true colours, they said. When offered a choice of topics for his speech at Pune’s Vasant Vyakhanmala, or spring lecture series, a part of the city’s brahminical tradition dating back to 1875, Deoras chose a demanding subject: “Social Equality and Hindu Consolidation”. His selection provoked immense curiosity — how would he argue for caste equality  in the face of RSS’ inherent savarn conservatism?

Deoras set out as sarsanghchalak to “consolidate all the Hindus”. Swayamsevaks were told — the audience was wider, but the primary target was the RSS cadre — that “social inequality has been a reason for our downfall... caste, sub-caste rivalries and untouchability have been manifestations of social inequality...” He told followers that the problem lay with Hindu Sangathanists taking pride in archaic traditions, including the caste order. Deoras made a concession by accepting social classification may have been once justified but after becoming associated with caste discrimination, such social stratification had no justification. He then went on to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: “If untouchability is not wrong, then nothing in the world is wrong!”

Deoras’ words created an intellectual flutter within the RSS but he failed in getting the behemoth to integrate the lower castes, especially dalits. Panic set in only after the Meenakshipuram conversions, and when the shilanyas ceremony for the Ram temple at Ayodhya was conducted in 1989, it was performed by a dalit activist. Such tokenism apart, the Sangh Parivar remains gripped by upper-caste mentality. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that his government had done more to promote Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s memory than any previous government. His declaration of the dalit icon’s last residence near Delhi University being dedicated to the nation on his birth anniversary next week ignored its acquisition by the Centre in 2003 and that it has already been a low-key memorial for several years. It is for

Mr Modi to ponder if dalits will be satisfied with a spruced-up memorial, or if they prefer “Ramji” — added to Dr Ambedkar’s name by Yogi Adityanath in Hindutvawadi zeal — being struck off so the “original” middle name remains what it was — in a state of disuse. The Modi government is conspicuous in its inability to comprehend dalit sense and sensibility. Matters related to economic advancement are vital, and no government cannot but prioritise this. Yet, respecting dalit identity and dignity is paramount.

The BJP argues that violence against dalits was higher during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance, but more anti-dalit headlines have been created since 2014. In the Rohith Vemula case, then HRD minister Smriti Irani had personally challenged his dalit identity. Insensitivity ruled the roost after the incident in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016. Last year, the BJP sweep in Uttar Pradesh was followed by violence against dalits in Saharanur village as upper caste elation at a “Thakur” becoming chief minister swept the hinterland. The recent incident of a dalit youth’s murder because he owned a horse was not the first such act. Within days, a dalit youth in UP moved the high court seeking protection so that he can ride a mare for his baraat. In recent years, specially after 2014, India is seeing an unprecedented resurgence of upper caste hostility.

Upper castes and lower OBCs collaborate in discriminating against dalits, even resorting to violence. These groups are incensed with the emergence of a reservation-linked affluent dalit middle class. On the social media, there is a proliferation of old campaigns against reservations and visuals demonising and ridiculing dalits. Symbols of upper and middle castes’ nouveau-riche superiority — owning motorcycles, wearing jeans and T-shirts, riding horses or elephants for ceremonial occasions — even growing moustaches, draping a chunni (by unmarried women) — are in the dalit list of prohibitions. Violation is responded to with violence. Due to the decades-old animosity, whenever the purchasing power of dalits rise, he/she flaunts products which evoke resentment and envy.

The Supreme Court’s argument of not taking the sting out of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act will now be put against the Centre’s belated claim that it can be argued that any law can be abused (and possibly is being misused). But by singling out the SC/ST Act, the court was putting the onus on dalits for allegedly abusing a law. The judiciary’s upper caste dominance needs no reiteration. The investigating agencies have little sympathy for dalits, seeing them mainly as freeloaders.

When the Supreme Court passed its first order, the BJP and the Central government acted like deer frozen in headlights. The dalit issue is the proverbial gale mein haddi (bone stuck in the throat) — the BJP can neither spit it out nor can it swallow it down. The issue has surfaced when it is politically inopportune as several social and economic groups are dissatisfied with Mr Modi. The imbroglio has forged intra-dalit unity and ranged upper castes and OBCs against them. The social coalition the BJP raised in its support has overnight become shaky. This is mainly because the Sangh Parivar still has little clarity over its stance on the caste order.

Tags: br ambedkar, narendra modi, dalit, sangh parivar