With the UP Assembly Elections (2017) drawing closer, the Hindutva leaders have started shedding tears for Dalits. Weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement in which he said that one may attack him but not his Dalit brothers, BJP National Executive Member Sanjay Paswan wrote an opinion piece in The Indian Express (‘Vote Bank To Thought Bank’, September 6, 2016) and praised the policies of the Modi Government for Dalits, blaming the progressive sections for politicising the Dalit question.
Showering his praise for Modi, former National President of BJP Scheduled Castes Morcha and Dalit face of the saffron party Paswan said that ‘The current prime minister came from a humble background. He is aware of the pain, agony, challenges, deprivations and everyday there at a socially disadvantaged person faces in the rural set-up.’
In order to woo Dalits and Backwards, Hindutva leaders often mention Modi’s “humble” social background. In the past, BJP President Amit Shah claimed that the BJP gave the country the first OBC PM in Modi. Even during the General Election campaign 2014 and after, Modi himself mentioned his caste identity. Paswan’s article operated within the same trope.
Does one’s social background matter? Yes it does. I see force in the argument in support of representation and diversity. Yet, I do not think that that one’s “humble” social background, excluding all other factors, makes him infallible, as Paswan seemed to argue. One should not forget that a large number of Dalit leaders were deployed by the high-caste Hindus to confront Babasaheb Ambedkar. Bahujan leader Kanshi Ram rightly called such people chamchas (stooges) who played in the hands of the high caste Hindus.
Continuing his bragging about the works of Modi Government for Dalits, Paswan, former minister of state under the Vajpayee government, said that “Parliament discussed the life and works of Ambedkar” under the Modi Government. Moreover, “Jan Dhan Yojna has ended financial untouchability to a large extent” and the BJP currently has the highest number of Dalit Parliamentarians”.
If the Modi Government has done so much work, then why do Dalits continue to remain the most marginalised social group? No doubt the previous regimes saw atrocities and acts of injustice against Dalits but the rise of Hindutva politics has accelerated the occurrence of anti-Dalit incidents.
But the politics of Paswan, the former MP from Nawada, did not give him space to mention the sufferings of Dalits and their simmering anger against the unjust system. He, therefore, continues to maintain a calculated silent about the cow-protection campaigns primarily targeting Dalits and Muslims. As the Una incident showed, anti-social “gau rakshaks” publicly flogged Dalits for allegedly skinning a dead cow. Moreover, criminal acts from thrashing them to stuffing cow dung into their mouths have been reported in the media. It is hard to believe that all this has been going on for so long without the consent or collusion of the police and the government.
But Paswan’s piece, instead of speaking against the acts of atrocities, focused on the success of the BJP, hailing the party for having the largest number of Dalit Parliamentarians.
True, the BJP has a bigger number of the Dalit parliamentarians than any other political party but one should not forget that almost all of them have been elected from reserved constituencies. Thus, a more relevant question is why Dalits are rarely fielded from non-reserved seats by all the “mainstream” parties.
Worse still, elected Dalit leaders are given little freedom to articulate the genuine interests of their community within the “mainstream” party and outside it. The inability of Paswan to publically condemn acts of violence against Dalits seems to strengthen this argument.
Paswan’s analysis of the Dalit question, therefore, ignored the issue of redistribution. While the radical Dalits led by Jignesh Mewani are struggling to link the Dalit question to land, Paswan was busy with locating the Dalit somewhere else.
For example, Paswan rued that a section of people allegedly disengaged with him in a recent event in Lucknow on the Dalit question as he belonged to “khaki-nikkerwala” group.
Note that a number of Dalit and Muslim activists, as well as rationalists and progressive intellectuals who spoke against discrimination and oppression and Brahminism, have been gagged and jailed on the charges on being “anti-nationals” by the Hindutva governments. If Paswan now rues that he was not involved in debate in the Lucknow event, does he have the same courage and energy to denounce the rise of intolerance under the Modi regime as well?
Further, Paswan’s essay created an impression that he had become an upholder of free speech and dissent. He, thus, contended that “the panacea for social ills” that include caste discrimination, untouchability and the plights of Dalits “lies in dialogue, discussion and debate”. Moreover, he said ‘Evading debate indicates lack of faith and confidence in one’s ideology’.
But who is really evading the debate? Are the Hindutva leaders ready to debate the state of Dalits in a Brahminical structure? Are Hindutva leaders ready to debate exploitation and humiliation? Are Hindutva leaders ready to debate the inequality preached by the Brahminical texts and scriptures? Are Hindutva leaders ready to debate the issue of political, social, cultural and economic marginalisation of Dalits? Are Hindutva leaders ready to debate the state of inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages?
I am not sure if Paswan would be interested in these questions because he might perceive them to be capable of politicizing the Dalit question that he disliked the most. While one part of his article seemed “radical” that stressed the need to have dialogue, debate, free speech and dissents, another part turned conservative and upholder of status-quo that argued that the issues of Dalits needed to be depoliticized. ‘Any strategy of Dalit empowerment could emerge through consensus and not conflict, through dialogue and not dominance. The present need is to depoliticise the Dalit discourse and strive towards an independent, objective, dispassionate and solution-centric Dalit narrative’, he added.
The contradiction in Paswan’s argument is evident here. How could the acts of free speech and dissents–which are likely to raise the questions of power and contestation– can harmoniously sit with the conservative worldview of consensus, depoliticisation, integration and non-confrontational approach?
Contrary to the politics of status quo by the Hindutva politics, the Dalit politics advocates “revolt” against unjust system. For example, the manifesto of the Dalit Panthers revolted against Dalits’ enemy such as power, wealth, price, landlords, capitalists, money-lenders. Besides, the manifesto was also against the parties that indulged in religious or casteist politics and the government which defended them.
Far from Paswan’s figure of a Dalit, the Dalit politics imagined a Dalit to be a rebel. As the poet Yeshwant Manohar brilliantly put it, a Dalit is the one who cries: ‘I’m burning with a feeling of revolt / And I call out to you / I will write the poem of revolt on your sword / Today I have become a storm-come with me!’
Abhay Kumar is pursuing PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be contacted at email@example.com