By Vidya Bhushan Rawat,
These are disturbing times for independent India, a time when the ruling dispensation continues to encourage the politics of hatred and violence. It is not to suggest that India has suddenly turned dogmatic or conservative but there was a difference not only in degree of such kind of attitude among the common people but most importantly at political level. It would have been far easier for Jawaharlal Nehru and other founding fathers to push India towards a Brahmnical theocracy immediately after the partition on the back of RSS agenda that following Muslims getting their homeland India must declare itself a theocratic Hindu Rashtra. Nehru had the right caste, right language, and even the right moment. He was an immensely popular figure and despite Pakistan being created in the name of a sacred Islamic land for Muslims, India remained constitutionally secular against all odds. It is not that Nehru’s secularism did not have problems of caste-ism. Conservatives like Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Purushottam Das Tondon, Sardar Patel, Shayama Prasad Mukherjee were determinedly opposed to a progressive legislation like the Hindu Code Bill, so laboriously drafted by the then law minister Dr. Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar. In fact, Nehru’s inability to get it passed in Parliament was thought to be one of the reasons of Ambedkar’s resignation from the cabinet. Despite all the shortcomings, Nehru never encouraged any theocratic ideas as he was more dedicated to pluralism, democracy, and western liberalism – ideas which bring him close to Dr. Ambedkar. Despite their differences, in terms of basic ideological traits, Nehru and Ambedkar were on the same side of thoughts: liberal, secular, and humanists. In fact, Nehru too was impressed with Buddhism and promoted Panchasheel the world over as part of his foreign policy.
Subsequent governments in India adhered to ‘left of the secular’ politics with unambiguous support for the affirmative action programs meant for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, even though the nature of our political structure was very much Brahmanical and representation of leaders as well as people from the marginalized sections in our decision-making bodies was merely for the sake of maintaining a token presence. The first big jolt to our steel-framed political structure came in 1990 when the then Prime Minister, V. P. Singh announced the acceptance of the Mandal Commission Report – a move strongly opposed by the caste Hindus. For the first time in the history of independent India, the mask of many among our ‘secular’ elite also fell off, exposing their true caste prejudices. Politics since the Mandal episode has changed with the Dalits, OBCs, Aadivasis, and minorities asserting and asking for their due and legitimate share in the power structure.
The history of the rise of Dalit assertion can be traced to Dr. Ambedkar’s extraordinary work at the Round Table Conference in London, compelling the British to agree to Communal Award for the Dalits known as Separate Electorate – a provision already granted to Muslims and other minorities. Gandhi’s fast unto death against this brought Dr. Ambedkar into a negotiation with him resulting in political reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes based on their proportion but in the existing form of joint electorate voting pattern in the form of ‘reserved seats’. The fact of the matter is that the political leaders of these reserved seats rarely raise Dalit issues in Parliament as most of the time they are ‘dedicated’ to their ‘voters’ and a reserved constituency is not necessarily a ‘scheduled caste’ constituency. This understandably causes resentment among radical Ambedkarites who still feel that Gandhi’s blackmail actually decimated the independent Dalit leadership, who had the moral authority to ask questions in Parliament and other public platforms.
After the Mandal revolution, the issue of proportionate representation and legitimate leadership of the Dalits and other sections, including OBCs came into the forefront as India’s upper caste rose in ‘revolt’ against the legitimate rights that were being granted to this huge section of our people – more than 55% of the Indian population. It is now well documented that the crux of Hindutva politics was in countering the Mandal revolution in India and delegitimizing it. In this, the Brahmanical seculars too had an interest because until the 1990s, the Indian political scene had a polarization between the secular, communal and the so-called left politics whose leadership was essentially from the so-called caste Hindus. Post Mandal, all this changed, but in the absence of a strong ideological position, it became a typical dominant-caste narrative among the OBCs. This gave enough space to the Brahmanical forces to play with the internal contradictions, culminating in their total surrender to the Hindutva forces in the 2014 general elections and even more acutely in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
There is no denying the fact that post May 2014 India has changed with the Brahmanical elite openly and shamelessly resorting to anti-Dalit propaganda, while trying to coopt Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar with his distorted vision, making him look like a Hindutva ‘reformist’ on the one side while selectively disowning his other writing. Prime Minister Modi has been making all efforts to woo Dalits and the RSS cadres have been told to handle the situation with great emotion. At the same time, the state remains clever in not promoting Ambdekar’s incisive writings. In Gujarat, a biographical text on Dr. Ambedkar, which mentions his 22 vows after embracing Buddhism on October 14, 1956, in Nagpur, was withdrawn on the ground that it might disturb ‘social harmony’ in the state.
India’s public institutions are being deliberately discredited just to hand them over to corporate houses and undo the historic role of affirmative action as more and more Dalits, adivasis, and backward classes students challenge the status quo. The institutional murder of Rohith Vemula is an example of how the state apparatus remained hostile to Dalit assertion, particularly when they raised the issue of their rights. The Vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad was promoted despite being accused of caste discrimination. No action has been taken against him. The Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 wasn’t used against those who were actually responsible for murder of Rohith Vemula. Not only this, we saw the public flogging of four Dalits in Una allegedly killing a cow. The public spectacle of the mob lynching of Muslims has got international attention but not so much from the Indian state, which appears to covertly support these violent actions. Neither the prime minister nor any other political leader has used any harsh words against these dastardly acts. The incidents at JNU and other universities indicate how the state is silently withdrawing from the welfare projects and ensuring that these prestigious institutions, which gave opportunity to rural poor and students from various marginalized sections of society, slowly die their own death. Even if they don’t, the state wants to create a credibility crisis; it has succeeded to a certain extent because of a spineless and obliging media justifying all its misdeeds and wrongs.
The new young Ambedkarites understand this dubious game of the Brahmanical elite and hence are questioning it. They are not ready to accept the coopted Dalit leadership and are therefore raising their own banner. They know that the Indian state has now resorted to tokenism of ‘empowering Dalits’ by making political appointments such as Mr. Ram Nath Kovind, India’s newest President. The youth knows that the Indian state has always done so in diverting the attention of the world on Dalit issues through these ‘public events’. India already had a President from the Dalit community and he was extraordinary. President K. R. Narayanan was not a token president but considered to be one of the most enlightened presidents we ever had who never hesitated to remind the government of the day of its constitutional duties. Ram Nath Kovind doesn’t appear to enjoy the strength of conviction that K. R. Narayanan had, and his presence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan would be more symbolic than helping the Dalit cause.
While the political parties failed and particularly those claiming to represent the Dalits keep disappointing, the positive sign is that Ambedkarite youths are not ready to wait endlessly facing injustices. The huge protest that India saw in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s death and the subsequent flogging of Dalits in Una and violence against Dalits in Saharanpur has also put the political parties on alert that they should not take them for granted. The huge protest we saw at Jantar Mantar in support of the Bhim Army is nothing but a reminder to not just the government but to all the political parties to address the issue of violence against Dalits. Young Ambedkarites have shown tremendous maturity and political clarity in responding to these issues. True to the legacy of Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar, they want an egalitarian political system that acknowledges their independent existence. Moreover, none of them ever supported any retaliatory violence by giving it an ideological shape, which means that for Ambedkarites, democratic values are vital to preserving Dalit rights and dignity.
The new youth are dynamic and speak with courage of conviction, unlike the political leadership that calculates each vote to protect their political interest. The political parties continue to function in styles that reek of feudalism and are unable to identify and acknowledge this youth power, as they suffer from an ‘appointment’ culture where the political appointees are only supposed to speak as per the instructions of ‘high command’ and remain mute most of the time unless asked to speak. Is not it an irony that in world’s ‘biggest democracy’, political parties have rarely spoken on the issue of ‘corporatization of education’, thus nullifying the affirmative action program that the state provided?
This year the Jawaharlal Nehru University curtailed its various research programs, negatively impacting the lives of those who were determined to make it. The department of social exclusion (mostly known as department of social exclusion and inclusive policy in various universities or Centre for the study of discrimination and social exclusion at JNU at the school of social sciences) as well as women’s studies in various universities are facing the music of the Sangh Parivar led officials who perhaps see them as obstacles in their dream project of creating a Brahmanical narrative as these departments in various universities helped create young minds who questioned the existing cultural practices and countered them.
So, the youth can’t wait for political parties to raise these issues. Many of them are looking to build alliances with other like-minded social movements while others feel that any talk would be on the basis of parity and commitment to social justice. One has to understand that we are a huge country and there will be diverse opinion on any issue; no one individual or organization, writer, author, political party can claim that they alone represent the entire spectrum whether we talk of Dalits or any other segment. The common thread among them is the idea of a modern liberal democracy and autonomy of their space, which needs to be respected. Young people like Jignesh Mewani feel the need to tie up with left organizations while many others are still suspicious of their hidden agendas. Such conflicting ideological positions will remain and they show the vibrancy of a movement that is not coming from a mute political class but aspiring future leaders. The left has made historical blunders and it is natural for young Ambedkarites to question them. At the same time, it also needs to be seen whether it is really impossible to work on common issues for all the people who respect social justice, human rights, and secular democratic values. Is it not a historical moment now to learn from the past mistakes, discuss the issues unambiguously, maintain organizational autonomy and yet work on a common minimum program that helps in countering the existing powerful forces intimidating us now while attempting to determine our future by distorting our history.
Movements are building up and people are joining hands. We hope experience and common threads would bring them together to fight and defeat the communal feudal sectarian forces that seem committed to defeat our constitutional values and the idea of an inclusive India. We all need to understand that ‘secularism’, liberalism and democracy mean nothing as long as these remain ‘exclusive’ to the hegemony of the Brahmanical castes without providing spaces to hitherto unrepresented sections of society. New Ambedkarites don’t want to be patronized but respected and acknowledged as an independent political and social identity carrying forth the historical legacy of Dr. Ambedkar. They are challenging popular notions and historical distortions for creating their own spaces. It is essential for India at 70 to respect and acknowledge these new voices of change.
(Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a radical humanist, a human rights defender, and a political commentator.)