"Caste politics will not last. Dalit politics is stuck in old issues... Let’s leave them behind...Come out on education and livelihood issues"

The son of a cobbler, Kanwal Bharti grew up in difficult conditions in Uttar Pradesh's northern Rampur district. He was recently arrested — later granted bail — for criticising the Samajwadi Party on Facebook. In an interview with The Hindu, the Dalit scholar speaks about the incident and Dalit expression in Uttar Pradesh in general.

As a Dalit were you an easy target? (The State is ruled by the Samajwadi Party and Dalits form the major vote-bank of its opposition Bahujan Samaj Party)

Yes, definitely. There is a mentality that if you are a Dalit, you must be pro-BSP. So why don’t we set him right? But they somehow seemed to underestimate my character. They thought the issue would not catch much fire.

What was the motive behind your arrest?

Because they wanted to cover up the issue I had raised over the recent demolition of a 200-year-old madrassa in Rampur. I have nothing personal against (U.P. Minister and Rampur MLA) Azam Khan. If the State can claim that it suspended Durga Shakti Nagpal over the demolition of a wall, saying it could have led to communal tension, why did it allow this demolition in Rampur? Why was nobody suspended here? Couldn't communal violence have taken place here? They just wanted to dismay me.

Why was no action taken in Rampur, you think?

Because Azam Khan rules in Rampur, not (Chief Minister) Akhilesh Yadav.

Parallel centres of power exist within the government, you mean?

Yes. Rampur, Etawah, Pratapgarh, Lucknow and so on. How can law and order be normal when you have such an undemocratic setup? The State is bound to fail. Giving tickets to criminals and musclemen is bound to haunt you.

You believe that Azam Khan was directly involved in your arrest?

His Public Relation Officer filed the FIR. How obvious can it get? I was taken out by the police while I was still in my pyjamas and kept in custody for eight hours. Only in the court later on did I know why I was arrested!

You are a well-known figure and the arrest would have surely caught attention. Still the State went ahead. Why?

See, their aim was to terrorise me. We all know I would get out sooner or later. But the humiliation and insecurity of the ordeal of being in jail was their motive... By their logic, just because I am a non-Muslim, my protest against the madrassa demolition would lead to communal violence. I was born here. Never has my writing ever disrupted any form of harmony. In fact, around 400-500 Muslims came to my house on Eid to express their support.

So, what is it to be a Dalit who supports Muslims?

It’s a question of oppression. Even if it is a Dalit oppressor, I would protest. I read in the Hadees (Islamic narrations), whoever supports an oppressor, regardless of affiliation or community, is also communal. It is an issue of a writer’s duty. During the Babri Masjid demolition protests, my texts were translated into Urdu in large numbers and used by Muslim organisations.

Post your arrest, you have said that you feel insecure in Rampur. Have you received enough support from political parties or writers’ guilds?

Some progressive writers’ forums like the Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh and Dalit Lekhak Sangh staged dharnas at Jantar Mantar in my support. There was support from guilds from Patna and Amristar as well. Politically, the Congress supported me. The BJP offered (support) but I don’t want it. I do not want any political affiliation or support, let’s make it clear.

What about the BSP?

Of all these parties, the BSP still has a feudalistic setup. Only Mayawati can comment. Nobody else in the party can open up. This is not democratic. I don’t expect much from them.

But as a Dalit, the common perception is that you would support BSP and vice-versa?

Both the SP and BSP are based on giroh bandi (gang mentality). The powerful and musclemen get access to influence in these parties. Only difference is that the SP currently has many centres of power while the BSP has just one -- Mayawati. Both are vote-bank minded.

Despite knowing that they are a vote-bank, the Dalits still vote for the BSP, not all of them but the majority.

In U.P., the Dalits are still not politically aware. They only depend on caste. And yes, Mayawati is an icon for them. But caste won't get you livelihood, education.

You're in favour of Dalits making an entry into other parties?

Yes. Dalits should be a part of all parties. Not be politically restricted. Expand their political base.

You clearly do not favour caste politics. As a Dalit in U.P., that's significant.

Caste politics will not last. Dalit politics is stuck in old issues. Social restrictions on wells, untouchability, etc. Let’s leave them behind. There are laws taking care of them today. Come out on education and livelihood issues.

Where does Dalit expression fit in?

Dalit writers are still writing for convenience -- biographies, untouchability. This is not exactly khatarnak (compelling, but literally dangerous) writing, I’m afraid. Instead, they must focus on education and power. Not be limited by discrimination. Change cannot happen on the basis of poetry and prose. We need more ‘view-point’ based writing.

Why is it lacking?

There is a Dalit corporate emerging. Dalit politics and writing are part of it. I’m afraid but nijikaran (privatisation) will destroy Dalits. Even Ambedkar noted that the Dalits have two enemies: the Brahman and the punjiwad (capitalist). The Brahman exploits socially and punjiwad economically. Alas, we have succumbed to both.

Do you think freedom of expression changes in U.P. depending on who's in power or is intolerance now imbibed into the State's political setup?

Will your ordeal now give support and inspiration to Dalit writers to come out and write more aggressively? The media has supported you.

I know what it is to face oppression. Dalit writers are still scared. Just yesterday I heard someone saying, “We need to live in U.P., why take the chance.” Mind you, Dalit expression cannot make any change unless risks are taken. I was not born with a silver spoon. We need to come out of fear. Ambedkar was alone.