Instead of looking at whether the protests by Dalits against the Khairlanji incident and against the desecration of Ambedkar's statue were "spontaneous" or part of an organised plan, we need to understand the basis of this fury.
WHY DID Maharashtra burst into flames on Thursday following Dalit protests, almost without warning? To those who have not been monitoring what is happening among Dalits, and more specifically amongst the followers of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar this year, it would appear that the protests came out of nowhere. Yet the signs of anger have been more than evident, particularly over the last two months since the murder of four Dalits in the village of Khairlanji, 100 km from Nagpur on September 29. Ironically, just three days after this atrocity in which the mother and three grown children of the Bhotmange family were brutally killed, a major event took place in Nagpur bringing together the national leadership of Dalits. On October 2, Dussehra Day, Dalits marked 50 years since Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. On October 14, the actual date of the conversion, once again lakhs of people gathered in Nagpur. Not a whiff of the atrocity so close at hand disturbed the occasion.
The first protests against the Khairlanji killing emerged more than a month later, first in Nagpur and then in Amravati and Yavatmal. In each case, the protesters appeared as if out of nowhere and caught the police off guard. They seemed to be leaderless but did not escape the full force of police brutality, particularly in Amravati and Yavatmal. The anger that fuelled those demonstrations was clearly linked to Khairlanji and the State Government's failure to move swiftly to deal with the crime. Although since then, the State Home Ministry has taken some steps by suspending the officials who were lax in registering the atrocity and in the follow-up to it and arresting the sarpanch and upa sarpanch of the village, suspected of having led the mob, the general perception remains that the incident has not been taken seriously enough.
Anger against this apparent indifference had been brewing and was just waiting for a trigger to burst forth again. This was provided by the desecration of Dr. Ambedkar's statue in Kanpur on Wednesday. News about this spread instantly through the electronic media. Some reports suggest that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) cadre also passed on the information. The BSP has built a base in Vidharbha, Marathwada, and in Mumbai following the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Apart from Khairlanji, the police response to the demonstrations in Nagpur, Amravati, and Yavatmal that followed also fuelled the fury seen on Thursday.
At a discussion in Mumbai on Tuesday on media coverage of the Khairlanji incident, Dalit writer and critic Anand Teltumbde pointed out that police brutality in Amravati and Yavatmal towards peaceful demonstrators had not been covered or followed up by the media. While in Amravati, one Dalit youth was killed in police firing and several were injured, in Yavatmal, the police picked up 50 youth in the middle of the night from a Dalit basti without any explanation of what their involvement was. Even well-respected Dalit activists, including a woman, were picked up in the night and allegedly abused.
A Nagpur-based Dalit activist says the mainstream media are not aware of the extent to which news about Dalit atrocities now circulates through other sources. For instance, well before the news about Khairlanji hit the national press, pictures of the slain members of the Bhotmange family were on many websites dedicated to Dalit issues. In particular, in this year of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism and his death, Dalits have been networking far more diligently than earlier. Educated Dalit youth, he suggests, are disillusioned with the existing political leadership and are looking for ways to express their dissatisfaction. The virtually leaderless protests following the Khairlanji murders in Nagpur and elsewhere are an indication of this disillusionment.
The 50th anniversary celebrations have also led to much greater social mobilisation amongst Dalits this year. Leading up to December 6, Dr. Ambedkar's death anniversary, there have been hundreds of events at Boudh Viharas in many parts of the State as lakhs of Dalits begin converging on Chaitya Bhoomi in Mumbai for December 6. With the Kanpur incident taking place just a week before this major event, it was inevitable, some of these activists believe, that Dalit youth would have been provoked to take to the streets and protest. While the media covered the damage to public property and the inconvenience caused to the general public as a result of the protests, the reasons for such deep-seated anger need to be probed more deeply. Why would thousands of ordinary Dalit youth come out on the road and vent their anger in this way unless their sense of disillusionment with the system had not already reached boiling point? Instead of merely looking at whether the protests were "spontaneous," as Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil holds, or part of an organised plan, we need to understand the basis of this fury.
The reality in Maharashtra, as elsewhere in India, is that despite reservation and the chance for education and upward mobility that this has given some Dalits, caste prejudice continues to survive. The Bhotmange family, for instance, was educated. Yet, its members had to tolerate casteist slurs. Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, who owns five acres of irrigated land, was not permitted to plaster his house because the panchayat would not accept him as a resident of the village. Such stories are not the exception; they can be multiplied many times over across Maharashtra but are rarely reported. As a result, when anger erupts, the government is left wondering what went wrong.
Divisions within the Dalit political leadership further compound the problem in Maharashtra. Despite the outrage over Khairlanji, there has been no united response by these parties. Instead, they are suggesting outrageous solutions ranging from arming Dalits to separate Dalit villages. With important civic elections in Mumbai and Thane around the corner, several observers fear that Dalit and other political parties will only be interested in capitalising on this current unrest to bring in votes. The Maharashtra Government has been equally lacking in sensitivity and foresight. It continues to deal with atrocities, and incidents like Khairlanji, as a law and order problem or isolated atrocities.
In fact, after the initial protests, the State Government tried to make a case that the protests were the work of Naxalite groups and used that as an excuse to move against the protesters with greater force. Thursday's events should inform the government that such a myopic understanding of the situation will only make things worse.