P. Sainath

The 50th death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is a time to remember that the larger society ignores or distorts the Dalits' struggle for their rights at its own risk.

"GET READY for a siege." Follow this guide "to escape possible chaos." Even Dalits are joining the "EXODUS." And "You thought Tuesday was bad? It will only get worse today." There is a "nightmare" a threat of violence. And the poor "Mumbai police will have to bear the brunt of it all."

These were just a few of the headlines (some of them front page, first lead) in the press and on television channels. And they were about the lakhs of Dalits gathered in Mumbai to observe the 50th death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. That is, on December 6. There were, of course, fine exceptions. But mostly, media coverage of the run-up to the event was much like the coverage of post-Khairlanji protests in Maharashtra.

This is not the first observance of the great man's anniversary. Lakhs visit the "chaitya bhoomi" in Mumbai each year on this day. As they did this year, too, with high discipline. And without that hell foreseen in the headlines. (After the huge build-up, the issue has faded from the news. Alas, no mayhem.) Then why the hysteria? Is it because the state saw some violence after the Khairlanji murders? Now, every issue stamped `Dalit' gets slotted into: "Will there be disorder and chaos?"

And so a decades-old event was cast in a frame never imposed on other annual festivals. Some of those, like the Ganesh utsav, go on for 10 days in the city. And have a massive impact on traffic. But they do not get covered this way. And the more dismal display has come from the English media. The Marathi press at least on December 6 did better. There were essays on the man, his legacy, his relevance.

In the English media with rare exceptions the Ambedkar anniversary rated at best as a traffic problem. At worst, as a potential nightmare. There was not even a pretence of interest in the person whose 50th death anniversary it was. A giant who was no `Dalit leader' but a national one with a global message. Dr. Ambedkar was not just the prime architect of the Constitution. This was a man who resigned from the Nehru Cabinet he was the nation's first Law Minister on issues linked to women's rights. He stepped down when the Cabinet dragged its feet on the Hindu Code Bill that would have advanced the rights of millions of women.

Few in the media asked why so many sometimes up to a million human beings come to observe his death anniversary each year. Is there one other leader across the world who draws that number 50 years after his death? To an event that speaks to the hearts of people? To a function not owned or organised by any political party or forum? There was no effort to look at why it is the poor and the dispossessed who come here. No mention that this was a man with a Ph.D from Columbia University who returned to lead what is today the greatest battle for human dignity on planet earth.

There was little journalistic curiosity over what brings 85-year-olds with just two rotis in their hands all the way from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh to Dadar in Mumbai. People for whom the journey means both hardship and hunger. Musicians and poets who perform through the day for nothing. Hard-up authors who print books and pamphlets at their own cost for their fellows. And yet make the trip driven by their hearts and drawn by the hope of a noble vision as yet unfulfilled. A casteless world.

Which other national leader commands this respect 50 years after his death? Let alone when alive? Why are there more statues of Ambedkar in India's villages than those of any other leader the country has ever seen? His statues are not government installed unlike those of many others. The poor put them up at their own expense. Whether in Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Orissa, see whose portraits can be found in the humblest of huts. It's worth trying to understand why.

The 50th anniversary is being held in the context of Dalit unrest in Maharashtra. But it is being used to take Khairlanji out of its larger context. Crimes against Dalits in Maharashtra have risen steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. There were 604 cases of rape of Dalit women recorded in 1981. That number was 885 by 1990. And rose to 1,034 by 2000. That's based on very biased official data. The real figures would be much higher. And things have gotten worse since then.

There is one exception. Crimes under the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act do show a big dip in the 1990s. But only because the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government arbitrarily dropped thousands of these cases at one go.

As the Dalit voice in organised politics has declined, the number of caste attacks on Dalits in Maharashtra has increased. Earlier, their political strength was their best shield. For decades, they had repelled the worst excesses of landlord cruelty. Untouchability did not vanish. But they did fight it stoutly. This culture of resistance rested on strong political movements. So, though less than 11 per cent of Maharashtra's population, Dalits had begun to stand tall.

But the Republican Party of India splintered and many of its leaders were co-opted by mainline parties. The Dalit Panthers, once a key source of inspiration and strength, went almost extinct. The results of the decline showed up soon. There was no struggle against the dropping of those thousands of cases under the PoA Act. Electoral opportunism saw the RPI factions crumble further. The 2004 polls saw them put up their worst show ever.

You can see it in battles over water as in Jalna, labour boycotts in Raigad or wage battles elsewhere. Attacks on Dalits have risen across Maharashtra. Just a year ago, more than 20 Dalit houses were torched in Belkhed village in Akola district. Akola was once a centre of Dalit political strength. In the 1960s, RPI candidates used to get 40 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha seat here.

RPI fractured

Hindutva's rise from the late 1980s saw the RPI fracture further. Too many leaders were swallowed by the Congress and later the Nationalist Congress Party. Dalit unity lost ground. These setbacks were to reflect in every sphere. The shrinking of public sector and government jobs in the reform years hit Dalits badly. Even existing jobs lie vacant. A Times of India report reckons that more than 1.3 lakh government posts in reserved categories in Maharashtra have not been filled up for years.

Meanwhile, the protests after Khairlanji have had an ugly companion. The growing display of caste prejudice in the media. The claims were sick. Khairlanji had nothing to do with caste. The woman who was raped and murdered was of loose morals. There were no "upper castes" in the village. (That last had to come from an English-language journalist unaware that the dominant caste in a given village might not be an "upper caste" at all.) Dalits were holding the state "to ransom." Wicked `politicians' were behind what was going on. The protests were Naxal-driven.

As always, there were brilliant exceptions. (Even on television.) They did not, though, define the main trend. The same media treat anti-quota activists as heroes. (No matter how much damage they inflict or how close to racist their rhetoric gets.)

Interviews in the run-up to the Ambedkar anniversary were mostly with people whining that Shivaji Park had been turned into a toilet. Or who spoke only about pollution and traffic jams.

It would be startling if political groups did not enter the protests. Corporation and panchayat elections are due in February. And parties won't ignore that. But they did not set off this process, even if they sought to engage with or exploit it. Ordinary Dalits were on the streets long before Dalit party leaders were. Khairlanji was the fuse. An already deep disquiet, the bomb. Many of these protests have taken place outside traditional political frameworks. On the streets were salaried employees and full time workers. People with no firm party links. There were salespersons and teachers, hawkers, and vendors. Landless and jobless. They, not `vested interests,' were the key to what happened.

The police still plug the `Naxal' angle. The Maoists just do not have the power to stage State-wide actions. Any political group, though, would be thrilled to get the credit for having launched protests it did not even foresee. It builds its appeal. Note that many Dalit party leaders joined the protests days after they began. Attempts to brand the protests as `Naxal-led' are poor escapism.

This is a State witnessing the highest numbers of farm suicides in the country. The conditions of the poor are dismal. For thousands, their anger and despair has turned inwards, within and upon themselves. Hence the suicides. With Dalits, that anger is being expressed. Outwards and openly. The larger society ignores or distorts their struggle for their rights at its own risk.

In the end it is more than a fear of violence that annoys elite society and its media. It is a fear of the mass. A worry that these people no longer know their place. A fear of the assertion of their rights and the loss of our privileges. A fear, in short, of democracy.