A pan-India Dalit assertion

The story of the Bhim Army of western U.P. is a lens to understand the Dalit challenge to the Hindu Right

September 24, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:40 am IST

Bhim Sena supporters hold a photo of BR Ambedkar as they raise slogans demanding immediate release of their chief Chandrasekhar Azad during the Bahujan Sankalp Mahasabha, at Parliament Street in New Delhi on August 19, 2018.

Bhim Sena supporters hold a photo of BR Ambedkar as they raise slogans demanding immediate release of their chief Chandrasekhar Azad during the Bahujan Sankalp Mahasabha, at Parliament Street in New Delhi on August 19, 2018.

In a move that took many by surprise, the Uttar Pradesh government recently released Chandrasekhar Azad, the founder of the Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission, from jail. It was unexpected for many reasons. For starters, he had been arrested last year following clashes between Dalits and Thakurs in Saharanpur in western U.P. In November 2017, when the Allahabad High Court granted him bail, it observed that the charges against him seemed “politically motivated”.

Why now?

Notwithstanding the bail order, the U.P. government had invoked the National Security Act (NSA) to arrest him again. It kept him in jail — without trial and without any charge sheet being filed — for more than 15 months. He was not due for release until November 2. So why did the Yogi Adityanath government suddenly change its mind and release him two months early?

The official explanation is that the decision was taken in response to a request from Mr. Azad’s mother. But that doesn’t explain why her request remained unheeded for so many months.

It is likely that the real reasons involve a combination of two factors. First, the petition filed in the Supreme Court challenging his detention. Dalit groups have claimed that the petition was up for hearing soon, and that the government wanted to avoid a reprimand from the apex court, as it would have given the Opposition a fresh opening to paint the BJP as ‘anti-Dalit’.

The other reason is that the Dalits in U.P. have been getting increasingly restive over Mr. Azad’s continued incarceration. The campaign for his release was becoming a tool for uniting Dalits across the country. A national-level mobilisation of Dalits for the release of an Ambedkarite leader jailed by a BJP government would not only bust the claims of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of upholding B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy but also put Dalit leaders within the Sangh Parivar under immense pressure, as it indeed already has. Besides, Dalit unity and political awareness were precisely what Mr. Azad had been working towards, and continuing to keep him in jail made no sense if the very fact of his detention was catalysing the achievement of these objectives.

In other words, to borrow a metaphor from chess, the Bhim Army chief’s early release was what one might call a ‘forced move’. It not only represents a moral victory for the Dalit community but is also part of a larger pattern of Dalit assertion that is gathering steam across the country. It is a phenomenon that the ruling dispensation views as a threat, but it is a threat to which it has no coherent response. Its inability to come up with one is not accidental. It is unable to do so because this threat is a manifestation of the contradiction at the heart of their political project, the creation of a Hindu Rashtra.

Different from before

The singular contradiction that is steadily unravelling the Hindutva project even as it seems to be making progress is the same element that is fuelling Dalit assertion in India today: caste society. Ironically, it was the demon of caste that necessitated the ideology of Hindutva in the first place. It is an ideology that seeks to bury this demon by propping up another in its place: the demon of hatred towards the Other. While the default Other of Hindutva is the Muslim, the communal demon is broad-minded enough to consider other minorities as well on a need-to-hate basis.

Rendering the fault lines of caste invisible in a fog of communal paranoia has only one objective: the creation of a nation of Hindus. This brings us to the second contradiction in the Hindutva project: a nation, by definition, is a community of (notional) equals. But a community whose nationhood is predicated solely on the religious and cultural identity of being Hindu can never be a community of equals, for as Ambedkar elucidates with breathtaking clarity in Annihilation of Caste , Hindu religious belief and cultural practice are marked by the graded inequality of caste at their very core.

This is the kernel of Ambedkarite insight that the Bhim Army has been planting in young Dalit minds through its hundreds of tuition centres in western U.P. Much like its founder, who used to be a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bhim Army’s ranks are filled with people who have dallied with the Hindu Right. Their disillusionment with the Sangh Parivar was almost always triggered by the refusal of their saffron brothers to back them in inter-caste clashes. This proved to be a moment of truth that set in sharp relief the moral and other kinds of support that they had received when their antagonists happened to be a religious minority instead of upper-caste Hindus. In other words, their experience in the Parivar had primed them into ideal subjects ready to imbibe what the Bhim Army had to say.

The Bhim Army, emblematic of the current phase of Dalit assertion, is different from earlier mobilisations in one important respect — its recognition that social unity is more important than political unity. So much so that loyalty to the Dalit community precedes every other affiliation, including that to political parties.

If the current wave of Dalit assertion, which seems to have taken to heart Ambedkar’s slogan of “Educate, Agitate, Organise”, were to succeed in its project of invoking Dalit pride as a common factor to knit the thousands of Dalit-Bahujan sub-castes across the country into a singular political community, it could mark the beginning of the end for the Hindu Right, whose ‘foot-soldiers’, in many cases of targeted communal violence, have historically been Dalits. The very condition of possibility for a Hindu Rashtra requires that Scheduled Caste communities remain invested in the social identity proffered by their respective sub-castes while continuing to identify politically as Hindus. Activists or outfits focussed on educating Dalits and propagating an Ambedkarite self-respect are naturally inimical to this project.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the ruling dispensation is panicking at the spread of a Dalit political consciousness. And panic is not the best frame of mind in which to initiate counter-measures. So, first came a judicial manoeuvre to dilute the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — a move that backfired. It backfired so badly that the Union Cabinet scrambled to quickly pass an amendment nullifying the Supreme Court judgment.

Next was the arrest of five social activists for their alleged involvement with the Bhima-Koregaon event on January 1, 2018, an annual programme whose very objective is to celebrate Dalit pride. The term used by the police to describe the detainees, “urban naxals”, is already gaining currency among Dalits as the state’s vindictive label for people who fight for Dalit empowerment.

Clues in nomenclature

And most recently, the Central government, citing a High Court order, issued an advisory asking the media to stop using the word ‘Dalit’ altogether and stick to the term ‘Scheduled Caste’. While it remains unclear why a self-proclaimed ‘pro-Dalit’ regime would want to eliminate the very term from usage, the move has managed to further alienate Dalits from the BJP.

Interestingly, the first thing Mr. Azad said after being released is that he would work hard to ensure the BJP’s defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He also squelched any speculation that he might serve as a counter-weight to Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, by swearing loyalty to her. What remains to be seen is whether this rare convergence of Dalit political assertion and social unity acquires a fully pan-Indian character, and how it plays out in the electoral arena.


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