The Bharatiya Janata Party’s relations with the Dalits are tense and complex. For the party, Dalit assertiveness has become hard to comprehend, let alone accept, reminding us of a popular folk idiom, ‘ Na Nigalte Bane, Na Ugalte Bane’ (neither can it be swallowed nor can it be thrown out). The BJP is showing an interest in accommodating Dalit groups, but it knows that this embrace is not palatable for its core supporters.
The BJP in its strongholds in northern and western India has been seen as a party of the urban middle class, the Banias, and a section of Brahmins. Over time, the party also brought the Other Backward Classes and the Most Backward Classes within its fold. With the retreat of socialist politics, the rural neo-rich from the backward castes began feeling marginalised in national politics and moved towards Hindutva politics. From the 1970s to 1990s, this community purchased rural land at a much faster rate and emerged as a landed community. On the one hand, this affluent group appears to be part of the new political leadership for post-Mandal Hindutva politics; on the other, being the landed community, it is also perceived to be the oppressor of Dalits in everyday rural life.
Absorbing dissent in the mainstream In recent decades, the BJP and RSS have been initiating intensive nationwide programmes and campaign activities such as arranging community meals (Samrasta Bhoj), opening schools in Dalit settlements, and organising sensitisation campaigns for upper castes. The primary objective of the Samajik Samrasta campaign launched in Maharashtra in 1983 was to eradicate internal conflicts in society while its second aim was to assimilate Dalits into the mainstream by providing them with health, educational and entrepreneurial assistance. A crucial move was to invite Dalits to eat khichri with the upper castes.
The Sangh Parivar also propagated the concept of Ramarajya in which the upper and lower castes come together in social life as well as in democratic politics. For instance, the Ramayana and Lord Rama have been projected as symbols of unity by contending to Dalits that Rama was always linked to the deprived masses and that the epic centred around the Dalits. According to this viewpoint, the Dalits played a significant role in Rama’s life history — in the quest to find Sita in Lanka, for example, the role of Sugriva, Angada, Jambavan, Hanuman and the monkey brigade, all symbolising the underprivileged, was crucial, according to Sangh and BJP ideologues. This showed the Sangh’s attempt to absorb growing Dalit dissent against Brahminism and their struggle for self-respect and equality, and transforming their newly emerging Dalit-Bahujan identity into a Hindutva one.
Communalisation and saffronisation of public spaces is a new strategy adopted by the BJP to mobilise each Dalit caste individually by evoking its unique caste identity. The party reinterpreted and recreated the cultural resources of Dalits at the local level, including their caste histories and heroes, with the aim of saffronising the Dalit psyche and memory, ultimately transforming them into sites for political control. The local heroes of various castes, particularly Dalits, have been selected by the party in different regions for incorporation into one unified Hindutva metanarrative.
Acknowledging the political and electoral importance of the Pasis, an important Dalit community in North India, the RSS launched a campaign in search of the community’s heroes. Following this, Suhaldev, an icon of the Pasi community, was projected as a Rashtra Rakshak Shiromani (the greatest saviour of the nation) for defending Hindu culture and the country from Muslim intruders by forming a confederation of local kings. Festivals were also organised in memory of Suhaldev in Chittora. Thus the RSS and BJP projected the Dalits as the militia — saviours who made up the army of protectors of Hindu dharma.
Appropriating Ambedkar Of late, the BJP has endeavoured to appropriate B.R. Ambedkar, as is evident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the world-class memorial in the Indu Mills compound in Mumbai, and of Ambedkar’s memorial at his partially restored London house. Also, prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, BJP president Amit Shah took part in caste rallies and meetings of various Dalit communities.
A big dilemma of the RSS and BJP is that they are willing to assimilate Dalits within their fold but just in form of a vote bank. For this, the Sangh Parivar is trying hard to incorporate the Dalit identity in the Hindutva ideology, but wants those from the forward castes and middle castes to remain leaders. Till now, Dalits have not been given any crucial role under the BJP and RSS leadership. After Independence, due to various state-led developmental efforts, a literate, critical Dalit leadership has emerged. These leaders are inspired by the writings of Periyar E.V. Ramasami, Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar, and their consciousness is informed by criticism of Hindu religion and Hindutva ideology. Though a small part of this group is under the BJP’s influence, it is also influenced by Ambedkarite thought. The RSS has not come to terms with this.
It is this situation that could lead to clashes in educational institutions between students charged with Ambedkarite consciousness and those belonging to Sangh-affiliated organisations. Clashes could also occur as it may not be easy for the belligerent middle castes, who have become influential in recent decades under the BJP leadership, to accept these Dalit groups’ assertion. All this could also cause tension within Sangh organisations.
Thus, a conflict between Ambedkarite consciousness and Hindutva consciousness over religion, politics and society has become even more violent with the intrusion of the power of the state. After coming to power, the BJP wants to crush through government interference every idea that opposes its own. The biggest challenge before the Sangh Parivar in the politics of Dalit appropriation is the clash of ideas. In the process of the RSS and the BJP trying to subsume Dalit ideas under bigger narratives of development and nationalism, it is not only the young Ambedkarites who are being attacked; the Sangh organisations are also hurting themselves.
(Badri Narayan is professor, Centre for the study of Discrimination and Exclusion, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)