The Dalit-Hindutva paradox

“The Parivar’s efforts to win Dalit support have become increasingly visible over the last few years through gestures that are largely symbolic.” Photo: The Hindu Archives  

At a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — indeed, the entire Sangh Parivar — has been making a concerted effort to reach out to Dalits, the insensitive response of its members to >Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula’s death appears inexplicable. As in the aftermath of >Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri last year, the BJP’s handling of Rohith’s suicide has only sharpened an existing fault line.

Three weeks after the incident, BJP leaders privately acknowledge that endorsing Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya’s partisan approach — backing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) against the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) of which Rohith was a member — has cost the party dearly. With orders coming from the top, they say, BJP leaders took their cue from Mr. Dattatreya, while a Sangh Parivar representative who initially adopted a neutral line publicly was reportedly ticked off by two Central BJP leaders for not defending the ABVP.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi >broke his silence on the issue at the Ambedkar University in Lucknow on January 22, saying he could feel the agony of the Dalit scholar’s family, jeering students told him to “go back.”

But why did the BJP go so wrong? In the case of Akhlaq, who was wrongly accused of eating beef, the Sangh Parivar’s traditional hostility towards Muslims came into play. But in Rohith’s case, was the way the BJP handled it only a mistake? Or did it reflect the Parivar’s views on the place of Dalits in Hindu society?

Integrating Dalits into Hindu society

In 1983, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chose April 14, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, to establish the Samajik Samrasta Manch, or social harmony platform, that would celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti every year. On that occasion, RSS ideologue Dattopant Thengadi, the SSM’s website says, made a speech on ‘Equality Impossible Without Harmony’ and claimed that there were “common points in the social ideology of Dr. Ambedkar and [RSS’s founding sarsanghchalak] Dr. K.B. Hedgewar”. Subsequently, the SSM “started trying to harmonise the Phule-Ambedkar thought with the Hindutva philosophy. The problems they took in hand belonged to the entire Hindu society and, therefore, it would be quite appropriate to call them Hindu reformers.”

This campaign’s objective was aimed at ending untouchability and “integrating” Dalits into Hindu society, a necessary precondition for Hindu consolidation. For the BJP, in particular, “Hindu unity” was of paramount importance to enlarge its support base.

But the unstated part of the RSS agenda was that Dalits should be integrated into Hindu society without upsetting the hierarchy of the caste system, a far cry from Ambedkar’s call for annihilation of caste.

Then, in 1990, the Mandal Commission’s long-pending recommendations to extend reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCS) were accepted — quotas for Scheduled Castes (Dalits) had already been enshrined in the Constitution. But Mandal also triggered a political challenge to the hegemony of the upper castes, with OBCs and Dalits now seeking parity in decision-making.

K.N. Govindacharya, who was the BJP general secretary then, drew his party’s attention to the need for social engineering, or social justice, to cope with this challenge. “Social unity without social justice would mean continuing with the status quo,” he told The Hindu. The BJP was quick to absorb the lesson of social engineering and was rewarded with success, first in Uttar Pradesh and later in Bihar.

A senior BJP OBC leader had told this writer in the mid-1990s, when asked about the RSS’s experimental single teacher Ekal Vidyalayas that encouraged students of all castes to eat together: “That era is long gone when someone like me would be honoured merely because a Brahmin shares his food with me. I want to sit at the high table, taking decisions along with the upper castes.” That has been achieved today by many of the party’s OBC leaders.

And yet, last year, almost two decades later, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an RSS-affiliate, announced a nationwide yatra to persuade upper-caste Hindus to make friends with at least one Dalit family, share their food, stand “with them in their moments of joy and grief”, and work towards eradicating untouchability.

In an India where Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati is a contemporary Dalit icon, this method of “integrating” Dalits into the Sangh Parivar is not just out of sync with the times; it is within a Hindutva framework that is unacceptable to assertive Dalits, such as those in the ASA, who believe that traditional Hinduism is the reason for their low social status. They see its limitations and are suspicious of the RSS, an organisation that, they believe, has an essentially upper-caste mindset.

Clash of ideologies

It was this clash of ideologies that surfaced in Hyderabad when the ABVP objected to the ASA’s protest against the hanging of Mumbai blasts-accused Yakub Memon and its criticism of the >ABVP’s disruption of a recent screening of the documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ in Delhi University. Indeed, this sort of tension is visible even within the BJP: after Rohith’s suicide, several BJP Dalit leaders publicly expressed their discomfort with the party line.

The government’s plan to celebrate Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary year has put the spotlight on the Dalit issue again, even as the Sangh Parivar’s efforts to win Dalit support have become increasingly visible over the last few years through gestures that are largely symbolic.

Little has changed since 1989, when the VHP ensured that a Dalit, Kameshwar Chaupal, laid the first brick at the shilanyas for the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya. In 2016, ahead of next year’s Uttar Pradesh elections, the BJP is planning to celebrate the anniversaries of Dalit saints Guru Sant Ravidas and Gadge Baba, while BJP chief Amit Shah will visit Bahraich to pay homage to Raja Suheldev, an 11th century Pasi king who had apparently vanquished a Muslim warrior, Salar Masood Ghazi. The Pasis are a significant Dalit community.

Honouring Dalit icons cannot be faulted as a political strategy, but Hindutva organisations have also been known to use less wholesome methods to draw Dalits into their fold. Exhorting Dalits to prove their loyalty by defending Hinduism in communal riots has been an old tactic, and in September 2013, the Parivar worked to include Dalits into its Beti Bahu Izzat Bachao campaign to “protect the honour” of Hindu women. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it paid off, with a substantial number of Dalits in western U.P. voting along with Jats for the BJP.

Rohith, who battled economic deprivation and social prejudice to get where he had, did not want to be a pawn in the RSS’s game of social harmony: he wanted to live life on his own terms — and when that seemed impossible, he decided this life was not for him.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 5:39:33 AM |

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