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Dalit politics at a crossroads

In the 1990s, when Hindutva forces launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Dalit-Bahujan movement and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), invoked subaltern myths and icons to counter it. Kanshi Ram gathered Dalit icons from oral and folk narratives and reinvented minor characters of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in the process of developing a counter-Hindutva narrative. The icons he invoked included Shambuka, Eklavya, Uda Devi, Jhalkaribai, and Rabidas. This helped mobilise the Bahujans in Uttar Pradesh and resulted in a BSP-led government in U.P. four times. The myths and icons of the Dalits questioned and ruptured the dominance of one narrative.

Invoking Lord Parshuram

Contrast this to what is happening now. In August, when the ‘bhoomi pujan’ for the Ram temple took place in Ayodhya, attended by the Prime Minister, BSP leader Mayawati supported it. At the same time, Ms. Mayawati promised to pay respect to the memory of Lord Parshuram by building hospitals in his name and even a statue of him bigger than the 108-feet tall statue that the Samajwadi Party (SP) promised to erect. The two opposition parties in U.P. seem to be competing with each other to influence a section of the Brahmin community which is unhappy with the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party regime in U.P.

Lord Parshuram is worshiped by various Brahmin sub-castes as their kulpurush (progenitor of a clan). Parshuram is not a subversive icon; he is, like Lord Ram, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. He appears for a brief moment in the story of the Ramayana to strengthen the moral authority of Lord Ram. Though he is seen in some narratives as contesting the myth of Lord Ram, in the Tulsikrit Ramayana, he is seen in a supportive role.

In short, while in the 1990s Kanshi Ram successfully countered the Lord Ram-centred Hindutva narrative, now Ms. Mayawati’s effort to invoke Lord Parshuram may blur the effort of building a radical Dalit consciousness. One may justify her current symbolic act as a process of reinvention. Perhaps she is trying to subvert the myth of Lord Parshuram to sharpen contradictions within the Hindutva base. But this could be beneficial only in the short term. In the long term, it may be counterproductive for the politics of the marginalised. It may diminish the assertion of their identity against dominant power and culture.

If we analyse the making of Dalit consciousness in north India, we see that it is mainly inspired by Bhakti saints such as Sant Kabir, Sant Ravidas and Swami Shivnarayan. They were saints who emerged progenitors of reform movements within the structure of Sanatana Hindu religion, but they added many radical elements in the process. These saints did not inspire Dalits to aggressively depart from Sanatana Hinduism.

The Adi Hindu movement

In the 19th century, Dalits were deeply influenced by Swami Achhootanand, the founder of the Adi Hindu movement. Swami Achhootanand inspired Dalits to get educated and launched a movement for this around the 1920s, even before B.R. Ambedkar did. He established a Dalit printing press in U.P. He published a magazine in U.P. for Dalits which gave space to them to write and publish their articles. Ambedkar used to refer to Swami Achhootanand as ‘Swamiji’. Swami Achhootanand is a popular icon for a section of the Dalit communities in U.P.; yet, no political party has projected him as a Dalit hero in their attempt at mainstreaming the icons of the marginalised.

But while on the one hand, Swami Achhootanand’s efforts evolved a radical consciousness which responds to Brahminical dominance, on the other, it also led to the idea of a Hindu identity in another form. His Adi Hindu movement proposed that Dalits, Adivasis and the marginalised are ‘Adi Hindu’. Ambedkar’s inspirational campaign urging Dalits to turn to Buddhism has slowly faded. The movement urging Dalits to convert to Buddhism has not gained momentum in the community, especially in north India. The longing among Dalits for a Hindu identity is growing stronger.

This means that there is space both for improvisation of radical Dalit consciousness and to assert a sense of belonging to Hinduism. It is the leaders who decide the direction they want to take and the direction they want the community to take. Ms. Mayawati, who doesn’t seem to see much potential for her electoral politics by asserting a radical Dalit consciousness, seems to want to play Hindutva’s game on their own turf. How this game will play out will only be known in the long term.

Badri Narayan is Director of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 7:50:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/dalit-politics-at-a-crossroads/article32717344.ece

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