AJOY BOSE | 21 MARCH, 2016
NEW DELHI: A new emerging solidarity among Dalits and most backward castes (MBCs) in Uttar Pradesh around the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula and its aftermath could seriously impact the political landscape in the country’s most populous state. This camaraderie across the bottom most rungs in the caste ladder is believed to be most evident in the young educated sections of these groups.
“We are pleasantly surprised to see the growing Ambedkarisation of Dalit youth both in towns and villages ever since the Rohith Vemula suicide hit the headlines capturing their imagination. So far it was the politically aware Jatavs who have been inclined towards Babasaheb’s vision and supported Behenji Mayawati and the BSP. But now this has started attracting youth belonging to other non-Jatav Dalits and several MBC communities as well. We have been trying to make this happen for many years but not met with much success,” said a veteran Dalit activist who heads one of the major Dalit NGOs in the state.
Dalit activists are particularly thrilled at this development because not so long ago they were seriously concerned at the erosion of Dalit solidarity in the face of a concerted bid by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar affiliated organizations to poach sections of the Dalit community to their ideological fold.
They were alarmed at the large number of non-Jatav Dalit sub-castes who were earlier with BSP but voted for Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls along with traditionally BJP prone Dalits like Valmikis. Even a section of the Jatav vote particularly those who were younger, educated and aspirational abandoned Mayawati and moved towards the BJP which also managed to garner the support from substantial sections of MBC groups who had earlier been with her.
This is one of the main reasons why the BJP met with such spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh winning as many as 71 out of 80 seats in the state even as the BSP failed to win a single one.
Several reasons had been ascribed to this shift. The most important one seems to be that with Mayawati clearly nowhere in the Prime Ministerial race a large section of her voters particularly the young, educated and aspirational felt that Narendra Modi with his message of rapid development would be the best bet as leader of the entire country.
Secondly many of them hoped that with the BJP in power at the centre some protection would be ensured to the Dalits and lower castes under severe repression from muscular middle and upper castes ever since the Samajwadi Party seized the reins of power in Lucknow.
There is also little doubt that particularly in Western Uttar Pradesh a segment of the Dalits and lower castes had been influenced by the sustained campaign to turn them against Muslims from the time of the Muzaffarnagar riots by the BJP helped by other Sangh affiliated groups.
However after two years of the Modi regime many of these reasons why the BJP managed to spread its wing among Dalit and MBC groups are no longer valid. There has been no development rapid or otherwise to improve the prospects of the aspirational. Nor has New Delhi been able or inclined to protect them from anarchic rule of the Yadav clan. Dalits and MBCs have also increasingly seen through the ploy of using them as cannon fodder in engineered communal bushfires across Uttar Pradesh.
Although over the past two years there has been a steady slide back in the BJP’s remarkable Dalit outreach in 2014 it is Rohith Vemula’s widely publicized suicide that has hugely accelerated this process. The manner in which the Hyderabad University research scholar was hounded to death by the university authorities egged on by ruling party elected representatives and Ministers has been widely perceived in towns as well as villages of Uttar Pradesh as an assault on the aspirations for higher education and a better life by Dalits and lower castes. His death and the dubious manner in which spokespersons of the Modi regime have tried to play it down and twist facts have deepened suspicions and hostility towards the BJP giving the impression that it was only interested in preserving the upper caste stranglehold over higher learning and impeding the attempts by those at the bottom of the caste ladder to improve their prospects and get ahead.
The dramatics by Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani in Parliament including some factual inaccuracies in her statement on the Rohith Vemula suicide contested both by his family and BSP supremo Mayawati in the Rajya Sabha has further tarnished the image of the BJP among Dalits and lower castes.
Behenji’s ability to corner the minister in the debate literally asking for her head has while winning the Dalit leader acclaim not just among her Jatav fans but also across all Dalit groups and many MBC ones as well has at the same time branded Irani and the BJP as their enemies.
The arbitrary arrests of JNU students on charges of “anti-national” activities similar to the ones slapped against Rohith Velmulla and the budding collaboration between Ambedkarite and leftist groups in JNU and other campuses across the country have only served to radicalize educated young Dalits and lower castes who were not so inclined before.
Significantly the veteran Dalit activist said that in his recent tours across Uttar Pradesh he found a new political awareness among virtually all sections of Dalits including many young Valmikis that there needed to be a larger solidarity among lower castes. He was also impressed at the rising new political awareness among younger sections of the MBC groups in the state as well.
In a parallel development newspapers have reported the sudden rise in demand for Ambedkars’s writings and Dalit literature among Dalit prisoners in Uttar Pradesh jails. Dalit activists feel that this ideological ferment among Dalits in the state has been triggered off by the recent developments in Hyderabad and Delhi seen as directly relevant to the community.
It remains to be seen whether the current upsurge of Ambedkarite politics in Uttar Pradesh will take a more tangible political shape in the future or fizzle out. But in the immediate context of next year’s crucial state assembly poll it is bound to provide a tailwind to Mayawati’s campaign to win back power even as it is a setback to the BJP’s dreams of expanding its social base.
(Ajoy Bose is a senior journalist and author of Behenji:A Political Biography of Mayawati)