‘There is no let up on the crushing of the movement’
April is observed as Dalit History Month as the birth anniversaries of Dalit icons Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Sant Ram Udasi along with the death anniversary of Mangu Ram Mugowalia fall during the month.
While observing the month, it is time to introspect why Dalits as a community continue to stand at the crossroads of social inclusion and development. The Dalit movement that was showing some signs of getting organized till a few years ago lies scattered and dismembered once again.
This has happened amid some major episodes like the suicide after vicious harassment of Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016, the daylight flogging of Dalit men in Una in the name of cow protection in Gujarat, and the violence at Bhima Koregaon after which revealingly some of India’s leading social activists were imprisoned.
The Dalit movement was derailed on both the social and political fronts with the recent defeat of Mayawati, the Hindi heartland’s most prominent Dalit leader in Uttar Pradesh, and the failure of the Congress Dalit card in making Charanjit Singh Channi the chief minister of Punjab.
This reporter reached out to Dalit activists and thinkers across states to gauge where things stand at present and the general finding was that there is a sense of fear, despair and helplessness among the community that is looking for leadership in both the social and political spheres with a long term vision.
Rohith Vemula’s brother Raja Vemula who lives in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh said that Dalits continue to be used as pawns in the interplay of religion and caste. “When it is the question of religion they are treated as a part of Hinduism but when it is the context of caste they are thrown out. The issue is that people do not see it as a social issue. There is a lot to be learnt and understood from what Rohith wrote in his suicide note. The atrocities against Dalits continue to get modernised,” he underlined.
There is a point of view that electoral politics led by the highered castes has harmed the Dalit movement instead of having helped it, and the majority of the politicians elected on reserved seats have failed to work towards addressing the concerns of the community and have turned out to be opportunists.
“Electoral politics has dragged the leadership of the social movement and forced it into submission. The need is for the leaders of the social movement to keep a watch on the elected leadership. The way those speaking out for the rights of the oppressed are being targeted has definitely led to fear among the youth that is coupled with discontent.
“The recent farmers’ movement had offered some hope but despite everything the election results were something totally unexpected. On the other hand there is no let up on the crushing of the movement,” pointed out an activist who was made an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Martin Macwan who is a well known Gujarat based Dalit activist instrumental in several affirmative campaigns pointed out, “There is a general sense of despair as despite awareness there has been a failure to achieve what should have been achieved. There is a frustration mainly from politicians getting elected from reserved seats. People feel that political involvement of leaders is a priority over organizing the movement. These leaders are often bought over.”
He also pointed towards a young generation of leaders believing more in social media activism rather than establishing a base and getting involved in community activities.
“Caste annihilation is not possible without creating a base and community action that involves a sustained education process. This is a proven history right from Phule to Ambedkar. Instead what is visible is a sectarian and myopic vision,” he said, adding in context of the debate around the Poona Pact that political reservation has proved to be fruitless.
Macwan is currently involved in a movement aimed at minting a brass coin to be presented to the Parliament after a march from Ahmedabad to New Delhi with a question inscribed on it: Will the 1947 dream of Untouchability-Free India be a reality in 2047?
The almost two tonne coin is to be presented to the public on April 17 at an event at the Dalit Shakti Kendra in Sanand. The brass for the coin was donated by the community in the form of brass utensils.
“This coincides with a campaign requesting people to donate one rupee for the Parliament to remind us that we have failed to create India as a nation free of Untouchability even after 75 years of Independence. We have collected almost 13 lakh coins and the number will go up to 25 lakh by August 15,” said Macwan.
The voting dilemma being faced by youth in the community was represented by another Ahmedabad based Dalit activist Subodh Kumud. “The youth is confused on with whom it should go. They see the Congress and the BJP on the same page and are sceptical about the Aam Aadmi Party as they see it as anti reservation.
“On the other hand there is a lack of vision among those trying to emerge as community leaders as there is a section that believes more in social media activism than having dedication, commitment and will to sacrifice. They point towards the failures of those who chose the path of building a social movement and find the political path more lucrative.”
Kumud was among those who were instrumental in building the movement highlighting the oppressor castes’ continuing atrocities against Dalits in the backdrop of the public flogging of Dalit men in Una in the name of cow protection.
“The Una movement did bring about a change as it established Ambedkar as an icon amongst the youth and one can now come across ‘Jai Bhim’ slogans in villages across the state. But Ambedkar’s thoughts are not being sown yet and a new movement is not in sight at the moment,” he conveyed.
The scenario is pretty much the same in Punjab which has the highest share of Schedule Castes of any state at around one third of the population.
“Mayawati chose not to lead the community and the result is for everyone to see in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP did not move in the direction of raising community concerns in Punjab and the result is the same here as well. The political leadership among the Dalits has proven to be opportunist,” echoed Tarsem Peter who works with farm labourers, most of whom are from oppressed caste families.
“I recently visited the family of Lakhbir Singh, the Dalit man who was murdered at Singhu Border during the farmers’ agitation. The family lives in a pitiable condition where there are hardly any doors to be seen in the house. The leaders who had promised support have not come back.
“His father has not been getting the old age pension for the last several months. His sister works as a house help and his wife lives with his children at her paternal home working as a daily wager in a shelling unit. The family is a victim of insensitivity. This just reflects the overall plight of the Dalit community.”
“The problem,” said Peter, “is that there is no movement to raise the issues of the community. There is a section whose main concern is only about reservation in government jobs. But there is no one to speak about Dalits working as farm labour or those working in the unorganized sector. No one talks about the corruption in schemes like MNREGA. The youth lacks awareness and there is no missionary zeal visible. There is a need for a long term plan to address the issues of the community.”
He added that every organization drew something in terms of support and strength from the recent farmers’ agitation barring the Dalits. He also pointed out how there is no movement in the colleges and universities. “The section that can provide leadership is not coming from the community.”
The push in the direction needed from the intellectual community is also not coming, he said, and while big events are held to mark Ambedkar’s birthday on April 14 there is hardly any move to realize his vision for the upliftment of the community.
Meanwhile, in a welcome move authorities in the Canadian province of British Columbia have also proclaimed April as Dalit History Month. This followed a petition moved by Radical Desi, an online magazine that covers alternative politics.
The British Columbia proclamation not only recognizes iconic individuals from Dalit backgrounds but acknowledges “the strength and resiliency of the Dalit community in overcoming hardships and advocating for social justice and equality for all”.
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For one last time,
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