Dalit outrage? BJP in Gujarat appears “relaxed”

By Rajiv Shah
Amidst the recent Dalit agitation in Gujarat in the wake of the July 11 attack on four Dalit youths belonging to the Rohit (chamar) community off Una for skinning a dead cow, I decided to find out what would be the impact of the incident, already a national issue, on Gujarat po litics. Apart from immediately getting in touch with some senior Dalit rights activists, I contacted a few senior BJP and Congress leaders, too. The reason I did this was, one of my friends, who happens to be a senior activist, Ashok Shrimali, a Dalit, would always tell me how, over the years, and especially after the 2002 riots, “80 per cent of the Dalits have moved away from the Congress to the BJP”.
While a few other non-political Dalit activists would vehemently deny this, I decided to go by the observation of Teesta Setalvad, who said in a recent article, “Dalits and the Hindu Rashtra: A Close Look at the Gujarat Model”: “As we saw in 2002, it is Dalits who have been used and abused to carry out the filthy designs of communal forces, against the state’s Muslims. They are the foot soldiers of the Hindu Rashtra.” She added, “Except in the districts of Mehsana, Anand, Dahod and Panchmahals where many Patels were among the accused, in the urban areas it is Dalits (including Chharas) who were used as mobs for violent ends.” Other activists agree: Bajrang Dal in Gujarat has a “huge Dalit following.”
The Gujarat Congress, of course, seems upbeat. I contacted a senior leader, whom I have known for over a decade. Not wanting to be named, he told me, almost confirming what Setalvad had said: “Off the record, Rajiv, till the 2002 riots, Muslims and Dalits were our solid votebank. However, things changed in 2002. Sections of Dalit youths were used by saffron outfits to attack Muslims. Following the Una incident, in which cow vigilantes played a major role in the attack on Dalits, there is a burst of anger against the BJP.”
Former opposition leader in the Gujarat state assembly, Arjun Modhwadia, who was in his home town Porbandar, cited a “10,000 strong rally” in the city on July 20 to show the “anger among the Dalits” against the BJP. Defeated in the last 2012 assembly elections with a comfortable margin by BJP’s Babu Bokhiriya (a Cabinet minister now), Modhwadia appeared confident that at least Dalits would return to the Congress fold. “The incident has had a tremendous impact”, he told me, adding, “While it was a community rally, the Congress organized it.”
The BJP, however, remains in a denial mode. A senior functionary, with whom I would often interact with during what later turned out to be a Narendra Modi-inspired anti-Keshubhai Patel “stir” within the BJP in 2001, said, “Elections are far away, in December 2017. The agitations might continue for a few days, and then die down. People will forget about it.” He added, there is “little likelihood that the Dalits would move away from the BJP… Una was an isolated incident. Dalits know, untouchability is not more a major issue in Gujarat. Things have changed.”
To probe even further, I sought the reaction of state BJP president Vijay Rupani. A straightforward person unlike many in his party, I have had a vague hunch that he would succeed president chief minister Anandiben Patel after she turns 75 in November. After all, he has always been so close to Modi. Rupani termed the Una incident “a law and order problem”, which is “sought be turned into a national problem with an eye on elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.” I asked him why it took about a week for the ruling BJP to react. After all, the chief minister’s first statement condemning the incident came only on July 18. He just replied, “We have taken all necessary steps, the culprits have been caught, compensation paid.”
BJP’s Dalit leaders, however, seem upset. Even as he told this to me on July 20, a video was taking rounds showing an angry Sambhunath Tundiya, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, known to have considerable “spiritual” hold over the Dalit community. Also known as Shambhunath Maharaj and “dharmaguru” among Dalits, he has a religious “seat” (gadi) in Zhanzharka in Saurashtra, and belongs to what is called a “Dalit Brahmin” sub-caste, Garoda. They perform all the religious rites during marriage and other ceremonies among other Dalit sub-castes. After all, “regular” Brahmins refuse to do it! I witnessed many Dalits playing Tundiya’s video: He said that Una incident was the “last straw”, that the Dalits would not tolerate “oppression any more”, and that the authorities should realize, the Dalits have been “forced to eat dead cow’s beef for centuries because they were forced by circumstances…”
A Dalit MLA who appeared disturbed was RM Patel. From Asarwa, a reserved constituency in Ahmedabad, a former IAS bureaucrat, Patel was a red-hot Marxist during his student days. He was with the Students’ Federation of India, would attend CPI-M study circles, with his ex-student colleagues even now calling him “comrade Rajnikant”. Resigned from the IAS to “join Modi” (his words), I phoned him up around the time when his house in Asarwa was gheraoed by Dalits of his locality. Seemingly disturbed, he told me, “It is time when we oppression ends….”, though immediately adding, “Much of what is happening is because media publicity…”
Interestingly, Patel, in the 2012 assembly elections, in which he won with a handsome margin, told me he did not see “any reason” to open a BJP electoral office in Dalit areas of the constituency. Cocksure of getting Dalit votes, he said, “I will not win by getting Dalit votes. I have opened three electoral offices in the non-Dalit areas.” Not bothered much about Dalit votes? I was stunned. However, what he said was indeed true: Majority in his reserved constituency was of non-Dalits. And, Dalit votes, in a minority, would be divided between Congress, BJP and Independent candidates.
Talking about the phenomenon, Vijay Parmar, a Dalit rights activist heading Janvikas, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, explained to me: “Neither the BJP nor the Congress is bothered about Dalit votes in Gujarat. Such is the electoral system, they seek only non-Dalit votes. Even otherwise, Dalits form just about 6.7 per cent of Gujarat’s population as against Punjab’s 26 per cent and Uttar Pradesh’s 21 per cent.” Added Manjula Pradeep, heading Gujarat’s most important Dalit rights NGO Navsarjan Trust: “It wasn’t without reason that Dr BR Ambedkar insisted on having a separate electorate or the Dalits.”
Be that as it may, the fact is, for the first time, the Una incident has proved that untouchability is not a matter of “perceptions”, as Prof R Parthasarathy, formerly with the CEPT University and heading Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, had sought to declare in a controversial report he submitted to the Gujarat government about three years ago. The report was an effort to negate the findings of a study sponsored by Navsarjan Trust based on a survey of 1,589 villages “Understanding Untouchability” (2010). In this study, said Pradeep, “we had found that cow skinning in 97 per cent of the villages was a caste-based occupation, part of the untouchability practice.”
As for the protests themselves, Parmar said, for the first time, the Dalits are “outraged” and have “realized” that it is “no more possible to tolerate the present status quo.” He added, “We have seen new forms of protests… The Dalits brought dead cows in trucks and tempos to government offices in several towns and asked officials to dispose them of. Boards cropped up outside Dalit localities in villages and towns declaring they would not accept dead cows, lest they would be charged with cow slaughter. For the first time, a caste-based untouchability practice has received so much of focus.”

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