Dalit protests shake BJP's fort as rise in casteism challenges party's politics of Hindutva-laced nationalism
If Dalits continue to clash with upper-caste Hindus, it would destroy its dream of a 'virat' Hindu 'parivar' that votes just for the BJP.
Indian politics has always been pulled in opposite directions by Mandal and Kamandal. Protests by Dalits in Maharashtra and the backlash by the Marathas show, after a brief hiatus, rival forces of the two brands of identity politics have begun their tug-of-war again.
That a 200-year-old battle between Dalits and Peshwas at Koregaon has revived this political war isn't just a coincidence. For the past few years, the politics of religion, symbolised by the Kamandal (Ram Mandir) movement, had been asserting itself in India. Its counter, the politics of caste symbolised by the Mandal movement, was inevitable.
The Mandal and Kamandal movements have always been ideologically opposed to each other. Dalits have historically been oppressed by the upper castes, especially in rural India. They have valid grievances against the socio-cultural and political hegemony and tyranny of the trinity of Tilak, Tarazu and Talwar (Brahmins, traders and Kshatriyas) that have never been resolved or addressed completely.
This animus has intensified over the decades because of the desire of the Dalits to assert themselves through two means: One, through political mobilisation that seeks more power for Dalits and their representatives. Two, by seeking quota benefits and opposing the extension of reservation to communities that have been politically, socially and socially more advantaged.
This desire for more political space and quota benefits have pitted them against the upper castes. The forward (agada) castes resent the political aspirations of the backward communities and Dalits (pichhadas). For them, reservations is an injustice that needs to be erased because it deprives them and their future generations of equal opportunities and, thus, gradually erode the privileges they have enjoyed.
This friction between the two poles—agada and picchda—has always existed in India. With every passing decade, with rising unemployment, stiffer competition and greater awareness, it has intensified. The biggest symptom of this trend has been the demand for reservation from more and more communities—Jats, Kapus, Gurjars, Marathas, Patidars, and even Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Rajasthan—and its political opposition by Dalits and OBCs. But, instead of finding a solution, the political class has been offering lies and fake promises. It is no surprise thus that the underlying magma is now erupting.
To understand how the political class keeps the tension simmering, consider the case of the Gurjars of Rajasthan and Patidars of Gujarat. When Gurjars, who are currently among the OBCs, took to the streets for their inclusion in STs in 2007-08, the BJP government led by Vasundhara Raje promised them five percent reservation as special backward classes. This solution was unviable from the very beginning because the promised quota exceeded the 50 percent ceiling that can't be breached without the Supreme Court's intervention.
For Raje, and the Congress later on, the simpler solution could have been to take Gurjars out of the OBC list and reduce the quota benefits to the backwards proportionately. But, politics being supreme, it decided to increase the quota by five percent, thus, taking away more from the general category and not touching the benefits already enjoyed by OBCs (21 percent), ST and SC (28 percent).
Incidentally, the Congress promised the same to Patidars in Gujarat in its election manifesto. Considering their demand for quota benefits, it promised to include them by breaching the 50 percent ceiling. The BJP, which promised exactly the same to Gurjars in Rajasthan, called this unconstitutional and, thus, null and void.
The point is this: Both the Congress and the BJP have failed to address the reservation issue with honesty, they have just kept the pot boiling by offering illegal solutions and, ironically, discarding the same when offered by rival parties in other states. This double-speak and obfuscation have left the ailment untreated.
The BJP was hoping its Hindutva appeal will keep the agadas and pichhadas united. Emboldened by the outcome in the 90s when it had countered Mandal effectively with Kamandal, it had hoped the bogey of political and socio-cultural domination of Muslims would keep the Hindutva forces under one tent. But, the developments in Gujarat and the clashes in Maharashtra show the communal glue is coming off. The caste fault lines are reappearing.
Since the BJP is in power, it is wary of the evolving situation. Its concerns were reflected in the ongoing RSS conclave at Ujjain on Tuesday when Mohan Bhagwat talked at length about bringing the Dalits under the Hindutva fold by having a quota for them within the Sangh. (Imagine the worry lines when an outfit that always opposed quota argues for reservation within the organisation!) The BJP knows mobilisation of Dalits, minorities and liberals could pose an electoral threat in 2019. If Dalits continue to clash with upper-caste Hindus, it would destroy its dream of a virat Hindu parivar that votes just for the BJP.
Unfortunately, with its politics of religion-based nationalism, it has unleashed the counter forces of casteism. Its politics of Hindutva has birthed new caste leaders like Jignesh Mewani, Hardik Patel and revived the career of Prakash Ambedkar.
India's politics is hurtling back to the 90s where caste and religion were constantly at war. The political ramifications are unlikely to be different.
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