Rally reality: Why Dalit leaders need to unite to win the political battle

It is a normal thing to have news with big headlines when the Shiv Sena holds its annual rally on Dussera day. This time, however, it was slightly different. The party cadre booed out its first ever chief minister, it's first ever Lok Sabha speaker, Manohar Joshi. Never ever has a leader worthy of that stature had to suffer this from the podium.

However, of late, a rival party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, led by a former Sena leader, and member of the Thackeray family, Raj Thackeray, has been vying for attention on the same day at the same time but away from Shivaji Park. This time, it was at Nare Park in the Marathi stronghold and former labour-dominated Parel. It would have loved to use Shivaji Park.

 Rally reality: Why Dalit leaders need to unite to win the political battle

RPI leader Ramdas Athavale when he had forged an alliance with Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. PTI.

On the same day, every year, another huge gathering, perhaps larger than either the Shiv Sena's or the MNS' or them combined, is held in Nagpur, at the Deekshabhoomi. The Dalits gather in such numbers that only a cliche, 'sea of humanity' best fits it. They come there to recall the conversion of former 'mahars' to Buddhism, led by BR Ambedkar in 1956.

Regretfully, that mass presence of neo-Buddhists to commemorate that October 14 event - over six lakh oppressed gathered to repudiate Hinduism whose caste system kept them in abhorrent indignity - does not find the usual media space. It is likely those who arrived this year at Nagpur were the fourth or fifth generation of neo-Buddhists, making the qualifier redundant now.

This mass gathering is paralleled only by this community's other annual event on December 6 at a Dadar seafront, when they come in throngs to pay tributes to Ambedkar who was cremated there that same year, 1956. Dalits come unfailingly to bow in reverence to the man, making him a deity of a leader. Ambedkar did not ever want to be treated thus.

This shows the community's gratitude towards Ambedkar for bringing them out of the misery of being Hindus or be a part of the oppressive four-caste system. It was why they believe in the 21st of the 22-point oath he had administered, first at Nagpur and later at Chanda, to them in 1956: "I consider that I have taken a new birth".

If the cause is so strong, why is it that the Dalit-based Republican Party of India, a successor to Ambedkar's Scheduled Caste Federation, has failed to take off? Of course, Uttar Pradesh's Bahujan Samaj Party could be cited as a success story, but it is not the same as in Maharashtra where RPI is only in tatters. In fact, it has been so for a long time.

Elsewhere, even the semblance of political activism on purely a Dalit platform of a scale to be adequate to even be taken into account is missing. If it is noteworthy in Maharashtra, it is because it is not a united cause to fight for political rights. The RPI is broken into at least a dozen factions making them a prey to other parties which co-opt their votes on a case-by-case basis, as it were.

Ironically, the one faction perceived as the biggest among them led by Ramdas Athavale, has reduced itself to a joke. It does not have a clear ideology, having flirted with the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and now, with the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. Athavale has indicated that if he did not get his share of seats, he may go elsewhere. Not that he has many options.

Long ago, the fiery Dalit Panther had made common cause with the Shiv Sena. The Panthers and the long line of Dalit poets and writers - Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle, Arun Kamble, Daya Pawar who stirred their people into mass actions - had yielded them some gains like right to land holdings, reservations on par with Scheduled Castes, renaming of Marathwada University.

Now, splintered, their causes have spluttered and only motivation driving them - the leaders, not the led - is offices of profit. Athavale has to make deals because he is frustrated in not getting a ministerial office in New Delhi so he moves into the embrace of the Sena-BJP. Being elected is in itself not enough to keep him committed to the Dalit cause. He needs a star to hitch his wagon to.

Not all sainiks come to Shivaji Park and not all workers of MNS go to Raj Thackeray's rallies, including the annual event, but the size of the audience is seen as a measure of the hold of the party on its people. In that sense, the spontaneous pilgrimages to Dadar and Nagpur should be the pointer to the potential the Dalits hold. But there is a caveat: if united.

That unity is elusive. It has been so right from the time the RPI was founded, it had been splitting time and again. Four times the factions united, and as many times they broke away. The United Republican Party of India of 2011 is already history. Even if Ambedkar unites them socially on a religious platform, they remain politically strife-torn.

Buddhism has given them an identity they are proud of but politically, factionalism has kept them at bay from public offices. The masses realise it, and time and again demanded by public agitation that the leaders give up personal political ambitions - with which it can be expected, is tied some pecuniary gains - and be a single political phalanx.

The leaders refuse to bow to the wishes of the led. This, despite the reality of once having four of their leaders in Lok Sabha in one election. The RPI factions had tied up with the Congress when led by Sharad Pawar, pooled the votes and won seats in the 12th Lok Sabha from constituencies which were not reserved for SCs. Then, it needed a non-RPI leader to bring them together.

That, however, in retrospect, proves that the Dalit leadership had to depend on patronage of the very layers of the society which had oppressed it, and required be tied to the apron strings of other parties. Even if, due to their sizes in constituencies, they needed such alliances, it has come about out of patronage, not respect. And yet, Athavaleism prevails in RPI politics.

Therefore, another huge gathering on October 14 and December 6 would be just that, huge gathering, again and again, till such time the Dalit leadership realised that it needed to make common cause with their followers. Frankly, the two are actually religious platforms. Converting it into a powerful political tool lies with the Dalit political leaders but that seems a long shot.

Updated Date: Oct 14, 2013 18:07:08 IST