With Narendra Modi govt under fire, is BJP afflicted with a 'Dalit problem'?

The phenomenon of violence against the Dalits has now attracted international attention, thanks to the gruesome episode involving the militant cow-protectors and some Dalit boys over the skinning of a dead cow at Una, Gujarat.

Predictably, the Modi government is under attack from all sides — opposition parties, national media and non-governmental organisations. It is said that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has got a 'Dalit-problem'. The critics are not impressed by the fact that as a political party, the BJP has got maximum Dalit MPs, and the Ministry of Social Justice that looks after Dalit interests, happens to be one of the largest ministries under Modi. It is the only ministry under the Modi regime that has one cabinet minister (a Dalit) and as many as three ministers of state. In fact, if you go through the latest Annual Report of the ministry (2015-16), you will realise how exhaustive the list of schemes for the empowerment of the Dalits is.

But the fact remains that atrocities against Dalits is an ever-increasing phenomenon. Is it due to the advent of the Modi government in May 2014; something that Modi’s critics attribute to? If not, who are the real oppressors of Dalits in India? I would like to look at these two questions beyond headlines and sound bytes.

Let us refer to some cold statistics as provided in the Annual Report of the Ministry of Social Justice, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and old clippings of some national news papers. The NCRB reports (released in October 2015 and quoted in the Annual Report by the Ministry) reveal that in 2014, crimes against the Scheduled Castes (SC) were pegged at 47,064 — a sharp rise over 39,408 such cases reported in 2013, and 33,655 in 2012. This shows an increase in by 19 percent in 2014 over 2013. NCRB statistics further reveal that in 2014, some 2,233 Dalit women were raped. In 2013, 2,073 Dalit women reported rape, as against 1,576 women in 2012, 1,557 women in 2011, and 1,349 women in 2010. Kidnappings, abductions, and similar crimes against Dalits were reported in 2014. Their corresponding figures in 2013 were lower. Obviously, all this indicates a worrying trend.

With Narendra Modi govt under fire, is BJP afflicted with a Dalit problem?

People protest against the attacks on Dalits in Gujarat. Reuters

The annual report reveals the number of cases of atrocities against Dalits in various states in 2014. The figures are: Andhra Pradesh - 3,762, Bihar - 10,907, Gujarat - 1,161, Haryana - 482, Karnataka - 2,650, Kerala - 1,094, Madhya Pradesh - 3,463, Maharashtra - 2,391, Odisha - 3,437, Rajasthan - 7,722, Tamil Nadu - 2,348, Telengana - 2,267, Uttar Pradesh - 9,145 and West Bengal – 222.

These figures reveal that maximum atrocities against Dalits took place in Bihar, followed by Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telengana. And that means that the atrocities have nothing specific to do with either Modi or the BJP. In fact, more atrocities against Dalits have taken place in non-BJP ruled states than those under the BJP.

Specifically talking of the murders of Dalits, the states where it has alarmingly increased happen to be Haryana, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh. In 2014, the number of Dalits killed in Haryana was 21. The corresponding figure in Bihar was 56, in Tamil Nadu it was 72, in Madhya Pradesh it was 80. Here again, the death toll cannot be linked to the rule of a particular political party. However, it is noteworthy that the rate of atrocities against the Dalits have seen the sharpest increase in Haryana.

According to a report in The Times of India (9 August, 2014), figures compiled by the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) from NCRB reports revealed that “a total of 3,198 cases related to atrocities on Dalits have been registered between 2004 and 2013, as against 1,305 from 1994 to 2003. Haryana DGP SN Vashisht admitted to the increase in crime against Dalits.” Which party was ruling the state during these years? It was the Congress, not the BJP.

The phenomenon of the rising crimes against Dalits needs to be seen from a wider perspective. It is quite possible that earlier the crimes were committed but were not registered or complained to the police. But with the growing awareness among Dalits, victims are coming forward to protest and register cases in police stations. And that is reflected in the increase in numbers.

Secondly, as the NCRB suggests, there has been a continuous increase in the overall rate of crimes in the country (and this has been reflected in cases with the Dalits). For instance, the incidents of cognizable crimes in the country, during the decade from 2004 to 2014 showed a higher growth of 19.9 percent as compared to 14.6 percent population growth during the decade. The NCRB says that population is one of the important factors influencing incidence of crime. However, in my considered view, the changing socio-economic factors explain best the rising crimes against Dalits all over the country. This point, noted also by the NCRB, needs a little more elaboration.

It is a myth that the upper caste Hindus such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas are real exploiters of Dalits. In fact, castes over the last many decades have not been as rigid as it is believed to be. In independent India, the higher ritual status of Brahmins has not translated necessarily into their economic or political supremacy. On the other hand, it is the so-called backward castes, or 'Shudras', referred to as other backward classes (OBCs) in administrative parlance, who have gained the most, whether it is the capture of political power, the acquisition of land, and migration to other regions. The policy of quotas or reservations has particularly benefitted the OBCs, whose ritual rank and occupational status are above "untouchables". In fact, it is the OBCs, as many studies reveal, who have displaced the Vaishyas and Brahmins from the traditional political and economic dominance. But Dalits, tribals and “near-untouchable groups” such as artisans and servicing castes, remain broadly unaffected in the changing share of power in post-independence India.

The first wave of land reforms in the 1950s aimed at conferring ownership rights on existing tenants of land. This displaced the large class of zamindars (large landowners), but created a substantial class of medium-sized owner-cultivators, many of whom were OBCs. And it so happened that once the OBCs cornered the benefits of this first wave of legislations, they subsequently did everything to deny the benefits to the marginal farmers and the landless, who usually are the “near-untouchables” and Dalits. In fact, most of the severe caste-violence in the country have been between these OBCs and the Dalits.

In 1980, the National Police Commission had noted this disturbing trend in caste conflicts between backward castes and scheduled castes. With the onset of the 'Mandal factor' in Indian politics, this trend got further magnified, clearly evident in all the Annual Reports of the Home Ministry in 1990s. No wonder why states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the 'Mandal factor' is the strongest, happen to be the states where maximum crimes against Dalits have taken place, something we have already noted above.

It is also not surprising why there are so many anti-Dalit incidents in Tamil Nadu, supposedly a progressive state after the capture of power by the Dravidian parties, many decades ago. In fact, the first major incident of violence against the Dalits took place in Kilvenmani in east Thanjavur in 1968 — where 42 Dalit labourers were killed — the year DMK assumed power in the state. The land owning non-Brahmin castes, who dominate the Dravidian parties, have been antagonistic to both Brahmin and Dalit interests. As socio-cultural anthropologist Nathaniel Roberts says, “From the 1960s onward, the Dravidian parties unabashedly courted the powerful and populous BC (backward) castes, who were at once Dalits’ most immediate oppressors and the foundation of the Dravidian parties’ social and political dominance in rural Tamil Nadu.”

To conclude, the rising violence against the Dalits is not a phenomenon that came to the surface after Narendra Modi became the prime minister.

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Updated Date: Aug 03, 2016 09:40:51 IST

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