Dalit Groups Let Their Powers Combine, but Where Are They Headed?

The Dalit votebank is consolidating ahead of the UP and Punjab elections, but can they stay united afterwards?

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India
4 min read
Is there a point to a ‘socio-religious movement’ that fizzles out after the elections are over? (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>/Hardeep Singh)

On 16 September, Dalit organisations from across the country will let their powers combine on Delhi’s Parliament Street. BR Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar is spearheading this effort and is hoping to consolidate spontaneous Dalit protests under one banner ‘Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh’ during Friday’s conference-cum-dharna.

“We want the Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh to become a catalyst organisation at the socio-religious level,” Prakash Ambedkar tells The Quint.

Delhi, being the capital, will be the hub for our activities, which include holding such rallies in all important state capitals and integrating our own program with that of the other organisations that attend the 16 September meeting.
Prakash Ambedkar, BR Ambedkar’s grandson
Rohith Vemula was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide after a long tussle with the administration over caste discrimination. (Photo: Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
Rohith Vemula was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide after a long tussle with the administration over caste discrimination. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Why Now?

There is a reassertion of the Dalit identity across India. The community has been angered by Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the heated debate between former HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Mayawati in Parliament.

Instead of striking a reconciliatory tone, BJP leader Dayashankar Singh called the BJP Chief a ‘vaishya’ (prostitute). Jisha’s brutal rape and murder in Kerala further riled up the community and the flogging of four tannery workers in Una, Gujarat was the final straw.

No Longer a Passive Votebank

The first manifestation of this new aggression is the extreme form of identity politics witnessed in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The recently concluded students union election provides a microcosm view of what could possibly happen if the Dalit votebank consolidated and organised themselves in Uttar Pradesh (21 percent Dalit electorate) and Punjab (30 percent Dalit electorate).

The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) polled the maximum number of votes as a stand-alone party giving stiff competition to the Left combine that swept all four central panel seats.

The JNU student union elections threw up a surprise for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) that failed to secure a single seat in the central council. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>/Suhanisi Krishnan)
The JNU student union elections threw up a surprise for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) that failed to secure a single seat in the central council. (Photo: The Quint/Suhanisi Krishnan)

This election was held in the aftermath of sedition charges being slapped on six students for organising a cultural event against the judicial decision to hang Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.

The Dalit movement is peaking with less than six months to go for the UP and Punjab elections that are touted to be a half-term report card for the Narendra Modi government. A semi-final, if you will, for the 2019 General Election that could dictate future alliances and impending break-ups.

In June, BJP President Amit Shah shared a meal with a Dalit family in Varanasi’s Jogiyapur village. In August he had to cancel a rally in Agra following the ‘Una Chalo!’ march. (Photo: PTI)
In June, BJP President Amit Shah shared a meal with a Dalit family in Varanasi’s Jogiyapur village. In August he had to cancel a rally in Agra following the ‘Una Chalo!’ march. (Photo: PTI)

The New Dalit Front

If the 16 September event is meant to be an ‘awakening’, the second agenda of the Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh it to tackle the RSS.

The RSS is claiming to be an organisation for Hindus. So therefore, we want to ask some searching questions to this motley group beginning with — what is their cultural nationalism? Because they are speaking of Vedicism, gau raksha, discriminatory systems and reservation. They’ve even asked for a review of the Constitution. So, our whole ideology is to transform the RSS.
Prakash Ambedkar

But much like the RSS, Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh insists it is not going to play a political role. Prakash Ambedkar insists the organisation does not have a political aim.

We only have a socio-religious aim. The political aim is for the people to decide. But as an organisation, we are not going to take any political decision.
Prakash Ambedkar 
Prakash Ambedkar is spearheading the effort to get various Dalit groups under one umbrella organisation called Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="http://alchetron.com/Prakash-Yashwant-Ambedkar-131995-W">alchetron.com</a>)
Prakash Ambedkar is spearheading the effort to get various Dalit groups under one umbrella organisation called Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh. (Photo Courtesy: alchetron.com)

Future Challenges

1. Homogeneity
The heterogeneity of the Dalit movement could make it difficult for its leaders to “integrate” and arrive at a common socio-religious program.

Speaking to The Quint, Professor at JNU’s School of Social Sciences, Badri Narayan says, “In Maharashtra alone, the Dalit movement is divided into twelve parts. Maharashtrian Dalit leaders like Prakash Ambedkar want to launch a movement that’s just a pre-election strategy to show their presence and visibility.”

2. All-Season Movement
Every “Dalit awakening” is preceded by some event. The ‘Una Chalo!’ march, the protests following the Khairlanji massacre and the BSP movement by Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.

The challenge, Professor Narayan says, is to sustain a socio-religious Dalit movement over time.

On August 15, 2016, Jignesh Mevani administered a vow to nearly 20,000 people “never to enter sewers and not to skin dead cattle.” (Photo: Facebook/Jignesh Mevani)(Photo: Facebook/<a href="http://V">Jignesh Mevani</a>)
On August 15, 2016, Jignesh Mevani administered a vow to nearly 20,000 people “never to enter sewers and not to skin dead cattle.” (Photo: Facebook/Jignesh Mevani)(Photo: Facebook/Jignesh Mevani)

3. Inclusivity and Self-Determination
An anti-RSS agenda is bound to stagnate unless accompanied with the demand for social change. Dalit activists like Jignesh Mevani have been demanding land for landless labourers and a vow to “never enter sewers and skin dead cattle”.

They should raise the issue of Dalit poor because no one is going to talk about them. For now they are talking about Dalit participation in jobs, reservation, in the ministry and in power. But no one is talking about the rural Dalit poor.
Professor Badri Narayan, School of Social Sciences, JNU

4. Staying Non-political
Finally, the leaders of the movement will have to stay away from electoral politics to ensure their socio-religious legitimacy is not undermined.

For Ambedkarites who believe in active politics, drawing that clear distinction could prove to be a challenge.

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