Saturday, May 5, 2018

Sreemoy Talukdar - BJP's Dalit outreach is like the great Indian laughter challenge

The BJP is in a right royal fix over Dalits. The portends are deeply worrying for the party in an election season. BJP's caste-agnostic approach under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah seeks to consolidate Hindu votes under the saffron banner but the political manoeuvre has struggled to surmount the insurmountable social fault lines. The attempted grand coalition of Hindu votes isn't working (refer to bypoll losses in Uttar Pradesh, especially Phulpur), it is being accused of letting the SC/ST Act be "diluted" under its watch, its Dalit outreach program is in a shambles and the party is facing stinging criticism even from leaders within its own fold.

Under pressure from the top leadership, BJP ministers and MPs are rushing to spend nights with Dalits, share their food and grievances but instead of "restoring faith", a series of sorry gaffes has reduced the effort to a farce, prompting even the RSS to sound a warning. It is a huge crisis for a party that is desperate to transcend its "upper-caste" image and expand appeal among Dalits and OBCs. BJP wouldn't have forgotten the lessons of 1993 when its Hindutva project was derailed due to a subaltern consolidation against it.

As Rajan Pandey writes in The Wire, the SP-BSP alliance in 1993 "marked the coming together of Dalits and OBCs (along with Muslims) or the ‘Bahujans’ on one electoral front. The alliance succeeded in halting the BJP from achieving a majority mark even at the peak of the mandir agitation after the Babri mosque demolition in 1993 and also succeeded in forming the government – with the SP winning 109 seats and BSP 67. The Modi government has sought to address the crisis of faith by taking on the Supreme Court. It believes that by opposing the apex court's landmark ruling (which has been perceived in political circles as a "dilution" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989) and filing review petitions and maybe even bringing an ordinance to overturn the verdict, it would be able to convey a message that the party is serious about Dalit welfare. Except that it is not so simple.

Instead of reinforcing a 'Dalit-friendly' image, BJP's obduracy on the SC/ST Act reveals its lack of options and a desperation. The Supreme Court, in preventing mandatory arrests on complaints filed under the stringent legislature, has taken an enlightened stand through its 20 March order. Refusing to buckle under BJP's pressure, the apex court has moved to prevent an innocent from being harassed and thereby uphold the principles of natural justice. While answering Attorney General KK Venugopal's charge that the Supreme Court judgment interferes with the Constitutional separation of powers and intrudes into the legislative sphere to dilute a law that acted as a safeguard against atrocities on Dalits, an apex court bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit on Thursday said the judgement intended to "protect the innocent from harassment through a frivolous complaint. Can the Supreme Court not protect the liberty and right to life of an innocent by safeguarding his/her arrest by laying down guidelines?"

The bench also said, "What does the legislature seek to achieve? Does it want to instill the fear of arrest or something else? Arrest should not be so easy. That is why we put a filter of preliminary enquiry, that let there be some application of mind before arresting a person under the SC/ST Act."
The apex court refused to impose a stay on its original order, turned down the attorney general's prayer for a larger bench and fixed 16 May as the date of the next hearing. To understand why the BJP is trying to repeatedly challenge a morally, ethically and legally sound piece of judgment, we need only consider a particular exchange between the bench and AG Venugopal on Thursday.

As the attorney general cited recent incidents of atrocities against Dalits to argue that stringent provisions are needed to protect a historically oppressed community, the bench pointed out: "For that you need to deliver immediate punishment… Why can’t you punish in a month or so?" Justice Goel asked, according to a report in The Indian Express. "Venugopal replied that this was difficult given the size of the country’s population. 'There lies the problem,' Justice Goel said, adding 'perhaps social action is also required at the level of society (to stop caste discrimination). People have to learn to respect each other'," said the report. 

This exchange goes to the nub of the debate and exemplifies the BJP's difficulties. The party's position on the SC/ST Act, where it appears as entirely unreasonable, arises from a political compulsion. Even if it manages to bring an ordinance to overturn the verdict that will amount to a political quick fix to remedy a deeply internalised social problem. And as the BJP is finding out to its peril, such an approach is doomed to fail. Modi and Shah may encourage and even put pressure on BJP ministers to reach out to the Dalits but the strategy, in absence of a bona fide devolution of power, is likely to become counterproductive. Ingrained social divisions manifest in myriad ways. At times, these may surface despite the best of intentions. A few examples are worth looking at.

BJP minister from Uttar Pradesh Suresh Rana responded to the prime minister's Gram Swaraj Abhiyan by sharing food with Rajnish Kumar, a Dalit resident of Lohgarh in Aligarh district, but the elaborate meal was apparently ordered from outside. "We were not informed about the minister's visit to my house. He came along with other BJP leaders and took meal ordered from outside. The food was prepared at a nearby government medical centre," said Kumar. Anupama Jaiswal, minister for education in Uttar Pradesh's Yogi Adityanath government, has waxed lyrical on how BJP ministers are "braving mosquito bites" to implement Dalit outreach programs. "So that the benefits are received, ministers are going to these people's houses and are being bitten by mosquitoes all night. Most importantly, they feel good by the experience. If someone has been assigned two places, he says no, I want to go to four. Thus, when there is satisfaction in work, it empowers us. Even I am doing more houses than allotted to me," said a beaming Jaiswal, completely oblivious of the irony.

Last month, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad courted controversy by allegedly having lunch at a five-star hotel in Patna with people from the Dalit community. The pictures were widely shared on social media. Another minister from Uttar Pradesh, Rajendra Pratap Singh, has compared BJP leaders to "Lord Ram" for uplifting Dalits by eating with them, leading BJP MP Udit Raj to stress that such "outreaches" appear as insults to the community. "The new Dalit of today feels that this shows them down. I am not speaking as a BJP spokesperson but as a Dalit. I don't support it. That a savarna goes to Dalit home to speak - it shows they are lower, and other is higher," he said.

These repeated missteps arise not out of contempt for Dalits (by all accounts, the ministers mean well) but are a manifestation of deep social divisions that cannot be cured by inter-dining alone. It requires simultaneous addressing of several issues such as devolution of power, financial and social inclusion, education, employment and removal of social taboos to uplift the community and enhance social bonding. As Abhinav Prakash, Delhi University professor, writes in Swarajya, "by creating a united vote bloc incorporating all Hindu castes, BJP has also internalised all the contradictions and clash of interests within its ambit. It was always going to be challenging to run this political coalition without any corresponding effort to create a social coalition, which would necessitate backing anti-caste socio-religious reforms."

The RSS has rightly flagged it as a grave danger for BJP. Patriarch Mohan Bhagwat has advised BJP leaders not to restrict their outreach to community lunches alone. “Merely visiting their houses is not going to be enough. It has to be a two-way process. We have to welcome members of dalit community into our houses, the way they welcome us," he was quoted as saying during an internal meeting of the RSS. Commensality is a practice laden with symbolism. Eating together is a useful tool for social inclusion but tokenism beats the purpose. Ambedkar scholar Valerian Rodrigues was quoted, as saying in The Indian Express, "While an upper caste leader eating in Dalit homes might symbolically express that he is prepared to be included in their community bond, the instrumental use of such gestures is very obvious to everyone, including to Dalits."

BJP seeks to become a tent for a rainbow Hindu coalition but it is not investing enough in ensuring that actual power transfer takes place at the ground level so that the oppressed class doesn't feel shortchanged. Short of that effort, anything else will be perceived as optical illusion.