New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government virtually allowed the dilution of the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Hoping that the courts will rule on issues which the political executive is shy of addressing directly can be a recipe for disaster.
In the face of the rising dalit anger, however, the government has gone into damage control mode. The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have sent teams to various states to contain the political damage. Prime Minister Modi has asked all BJP MPs to spend two nights each in a dalit village. And there will be a mega-event on Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14, with high rhetoric flowing from the Prime Minister himself.
However, the BJP is unlikely to remain unsinged by the dalit anger. The dalits’ perception seems to be that their fortunes are sliding as the legal and constitutional provisions safeguarding their interests are being systematically dismantled.
The Supreme Court ruling comes in the wake of the increasing atrocities against the dalits under BJP rule. A dalit youngster can be beaten or even killed for daring to ride a horse to his own wedding or for sporting a moustache. The only time upper caste goons forget about untouchability is when they rape dalit women. From Una, Shaharanpur and Bhima-Koregaon to Gwalior more recently, there has been an unprecedented display of arrogance towards dalits by politically emboldened upper caste Hindus. That is why the BJP’s protestations about protecting dalit interests lack any credibility.
Given the party’s largely upper caste support base, it has in fact been in favour of diluting the provisions of the SC/ST Act. This was one of the critical demands of the Maratha agitation after the rape of a girl from their community in Kopardi village in Maharashtra in 2016. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had assured the agitators that he would recommend reviewing the provisions of this law to the Centre. Fearful of losing the Maratha vote, the BJP was keen to have a less stringent law.
Some in the Opposition have even suggested that the Central government was complicit in these developments. They point to the government not directing either of its two top law officers — the attorney-general or the solicitor-general — to defend the existing provisions of the law. The government was instead represented by the additional solicitor-general. He admitted that the government had received certain complaints about misuse of the provisions and argued that anticipatory bail should be granted in cases registered under the SC/ST Act.
Not only did the government not mount a vigorous legal defence in the Supreme Court, it also did not move a review petition immediately after the ruling. A senior dalit leader and a minister in the government, Thawar Chand Gahlot, who had immediately alerted the government to the impending trouble, was ignored. Only when the BJP’s allies and ministers Ramdas Athawale and Ram Vilas Paswan began speaking out against the court ruling that the government decided to act. The ruling came on March 20 and the review petition was filed two weeks later, on April 2, with the attorney-general himself appearing in court, on the very day dalits across the country had called a Bharat Bandh against the order.
By this time, however, the ground had shifted. Even the dalit leaders of the BJP had started rethinking their future. Five dalit MPs from the party — Ms Savitribai Phule from Bharaich, Mr Chotelal Kanwar from Robertsganj, Mr Ashok Kumar Dohrey from Etawah, Dr Yashwant Singh from Nageen and Mr Udit Raj from North-West Delhi constituencies — raised the red flag about the party’s attitude towards dalits. While Mr Udit Raj vented his anger on the social media, the rest wrote angry letters to the Prime Minister. They alleged discrimination in the party against dalits, threats to removing reservations for SCs and STs and police brutality against those who had protested against the Supreme Court’s order on April 2.
It is not surprising that four of the five protesting dalit MPs were from Uttar Pradesh, which has 21 per cent dalit population. They reflected the palpable fear in the party that the dalit vote which it had mobilised successfully in 2014 was likely to slip away. Not only could the dalit vote shift, it could also catalyse an alliance with the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Muslims for the 2019 general election.
The OBCs also think that they are being targeted. The common perception of Yadavs in Bihar is that their leader, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, has been singled out for punishment while all upper caste leaders accused in the fodder scam were discharged; and that he continues to be denied bail while Salman Khan was given bail within 48 hours of conviction. These perceptions may not have a legal basis, but they have strong political implications. There is also a strong suspicion that the BJP-RSS combine is keen to do away with OBC and dalit reservations — RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly called for a review of the policy. His statements have emboldened the upper castes to mount anti-reservation protests.
As for Muslims, who form 15 per cent of the total population, the Hindutva forces in the past four years have attempted to reduce them to second-class citizens by setting up a series of hoops they must jump through to prove their nationalism. Hate crimes against them have gone up and they have been targets of lynching in the name of cow protection. From 2012 till now, it is estimated that 97 per cent of all cow-terrorism deaths have taken place since the BJP assumed power in 2014 — that is 76 people killed, most of them Muslims. And they have been killed mostly in North India.
The ground is fertile for forging political unity among dalits, OBCs and Muslims. In North India, that could make things very tough for the BJP in 2019. Such an alliance is already taking shape in Uttar Pradesh and could soon spread to other Hindi belt states. It’s in this alliance of disgruntled communities which have borne the brunt of Mr Modi’s misgovernance that he may eventually get his comeuppance.