Sabarmati rally: why show of Dalit-Muslim solidarity bodes ill for BJP
The ongoing movement of Dalit assertion in Gujarat and the announcement, on Sunday, of Muslim support to it comes at a critical time for the ruling BJP.
If Dalits and Muslims join hands for good, they would be a force to reckon with. And for the BJP in Gujarat, where the 10-month-old Patel agitation has shaken the party's core high caste support, the alliance would spell disaster.
More worryingly for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the anger sparked by the thrashing of Dalit youth by cow protection vigilantes in Una on 11 July appears to be spilling over into Uttar Pradesh, where the 21% Dalit vote will play a key role in deciding the assembly election early next year. In Punjab, which also goes to polls at the same time, Dalits account for nearly 26% of the vote, and they could be swayed by the agitation in Gujarat as well, much to the harm of the ruling Akali-BJP combine.
In Gujarat, the assembly election is more than a year away, but the import of Sunday's show of Muslim solidarity at the huge Dalit rally to protest the Una incident would not be lost on the BJP. Indeed, the slogans shouted at the rally were telling: "Dalit-Muslim Ekta Zindabad, Fansiwad Murdabad".
This is certainly an ill omen for the BJP. Why? The BJP's ascendency in Gujarat started only when it successfully drove a wedge between these two marginalised communities - by converting the anti-reservation agitation of 1985 into a Hindu, including Dalit versus Muslim conflagration - thereby dismantling the Congress' formidable KHAM combination of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims, which accounted for nearly 75% of the state's vote.
The Hindutva umbrella which was thus deployed in Gujarat camouflaged the caste and class conflicts. So much so that when the BJP pitted Hindus against Muslims, Dalits and Patels were at the vanguard.
As the veteran political scientist Achyut Yagnik notes, "In the mid-80s and late 80s, there was a largescale recruitment of Dalits into the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. And it was this army that went into the field during every riot while the Brahmins and the Patels sat at home."
In fact, often in the aftermath of riots, the Parmars, Rathods, Solankis and Vaghelas would cry betrayal when they found their names - but not those of Brahmins and Patels - on top of FIRs and chargesheets, along with those of Muslims. But they were reluctant to do anything about it, and stuck with the Hindutva cause. Several attempts to convert the Dalits to Buddhism met little success.
It's in this context that Sunday's public display of Dalit-Muslim solidarity is significant. It sent out a message that the Dalits' disillusionment with the BJP was complete.
The anger was palpable in the speeches at the rally. Jignesh Mevani, the young Dalit activist and lawyer who is the convenor of the joint front of 30 Dalit organisations that's leading the agitation, was so excited he screamed: "Let's ask the government for arms licences for self-defence, they must run judo-karate training camps for us."
"We will break the hands and legs of the high caste Hindu exploiter if he even raises his voice. Enough is enough. We will no longer take the insults we have taken for decades," Mevani thundered in Gujarati.
Not just the rousing speeches, the silence of the thousands of people who kept trickling into the rally for hours after it had started spoke a great deal. They braved rain and slush at Acher ST Depot Ground in Ahmedabad's Sabarmati, which had been allotted by the police for the rally after much haggling, to listen to the speakers. The 5,000-capacity ground was occupied to the inch, with the crowd spilling on to the roads outside. At the end, they displayed their unity and resolve by pledging to stop clearing garbage and animal carcasses from the streets.