Bad news for BJP: The Dalit upsurge in Gujarat is only going to grow
The developments in Gujarat after the self-immolation by the Dalit rights activist Bhanubhai Vankar have a strong political message. The message is that the Dalit land rights issue has assumed the proportion of a cluster bomb that has the potential to blow up in the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) time and again. The Dalit uprising is there to stay and forge ahead in the days to come. Vankar had set himself aflame to protest against the delay in allotment of land to a landless Dalit family that had paid Rs 22,200 five years back.
Vankar's funeral was eventually carried out in Unjha after a series of events over the last three days that also saw the police detaining Dalit activist and now Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani, protests at various places by Dalits and Vankar's family refusing to accept his dead body from the morgue in Gandhinagar after a post mortem till Mevani was released. The funeral was carried out only after the Gujarat government was reportedly compelled to accept demands on land allocation to Dalits and forming a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe Vankar's death.
It is probably one of the rare occasions that the RSS also saw a 'political wisdom' over the manner in which things were unfolding that it came out with a statement condemning Vankar's death. It is definitely for the first time that the RSS came out with such a statement ever since the BJP came to power in the state in 1995.
The statement read, “Death of social activist Bhanubhai Vankar who belonged to Scheduled Caste is a painful and a tragic event. Instead of getting relief from the pain he was suffering from long over the alleged delay in allotment of land, he had to take this extreme step. It is indeed shameful and unfortunate event.”
It further read, “RSS is standing with families who are suffering from this pain and we expect that the authorities would look into this sensitive matter holistically and do the needful to ensure the affected families get speedy justice. It is also important for the government to make sure the civil authorities take speedy actions on the decisions taken for the betterment of people. RSS also appeals to the people to maintain peace and tolerance.”
The RSS had maintained a stoic silence even after the Una incident more than a year ago when Dalits skinning animal carcass had been publicly flogged by cow vigilantes. The incident had proved to be a landmark in Dalit uprising in the state.
Reports suggest that the RSS’ new found empathy for Dalits may have its genesis in the resignation of senior ideologue Mulchand Rana in December over widening rift between the lower castes and other sections of Hindus. Rana, a Dalit who had joined the RSS in 1970 was reportedly appalled with RSS and BJP for not being serious about Dalit atrocities and discrimination in Gujarat.
Leading Dalit rights activist Martin Macwan says, “The unrest over the land rights issue is only going to grow in the coming days along with other issues pertaining to Dalits. The helplessness of the local administration in Patan in this case once again is a pointer to the conflict between the political set up, the administration and the people. There has been no political will to resolve issues.”
He says that the RSS issuing a statement in this case is a response coming out of political wisdom which is “too little and too late”. “The issue of land rights for the Dalits is more than two decades old and yet nothing has been done about it. The people have lost patience,” he said.
It needs to be pointed that post Una episode the Dalits in Gujarat have been much more of an organised political force that ever before. A mere seven per cent of the population and that too a highly scattered lot, this segment has largely remained ignored in the political framework. But the victory of Jignesh Mevani in the recent assembly polls from Vadgam have taken things to a different direction. The BJP had tried its best to ensure is defeat. It knows very well that the Dalit uprisings and agitations may not have much of an impact in Gujarat but the message these send across India can do massive political damage to the party in other states and at the national level. It was none other than the BJP heavyweights including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party's national president Amit Shah and chief ministers of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh Vijay Rupani and Yogi Adityanath who had held rallies within a radius of 15 km to 20 km of Vadgam and even in the constituency, focusing their attack on Mevani.
“Bhanubhai's wife insisting that her family would receive his body only after Jignesh's release from detention is an indication how much the Dalits have posed their faith in one leader from the community. Another thing that has changed is that Dalit leaders from other outfits who were critical of Jignesh have now come to terms that they might as well keep fighting for space within their community but outside they have to back Jignesh for their common cause. The manner in which the government was compelled to accept the Dalit demands this time also shows that it can no longer continue to take people for a ride by fielding middlemen like local MLAs or party leaders who make promises that dilute the anger at that point of time and are never fulfilled later,” points out Mehul Manguben, a social activist and a keen political observer from the Dalit community.
Jignesh has definitely been keeping the BJP leadership on its toes. He was detained along with his aides from Sarangpur area of Ahmedabad on Sunday while he was on his way to a protest venue during a bandh called by the Dalits. His forays into eastern Ahmedabad have been keeping the BJP on tenterhooks as this part of the city has a substantial number of Dalit population not only from Gujarat but from other states as well. It is a well known fact that many Dalits were used by the groups indulging in anti Muslim pogrom of 2002 post Godhra train burning incident. These Dalits have also been the backbone of Hindutva groups that have been carrying out anti-minority propaganda and ensuring BJP victory in several constituencies of this nerve centre of Gujarat politics. The possibility of Dalits being weaned away is not good news for the Hindutva groups.
There is a massive resentment among the Dalits over Jignesh's detention and the police having a press conference to explain how he misbehaved using “unparliamentary” words and how the police would be sending a report to Gujarat Assembly Speaker on his conduct. The Dalits are pointing that while Jignesh being an educated leader should not use unparliamentary words, it is for the police to explain how many times they have sent reports of misconduct by BJP MLAs and MPs to the Speaker of either the state assembly or the Lok Sabha. They claim that such instances of misconduct by BJP and other Sangh Parivar leaders galore.
The Dalits have also been saying that the police should instead be writing to the Speaker and the Governor on how the failure of the government to address public issues adds to their woes in terms of handling law and order problems that stem from the government failures.