Dear Amit Shah, safeguard Dalits' rights instead of indulging in empty symbolism
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is said to have won over a substantial chunk of Dalit voters, who had earlier been voting for the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Congress. This was partly due to the party's success in winning over important Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj. Now there are rumblings against the BJP within the Dalit community.
Even two of these three leaders – Paswan and Udit Raj – have criticised the BJP in the recent past over its treatment of Dalits. Another Dalit ally, Jitan Ram Manjhi, has snapped his alliance with the BJP.
The 2 April Bharat Bandh is said to have been the culmination of Dalit anger against the BJP. While the trigger was the Supreme Court's dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the anger was also against the BJP broader apathy towards Dalits. The question that needs to be examined is what has the Narendra Modi government done for Dalits in the past four years?
What has the BJP done?
Despite its claim of being pro-poor and pro-Dalits, the BJP seems to have systematically undermined the rights of the Dalit communities in India. on April 4, a group of MPs accused the government of having blocked post-matric scholarships (PMS) for students belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, worth Rs 12,000 crore.
In a letter written to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, three Communist Party of India (Marxist) MPs – P.K. Biju, Jitendra Choudhury and Mohammed Salim and one Indian National Lok Dal MP, Charanjit Singh Rori, wrote that scholarship funds for around 56 lakh SC/ST students have are facing delays.
This amount is reimbursed by the social justice and empowerment ministry, which is the nodal ministry for the welfare of SCs.
It is important to note that their upper caste groups have recently stirred up online and offline campaigning against reservations for SCs in education and jobs accusing the system of “killing merit”. But the failure of the BJP government to support meritorious students from SC/ST communities at school level tells a different story altogether.
“I don't understand what the government is doing. Nirav Modi alone siphoned off Rs 12,000 crore in the (PNB bank) scam. And the government is saying they do not have money for students,” said Kancha Illaiah Shepherd, Dalit intellectual and activist.
“In the absence of funds, a large number of students will drop out from schools,” adds Shepherd.
The impact of delay in releasing the post-metric scholarship funds for SC/STs has affected universities and higher education institutes as well.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences was forced to withdraw fee exemption given to SC, ST and OBC students (including religious minorities) who were eligible to the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship.
In February this year, students from the affected community went on strike against the administration, which in return blamed the central government for not giving funds.
Then, smartly, in the name of giving more autonomy to graded universities, the government cleared the decks for withdrawal of subsidies to universities by asking them to generate their own funds. This move is set to force universities to increase the fee structure of courses. This move is also likely to affect the SC/ST/OBC students the most, as the number of economically backward students in large in these communities.
But these are just economic setbacks that Dalits have received under the BJP government.
According to The Citizen, a crime is committed against Dalits every 15 minutes in India. And six Dalit women are raped every day, according to official statistics that register a 66% hike in atrocities in the past ten years 2007-2017.” But under the BJP government since 2014, there has been a major spike in crimes against Dalits- especially by cow vigilantes in and around Dalit villages. The attack on Dalits for skinning dead cows in Una made headlines. It is not a surprise that a young Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, who led the protests after the UNA violence against Dalits went on to become a member of legislative assembly in Gujarat in 2017.
It is an irony that despite increasing violence against Dalits, the Supreme Court of India decided to amend the SC/ST act, which dilutes the provisions of the law that ensures immediate arrest of those perpetrating crimes against the oppressed castes in the country.
The decision of the SC has led to mass protests all over the country forcing even BJP Dalit leaders to speak against the government.
BJP president Amit Shah has told his MPs and MLAs to go and eat with Dalits and celebrate the birth anniversaries of different Dalit icons. But unless his party stops the right-wing Upper Caste forces that see Dalits as lesser mortals meant to be suppressed, it is not going to be possible for the BJP to repeat 2014 kind of electoral performance in the country.
Therefore, the focus of the BJP should be to protect the rights of Dalits and not indulge in empty symbolism.