One year of Una: Gujarat's Dalit upsurge may not impact elections but BJP is on edge
It has been a year since the Dalit flogging incident took place in Mota Samadhiyala village of Una taluka in Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, the state which is seen as the laboratory of Hindutva.
Over these 12 months, Dalit politics in the state has come a long way. While the Dalit uprising is not expected to have any major impact on the electoral outcome in the forthcoming Gujarat elections, given the small size of the Dalit electorate - a mere 7.01% - its repercussions in other parts of the country are worrying the BJP.
That is why the party feels the urgency to keep the Dalit upsurge in Gujarat in check.
Politics of agitation
“We cannot look at things only from (an) election perspective. The politics of agitation has only increased and enhanced. There is a lot of consciousness among the youth who are not willing to go with the BJP. Last year’s Una march and the agitation over Rohith Vemula's death played a role in the insurrection of Bhim Army. Now, these three are expected to make an impact together in Indian politics,” says youth Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch.
He told Catch, “Gujarat saw saffronisation in 2002. Now the Dalits are standing up against the BJP. It may be insignificant in Gujarat, but it has made a dent in the larger scheme of Hindurashtra of the RSS.”
The Gujarat government's knee jerk reaction can be gauged from the fact that it has not given permission for the second march which the Dalits have planned from Mehsana to Banaskantha starting 12 July. Mevani and his comrades have still decided to go ahead with their plan, but the event is likely to be toned down after the killing of seven Gujaratis in the Amarnath terror attack on 10 July.
A new kind of politics
Eminent social scientist Achyut Yagnik says that over the last year, Dalit youth have become more active. “In the past, there was assimilation with a large number of Dalits joining the BJP and voting for it. But the youth is dissatisfied after seeing that in the Sangh Parivar the caste hierarchy is never challenged.”
He points out that the BJP has in fact been indirectly reinforcing caste certification like in the case of choosing to field Dalit presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, which Dalits see as mere tokenism.
One of the recent tools used by the BJP to bring Dalits back into its fold was to try equate Kovind's Kori sub caste of Uttar Pradesh as the Koli Patel community of Gujarat.
Sources said that the BJP leadership even held media briefings to sell this idea, but were forced to abandon it when those well versed with social dynamics pointed out that the two castes are completely different. While the Koris are a Scheduled Caste, the Koli Patels are in the category of Other Backward Castes (OBCs). The Koli Patels comprise around 15% of voters in Gujarat and together with Thakors, which are also seen synonymous with them, the number goes up to 20%.
This is a substantial chunk in terms of electoral politics. The Koli Patels dot the all-important region of Saurashtra beyond Bhavnagar district.
Yagnik says that for Dalit youth to get aggressive and assertive is very important socially and historically, particularly in Saurashtra, which is still feudal in many ways. This is because this region, that sends 58 of the 182 MLAs to the state assembly, was never under British rule but was dotted by small princely states.
BJP on the edge
Another prominent Dalit activist in the state, Martin Macwan, underlines that the BJP's fear of losing the major chunk of Dalit votes is written largely on the walls and hence the Sangh Parivar has been trying one tactic after the other to contain this.
He points out that the Sangh Parivar had started with the concept of Samajik Sadbhav Sammelan wherein it tried to get the support of Dalits. “But they had to shelve the programme because Dalits were not willing to attend these events and showed up only to wave black flags,” he says.
Dalit activists say that even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Bauddha Sangh is now trying to woo the Dalits through Bhante Rahul Sanghpriya, who is touring the state, particularly the regions of Saurashtra and North Gujarat where the Dalit unrest is palpable. His aim is to clear misconceptions like that of RSS and BJP being against the Dalit community.
Rahul had reportedly led a similar Dalit outreach rally in Uttar Pradesh in September last year ahead of the assembly polls that saw the BJP come to power with a resounding majority in the state.
Dalit activists assert that forces of Hindutva acknowledge that incidents like Una have damaged the image of the BJP. According to them, these forces are now trying to insistently display their ‘support’ for the community.
Similarly the BJP is all set to play up the Congress candidate for Ahmedabad Lok Sabha (West) seat in 2014 parliamentary polls Ishwarsinh Makwana joining the party on Monday. Makwana is a former head of Congress' Scheduled castes morcha in Gujarat.
The Dalit political matrix
Macwan says that over the last year, there have been many small incidents that are big stories in state's Dalit political matrix. “It is because of the Una movement that the Thangadh killings came into prominence once again. BJP Rajya Sabha MP Shambhuprasad Tundiya’s brother losing in a Dalit community poll in which Dalits from 152 villages voted is another significant thing.”
He also spoke of the reports about the Gujarat High Court deciding to treat the petition about boycott of Dalit families in Nandoli village of Mehsana district as a public interest litigation (PIL).
The case pertains to Dalits allegedly being excommunicated by the upper castes and being denied fodder for cows belonging to Dalit families besides commutation facilities to their children for school. This had triggered migration by three Dalit families from the village.
He also narrated how over 70 people from 14 Dalit families of Par village in Santalpur taluka of Patan had staged a protest outside the district collector's office in February this year demanding relocation to another village because they were being socially and economically boycotted by upper castes as they had refused to dispose animal carcasses after the Una March.
Despite these efforts, BJP's attempts to polarise society on communal lines like that of its national president Amit Shah talking in terms of 'Alia-Malia-Jamalia' may work in the case of upper caste Hindus but not in the case of Dalit youth. Earlier, it was Dalit youth that had been used in violence against Muslims.
For now, the BJP sits comfortable on the electoral front as there only a remote chance that the miffed Patels, Muslims and Dalits comes together on a political platform.