Ram Nath Kovind as President: Dalit activists Prakash Ambedkar, Mevani slam BJP
Bharatiya Janata Party's “masterstroke” in nominating Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as its presidential nominee, might not achieve the desired political results.
Dalit activists are unimpressed by the move and many of them called it a political farce. They said that this was nothing but an attempt at symbolism given the recent cases of atrocities against Dalits in the country.
The Dalit community is one of the most marginalised communities in the country – having faced centuries of discrimination and oppression at the hands of Upper Castes.
There is a perception that atrocities against Dalits have increased after the BJP came to power at the Centre. Violent incidents have taken place across the country – Mirchpur in Haryana, Una in Gujarat, Ahmadnagar in Maharashtra to name a few.
Uttar Pradesh, where Kovind hails from, has been a major flashpoint with Dalits being attacked in Mainpuri, Unnao, Sambhal and Saharanpur. In the Saharanpur alone, 2 people were killed and at least 40 injured in clashes between Dalits and Thakurs last month.
Dalit leaders have expressed cynicism over the decision saying it only highlights the hypocrisy of the government.
Jignesh Mevani, Dalit leader from Gujarat, told Catch, “This is not the first time the NDA government has appointed a President from a community that was under attack. For instance after the Gujarat riots in 2002, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was nominated as President by the NDA. This time they have done the same with Ram Nath Kovind.”
He said this would be meaningless as far as the state of Dalits in the country is concerned.
“On one hand, there are continued incidents of violence and discrimination like in Una and Saharanpur, There has been no justice for Rohith Vemula’s death and targeting of the Bhim Army cadres especially Chandrashekar Azad Ravan. And then on the other hand you make a Dalit president. It is clearly a political gimmick,” Mevani added.
Prof MP Ahirwar, a Dalit professor at the Banaras Hindu University, told Catch, "On one hand, the hands of BJP and RSS are covered in the blood of Dalits. On the other hand, they are trying to show that they care about the Dalit community by making one of them a President. This reeks of hypocrisy”.
However, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, political scientist and Dalit right activist, called it a positive political move for Dalits. Speaking to Catch, he said “Since this government has come into power, targeting of Dalits has increased. There have been so many instances of violence against Dalits across the country. While many may think that cow politics affects the Muslims in the country, the worst affected are the Dalits, tribals and rural masses. This is the government’s attempt to seem like they are concerned about the Dalits. But for whatever political reasons, they have chosen a Dalit as a presidential candidate, it is worth having a Dalit in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.”
What does Kovind stand for?
As a Dalit and a non-controversial figure, Kovind is said to be the government’s best bet to get Opposition parties on board as well as salvage its anti-Dalit image. However, Dalit activists have even questioned the candidate’s close association with BJP and RSS.
Leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and Babasaheb Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Ambedkar said that more than who Kovind is, it is more important to know what he stands for.
“We are thoroughly opposing his candidature. It is not as if we do not want a Dalit President, but the intention behind the move is all wrong. It is not a question of whether the president is Dalit, it is the question of whether the president will be pro-Constitution or anti-Constitution? And given Kovind’s association, it is clear what the answer is,” he said.
Prof Ahirwar feels that BJP will never pick a candidate who can take a firm stand against “Brahminical Manuvadi communal forces”. He said, “In a party which is an agent of Hindu rashtra, what can one person of a Scheduled Caste community do? A President has hardly any powers. This move is a win-win situation for the BJP”.
Prakash Ambedkar said that while Kovind may have worked for the Dalit communities in the past, he represents an organisation that is anti-constitutional. “Since Ram Nath Kovind is a member of the RSS, do you think he will be able to put his foot down against the BJP or RSS if-post 2019, RSS pushes for changes in the Constitution? They have never accepted the Indian Constitution and have expressed the intention of making India a Hindu Rashtra.”
Mevani feels neither impressed nor bothered nor concerned by Kovind’s candidature. “If a Dalit becomes President or a Governor or the Supreme Court Chief Justice, it is not going to lead to annihilation of caste.”
Will the decision benefit the Dalit community?
Kancha Ilaiah says that having a Dalit as a President will not only be a point of pride for the Dalits, it will also instill in them a sense of security. “The government is trying a 'negotiating method' with the Dalits and I welcome it. The question is whether they are willing to work on other fronts, like the cattle sale ban, which is a major issue for Dalits.”
Ambedkar said that while this is an attempt to appease Dalits, the government should also be willing to engage with the community regarding the issues they face. He said the government must openly come out in support of Dalits.
Most Dalit activists say that the decision to nominate has more to do with the 2019 general elections than any genuine attempt to address the Dalit community's concerns.
“There is no doubt that this is a calculated move by the BJP, keeping in mind the 2019 elections. It is an electoral gimmick and believe me, the BJP has no intention to work for the rights and empowerment for the Dalit community,” said Mevani.
Prof Ahirwar concured that this was indeed the motivation behind the BJP's decision.
“There is anger and outrage amongst Dalits right now and this move may work to appease them. But it must not, otherwise the momentum of our movement against atrocities on Dalit atrocities will be lost”.