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Landmark Dalit mobilisation underscores resentment against Modi government

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 2 April 2018, 19:58 IST
(Akash Bisht)

In an unprecedented show of solidarity thousands, may be lakhs, of activists who work for Dalit and Adivasi rights and supporters took to the streets in various cities across the country on Monday amid the call for an all-India shutdown. They were protesting the watering down of a central law to prevent atrocities against the underclasses by the Supreme Court.

The demonstrations were not all peaceful. Media reports claimed at least eight protestors were killed, most of them in police firing, drawing sharp criticism from Opposition parties. Hundreds were reportedly injured or detained. One television grab showed a civilian too opening fire in Madhya Pradesh.

Apart from MP (six deaths), the situation was particularly tense in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (one death each). Widescale protests were reported from Punjab, Odisha and Jharkhand, affecting normal routine. There were demonstrations in Maharashtra too.

Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi came out in support of the Bandh.

In Capital New Delhi, protestors were seen in small groups at several places, apart from bigger protests at Rajghat and Parliament Street, where his correspondent was present.

Hundreds of protestors gathered at the road leading to the seat of Indian democracy to raise concerns over the alleged “dilution” of the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. They demanded that the Supreme Court immediately revoke its order banning automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Act.

One protestor holds a placard warning (Akash Bisht)

Those gathered squarely blamed the Narendra Modi-led Union government for delaying the process of filing a review petition. Under pressure, the Centre did file a plea in the apex court. However, Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, refused an urgent hearing on a plea for stay and review of the court's previous ruling.

Such was the anger among protestors that they forced Janak Chamar, a Dalit BJP Parliamentarian, to stop his speech midway and leave the venue. On stage, Chamar had only begun his introduction when protestors raised objections over his presence at the stage. Thereafter, KP Chaudhary, general secretary of All-India SC/ST Employee Federation, took the microphone and announced how the BJP is stonewalling Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad's bail.

A group of protestors with their caste name 'Valmiki' emblazoned on their t-shirts. (Akash Bisht)

The crowd then started booing the saffron party with slogans such as “BJP murdabad (Down with the BJP)”, “dalit virodhi sarkar murdabad (down with the anti-Dalit government)” and “Modi murdabad (down with Modi)”, leading to Chaudhary asking Chamar to leave. 

The Gopalgunj MP was heckled by protestors and had to seek police protection. Once he left, several people from the crowd came forward to shake Chaudhary's hands who said all Dalit MPs of BJP should resign from Parliament over the dilution of the Act. “If they don't then you know that they are betraying us,” he said. 

“The BJP wants to take us back to the dark ages from where Baba Saheb uplifted us. Do you think that we should do a gherao of Supreme Court? Will you support us?” he asked the crowd. On hearing this, the crowd erupted and started shouting “yes” amid chants of “Jai Bhim”. 

Thereafter, Chaudhary announced that the 'gherao' of the topmost seat of Indian judiciary on 9 April, which was greeted with loud cheer. He stressed that similar to these protests, the SC gherao would also be done voluntarily without the support of any political party or banner.

Veteran socialist politician Sharad Yadav at Monday's Dalit protest meeting in New Delhi. (Akash Bisht)

Veteran politician and former JD (U) MP Sharad Yadav then took over and blasted the BJP government for trying to dilute the SC/ST Act and sought reservations for dalits in judiciary as well. “Ever since the BJP came to power, it has tried to suppress Dalit voices while their followers have unleashed fury on innocents belonging to the community. Under the BJP, the Constitution is under grave threat,” the veteran leader said. 

Speaking on the BJP's defeat in Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-polls in UP, Yadav said the coming together of two regional parties have shattered BJP's confidence. “All political parties and organisations should leave their differences aside and come together to dislodge this anti-Dalit BJP government... Use your vote wisely in the upcoming elections to keep Baba Saheb's legacy alive,” Yadav said. 

Prodded by the crowd to raise the issue of malfunction of electronic voting machines, Yadav said EVMs should be scrapped and the use of ballot paper should be brought back to end all speculations. Once he finished his speech, the crowd began shouting SC/ST/OBC unity zindabad. 

Thereafter, many speakers stressed on the need to vote BJP out of power to ensure a life of dignity for Dalits. Ashok Kumar, general secretary of All-India SC/ST Railway Association mentioned how the nation wide bandh was not led by any individual or political party and should continue as it is. 

“The BJP government and other institutions have been trying to trample the Constitution and deny Dalits their rights. It is shocking that the SC passed such a judgement and what is even more shocking is how the government is delaying the process of filing a review petition,” he said. 

The event was attended by a large number of youths from far-flung areas. Even they were extremely critical of the Prime Minister and repeatedly said his government was denying Dalits their rights. 

“My request to the SC and the government is to restore the SC/ST Act. We have been facing so much discrimination that it was a nightmare for us to visit police station or tehsil. Because of this Act, the police and government employees were forced to take cognisance of our issues but if the SC remains adamant on its order, we won't be able to approach anyone. This will be a travesty of justice,” said Hanuman Prasad. The 28-year-old made a long journey from Tonk in Rajasthan to the Capital after hearing about the protests in Delhi.

“Look how this government has failed to provide employment to crores of the youth in the country. What happened to all the promises of acche din. If these are the acche din than I don't want them,” he added. 

Among others present were Ajay Dutt, AAP MLA from Delhi's Ambedkar Nagar, who claimed that dilution of the Act would lead to increase in atrocities against dalits across the country. “I request the SC to review its order so that Dalits are not denied their rights,” Dutt said. 

A letter was also sent to the President by those at the forefront of the protests, requesting him to issue instructions to review the SC order. 

“The BJP government and the institutions for the past few years are constantly attempting to destroy Social Justice that is guaranteed by the Constitution. Instances like Unna, Saharanpur are the evidences in front of us that how the respective governments and the courts are handling the matter. It is time for us to unite and fight against the Caste ridden institutions to ensure Justice, Liberty and Equality (sic),” read the letter. 

Later in the day, Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi, on behalf of the RSS, said the SC's stand was unfortunate but the Sangh was wrongly being associated with that. Reportedly, BJP chief Amit Shah called several ministers to discuss the issue.

First published: 2 April 2018, 19:58 IST