On July 11, 2016, a video of cow vigilantes mercilessly beating up seven Dalit men for skinning a dead cow in Una district, Gujarat, came to light. In protest against the incident, many Dalits have refused to handle cow carcasses. The gau rakshaks should be happy, but they are not. Non-Dalits, presumably including gau rakshaks, have retaliated with more violence against Dalits — this time for not picking up cow carcasses — in Samter (August 16), Bhavra (August 20) and Rajkot (August 24), all in Gujarat.
Herein lies the Dalit dilemma — he is damned if he does and he is damned if he doesn’t.
The bane of Hindu society is varna, the four-tier arrangement said to be sanctified by the scriptures. The arrangement encompassed the majority and assigned them places, but it also excluded a large number. The excluded were the outcasts or the untouchables. Inequality by birth was the basis of the arrangement. That inequality stayed with you throughout your life. Violence against Dalits is the punishment for disobeying the rules of the arrangement. Rohith Vemula summed it up: “My birth is my fatal accident.”
The Dalit Mobilisation
The Dalits have decided that enough is enough. They have decided to mobilise. The scale of social mobilisation of Dalits in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and to some extent in other parts of the country, has not been seen in recent times. Although much of the media is not covering them, massive rallies and marches are being held. There is palpable anger in the community because of the sense of impunity with which they are being subjected to violence in certain parts of the country. According to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, in 2015, Gujarat reported the highest crime rate against Dalits, followed by Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Dalits are angry about the hollowness of the current hyper-nationalism where everything about India is called great and every criticism is labelled as anti-national. They are angry about the way the Una incident and other such incidents are being dismissed as isolated or as conspiracies. It is noteworthy that the boycott of cow carcasses, the rallies and the marches have happened through social, not political, mobilisation.
After a long period of silence, the Prime Minister spoke on August 6. He said, “I get so angry at those who are into the gau rakshak business… I have seen that some people are into crimes all night and wear the garb of gau rakshaks in the day.” The very next day, at a rally, he said, “You can shoot me rather than target the Dalits.” This is a strange statement for a Prime Minister: he should use the enormous powers of his office to punish the perpetrators of violence.
Change Agonisingly Slow
Change is taking place, but it is agonisingly slow. In urban areas, where economic and professional identities usually take precedence, and in parts of India where social movements have brought about change, a majority of Hindus do not feel passionate about the caste order. Many Hindus may still prefer marriages within the caste, but have friends among Dalits. Many may express angst about the reservation system, but do not begrudge the limited preference to Dalits in educational institutions and in some jobs.
However, there is a section of Hindu society that continues to look back with nostalgia at the days of caste domination. Many of them have read a sign of approval in the BJP’s victory in 2014. The cow vigilantes are the latest manifestation of centuries of a supremacist ideology. The flurry of bans on cow slaughter and beef consumption, and the aggressive majoritarian narrative, have given them fresh wind.
Few people saw the casteist agenda more clearly than Dr Ambedkar and ‘Periyar’ E V Ramasamy. Both were pessimistic about the reformation of Hindu society. Dr Ambedkar did not think that Dalits could find dignity within the fold of the Hindu religion and urged them to convert to Buddhism. Periyar’s way was atheism and rationalism. The third way is reform of the Hindu social order and accelerating the trends that will usher in a new social order — education, industrialisation, urbanisation, communication and technological advance.
The Constitutional Goal
For the Hindu hyper-nationalists, the idea of a ‘Hindu’ nation is superior to the idea of a constitutional democratic republic. They will sweep the pains of caste history under the carpet. They think that to uphold the idea of a ‘Hindu’ nation it is necessary to underplay its flaws and hide the price that is paid by millions of Dalits and the minorities. On the other hand, the Constitution-makers did not deny the existence of these problems: they acknowledged the prevalence of caste differences and discrimination and formulated what they believed would be intermediate solutions, such as reservation for the Scheduled Castes and rights of minorities.
The real focus of the Constitution is to secure a set of natural rights that every Indian should enjoy, irrespective of the historical injustices. It is to make caste, religion and gender irrelevant to citizenship and citizens’ rights.
The project of creating this sense of equal citizenship is still a work-in-progress in this vast and complex land. Hindu hyper-nationalism, which is a form of majoritarianism, is at odds with the constitutional project. The conflict is playing out, in an increasingly violent manner, before our eyes. The consequences of a long-drawn conflict will be terrible for the country and its progress toward the goal of a peaceful and prosperous nation.