What India can do to protect its 'oppressed' Dalits

The BJP has increasingly been getting on the wrong side of the Dalits, a poor and backward group that makes up 17 percent of the Indian population and sizeable chunks of the electorate in key provinces.

By Sitaraman Shankar (Society)

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Published: Thu 28 Jul 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 28 Jul 2016, 2:00 AM

Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has alienated many in its two years in power in India. Most of the alienated don't have a loud voice politically. But that seems to be changing, which is why the events of the past couple of weeks are a source of worry for the party.
The BJP has increasingly been getting on the wrong side of the Dalits, a poor and backward group that makes up 17 percent of the Indian population and sizeable chunks of the electorate in key provinces.
To understand the problem, look at what's at stake in the mother of all state elections, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) next year.
The northern Indian province accounts for a large part of the Hindu heartland that throbs on the banks of the holy Ganges. It's also poor and crowded: Think Brazil's population squeezed into an area a fortieth the size.
Poverty and backwardness make it difficult to govern. But its 200 million people mean that it's the country's electorally most important province, and from the point of Modi's BJP, one that's in the wrong hands.
In next year's state elections, the BJP will be trying to unseat the political party ruling the state, a regional outfit run by a former wrestler, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his son. The BJP will pull out its full bag of tricks to try and win UP: expect populist measures, tactics that set one religious group against the other, and several appearances by the party's star campaigner, Modi. It will also go all-out to woo Dalits away from another key politician, Mayawati, a Dalit herself, and a four-time former chief minister.
There's every sign that Mayawati is regrouping, and the BJP has a serious fight on its hands. But it has stumbled from one debacle to another on the Dalit front.
Imagine the party's horror when one of its senior officials in UP stood up in Parliament last week and compared Mayawati to a prostitute. Cue fury in the House, a biting riposte from the lady and outrage in her community, which makes up a fifth of UP's population.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Some 20,000 people had marched in protest in Mumbai against the demolition a month earlier of a mansion linked with the original Dalit icon, Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution. The visuals were striking.
And that wasn't all. In Gujarat, Modi's home state, a group of Dalit boys was flogged on camera on suspicion of killing a cow, sacred to most Hindus. Disturbing images of the barebodied men flashed on TV screens through the day. Protests raged across the state and seven Dalits tried to kill themselves.
Indeed, the year began badly for the BJP on the Dalit front, with the high-profile suicide of student activist Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad. Its ministers were blamed for treating the case insensitively.
The BJP has long been seen as a party of upper-caste Brahmins and prosperous Banias, or traders. Try as it might, the party struggles to get rid of this image: Even the fact that Modi comes from a so-called lower caste and a humble economic background hasn't helped.
The Dalits have a profound sense of persecution, with good reason. They were considered untouchables - literally - and placed at the bottom of India's caste pyramid. The word Dalit means 'oppressed'.
The BJP needs to act to douse these Dalit fires. Elections in Punjab, another key state, are six months away. Dalits account for a full 33 per cent of the population there.
The BJP is the minor partner in a government run by an unpopular local ally, the Akali Dal. At stake: The keys to a rich, high-profile state that borders Pakistan, contributes heavily to the million-strong Indian army and to the Indian diaspora in Canada and the United Kingdom.
It has yet to name a CM candidate. Can it find a Dalit face here? In April it picked a prominent Dalit to head its campaign. In UP, the party is trying to entice Dalit leaders from other organisations to join it, to build a sort of multi-caste coalition that Mayawati so cleverly managed as chief minister.
But the party needs to do a few other things. One, it needs to shut the mouths of some of its more problematic legislators, who have fueled hatred against not just Dalits but Muslims and other minorities with their loose talk. Modi needs to stamp on this.
Two, it needs to scrupulously implement a law that protects Dalits, ensuring that the guilty in attacks against them are brought to book.
Three, it needs to take care that its agenda of protecting cows, considered holy by many Hindus, and therefore a potential vote-winner, protects the bovine and doesn't end up being used to hound people.
Four - and this is more difficult - it needs to move its support base away from the obsession with caste that plagues Indian politics and towards the development that is Modi's calling card. Affirmative action for Dalits exists; the BJP's Central government should further push its excellent StandUp India scheme that makes it easier for Dalit entrepreneurs to get loans.
The initiatives towards Dalits are not just sticking plaster for a particularly bad wound: They make sense economically and socially. And that's good politics any way.
Sitaraman Shanker is a senior journalist based in Mumbai

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