Modern Indian politics has been partial to the month of August. Little wonder then that Bhim Army president Chandra Shekhar Azad, the rising star of Dalit politics, has nominated 16 August as the day for his new agitation. One day after Independence Day, and two days after the newly anointed Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, 16 August seeks a new intervention – what after Partition-Independence?
In creating a politics of power for India’s Dalits, Azad boldly and clearly states his agenda. In invoking power — and not equality — Azad is reanimating Ambedkar even as he emulates Kanshi Ram. Focussed on organisation and mobilisation, Azad has astutely recognised that Dalit empowerment lacks immediate and credible leadership. Kanshi Ram’s own party of Bahajuan Samaj Party (BSP) under Mayawati today is fast losing its identity in the engulfing force of Hindutva. Azad is, in effect, replacing the BSP even as he targets Hindutva as the real opponent to Dalit power.
In a global moment, when victimhood and speaking from the margins have become standard operating and virtuous political currencies, Azad’s statement is entirely refreshing. Closer home, Azad’s statement targets the idea that power and strength are not only synonymous with a Prime Minister who has, today, singularised both in his own name in India. In the electorally mobilised context of Uttar Pradesh politics, and calling his agitation/aandolan a fight of principles and ideas, Azad also hopes to show that Hindutva is not the only ideology in India today.
In seeking power, Azad eschews the apologetic tone of the politics of reservation. The quibbling over reservation, in short, is left to upper caste politicians and parties. This was on cue.
Earlier this week, two leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) struck two different chords on reservation. The secretary of the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, declared that reservation ought to continue for as long as there is inequality in Indian society. With a firm eye on the largest state elections due to take place in Uttar Pradesh in the winter, Hosabale was but restating a rather recent approach by the Sangh Parivar to caste politics. Having historically been, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, opposed to it, since at least 2014, reservation and lower-caste politics by extension have gained the pragmatic attention of Nagpur ideologues.
Hosabale’s statement was more of a clarification, given that his peers such as Seshadri Chari had also recently stated the older RSS view that reservation ideally ought to be time bound. Chari invoked no less than the original Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar to posit this argument. While that might be a bit of rhetorical play, Chari reminded the reader that reservations posed a problem and a paradox for ‘integration’.
Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, indeed, has a caste problem. With a focus on the aggressive incorporation of distinction, caste identity has posed the greatest obstacle to Hindutva’s key political principle of ‘integralism’.
Caste and Hindu nationalism
It would be a mistake to think that reservation are only about jobs, education or social mobility. In fact, reservation provides the clearest mechanism to institute political power for the historically dispossessed.
Ambedkar was acutely aware than most of his peers, of the perils of social integration of Dalits without political power. With the institution of reservation, Ambedkar ensured that the numerical Hindu majority could not become a political majority. It should be remembered that in the charged decade of the 1940s, Ambedkar was alone in writing a tome on Pakistan while at the same time he ensured that India did not become a default Hindu majoritarian State. Ambedkar had, in fact, equated Savarkar with Jinnah.
Caste, as astutely understood by Ambedkar, was not simply about social inequality but a political relationship marked by the inequity of power. This allowed Ambedkar to make caste division as the primary building block of India’s polity. In short, the recognition of the Dalit (the ‘untouchables’) ensured that the idea of minority was not just religious in character. But significantly, the minority was centred back via the Dalit into the political context. In so doing, a decisive form of mediation of caste (or society) was instituted, that disrupted any claims to or fantasies of political cohesion and unity within the religious majority.
In keeping with this logic, the political rise of Other Backward Castes in the high noon of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s initially ensured that caste could indeed halt Hindu majoritarian politics.
In today’s era of the fulfilment of Hindu nationalism’s key agenda of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and the widespread incorporation of the OBC parties within the BJP’s national alliance, the Dalit question is bound to be vexatious for the BJP. Hosabale’s statement on reservation indeed betrays as much.
Azad’s swift rise, in this context, is politically timely if, audacious. Telegenic and articulate, Azad is not merely the dissenting liberal’s icon of choice. More significantly, he remains politically pragmatic and pointed in seeking to build a cadre and party in India’s Dalit heartlands of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. Unlike the other relatively new political entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Azad is no Arvind Kejriwal whose outsized ambition was initially met with a media frenzy and unmatched adoration from India’s middle class.
Unlike the AAP today, Azad is above all, crystal-clear on his opposition to Hindutva.
Azad, the new Kanshi Ram
Asked by his interviewee, on the repeated and relentless atrocities on Dalit children and women, most recently the rape and murder of a nine-year old Dalit girl in Delhi, Azad was categorical. Such an abject state of affairs is a stark statement of the lack of power. Neither violence, nor poverty would be the fate of the Dalits, he stated, if Dalits had political power. Moreover, Azad claimed that whether it is social and brutal violence or even reservation, these were essentially Dalit political questions.
Recognising the danger and ploy of incorporation, Azad squarely blamed Dalit leader Mayawati for resurrecting religion as an issue in UP’s charged politics. The Covid-19 pandemic and its devastation, Azad claimed, had overwhelmed ordinary life and the political atmosphere in the state. Yet, Mayawati’s recent affirmative statement on the founding of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was responsible for redirecting attention to the BJP. Unlike Mayawati and for Azad, Hindu nationalism portends Dalit incorporation without power.
Azad has thus been quick to rescue Kanshi Ram from his heir, Mayawati. In doing a cycle-yatra across UP and seeking a cadre, vote capture along with education, Azad has decreed, he will ensure political power. By making an entry in the by-election in Bulandshahr for his party — Azad Samaj Party — named after his idol (Kanshiram), he has already taken the first crucial, if small, steps into electoral democracy.
In a time of few leaders and even fewer ideas, Hindutva and Modi have had a relentless run —on India’s democracy. With its bold stake on power, Azad has called time on the sway of Hindu nationalism. Armed with swagger, political clarity and fearlessness of ideas and organisation, Azad may not win immediately. But in a very short period, he has become the one to watch. Azad, above all, has already shown that a new political leadership is possible.
The writer teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)