For the longest time, Dalits were the ‘permanent bottom’ of both the Hindu caste order and Indian society comprising all religious and social groups. They were consigned to the basement in an imaginary building where the upper floors and penthouses were allotted to the ‘higher’ caste groups of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
Not anymore. After the second coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Union government in 2014, that paradigm is shifting. With recent instances of indifference of the State in handling the cases of mob lynching, insistence of the Karnataka government on hijab ban in schools, demand for meat ban during Navaratra and bulldozers becoming a symbol of controlling Muslims, it can be argued that, at least in the arena of relationship with the State and State apparatus, Muslims are fast becoming the new bottom of Indian society.
American journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson wrote extensively about how the quest for the lowest position is an essential feature of any birth-based hierarchical, exclusionary social system like caste. She argued that “it is a clever, self-perpetuating tool of the caste system to keep those at the bottom divided in a manufactured fight to avoid last place. As people elbow for position, the greatest tensions arise between those adjacent to one another, up and down the ladder.” According to her, this quest leads to intra-group and inter-group conflicts. Comparing the caste system to a multi-floor vertical building, she said: “Caste can pit the basement-dwellers against themselves in a flooding basement, creating an illusion, a panic even, that their only competition is one another.”
The Indian State being ruthless to Muslims is not new and certainly not unique to BJP rule. But this time around, there are new and distinct strands and methods. Muslim-bashing has become an unstated government policy as evident from the utterances of ministers, MPs, MLAs and BJP functionaries. As in the case of hijab ban, it is the State that is at the forefront now. Same is the case with demolitions this week in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, where the BJP-controlled North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) started bulldozing after the state BJP demanded such action and despite clear orders from the Supreme Court to maintain status quo. Ruling party leaders felicitating those accused of lynching or attacks are commonplace. The days of tacit support to communal fringe elements are passé.
Another difference is that in BJP 2.0, Muslim elites are also facing the onslaught of the State machinery. The government, along with the BJP and its affiliate organisations, has targeted elite Muslim organisations and institutions such as the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia. Prominent Muslim leaders like Azam Khan, Mukhtar Ansari and young scholars and professionals like Kafeel Khan, Umar Khalid, Hany Babu and Sharjeel Imam were put behind bars. They are facing stringent and draconian laws. Riots and lynching affect mostly the poor and wretched. This is almost in continuum. But the State targeting educated, urban Muslims and, that too, with a vengeance has rattled the Muslim middle class.
Every unequal society needs a permanent bottom to consolidate the others. The BJP is re-engineering India’s.
‘We treat you better than that’
The moot question is why the BJP is doing this. One explanation, which is also the popular one, is that the Hindu-Muslim binary and conflict is the main stay of BJP politics and the party polarises for electoral benefits. There is substance in this argument, because the BJP needs an emotional pitch to motivate its workers and supporters. Harping on the Hindu-Muslim binary is certainly paying electoral dividends for the BJP.
I would like to put forward another explanation for these acts. The BJP is hitting the morale and interests of the Muslims, but at the same time, it is also offering something to the subaltern Hindus.
In this process of persecuting the Muslims, the BJP is providing solace to the Hindu oppressed castes, especially the lower OBCs and Dalits. It is telling them that they now have a social group that is facing more problems than them. That even though the State behaves ruthlessly and often acts indifferently with the Dalits, there is a group that faces comparatively worse forms of persecution and repression.
Message for the Dalits
The BJP undertaking various Dalit outreach programs like welfare packages, dining with them or co-opting Dalit leaders in the party and government structures, even succumbing to their pressures and agitation, as in the case of the SC/ST Act, or celebrating Dalit icons such as BR Ambedkar or Jhalkari Bai or Uda Devi. The party is reaching out to Dalits with symbolic gestures (like washing the feet of sanitation workers). But, at the same time, it is cautious that these acts should not destabilise the Hindu social order. The BJP definitely wants the Dalits to be in its fold, but with a rider that their position will not be altered in the Hindu social order. As the designated bottom in the Hindu caste hierarchy, Dalits must remain on the same ladder, but below.
The BJP is now offering them a new order — their place will remain unchanged in the Hindu social order but they will be higher than Muslims in the Indian social hierarchy.
The position of the Dalits and Muslims in India’s social order has not been settled yet. After the publication of the Sachar Committee Report in 2006, Muslim leaders have argued that “the condition of the Muslims is worse than Dalits.” Based on this argument, way back in 2012, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan demanded that the government should bring a bill for “reservation in jobs for Muslims.” Based on an NSSO report, Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A. wrote: “The proportion of the youth who have completed graduation among Muslims in 2017-18 is 14 per cent as against 18 per cent among the Dalits, 25 per cent among the Hindu OBCs, and 37 per cent among the Hindu upper castes.”
It seems that the Indian State has provided Dalits with some solace. BJP depends on it.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.