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Dalits vs Hindutva: The story of a ‘baraat’ in UP reveals what’s making BJP sweat

In his book ‘Hindu Rashtra’, writer Ashutosh explains how education and constitutional knowledge is resulting in greater Dalit assertion.

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Am I not a Hindu?’ asks Sanjay Kumar.

Over the past few months of 2018, the 27-year-old Dalit youth from Basai Babas village in Hathras district of western UP, has shot off letters to every government office-bearer, from the local police inspector to the state director general of police (DGP), the chief minister to the SC/ST Commission, approached local dailies to media outlets, and released videos on social media, seeking help to take out his baraat through his bride’s Thakur-dominated village.

On 15 March 2018, he moved the Allahabad high court. ‘When the constitution says we are all equal and chief minister Yogi Adityanath says we are all Hindus and he heads a Hinduvadi party, why am I facing such a situation?’ asks Kumar, a Block Development Council member. ‘Am I not a Hindu then? There cannot be separate rules for people governed by one constitution.’

The couple in question belong to the Jatav community. District Magistrate of the area, R.P. Singh, and Superintendent of Police, Piyush Srivastava, visited Kumar’s bride Sheetal’s village and advised them not to insist on having the wedding procession pass through the main streets of the village, both sides of which were flanked by Thakur households. No Jatav wedding procession had taken that route in the last twenty years and it was best avoided, they warned. However, the bride’s family was as determined as the groom’s, and insisted this was about samman (family honour) and were loathe to back down.

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Launching an offensive, the Thakurs cut off the water supply to the Jatav fields and procured the bride’s school certificate that showed she was two months short of turning eighteen, and hence still a minor. Meanwhile, none of the officials came to the groom’s aid. Instead, they all kept trying to convince the couple to accept the usual route adopted by the local Dalit families.

District Magistrate Singh, an upper caste himself, is unapologetic about where he stands. ‘The two groups should not be fighting with each other. They are not Hindus and Muslims, they both are Hindus,’ he says. ‘Unlike a Muslim wedding, which is essentially a contract, a Hindu wedding is a bhawna (emotion). There is no concept of a juloos (procession). The Jatavs simply want to pick up a fight where there isn’t one. We cannot change parampara (tradition).’

Noting the stand taken by the authorities, BSP leader Ajay Kumar says Dalits like Kumar have few options, with the traditional channels of compromise mediated by village elders tilted against them. ‘Dalit families have for long wanted to celebrate weddings in a grand manner but they would suppress their desires. But this time the groom is adamant,’ Ajay says. The responses may be unsurprising. Sheetal’s family had expected opposition to begin with, which was why they sought permission from the village elders for the grand ceremony—and were denied. However, the family decided to persevere since they were upwardly mobile and keen to shed their past association of servitude to the Thakurs.

Everyone in the family had completed their schooling, benefitted from reservation policies and now were mostly employed in government jobs. According to the bride’s father they wanted it established that they didn’t work for the Thakurs anymore. The story caught my attention when it appeared on the front page of Indian Express on 1 April 2018. Finally, after much national outrage, the family was granted permission to take out a barat (groom’s procession) through the main village streets. The story is simple and underlines a few points.

  1. Educationally and economically, the Dalits are moving up the ladder.
  2. They are aware of their rights, as ordained by the constitution.
  3. Their rising consciousness has made them bolder and more assertive.
  4. Traditional society is still in resistance mode vis-à-vis the Dalits.
  5. Savarna resistance is leading to social conflict.
  6. There is a perception that the BJP is an upper-caste party. It is a potentially explosive situation, likely to create a huge upset in Indian politics, enough to make the BJP nervous and Prime Minister Modi sweat.

The 2014 parliamentary election in Uttar Pradesh (UP) was a turning point in India’s political history. The Dalits, who had earlier been voting en masse for the BSP led by Mayawati, deserted her and went with the BJP. Amit Shah, who was then in charge of the BJP in UP, successfully executed the necessary social engineering to sway the Dalit vote bank. Knowing that the BSP leadership was mostly dominated by the Jatavs, he wooed the other Dalit castes—Pasis, Dhobis, Valmikis, Khatiks and Dusadhs. Sixty non-Jatav candidates amongst the Dalits were given tickets across the country.

Badri Narayan, one of the leading experts on Dalit politics, wrote, ‘The Dalits were told that Mayawati, who heads the BSP, was indifferent towards them. At the same time, the BJP and RSS campaign also appropriated (Babasaheb Bhim Rao) Ambedkar and other Dalit heroes, promised a Bharat Ratna to Kanshiram, launched a social harmony project and organized meetings in Dalit hamlets with the help of social organizations such as Sewabharati and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, linked with the RSS.’

The local cadre of the RSS mobilised the Dalits by playing up their Hindu identity. It was propagated that whatever the differences, Dalits were Hindus and at a time when Muslims were organised along religious lines, it was important to vote for a party that could protect Hindu interest. Dalits were told that Modi was a ‘true’ Hindu and at a time when a ‘true’ Hindu leader could become the prime minister, Dalits should not waste their votes. The strategy worked. The BJP-led NDA won seventy-three seats, whereas Mayawati scored a zero.

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In the 2017 assembly elections in UP, history was repeated and the BJP romped home with an unprecedented majority. But a lot has changed since then. In 2018, the BJP contested four assembly elections—Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—and it failed to win in any of the states.

In Karnataka, Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) formed the government, while Congress snatched Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the BJP. There is now a definite unease among the Dalits, leading to serious social conflicts. The story above is just the tip of the iceberg.

This excerpt from Hindu Rashtra by Ashutosh has been published with permission from Context.

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