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Misreading the situation

Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday spoke against attempts to “create an impression” that the National Democratic Alliance government was anti-Dalit. There were two primary points that Singh sought to raise, ostensibly against certain opposition parties that have attempted to extract political capital from recent events of caste violence. Singh said that the Centre had directed states to take stern action against “anti-social elements”, even self-styled cow protection vigilante groups, who have attacked members of the Dalit community. He also argued crimes against Dalits had fallen overall since the NDA came to power. Quite clearly, the BJP has failed to read the situation on the ground and address the Dalit community in any meaningful way. Recent events suggest that this is not about party politics. As numerous commentators have observed, a new movement in Dalit politics has emerged, albeit in its infancy. This movement has been propelled by a fresh mobilisation against caste violence and a rejection of the status quo. In Gujarat, members of the Dalit community protested en masse against the excesses of upper caste cow vigilante groups by dumping cow carcasses at public places. To the uninitiated, thousands of Dalits in Gujarat took to the streets of Ahmedabad last month to protest against the flogging of four Dalit tannery workers by self-styled cow vigilantes in Una for skinning a dead animal. They vowed not dispose of animal carcasses and clean sewer lines--two vocations that are considered menial and “dirty” by upper caste members. 

The collective pledge was taken at a rally called by as many as 30 Dalit groups from across Gujarat. In an obvious attempt to save face for the BJP, which has openly supported cow protection vigilante groups in the past, Rajnath Singh condemned the attack in Parliament and said the government was committed to preventing such atrocities. Although a few suspects have been arrested, it is fair to suggest that attacks against Dalits are not going to end anytime soon. “The only thing new about the Una violence is that it became available on the social media and it provoked a national hue and cry,” according to Harish Khare, a noted columnist. “The consternation among the BJP’s apologists is not because of an intrinsic unjustness but because the ‘expose’ has the potential of hurting the party’s electoral chances in Uttar Pradesh.”

Cow protection vigilante groups have little fear of the law in states like Gujarat. “In 2014 (latest available data), 3.4% of crimes against scheduled castes in Gujarat ended in convictions, against a comparable national rate of 28.8% – that is, one conviction for every eight across the country,” according to an analysis by IndiaSpend, a data-driven media outlet. “Against scheduled castes, that conviction rate was 1.8%, against the national average of 37.9% – that is, one conviction for every 21 across the country.” The BJP’s failure to understand the new wave of Dalit mobilisation has been marked by two recent events. Reports indicate that the unrest in Gujarat had instant repercussions in Uttar Pradesh, where BJP President Amit Shah was compelled to cancel his meeting with Dalits. The second event was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belated response to the incident in his home state. Last week, Prime Minister Modi called for stern actions against cow vigilante groups and asked states to prepare dossiers of those who are running “shops” in the name of cow protection. He minced no words and described them as criminals masquerading as cow protectionists. A few days later, he went a step further and said the government will not tolerate atrocities or discrimination against the Dalits. 

“We should put a full stop to it. You can shoot me rather than target the Dalits,” he thundered rather dramatically. This is nothing but empty rhetoric. If Modi was genuinely serious about the attack on four tanners by cow vigilante groups, he would have reacted immediately. It took nearly four weeks for the prime minister to react after this horrific incident in Una. For a prime minister, who projects himself as a regular communicator on social media, this delay is inexcusable. People have been accosted by these vigilante groups on the mere suspicion of transporting or eating beef. Our national dailies have been filled with reports about how people have been seriously beaten, and even killed in certain instances.

Modi’s delayed response to the recent atrocities on Dalits comes after much political calculation. With Dalits in Gujarat up in arms against the government’s handling of the issue, the party could face the heat in the elections next year. Anandiben Patel’s decision to resign from the post of chief minister has also been seen as an attempt to douse the flames. The outrage among Dalits has spread around India, most crucially in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls next year. For over two years, Modi has been trying to lure Dalits into the BJP’s fold. Una undermined this strategy overnight, as is evident from the poor response to the yatra that a clutch of Buddhist monks had organised to garner support for Modi in Uttar Pradesh. Punjab, which also goes to the polls next year, has the largest share of Dalits in its population at 31.9 percent. With the burgeoning presence of the Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP is trying to retain as much political capital as it can.  
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