The caste cauldron in India was on the boil once again on April 2. Thousands of activists of Dalit outfits took to the streets and clashed with police in several states leaving nine persons dead and scores wounded. The immediate trigger for the protests was the Supreme Court's ruling on March 20 allegedly diluting some of the provisions of a law that is designed to protect lower-caste people from atrocities by the upper-caste members of society.
The apex court, in its March 20 order, noted the misuse of the tough Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and laid down stringent safeguards including the provision for anticipatory bail and a preliminary enquiry before registration of a case under the Act under which the offence was earlier non-bailable.
True, protests were highly visible in north, west, northwest, and some parts of east India but the extent of violence clearly reflected strong mobilisation behind them. And the political slugfest has already begun between ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the receiving end and the entire opposition on the offensive which has accused the saffron party of being anti-Dalit. Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, the Left parties and parties like Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, which have thrived on caste-based politics, have backed the Dalits' agitation against the apex court order on the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The court ruling has not only had a galvanising effect among opposition parties but also given them fresh ammos to pin down Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and charge it with being anti-Dalit. That was quite expected as India braces for a series of elections to legislative assemblies in several states, including in Karnataka next month where Dalit vote is crucial, and the parliamentary polls in early 2019. Elections in Congress-ruled Karnataka and in BJP-governed Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year will witness a straight fight between BJP and Congress. The outcome of all these state-level polls is expected to give a direction of the political wind and a reading of the evolving political scene ahead of the biggest electoral battle in the first part of 2019. The Congress has already made its intent clear of taking up the Dalit issue. It has attacked BJP by seizing a controversial remark by the latter's lawmaker from Karnataka, Ananth Hegde, about changing the Constitution, one of whose key framers was none other than Dalit icon BR Ambedkar.
The BJP is feeling the heat of not only its political rivals on the apex court's March 20 ruling but also from within it (Dalit activist and lawmaker Udit Raj) and its allies like Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) headed by Ram Vilas Paswan who hails from Bihar state where caste equations play an important role in deciding which party or combination of parties will emerge as the winners in elections. Parties like LJP are clearly uncomfortable over the Supreme Court ruling on SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and have urged the Modi government to move the apex court against it. Under pressure, the government did approach the top court on April 2 to review the court's March 20 ruling. But it did so only after a gap of nearly two weeks, a delay that was used by the opposition to damage the BJP by alleging the government did not argue the case properly before the Supreme Court.
Politics is not only about doing things but also about seen to be doing things that create the right public perception. Dalit leaders in BJP admit that the government should have gone to the apex court with the review petition earlier and the delay could entail a political cost even. Did the BJP err in anticipating the violent response by the Dalits or was it waiting for the reaction of the apex court ruling before moving in for a review of the Supreme Court ruling? It is a different matter that the apex court on April 3 declined any interim stay on its March 20 ruling. But had the review petition been filed by the government much earlier, BJP could have fought off the negative perception about its intent on the Dalit issue.
As part of the damage-control exercise, several senior ministers iterated the government's commitment to the welfare and protection of lower castes and tribal community members. What must be worrying BJP further is that all the nine deaths in the protests by the Dalits on April 2 took place in states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—ruled by it. It was a consolidation of votes cutting across caste barriers that had contributed to BJP's remarkable victory in assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's key electoral battleground as it has the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats (80), and to the near decimation of parties like Samajwadi Party and BSP in 2017. The same was the case in 2014 when BJP swept 72 of the 80 parliamentary seats in a state where Dalits comprise 22 percent of the population. As Modi campaigned on the development narrative in 2014 and 2017, it had the effect of considerably blurring caste fault lines and sizable chunks of traditional lower caste voters of SP and BSP had swung BJP's way in 2014 and 2017 elections. Besides, SP and BSP had also fought the polls separately and the lower castes' votes for them had split.
The protests by the Dalits on April 2 came at a time when Modi has been reaching out to lower castes by repeatedly praising Ambedkar for the development of India and living down BJP's traditional image as a party of upper castes. It was not the first time that BJP had faced the Dalits' anger. In the last two years, there had been Dalit backlash over the suicide of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad, flogging of Dalits in Gujarat, clashes between activists of a Dalit outfit and police in Uttar Pradesh, and attacks on Dalits' commemoration of an event in Maharashtra. In all these cases, BJP had been on the defensive.
Lower castes are scattered all over India and are today a much more organised lot under different banners than in the past. The government's policy of caste-based reservation has given rise to a prosperous—politically and economically—Dalit middle class and many Dalits have come up as entrepreneurs on the back of the open economy that India has. As a voting bloc, Dalits are not homogenous enough to decide on their own a poll outcome. But there are many constituencies where they can act as a decisive swing force if they all come together—a recent example of which was demonstrated in two recent by-poll defeats of BJP in Uttar Pradesh in March when SP and BSP joined hands and ensured minimum division of backward castes' votes.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.