Law and Society

How Dalit Resistance in its various forms is breaking down Modi’s image

Karthikeyan Damodaran

Dalits have become increasingly assertive in their fight against Hindutva forces, heralding  a change in the nation’s mood.



A couple of years ago when discussing about the 2019 Lok Sabha polls it was largely believed that Modi would repeat his 2014 performance. Over this period of time, however, things have changed. The 2019 elections were really close-fought and an absolute majority is largely seeming out of sight. The 2019 election, contrary to the exit-polls, is largely predicted to generate a fractured mandate, wth strong performances by regional parties in some of the southern states and, crucially, in Uttar Pradesh. What has led to this erosion of belief that Modi will get a second or probably even a third term hands-down? Through this essay I would like to emphasize that it’s not just a series of failures in terms of performance, but sustained resistance and struggles from various social groups – which faced the brunt of BJP’s hardcore Hindutva policies and right wing extremism – that played a crucial part in demythicizing the Modi regime. Ever since the BJP came to power, unprecedented forms of vigilantism, the everyday realities of Islamophobia and anti-Dalit violence have become commonplace events and have put every democratic institution’s existence into question to the point that even Indian democracy’s future in general is facing a crisis.

The social group that was most affected in this were the Dalits who are already the victims of the most hierarchical social order in the world marked by extreme levels of prejudice and discrimination. In this short article we are going to see how the Dalits as an aggrieved group, through their resistance and struggles, became catalysts for change and heralded a change in the nation’s mood. The sacrifice of young Dalit student Rohith Vemula who became a victim of institutional casteism sparked unprecedented instances of student protests across the country bringing to the light the BJP government’s ideologisation and saffronisation of higher education in India. Rohith Vemula’s death marked the first large scale organised protests across the country against the Modi led BJP government. ‘Justice for Rohith’ became a strong movement that exposed how institutions of higher learning were nothing but spaces of discrimination for Dalit students. This led to a chain of protests across India in many of the major universities and even to transnational spaces where solidarity marches and protests were organised in American and European universities. Vemula’s death also brought to fore BJP’s ideological agenda to rid these spaces of any form of activism and dissent owing allegiance to Ambedkarism and Marxism.

The Justice for Rohith movement also influenced another student mass mobilisation at India’s premier higher education institute, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), when the right-wing government tried to muzzle and implicate student leaders in a sedition case. The Indian intellectual community had never felt under so much threat, and they all came together to defend their right to free speech, dissent and intellectual autonomy. Both the movements, ‘Justice for Rohith’ and ‘Save JNU’ became part of the national debate and made the BJP government take note that the radical and progressive forces working under the platform of social justice can’t be cowed down. The key aspect to note in these struggles was the enormous amount of resistance shown by the Dalit students and activists who stood in solidarity in their fight against fascism.

Another important factor to note is that, during Modi’s regime, the usual techniques of public shaming and humiliation got even more legitimised. For instance, cow vigilantes wreaked havoc across North India resulting in the widespread lynching of Muslims and large scale attacks on Dalits. French Scholar Christophe Jaffrelot talks about how the gau rakshaks act as a parallel police with the blessing of the state and how they get legitimized. He sees the emergence of a parallel state structure taking place, and observes how the Hindu Rashtra (Nation) is getting materialized under Modi’s regime. Talking about how Dalits are affected under Modi’s regime, Jaffrelot points to the beef ban depriving them of food and livelihoods and notes how the cow vigilantes have unleashed violence against Dalits accusing them of killing cows. He notes that, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the crimes registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act have increased by 176% between 2012–13 and 2015–16 (ten times more than crimes in general).

In one such act of public humiliation, four Dalits in Una in Gujarat were flogged in public supposedly suspected for their alleged involvement in skinning a cow. This led to the emergence of a massive movement among the Dalits of Gujarat throwing up a new independent leader Jignesh Mevani, who demanded land reforms and spoke for Dalit pride in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Through the Una campaign and related protests, he rose to become an MLA and now is among the important young leaders who are fighting the Hindutva forces and see them as a major threat for Dalit liberation. Likewise in Uttar Pradesh, Chandrashekhar Azad, leader of the Bhim Army who stood up to the attacks by the Rajputs against Dalits was vilified by Yogi Adityanath’s government and was kept under incarceration for more than a year under the National Security Act. Bhim Army is focused on investing its energy towards Dalit education and militant Dalit pride. Dalit assertion against Hindutva militancy saw its most crucial phase during the aftermath of the January 1, 2018, Bhima Koregaon celebrations anti-Dalit violence. Dalits had gathered in large numbers at Bhima Koregaon, a village in Pune, to mark the historical event of how a couple of hundred years ago, Mahars, a Dalit sub-group in Maharashtra, joined the British forces to defeat the highly tyrannical and Brahminical Peshwas in the 1818 Anglo-Maratha War. The Dalits had been celebrating this victory for years, but in 2018 when they had gathered at these annual celebrations right-wing groups attacked them over their celebration of a British victory. Significantly, the Dalits did not remain calm as they retaliated in a big way the next day bringing Mumbai to a halt.

What remains important to note here is how Dalits asserted in their fight against Hindutva forces, the latter through its virulent form of Hindu nationalism had capitalised on the existing Maratha-Dalit divide and used the Bhima Koregaon event to exploit it. However, Dalits led by Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar organised the protests and called for a shutdown and showcased the culture of resistance and solidarity among Dalits.  Through the participation of young leaders like Jignesh Mevani, it expressed the possibility of new alliances in their fight against Hindutva. This also resulted in the spread of protest and resistance to other states; rallies and protests were held across India in many states against the BJP government for the Bhima Koregaon violence against Dalits. In keeping with the trend for repression in its severest form to be unleashed against Dalit assertion, there was a severe crackdown against the Dalits and in their ever-expanding lexicon of using names to people who oppose them, the term ‘urban naxal’ came into prominence following the arrest of human rights activists, intellectuals and lawyers by the Maharashtra police.

The above said events resulted in the most prominent and tangible forms of resistance during Modi’s on-going regime. And what made it really prominent was its ability to spread across the country aided largely through social media and a strong network of Dalit and progressive forces. The protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula changed the very nature of student protests in India. Velivada the temporary structure of democratic protests and resistance at the University of Hyderabad stands as a metaphor for Dalit defiance and every time it gets destroyed the students come together to rebuild it, reminding us of the need to fight fascism in whatever form it exists. These assertions also brought to light the need to dissent and resist fascism and save the democratic ethos of the country. All the above said protests in many ways were responsible or influential in some way or the other for the spread of dissent against Modi’s government.

Before I finally conclude I would like to discuss the emergence of an anti-Modi wave in the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu where BJP does not have any presence and is trying very hard to breach what is a Dravidian fortress.  In Tamil Nadu, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party) forms the key figure in the fight against Hindutva forces. The largest political party representing the Dalits in the state, VCK also has a significant presence of Muslims in its party and among its key office bearers. The party’s chief and a persuasive orator, Thol. Thirumavalavan took the initiative to fight the Hindutva forces by organising the Desam Kappom ‘Save Nation’ conference locally referred to as anti-Sanatan Dharma conference.  The event became a major platform for the opposition parties to come together to make a vow to defeat the Narendra Modi-led BJP government calling it a battle against Sanatan Dharma. Thirumavalavan who spoke at the convention said that BJP was enforcing Sanatan Dharma that rejects equality, freedom and brotherhood so they had named the convention ‘Save Nation’ from the hands of RSS and BJP. The VCK, thus, played a key role in fueling the anti-Modi sentiment prevalent in Tamil Nadu. Through a series of protests against the BJP government, the party took up core issues that were found to be affecting the state’s autonomy. Large-scale protests over the suicide of a young girl S.Anitha on the NEET exam issue, and Jallikattu (Bullfighting) traditional sport of Tamil Nadu formed the impetus for the anti-Modi wave in Tamil Nadu where the opposition parties are expected to win many seats.

The rise of Dalits against the oppressive BJP government as we have seen has definitely played a key role in influencing popular sentiment about Modi’s rule. However. we should also be cautious of what Jaffrelot points out. He finds that Dalits remain divided along caste and class lines within the category of Scheduled Castes preventing them to join hands at the time of elections. He cites evidence from CSDS data that the richer groups among Dalits tend to vote for BJP. So the BJP was able to attract about one fifth of the Dalits in 2014. He says that Dalit politics is facing a huge challenge today and the mobilization of young Dalits against the rise of atrocities and new assertiveness of upper castes, are fighting against it not through party politics but on the streets. For now the focus is on the electoral arena, and the coming month will demonstrate the extent to which Dalits have captured the mood of the nation or not.

Karthikeyan Damodaran has a PhD in South Asian Studies/Sociology from the University of Edinburgh and is a a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen. 

Image Source: The Hindu

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