Has the Dalit movement sunk?
by Dhaval Kulkarni
The irony is biting. At a time when Maharashtra is seeing mind-numbing atrocities against Dalits like the one at Javkheda-Khalsa, the Ambedkarite political movement is on the wane as evidenced by the rout of Dalit parties in the state. It was the anti-caste movement that threw up leaders like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj.
The party of Dalit icon Ambedkar's grandson Prakash, Bharatiya Republican Paksha- Bahujan Mahasangh, could get only one elected to the assembly, from Akola, down from two in 2009. And RPI (A) leader Ramdas Athavale, who joined hands with BJP after severing association with Congress, NCP and later Shiv Sena, has virtually been decimated. The other RPI factions have sunk without a trace. A huge fall indeed for Dalit activism, once a potent force in Maharashtra's politics that also gave birth to an avant garde genre of literature.
Dalits comprise around 14% of Maharashtra's population. And a majority among them are Buddhist Dalits (Mahars who converted to Buddhism with Babasaheb).
RPI factions are dominated by Buddhist Dalits, who are aggressive and militant compared to the 'submissive' Hindu Dalits, and present a fascinating study on how education and politics can be used for social and economic advancement.
RPI, formed in 1957, a year after Dr Ambedkar's death, was an anti-Congress movement. However, the late 1960s saw it aligning with the Congress after its leader, Dadasaheb Gaikwad, became close to Yashwantrao Chavan.
Incidentally, in 2012, Maharashtra saw 1,091 cases of crimes against SCs, marginally down by 4.55% in 2011.
"Politically and organisationally Dalits are completely fragmented. Dalit electoral politics is over," said Surendra Jondhale, professor, department of civics, University of Mumbai.
"Dalit movement has been restricted to just one caste (Buddhists), which inhibited the inclusion of other backward sections... It was not broad-based and hence lost direction," said Jondhale.
Fragmentation of Dalit polity has led to them being wooed aggressively by ideological foes like Shiv Sena, BJP and even hardline AIMIM, apart from Congress and NCP.
"Cases of atrocities against Dalits are rising. This is because upper castes, especially Marathas, in villages nurture a sense of entitlement and supremacy. And atrocities arise from a mentality which says Dalits must be subjugated," noted Ambedkarite Suhas Sonawane. And in most cases, Buddhist Dalits are the victims unlike Hindu Dalits like Charmakars and Matangs, as Buddhists were seen as part of a rising elite class. Police have also been watering down cases of atrocities against Dalits, said Sonawane.
He blamed Congress for factionalism in RPI, a process that had begun during Ambedkar's lifetime when Congress weaned away his associates like Ganesh Akkaji Gavai.
"There is leadership crisis in Dalit movement," Sonawane said. "However, I am positive. A new leadership will emerge," he added.
"Dalit movement is dead. Its death knell was sounded when they became hide-bound like caste Hindus," said writer-activist Sanjay Sonawani, who added that the principles of equality and brotherhood and the need for studied criticism had made way for hatred and exaggerations. "Thinkers in Ambedkarite movement must take the initiative to wean away youth from extremism," he opined.
Maharashtra is the cradle of Indian renaissance and anti-caste movements with reformers like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj, Prabhodhankar Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Dinkarrao Jawalkar and Sridharpant Tilak leading the way.
Phule provided the ideological superstructure for the non-Brahmin (Brahmanetar) movement, and Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, a descendant of warrior-king Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and a patron of wrestling, started reservations for weaker sections in his kingdom in 1902.
Ambedkar's Independent Labour Party had a broad social and political agenda and secured 14 seats in Bombay provisional assembly in 1937. He also organised farmers and tillers along with Shamrao and Godutai Parulekar, who later became leaders of the Communist Party. ILP was later re-organised into Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF).
In 1957, during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, RPI, which was part of the struggle for the state of Maharashtra, could get six MPs and 14 MLAs, and PT Borale was elected the mayor of Mumbai.
RPI and Dalit organisations like Dalit Panthers fought aggressively, even on streets, for renaming Marathwada University at Aurangabad after Babasaheb and scholarships for students from weaker sections.
In fact, Dalit Panthers, which took inspiration from the Black movement in the US, was the only social force which could take on Shiv Sena in a display of raw, muscle power. Ironically, many leaders from Panthers like Dhasal and Ramdas Athavale later made peace with Sena.
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