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The secular agenda: Bane or boon for Dalits? - The Economic Times

Chandrabhan Prasad ()
31 December 1996

Title : The secular agenda : Bane or boon for Dalits?
Author : Chandrabhan Prasad
Publication : The Economic Times
Date : December 31, 1996

If MANDAL symbolises the political upsurge of
OBCS, the Babri demolition symbolises the political re-assertion of
upper castes. Since then, the twin agenda of social justice and
secularism have come to occupy the centrestaage of Indian politics.
While the agenda of social justice brought OBC (read shudra) parties
together (JD, SP, TDP, DMK,), the agenda of secularism made possible the
reunion of divided Hindu family the Leftists (CPI, CPI-M) and the
Rightists (Congress).

So permanent is the agenda of secularism that it has brought together
hitherto opposite political formations - the leftists, the centrists and
the rightists - under one umbrella. Never in the history of modern India
have these different warring political parties come together to the
rescue of the Dalits (untouchables and tribals) whose sufferings have no
parallel in the known history of the nation.

The government's official documents themselves reveal that the number of
Dalits killed in caste riots each year is much higher then the number of
people killed in communal riots. Is it not ironic that that Indian
civilization finds religion-based polarisation as communal, but
perceives caste-based polarisation as secular.

Assuming that the BJP is a profoundly 'communal' outfit - the party
targets the Muslim minority for attacks and seeks polarisation of Indian
society on religious lines - what could be the possible goal of
Hindutva be? Does the BJP have a plan to exterminate entire Muslim
populations from this land? Or, does the BJP have a plan to effect a
forceful migration of Muslims from India? These kind of assumptions may
not find favours from even hardened critics of BJP. If that is the
case, what could the BJP's ultimate game plan be?

This is a question which needs close examination from Dalit angle.
Especially since ongoing debates on these crucial issues thoroughly lack
the Dalit vision. Like the Congress, the BJP is a profoundly Rightist
political formation. And like it, the BJP's goal, too, is to maintain
status quo in society in every respect - economic, political and
cultural. The Congress has performed its duty for 50 years, and has
outlined its role. Its failure to create an egalitarian social order
has made lower castes restive, and they have begun assert their caste
identities while organising themselves on caste lines.

Since the Congress can no more perform this task, the BJP has come to
fill that vacuum with newer slogans. For, the Congress's old slogan of
social harmony has got thoroughly discredited. The backward-looking BJP
and its affiliates have an advanced sense of history. The BJPs
think-tank is well aware that at crucial moments in the history of
mankind, religion has played a decisive role. And, if this card is
played carefully, religion has the latent energy to inflame passions
overriding all other socio-cultural considerations.

The logic of this gameplan is clear: (a) the party seeks to
suppress the sharpening varna/caste-based contradictions by mobilising
them under the Hindutva umbrella, and thereby,raising their Hindu
identity above varna/caste identities; (b) in order to curb the growing
varna/caste contradictions within Muslims, the party seeks to create a
situation whereby Muslims re-assert their religious identity. Through
this, the BJP seeks to make the question of "identity", the frontal
agenda of the Muslim community. This kind of situation will be a bonus
to the BJP's attempt to further consolidate its Hindutva march., (c) the
party invokes history to remind Hindus that the Muslims are invaders and
have played with Hindu sensibilities.

The 'secular' government headed by H D Deve Gowda assures the Congress
each day that it will not deviate from the NEP route charted out by its
predecessor. During the 1996 general elections, the NF-LF combine had
dubbed that very NEP as anti-people, pro-rich and imperialist. One
cannot be held at fault for deeming that only a mirage or an illusion
can possibly transmute Mr P Chidambaram, a 'imperialist stooge' during
the Congress' regime, into a Comrade overnight.

It has been the long-cherished dream of the BJP and its affiliates, too,
that the Indian state withdraws itself from commercial and industrial
activities. The combine perceives the Indian state as a custodian of
law and order, and therefore, supports the view that it should withdraw
from all economic activities, including its welfare and social security.

Dalits form one-fourth (16.48 per cent SCs, 6.77 per cent STs) of
India's population. Nearly half of their total main workforce (49.06
per cent SCs, 32.69 per cent STs) is made of agricultural labourers.
Among the total landholdings in these categories, 86.6 per cent SC land
holdings and 64.8 per cent ST land holdings (1985-86 Agricultural
Census) fall in the marginal and small holdings category. This means
that the destiny of SC/ST cultivators,also largely depend on land
reforms. The condition of ST cultivators further worsens as only 20.70
per cent of their total land holdings are irrigated as against the
national average of 44.9 per cent for other sections. Barring a
miniscule population holding government jobs, nearly 90 per cent of the
Dalit population is still struggling to cope with the minimum basic
necessicities of life. Meanwhile, education remains a distant dream
despite the 'secular' government.

The emergence of the Janata Party initiated the debate of rural-urban
disparities. And this suppressed the agenda of social transformation.
Since 1997, state treasury (73rd Constitutional amendment on local
self-governeming bodies) has come in handy to the rural elite. And now,
the twin agenda of social justice and 'secularism' have come to suppress
social transformation. The enlightened intelligentsia, has,
unfortunately for Dalits, turned to the BJP and its affiliates. This is
the great paradoox of recent Indian history.

(The author is a member of the Dalit Shiksha Andolan, which is now
involved in organising the Dalit data bank and releasing books dealing
with 1abour, education, social and economic status of Dalits in
independent India.)

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