‘Hindu Vigilantes are the New Taliban’
Anand Teltumbde is a management professional, writer, civil rights activist, and political analyst. He has written extensively on the Dalit movement and the Indian Left. In an interview with Hardnews Teltumbde talks about the demolition of the Ambedkar Bhavan, the incident in Una, dual standards of the ruling party, the blatant discrimination against Dalits and how the caste system needs to be consigned to history’s dustbin. He is clear that the Una incident exposes the manifest lack of empathy that the ruling establishment has for the Dalits. He is also vocal about the opportunistic demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
To what do you attribute the sudden rush of violence against the Dalit community in the last couple of years?
The victory of the BJP in the general elections that brought it a clear majority in the parliament and the near decimation of the opposition have really gone to the heads of its supporters. This is reflected in the haughtiness of its ministers, arrogance of its minions, and goondagardi of its cadre. They simply think that they can get away with anything. As for the Dalits, the classical (and Hindutva) dictum is that they could beg, not demand; abide by the rung they are placed in, not exceed it; in short, they should confirm to the status quo, not defy it.
The top leadership of the BJP which is closely informed and controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has of late understood the strategic importance of the Dalits as the crucial vote block that alone could catapult it to accomplish its goal of Hindu rashtra. However, the same idea cannot be communicated down below to the masses. They will instinctively go by the established meaning of the term Hindu or hindutva. Indeed, instead, it is camouflaged, Hindutva is a reductive idea about taking pride in Hindu customs, tradition, culture, values, etc. which is a mere euphemism for the caste system, simply because there cannot be a ‘Hindu’ without the caste. This is the idea that all ground level supporters of the BJP understand and subscribe to. In terms of Hindu custom and tradition, Dalits are supposed to be docile and respectful towards the upper castes. But during the last six decades. they have grown defiant, claiming equality with others. A small section of them has even come up in society and become successful materially, largely due to the policy of reservations. Having been more visible and vocal, these members are seen as representative of Dalits, ignoring the reality that 90 percent of Dalits are still languishing perhaps in the same relative state that they were in at the inception of the Dalit movement. The upper castes have always begrudged the advancement of dalits, taking it to be at their own cost. But they could not openly express this until recently as they ran counter to the ethos of times. The advent of neoliberalism decimated that ethos and thence began the poisonous expressions against Dalits. The rise of hindutva alongside the advancement of neoliberalism in the country is not an unconnected phenomenon. Today, these traditionalist upper castes see their own party in power and feel emboldened to unleash their prejudices with impunity. The spurt in the atrocity numbers against Dalits from 39,408 in 2013 to 47,064 in 2014, the years for which the NCRB figures are available, may be attributable to this sense of reassurance that came with the prospects of the BJP’s win.
As such violence against the Dalits goes back to late 1960s when new developmental policies such as Land Reforms and the Green Revolution, packaged with a pro-poor socialistic veneer, completely altered the configuration of rural India. They were actually designed to create a class of rich farmers from among the shudra caste-band, as it happened, which would serve as extension of the central ruling classes in rural India. Capitalist relations entered the agrarian sphere, demolishing the traditional relations of interdependence between the Dalits and the others (eg. Jajmani relations), and reducing the Dalits to the rural proletariat, dependent on farm wages provided by the rich farmers. These capitalist relations, far from weakening feudal relations, skillfully embedded them to its best interests. The resultant contradiction between wage and capital, i.e., Dalit wage labour and shudra capitalist farmers, spilled out through familiar fault lines of castes in the form of a new genre of atrocities. The incident at Kilvenmeni in Tamil Nadu on December 25, 1968, in which 44 Dalits, mainly women and children, were burnt alive, best illustrates this process. It continued for decades, but after the rise of hindutva and under the congenial cover of neoliberalism it has become a widespread phenomenon as the atrocity statistics would testify.
Behind the recent spurt in violence against Dalits, one cannot miss the hindutva obsession of reinforcing the ban on killing of cattle. As a matter of fact, this ban existed in most states even during Congress rule. But the manner in which vigilante armies have come up everywhere and are unleashing terror on the Muslims and Dalits, who are the worst victims of these policies, must be seen as a qualitatively
The Una incident in Gujarat is particularly significant as it hits at the core of a business that is largely controlled by the affluent. How do you interpret the Una incident?
The ramification of this policy of banning cow slaughter is multidimensional. Many agrarian economists have already commented on its calamitous impact on various sections and spheres of society. Needless to say, however, the severity of impact would certainly be on the lower strata of society, particularly, the Muslims and Dalits: the communities that are associated with the slaughter of cattle and consumption of the dead cattle, respectively.
It will certainly hit the leather business, but not uniformly, across its supply chain. For instance, the businessmen involved in the leather trade, who are mostly upper caste may not suffer because their supplies may not be affected although their sources may change. The supply depended on the number of dead cattle plus the slaughtered cattle and both are unlikely to come down. The former is a natural phenomenon and the latter, in reality, has gone up. The slaughter of animals in our six major slaughterhouses, four of which, incidentally, belong to the Hindus, two of them Brahmans, has gone up by 31 percent when Modi was canvassing against the pink revolution. India is tipped to be the biggest exporter of beef in the world, displacing Brazil in 2015. Therefore, while the ban will affect the 36,000 slaughterhouses in the unorganized sector, these big slaughter houses shall only thrive. Because of the ban on cow slaughter, the vast majority of Indian beef is mainly carabeef, i.e., meat of water buffaloes, which is exported to Vietnam, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.
The ban certainly affects the pricy markets of Europe and the Americas as they prefer cattle meat. Similarly, the unorganized leather product manufacturers will suffer from supply deficit but their bigger counterparts would thrive. Thus the adverse impact of the ban on slaughter of the bovine family may be inversely proportional to the caste/class standing of the people in the supply chain.
The Una incident is not linked to the business aspects of this as it is to class/caste standing as well as prejudices of the people. It basically comprised the hindutva vigilante goons taking the law into their hands in a talibanist style by thrashing the family on the suspicion of having slaughtered the cow they were skinning. It illustrated only the intoxication of power of the Hindutva supporters that manifests into such blatant crimes against the Dalits (besides the Muslims). The assaulters, confident that they would never be prosecuted, themselves filmed their criminal act and published the video. Although Gujarat has never been a model as far as the condition of Dalits in the state was concerned, such a blatant atrocity on Dalits in broad daylight has never been witnessed before. However, it was not the first such instance or a unique act of crime. In October 2002 a more horrific crime was committed by a vigilante mob at Dulina police station, near Jhajjar, Haryana. They had lynched five Dalits, who were carrying the carcass of a dead cow, to death and then set them on fire in front of police. What followed was the temerity of the Hindutva camp in justifying the act. The vice president of the VHP, Giriraj Kishor, justified the killing saying, “In our religious scriptures (Puranas) life of a cow is more important than any number of people”. The BJP Haryana chief Ram Bilas Sharma promised to treat cow slaughter as a crime as heinous as murder. Dalits perhaps considered it a one-off act and pardoned the BJP. But this time with such acts taking place in rapid succession, though with much lower intensity than Jhajjar’s, appears to have woken them up to the real anti-Dalit character of the BJP. The manner in which spontaneous protests took place all over the state and the radical form they adopted by dumping cattle carcasses in front of the Collector’s offices indicates that socio-political awakening.
The Dalits have since decided not to touch dead cattle and brought the entire society to its senses. According to animal husbandry department figures, there are nearly one crore cows and buffaloes in Gujarat with a mortality rate of 10%, which means that every day 2740 animals die all over the state. Dalits were silently dealing with the problem. Their refusal to touch these carcasses has already turned Gujarat into a stinking state. Even the cow protection brigades have admitted that they were not aware about the problem and that they will have to devise new ways of disposing the carcasses. Dalits engaged in manual scavenging (they do exist in thousands despite the government’s sworn denials) should join this protest and also all the sanitation workers all over the state, if not the entire country. I see promising portents in the recent Dalit protests, which if nurtured could bring the entire caste society to its knees.
Although there is no manifest Dalit Panther retaliation against these incidents, is it possible to hear angry noises emanating from songs, music and literature about hitting back? What is the mood amongst the youth and where do they see themselves politically?
Unfortunately, the Dalit Panthers that was formed in the peculiar circumstances existing then (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) in Maharashtra, emulating the militant Black Panthers in the US, proved to be a flash in the pan. It still had disproportionate impact, because of the scare wave it created. That indeed revealed what prowess the Dalits potentially possessed. Somehow, the Dalits never paid attention to this strength of theirs and rather relied on constitutional methods for which they did not have any wherewithal. There has never been any retaliation of atrocity by the Dalits. All their militant responses therefore remain caged in their poetry and songs. There is huge cultural inertia that acts upon the natural instincts of the youth to retaliate against injustice. Nonetheless, I see the new generation of Dalits, that is not burdened with any legacy, coming out of this self imposed passivity. If the anti-Dalits policies of the state persist and feed into upper caste prejudices, this new generation will certainly retaliate at the cost of pushing the country into a civil war.
The Dalit is as you have pointed out not a homogenous whole, but what these protests are showing in Mumbai and elsewhere is that there is an interesting consolidation of anti-Sangh Parivar forces that have come together in which the dalits are the hub. Kanhaiya Kumar’s attempts to add the left and the Ambedkarites for instance.
Dalits certainly are not a homogeneous mass. In caste terms, they are hopelessly divided into a number of castes and subcastes, which have resurged in recent years (neoliberal times) as identities. Even in class terms (taking a familiar meaning of the term), they are not homogeneous. Over the last six decades, a class like layer is seen over the Dalit mass. In the recent agitation of the Dalits, which you refer to, over the demolition of the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan in the wee hours of June 25, this class divide among Dalits has manifested in its ugliest form. Ratnakar Gaikwad, a self-proclaimed advisor of the Peoples’ Improvement Trust, supposedly the custodian of the Ambedkar Bhavan (but not the Buddha Bhushan Press that belonged to Babasaheb Ambedkar and now to his heirs), who justified (and almost accepted responsibility for) the demolition, is a representative of this class. His sole point in justification was that the Trust decided to build a 17 storey tower with five floors for car parking, a center for vippasana, offices of the Dalit movement (pity, he sees the Dalit movement as bureaucracy that necessitates an office!) and the rest of the space being given to investors. In this he claimed to fulfill the dream of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Going by the Trust Deed Ambedkar had drawn up, the existing Ambedkar Bhavan had approximately come to serve Ambedkar’s dream in as much as it had worked as a natural center for all Dalits and progressive organizations to hold their meetings, discussions, conferences, etc. Even the poorest of the poor Dalits from the villages could come and assume shelter there. Obviously, the dream tower of Gaikwad would just exclude these 90 percent Dalits. There were many such falsehoods involved in the episode but interestingly the upper middle class Dalits overtly or covertly supported Gaikwad. The Dalit diaspora that is an extension of this class, sympathised with him. The Buddhist monks who thrive on the ill-gotten monies of his ilk came in support of him.
Actually, until the masses really came out for the massive protest on July 19 demanding the arrest of Gaikwad, and condemning the BJP government that cunningly backed him, this gang of Dalit elite appeared to have an edge. Now it is crystal clear that the BJP state government had been behind this demolition. The trust of which Gaikwad claimed to be the advisor itself was in legal dispute and as such not in possession of the trust land. Still, Fadnavis, the chief minister did its Bhumi Pujan, albeit somewhere else, and declared a `60 crore grant for the project. His police refused to take even an FIR from Ambedkars for hours until they were forced by a mob of Dalits to do so. They still would not act and arrest the culprit.
Yes, the Dalit masses, as evidenced by this protest and protests elsewhere, have understood the intrigues of the hindutva forces. The Left parties have steadfastly stood behind the masses. In Maharashtra Prakash Ambedkar, who enjoys considerable mass following among Dalits, has been trying to forge a third front with the Left parties. But the ruling-class parties unleash certain brokers as the leaders of the Dalits to castigate him as anti-Ambedkar or pro-naxalite. This has been the age old malady of the Ambedkarite movement, that anyone speaking of the material interests of the Dalits is maligned as Marxist/communist and now maoist and therefore anti-Ambedkar. This surfaced right after Ambedkar’s death in the form of a split in the Republican Party and repeated itself thereafter in the rise of the Dalit Panthers.
The vested interests have skillfully forged this weapon to keep the Dalit movement away from the real issues of the Dalits and tied it to the tails of the ruling class parties. It was good that Kanhaiya Kumar participated in the July 19 rally. He has been unequivocally speaking of the Dalit-Left unity with slogans like ‘Jai Bhim-Lal Salam’. The Dalit middle class, harping on Dalit identity, naturally speaks against it. It is time the people on the side of the Left-Dalit unity expose these stooges as the hirelings of the ruling classes. I am sure, the upsurge of the Dalit masses, as on July 19 will soon render them irrelevant.
Despite resistance in both the Left leadership and suspicion the Dalit community there is an attempt by the likes of Kanhiya Kumar to bring the two movements together for a stable alliance?
No, there is no resistance in the Left leadership to befriend Dalits. With their rapid marginalisation, it is rather moe visible these days. Kanhaiya has come into the limelight just last year. But from 1990s itself the CPM had launched caste eradication platforms in most states. The caste issue confronted the naxalites naturally, because of the preponderance of the Dalit cadres asking such questions and their rural base. Most Left factions have variously made caste a focus.
The only problem with the Left parties is that while they are organisationally impelled to take up caste (Dalit) issues, they reflect ideological inertia. As a result, their Dalit concern appears no different from that of other bourgeois parties. They have been unsuccessful in making inroads and communicating to the Dalits that the class approach alone could not lead to the annihilation of caste. It is a vital part of this communication to candidly admit past mistakes and exhibit their new comprehension through action. As I elaborately explained in my book, Anti-Imperialism and Annihilation of Castes, the atrocities provide them impetus to build and fortify these bridges.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s approach confirms to the above strategy I suggested in 2005. He has consistently taken up the atrocity involved in Rohith’s institutional murder and made it a core issue for students’ struggles. He simply articulates the rationale behind Jai Bhim- Lal Salam from the perspective of Dalits and never lost an opportunity to complement it with his actions. He made a point to reach out to the places, despite the obvious resource constraint as a student, where he was required. The vested interests of the Dalits have been active in identifying him by his caste but his ability to ignore of their biased criticism and consistent actions have made them irrelevant. The only caution Kanhaiya should exercise is to stay away from electoral politics. That is the big ditch which will decimate the peoples’ movement. He has huge potential to inspire students and that should be the goal before him. The students are the only hope for extricating this country from the depth of decadence. JNU Students Union have presented a sample in the form of Kanhaiya and Shehla Rashid, Omar and Anirban, what this prowess of students is. If it is replicated across other campuses even partially, it could turn out to be a virtual tsunami to drown the accumulated political dirt and pave the way for radical change in the country.
BJP has won most of the reserved seats and claim ownership of this constituency by giving an impression of political co-option accompanied by upper-caste accomodation like allowing entry to temples etc. Do you think BJP will succeed in its endeavor at a time when the gau rakshaks and anti-beef campaigns are redefining the practise of the Hindu religion?
The BJP’s tricks definitely brought them rich dividends in fooling many Dalits into voting for them in the last election. But these tricks will not last. The Dalit Rams who played Hanumans to them were men of straw, without much Dalit following. They could lure and might continue to lure such leaders of the Dalits to claim more Dalit following, until they realise their folly. True, they have more reserved seats in the Parliament than any other party, but that did not necessarily mean the Dalit following was with them. Their electoral success is not because the people chose them but because the people did not have much choice.
The Dalits who might have voted for them in previous elections also would realize their mistake seeing the BJP’s anti-Dalit fangs. They are not blind to the machinations of the BJP driving Rohith to commit suicide, thrashing protesting students and teachers black and blue, and suspending the faculty who supported them while extraneously protecting the alleged plagiarist Appa Rao as the vice chancellor. The BJP’s ban on killing cattle has rendered lakhs of Dalits along with Muslims jobless. It has deprived them of beef that provided them much needed cheap protein. In addition, it has unleashed vigilante gangs against them to beat them on suspicion of killing cattle.
Dalits may not reflect upon the memory of Dulina-Jhajjar where the VHP mob had lynched five innocent Dalits to death and set them ablaze in front of the police, but they could not forget it either. Can they ignore and forget Una in Gujarat or the Shantipur (Karnataka) incident, for that matter? The humiliation of being beaten mercilessly for nothing is long-lasting. The BJP is inevitably buckling under its own contradictions in pursuing such irrational policies. Not only the Dalits and Muslims who are definitely hit harder, but even other people will desert them for worsening the agrarian economy with their sectarian politics. Most of the BJP’s misdemeanours are a necessarily part of its strategy to polarise the masses and are not backed by conviction. It cannot afford to continue with them for long, but even the very existence of them is enough for the people to throw it into the dust bin.
BSP leader Mayawati’s popularity will be tested in the coming elections. In recent years, she had been losing support . Do you think she will benefit from the rising tide of Dalit anger or this will limit her further?
I think Mayawati is all set to become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the fifth time. It is true that Dalits were feeling disillusioned with her and save for her core constituency of Jatav/Chamars, who are too vulnerable to desert her easily, have not voted for her in the last elections. They have surely voted for the BJP to give it such a fantastic win. But they also will realize their mistake and come back to the BSP. Dayashankar Singh’s prostitute remark also will significantly contribute in consolidating the Dalit votes for Mayawati. The Dalit anger all over the country will certainly benefit Mayawati and fortify her win.