It needs powerful symbols to anger, or to keep the peace. Like Gandhiji's Dandi march defying the salt ban or BR Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha to challenge upper caste Hindus by leading untouchables to use a public tank. Both actions proved to be defining moments, one for the freedom movement and the other for the rights of India's lowest castes. It helped that both leaders were great communicators, the Mahatma among the greatest of his time.
In the age of social media, when news dissemination is no longer the preserve of organised media, the power of the transmitted message to mainstream seemingly minor developments should never be underestimated. The current divisive, confused debate over what concretises community identity, and the consequent search for objects of hate that can be pinned on to forces of ‘the other’ has added wings to this power.
The incidents in Unnao and Kathua have become powerful symbols that magnify oppression and vilify the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s way of life for being accommodative of caste discrimination and for appearing hypocritical about the status of women. Uttar Pradesh BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar’s crude statements, caught on camera and spread by social media, carry an unambiguous message of caste bias, made worse by the absence of any action in the BJP that has been claiming to be doing more than the others for the Dalits and women.
Devoid of a sense of history and being less educated, the masses generally respond to easy-to-understand symbols. Like Dandi march and Mahad satyagraha, this has been no different for Unnao and Kathua that locate themselves in the context of attacks on Dalits and Muslims. That’s how black and white it has become. And that is why the Supreme Court ruling setting conditions for arrest under the Prevention of Atrocities (Scheduled Castes and Tribes) Act was seen as a dilution of the legislation. The violence and protests that followed show mobilisation on a large scale.
The BJP appears to believe in the time-tested mantra of political survival that if you can brazen out a storm, other events will come and take its place and it will recede from public memory. Case closed. But, Unnao and Kathua have happened after a string of events that began with the suicide of Rohit Vemula, a PhD scholar at Hyderabad University and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq by fellow villagers at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh – all apparently reinforcing the saffron position on caste and domination of Hindus. They were followed by the flogging of Dalits in Una and the killing of young Hafiz Junaid, a resident of a village near Faidabad. There were several other similar incidents.
It is possible that other events will come, but Unnao and Kathua are emerging as turning points in the life of the Narendra Modi government. They have developed the firepower to push back the most powerful government at the centre in over three decades. Simultaneously, the incidents have put tremendous pressure on the educated and progressive elements among the Muslims and Dalits. They are in danger of being sucked back to the ghettos or to reinforce their identities. There is no denying that faced with Hindu majoritarianism, these are challenging times for them. It is not difficult to see why this is so: because Dalit and Muslim identities are seen as marks of suppression by the respective communities. The choices for those within are becoming fewer.
This has ramifications from an electoral point of view. It is important to see the developments in this context because of Modi and Amit Shah’s obsession with winning elections. Unnao and Kathua raise the pros-pect of the coming together of Muslims and Dalits, perhaps not under a political party but as a political force – to stand against the BJP.
The attempt to bring together Muslims and Dalits was part of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s social engineering effort for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. It failed miserably then. That was partly because Dalits and Muslims are not natural allies. It has proved to be easier to bring together Dalits and Brahmins – for example, Mayawati’s Sarvajan formula that got her to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 – and Muslims and Yadavs, like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav did in their heyday. Besides, the Muslim vote got split between the Samajwadi Party and BSP in 2017.
More than ever before, BJP rule has prompted more levels of exclusion with caste Hindus supporting the saffron camp -- against Muslims and Christians, against Dalits, against liberals, against meat eaters. It has pitted the lifestyles of those in the upper Gangetic areas against those lower in the river's course. For its troubles it has blamed the opposition and other antagonistic groups. The mandate for change lies with the ruling party, not with an opposition party that has a mere 46 seats in Parliament. That mandate was given to the BJP in an emphatic vote in 2014. It was expected to unite and include. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. In recent months, people have repeatedly delivered their message in perhaps the one language that makes sense to the BJP -- by defeating them in the recent set of bypolls and not giving the party an overwhelming majority in Gujarat. For the ruling dispensation, it is past the witching hour and time to pick up the threads of good governance.