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Dalit anger in search of a voice

NAGPUR, India: In Maharashtra’s direct face-off between two alliances, the shadow of BR Ambedkar looms large. Fifteen months after the Bhima Koregaon agitation set off nation-wide echoes, a new Dalit assertion is struggling to find space in Maharashtra’s divided election landscape.

There’s a craving for a new leadership, which is leading some Dalits towards old wine in new bottles such as the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Prakash Ambedkar. VBA aims to represent the new assertion but lacking political heft on the ground seems unlikely to play any role beyond that of spoiler.

Prakash Ambedkar is being targeted for allegedly selling out to BJP by dividing the anti-BJP vote. Asks Pune-based activist and former judge BG Kolse Patil, organiser of Elgaar Parishad, who recently quit Ambedkar’s front: “Why is Ambedkar not allying with the opposition? Prakash Ambedkar refused to even meet Rahul Gandhi.”

In a leadership vacuum, Maharashtra’s Dalits appear restless. There is a feeling of being betrayed by dishonest leaders. The dominant feeling is anger and humiliation at the hands of “manuwad” forces over the last five years. Dalits form 13.5% of Maharashtra and were once a solid support bloc for Congress.

Rajya Sabha member and former Pune University VC Narendra Jadhav says there is a “silent revolution” among Maharashtra’s Dalits. Former UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat says rising atrocities against Dalits, as well as reduction in higher education allocations and dwindling opportunities for Dalit academics, has created disenchantment with the BJP-Shiv Sena.

“Last time many Dalits were drawn to BJP, which got 25% Dalit votes; traditional Congress voters among Dalits like Chamars and Matangs had shifted to BJP. Dalit parties – BSP and RPI – got just 20% of the Dalit vote. But the rise of neo-Brahmanical Hindutva of RSS has created an Ambedkarite consolidation.”

Maharashtra has had a strong anti-Brahmin movement in the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar tradition. Today, there is strong Dalit opposition to Maratha dominance in politics which reflects in resentment against both BJP and Congress. Surgeon Dr Mahendra Kamble says both parties have humiliated Dalits. “Dalits have suffered more at Congress hands than BJP,” says Kamble, pointing out that the INC candidate from Nagpur is Nana Patole, perceived as being supportive of the Khairlanji accused. (In 2006 Dalits were murdered by upper castes in Khairlanji).

Opposition to ‘manuwad’ of BJP-RSS is equally strong. “Modi pays homage to Dr Ambedkar’s statue, but progressive thoughts of Ambedkar are being sought to be eradicated,” says RPI activist Sanjay Patil.

Where will the Ambedkarite vote go this time given that the Dalit vote is fragmented into castes and subcastes? “We have not been able to build a united movement or spread social education among Dalits,” admits activist and theatre artiste Sanjay Jiwne.

The high point of independent Dalit political participation from Maharashtra was in 1985 when the Republican Party Of India founded by Ambedkar sent 4 MPs to Delhi—Ramdas Athawale from Pandarpur, Prakash Ambedkar from Akola, Jogendra Kawade from Nagpur and RS Gawai from Amravati. Since then, Gawai has passed away, and Kawade has dropped out of active politics, Athawale is with NDA and Ambedkar has ploughed a lonely furrow.

Today, Kawade is 75 but still fiery in speech. “Dalits must ally with Muslims and other minorities to truly have a say in politics,” he says. In 78-79 he was one of the leaders of the Dalit Long March for the renaming of Marathwada University.

The Dalit movement in Maharashtra suffered because of the syndrome of every leader wanting to be the sole spokesman, believes Vimal Thorat, convenor of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights.

Why did Maharashtra never see the birth of a party like the BSP?

“The original Ambedkarite party, the RPI was born in Maharashtra, in fact Kanshi Ram learnt mobilisation methods from experiences here, but the Dalit party was destroyed by too many alliances,” says Jiwne. “The second rung of leadership after Ambedkar did not have his stature,” says Jadhav, “they had egos and mutual clashes. Dalits on their own cannot win elections.”

The article was first published in Times of India

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