Monday, October 5, 2009

DALIT EMPOWERMENT: THE MAYAWATI EFFECT

Dr BR Ambedkar may have been the original dalit icon who started the process of lifting dalits out of the abyss of exploitation, discrimination and deprivation that they had been suffering from thousands of years. But, other than becoming a role model and inspirational figure for them, he could not bring about the change that he wished to see on a large scale, perhaps because during those days it was virtually impossible to break rigid age-old social taboos and get rid of the curse of untouchability.

Kanshi Ram may have been the great dalit strategist who saw that genuine dalit empowerment was not possible as long as the real power remained with the upper castes. With dalits constituting close to 20% of India's population - even more in some states - he realised that a dalit party could become a key player in the political landscape of India, and that a dalit leader could even go on to become India's Prime Minister. With that objective in mind, he formed the Bahujan Samaj Party and even had the satisfaction of seeing it come to power with the help of other political parties in Uttar Pradesh. But in his lifetime, he was not able to see it grow bigger.

The UP Assembly elections of 2007 dramatically and most unexpectedly changed everything overnight. Kanshi Ram's protégé Mayawati stunned the nation by winning an absolute majority on her own. Till then, the limited electoral successes of the BSP were not viewed with alarm by other political parties who had calculated that the party could not muster enough votes to come to power on its own anywhere. That one result, as I had said then itself, signalled a tectonic shift in the power matrix of Hindu society.

As subsequent developments have shown and future changes undoubtedly will, what Mayawati has done for dalits is transformational and will lead to the dismantling of oppressive caste practices, if not prejudices yet, with a speed that many even now scarcely believe is possible. There is no doubt that the charges of corruption that have been levelled against her, her soaring personal fortune and the fact that she is even building her own statues, have dented her image. But despite all that, history will see her as the dalit leader who empowered India's cursed low castes and made the upper castes share power and privilege with them equally and with dignity.

By now every Indian knows that Rahul Gandhi stays overnight in dalit homes and even shares a meal with them. Is this something to be proud of or something that should embarrass us 62 years after Independence? Is it not a sad reflection on how India's dominant political party that has been in power for most of the time after Independence, just took dalit votes for granted all these years but did absolutely nothing to change social dynamics in the villages? Is it not, at one level, a damning display of condescension besides being a political gimmick? Would Rahul Gandhi ever have thought of even looking at a dalit home had Mayawati not been in power in UP?

Unknowingly, the young Congress leader is making Mayawati look like a demi-goddess in dalit eyes.

If 62 years after Independence, Congress leaders of UP have to be literally ordered to go and spend a night in dalit homes on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, is it not something that should make you and I hang our heads in shame? Does it not painfully prove that India's upper caste leaders have criminally neglected them all these years? Does it also tell the whole world that had it not been for the fear of Mayawati, these guys would not have ever bothered?

How far some of these leaders have gone from ordinary people was also on display in the manner some of them turned their dalit day out into a tamasha. Mineral water, generators for electricity, home-cooked food, mattresses, mosquito nets etc were some of the things taken along by them, in addition to supporters and TV cameras, to turn the whole exercise into a picnic. They were doing a big favour to these low caste sub-humans, you see. Watch video here.

It is not just the Congress that has been exposed by Mayawati. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that has been speaking of and for Hindus for many decades, had also similarly forgotten about dalits and become an organisation primarily of upper caste Hindus, as had the BJP that is closely affiliated to it. Thanks to Mayawati, Mohan Bhagwat, the present Sarsangchalak (head) of the RSS, also chose Gandhiji's birthday to virtually write off politics as a means of doing nation building, saying that the nation can be strengthened only by making it 'Sanghmay' and understanding those who play opportunistic politics using caste, ideology, language and community.

A day after Bhagwat's speech, the RSS invited representatives of 32 castes, including various dalit sub-castes, to a meeting and sahbhoj (eating together). This was the first ever social engineering initiative by the RSS chief on this scale. 62 years after Independence, the RSS has also been made to wake up to the fact that Mayawati-awakened dalits have spurned Hindutva politics. That the RSS has also realised that the process of empowerment set in motion by Mayawati is too serious to be ignored is evident from the fact that Bhagwat has called for organising such meetings across the country for population clusters of just 10,000 each.

"I hope Mayawati understands the importance of what she has initiated. With the exceptional intelligence and abilities that she has displayed so far, there appears to be little doubt that she does. If that is correct, Mayawati can bring about the social revolution that both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar dreamt of but could not achieve in their lifetime." This is what I had written after the UP election results of 2007. A little more than two years later, it is evident that not only is Mayawati fully alive to the unprecedented societal change that she is ushering in, she has also generated a momentum which is forcing non-dalits to pursue her cause with some urgency. However, since their efforts are clearly reactive, they will find it very hard to reap the political benefits that the are looking for, at least in the near term.

There is a huge difference between seeking political power to bring about desired societal change, and talking of societal change as means of acquiring political power. The latter can never be transformational; it is more often than not dishonest and deceiving.

Dr Ambedkar initiated a very profound process. Kanshi Ram forged a political tool to give concrete shape to it. Mayawati has brilliantly employed that tool to achieve the dreams of her mentors. Thanks to her, India will, in a relatively short period of time, find itself happier and at greater peace, unburdened as it will be of the heavy load of caste discrimination that it has been carrying for a very long time.

Having never experienced caste prejudices in our beautiful urban lives, some of us perhaps can still not fully comprehend the dynamics of what is happening. Make no mistake: an epoch-making change is unfolding around us.

Related reading: Mayawati's memorials mark epochal change
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