The BJP, its ideological lodestar RSS, and even the BSP, a party with moorings in Dalit identity, have, in recent months, outdone themselves to court the Dalit constituency. The community itself has found new ways to assert its leverage over Indian political parties and reinforce its place in society. Firstpost will travel across UP, the test bed of India’s Dalit politics, to record how these changes have altered life in its villages, towns and cities. This segment of the series is by special arrangement with Khabar Lahariya, a women-only network of rural reporters.
Dining with Dalits is no longer the prerogative of Rahul Gandhi. The trend has been picked up with some enthusiasm by ministers of other parties too, namely, the ruling BJP.
Earlier this month, with the heat of the elections building up in the country, and within a party whose reign in the centre has seen increasing incidents of violence against Dalits, and fierce protests around the dilution of the SC/ST Act, a Dalit ‘outreach’ strategy involving spending quality time in Dalit majority villages has been adopted by the BJP.
The latest in the series of meals-with-Dalits was in Aligarh, by UP Cabinet Minister (from Shamli) with a dubious track record Suresh Rana, who on his mandatory Dalit home and bhojan visit, was served food fresh from a halwai – palak paneer, chole and all – and bottled water.
Khabar Lahariya decided to ask Dalit families of Chitrakoot (a district with a substantial 27% Scheduled Caste population) what they thought of this politics of meal sharing – picking areas and households with Dalit populations and then ordering in.
Sukhram Verma, a Chamar who runs a dhaba in Chitrakoot, whose samosas are often trashed at the end of the day, because nobody from the upper castes buys them, scoffed at this practice, and likened it to turning the knife in a voters’ back, without their knowledge. ‘Our livelihood depends on people coming and eating with us. What’s the point if they come and order food from somewhere else? We strongly disagree with this kind of practice, it’s against the very core of our nation.’
Rahul, a student, said he thought this demonstrated an appallingly poor connection with the Dalits of UP. ‘Going to someone’s house and then not eating with them clearly reflects this VIP kind of attitude,’ he said. Another local opined that this behavior was unacceptable, and at least in the eyes of political leaders, everyone should be equal.
Ram Avatar responded from the perspective of a voter with the responsibility of putting these leaders into power. ‘Obviously we will only support those who sit with us, eat with us, drink water with us. How can we feel solidarity with anyone who does differently?’
Meera, a young advocate in the district court in Chitrakoot, and a recent entrant to the BSP youth leadership in the district, strongly objected to Rana’s behavior. ‘This is a clear indication of the fact that they are still discriminating against us, and if this is what they do while they are doing their outreach, then what hope can we have when they are in their seat of power?’
For a nation which often buries its head as regards to the caste question, the Rana incident nonetheless sparked furious debate within the ruling right-wing BJP. The party’s own renegade MP from Bahraich, Savitribai Phula, summarily dismissed Rana’s move as mere pretence and an insult to Dalits. Uma Bharti, MP from Jhansi and the current Cabinet Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, made the strange admission that she wasn’t Lord Ram, who could purify Dalits by eating with them, but she did feel like she could be purified if she fed them at her home. Other MPs had competitively bizarre things to say, like it was a thing to be noted that their leaders were eating at Dalit households, despite the discomfort of being attacked by mosquitoes.
Closer home, leaders from our own Chitrakoot – like the charming RK Patel, MLA from Mau Manikpur – peremptorily distanced themselves from the whole episode. Manoj Pande, a party member from Chitrakoot, said that it was not just Rana, but many other such leaders who were guilty of ‘formality’, or a superficial show of demolishing caste-based discrimination. Shakti Singh, the ‘representative’ of the BJP MP from Banda-Chitrakoot, said he didn’t know much about this specific case, but that often people preferred to eat their own food or drink their own water because of medical recommendations, and so not much should be made of that.
In a state where more than 25% of the nation’s cases of atrocities against Dalits are recorded to occur, this kind of callous and fairly ludicrous strategizing for Dalit support in election season is fairly surprising, from an otherwise savvy political power like the BJP.