As the pangs of the National Emergency in the 1970s dug deeper into the socio-economic polity of India, there was a cry for a change in the political climate of the country. The freedom of movement and speech was suspended during the National Emergency which saw thousands of cadres from the right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) lead an underground movement. This led to the inception of Hindutva politics in India and the validation of the right-wing group RSS. The group had been reeling under a stringent ban till then following the controversial association of the party to Gandhi’s assassinator, Nathuram Godse.
Though the ‘Bharatiya Jana Sangh’, the political wing of the RSS and the predecessor of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), enjoyed minor political gains immediately after the National Emergency, it could not consolidate its political presence until 1990 when the historic Rath Yatra of L.K. Advani from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat propelled a relatively small and majorly rural party (BJP) into nation-wide fame.
The dawn of the 1980s saw a new lease of right-wing politics in India with the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). An interstice in the Indian political scenario was palpable since the 80s as India had just emerged from the ill clutches of the National Emergency which lasted from 1975 to 1977. A host of people including several non-Congress parties, Gandhians, free liberals, and a sizable portion of the Communist movement were eager to merge with the right-wing force as a means to escape the clutches of the treacherous Congress administration. This resulted in the coming of age of right-wing Indian politics in the 1991 general elections. The elections witnessed a political representation of the cause of Hindu Nationalism from the northern and western part of the country, a cause which had an insignificant status in the India political diaspora until then.
Impact On Dalits
In addition to the arrival of the inescapable socio-economic change in the form of globalization, the rise of right-wing politics in the 1990s saw a shift in the relationship between caste and power in India which steered in newly concocted forms of atrocities on the Dalits. With the advent of the Brahmanical fascism gliding in the robe of Hindutva, the demonization of the lower-castes has been practiced by the now powerful Hindu radicals who were gaining ground in the legislative and the executive wings of the government. Not only are the autonomous mobilizations of the Dalits targeted but the crimes against them have also increased exponentially.
Whether it is the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the public assault and lynching of Dalit men in Una, Gujarat in 2016 for skinning a dead cow, or a Dalit man killed in Timbi Village in the district of Bhavnagar, Gujarat in 2018 for owning and riding a horse, the acts show the tendency of the Savarna castes to subdue this marginalized caste further by such acts of retribution.
An IndiaSpend analysis of the 2016 data of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) revealed a significant jump of 25 percent in the rate of atrocities against Dalits from 2006 to 2016 along with the hike in the rate of pending police investigations, and pendency in courts for Dalits being 99% and 50% respectively.
Singularly placed at the bottom rung of India’s social hierarchy of caste, class, and gender, Dalit women remain uneducated at large and are paid lesser wages than their male counterparts. The upper-caste men, like the landlords and the enforcement agencies, therefore, have a free leeway to exercise exploitation against Dalit women. They are sold off into urban brothels, are forced into prostitution in the rural areas and temples under the ‘Devadasi’ system, and are gang-raped to pay off the debts of their landlords or to compensate for the breaches in the social conduct committed by their male kin. The act of raping Dalit women to punish their male counterparts is no alien concept either.
A Human Rights Watch report has documented the acts of sexual abuse and other forms of violence against Dalit women as the mechanisms used by their landlords and the police to crush any imminent political movements within Dalit communities. Several such incidents can be sighted where women have been used as tools to ensure the implementation of ‘political lessons’ and to overpower dissent.
One such incident which became the turning point in women’s rights movements in India is the case of Bhanwari Devi who was gang-raped by Savarna caste men in 1992 in Rajasthan as an act of retaliation of her efforts to prevent child marriage in their family. Apart from the gender bias exhibited by the justice system, the accused also enjoyed staunch political support. Kanhaiya Lal Meena, a BJP leader, supposedly organized a rally in the support of the five accused in the case. Similarly, in 1997, several Dalit women were raped, mutilated, and murdered by the members of the Ranvir Sena, a far right-wing group comprising of Savarna landlords, in Laxmanpur-Bathe, Bihar.
Women have also been beaten, assaulted, raped and tortured during the brutal search and raid operations on Dalit villages in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Atrocities on Dalit women are committed even in questioning and police custody. They have been arrested and raped in police custody as the ways of punishing their male counterparts hiding from the police. In the words of an anonymous Dalit activist, “Sexual violence is linked to debt bondage in rural areas.” The other atrocities on Dalit women include parading them naked, making women eat human defecation and gang rapes.
As is pointed out by the founder of the National Federation of Dalit Women, an NGO dedicated to advocating the right of the Dalit women, Ruth Manorama, Dalit women are among the most vulnerable populace in the world,
“Dalit women are at the bottom of our community. Within the women’s movement, Dalit issues have not been taken seriously. Within the Dalit movement, women have been ignored. Caste, class, and gender need to be looked at together. Dalit women have contributed to this discourse… Women’s labor is already undervalued; when she is a Dalit, it is nil… The atrocities are also much more vulgar.”
Caste And Caste Violence Persists
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its reports has disclosed the rather unnerving statistics of a crime being committed against the Dalits in every 15 minutes, and that of an average number of six Dalit women being raped each day, the majority of which do not see the light of justice as they get lost in the power play of politics. Even in the cases that do manage to get registered, the accused escape judgment as the incidents are neither investigated nor prosecuted. As the ideology of purity vs. impurity is reignited in the political space, violence against Dalits has taken an all-new route and methodology as the attacks against Dalits have now become routinized and sensitized under the justification of protecting cows and that of the maintenance of the sanctity of the socio-religious equilibrium.
The sufferings of the Dalit women touch graver depths than that of the Dalit men who not only face the brunt of the social ostracisation due to the prevalent casteism but also find themselves to be the victims of intra-caste assaults. Dalit women often find themselves to be the targets of Dalit men who vent their frustration of socio-economic eviction and their injured ‘masculinity’ through the acts of ‘controlling’ their women, sometimes by deploying their physical power in the form of violence. The situation gets worse, if a Dalit woman files an official complaint against her caste Hindu assailant, she and her family run the risk of being ousted by her community – the last resort of the Dalits for seeking security and support in the strong casteist social matrix of India.
The Indian right-wing politics rides on the back of Brahmanical conservatism which still finds significance in the Indian social psyche as social relations and acquaintances are forged based on caste and communal prejudices. This exclusion of the Dalits from the social structure makes them easy targets of humiliation and hatred of the caste Hindus who still connote deep-rooted prejudices to religiosity. Such sentiment stunts the liberalisation of social perceptions and the ascension of the Dalits in the social order as the Savarna Hindus are devoutly reluctant to forgo their ‘Caste Pride’. The claims of the Dalits for constitutional protection, reservation schemes and policies, and social regard are then conveniently brushed aside by the leaders who emphatically exploit the anti-Dalit perceptions of the majority to standardize their core political foundation, pushing the Dalits further into social invisibility.
The perfect foil to a majoritarian and casteist political force is Ambedkarism. The historical Ambedkarite Dalit movement has laid the path for a political movement that accounts for social transformation by promulgating social justice, a welfare economy, and a secular republic. Therefore, to counter the cultural fascism of Hindutva and the Brahmanical-Hindutva hierarchy, the Ambedkarite movement is the staple ideological engagement for the Dalits to achieve free and equal citizenship.
At a time when casteist politics is strengthening its roots in the Indian socio-political milieu, Ambedkarism then stands out to be a potent principle for the political movements and struggles of the marginalized in the society, more so for the Dalits and Bahujans to free themselves from the casteist-Brahmanical enslavement.
Nilanjana Das is pursuing her masters’ degree in Women and Gender Studies from Indira Gandhi National Open University, specializing in Women’s Studies. She nurtures a deep fondness for poetry and fiction and dreams of working towards sustainable development in the remotest villages of the Himalayas worst hit by the climate crisis. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
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