India Today

The Dalit awakening

The outpouring of Dalit rage in the Hindi heartland underscores their new assertiveness. what impact will it have on national politics in the run-up to 2019?

It began like any other summer morning across northern India. But as the heat of the day built up on April 2, regular commuters were checking if anyone had heard of a Bharat Bandh called by little-known Dalit groups. They were apparently protesting a Supreme Court ruling from almost two weeks earlier, which had diluted the stringent provisions in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. By noon, though, most of India knew about the Bharat Bandh as TV screens started flashing images of street violence in 10 states, as groups of seemingly leaderless Dalits clashed with police or upper-caste gangs. At the end of it, 11 people were dead and property worth crores destroyed. It was not just the state administration that had been caught unawares; the spontaneity of the protests had even made the opposition parties sit up and take note.

The court ruling was only the trigger, but what India witnessed on April 2 was an explosion of pent-up resentment, a sort of climax to a steady build-up of mistrust between Dalits and upper castes in various parts of the country, a violent manifestation of fear that the entire "system" was conspiring to pull them down again, and strip them of their constitutional rights. Indeed, on the day, many protesters were even heard saying they were revolting against the "scrapping of the reservation system" in the country. For Dalits, the moment was now or never.

"As a Dalit sociologist, I can argue that this is the accumulated anger of a group that has been humiliated and stigmatised for ages," says Vivek Kumar, professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The social and economic policies of the Narendra Modi-led central government have not helped matters. Demonetisation and the violence by cow vigilantes have hit the marginalised Dalit community the hardest.

BJP Dalit MP Udit Raj says there were multiple catalysts for the violent incidents of April 2. "Before this judgment, there was another one on SC/ ST/ OBC recruitment in colleges, which diluted the reservation criteria. Meanwhile, there is hardly any recruitment in government jobs and that has frustrated the Dalit youth. The contract system, privatisation and disinvestment did their bit to make reservation norms inconsequential. And then you have incidents like the Rohith Vemula suicide and the atrocities in Una, Saharanpur, Koregaon. They have all contributed

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