3 years

Cover Story

The New Panthers

Photographer
Raul Irani
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Will the BJP succeed in containing Jignesh Mevani’s aggressive Dalit identity politics?

A FEW HOURS BEFORE Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani’s rally in Delhi on January 9th, some flex boards with his image appeared inconspicuously around the venue near Parliament. One of them called Mevani a pawn of Congress President Rahul Gandhi, while another termed him as a ‘deserter’ for ‘running away’ from a debate he had been challenged to by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, who has recently received both flak and support on social media over his tweets on caste. The Delhi Police had denied the rally permission, but that morning, reporters were told it would be allowed as long as Mevani and his supporters did not disturb law and order. So amidst heavy police presence, not only did the rally happen, it went on beyond the permissible time limit.

Mevani, who is now an MLA from Gujarat, appeared at the rally along with Assamese activist Akhil Gogoi and was mobbed by TV camerapersons and reporters looking for a quick sound byte. It took him a while to reach the stage, where he sat with other activists, most of them left-leaning. The attendance was thin, a fact Mevani’s supporters tried their best to cover up on social media. Many among the 300-odd attendees were members of the Bhim Army, a Dalit outfit; Mevani’s rally had been organised to press for the release of its founder, Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’, who has been in jail since last year on charges of instigating violence during Dalit-Thakur clashes in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. His supporters sat holding a picture of his in which he is seen wearing dark glasses and twirling his moustache like Chandrashekhar Azad in iconic photos of the Indian freedom fighter and revolutionary. Others in attendance included activists like Prashant Bhushan, Harsh Mander and Shabnam Hashmi. The rest mostly comprised JNU students; one of them, a young woman, sat on a chair in the sixth row, reading Carlos Acosta’s Pig’s Foot, as Mevani’s new friends spoke one after another, their speeches mostly composed of rhetoric against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

By the time the star speakers began to appear at the mike, many among the audience had either left the venue or had slipped towards the tea stalls nearby, looking for a little snack and warmth. Mevani spoke towards the end, calling upon Modi to choose between India’s Constitution and the Manusmriti. Taking a dig at the Hindu Right, Mevani said that he believed in love and not ‘Love Jihad’.

The sparse participation in Mevani’s rally did not go unnoticed by the BJP and its supporters, who shared pictures of empty chairs on social media. But the appearance of flex boards against Mevani is still an indication that India’s ruling party and its machinery see him as a threat. BJP supporters and its social media cell have treated Mevani pretty much the way they treat Rahul Gandhi: keep saying that he is irrelevant, but also keep reacting vociferously to each move or statement of his. The poor numbers at Mevani’s rally may have offered them consolation, but sources within the RSS say that its leadership has cautioned the BJP over events in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon earlier this month which saw fault lines between Dalits and Marathas becoming sharper and Mevani emerging as the new face of aggressive Dalit identity politics.

The RSS and other Hindutva groups have worked hard over the past few years to woo Dalits over. In 2014, these efforts paid dividends when the BJP gained almost a quarter of Dalit votes, as estimated, doubling its Dalit vote share from the 2009 General Election. In the UP Assembly polls of 2017, Dalit voters contributed significantly to the party’s spectacular victory. Of 85 reserved seats, the BJP won 69 (while in 2012, it had won only three). Much of it was achieved by focusing on non-Jatav Dalits—Jatavs being the BSP’s main support base—and other backward communities. Even many among Jatavs voted for Modi.

In his speech in Pune on December 31st, Mevani declared that if ever a revolution had to take place in this country, it could not happen through Parliament or any state Assembly, but via street battles. That sounds phoney, coming from someone who won himself a legislator’s seat with the help of a mainstream political party whose president-in-waiting had to be portrayed as a janeu dhaari Hindu before the Gujarat elections

Dalit support has also meant that the BJP has been able to absorb shockwaves of both the Una agitation in Gujarat as well as the death in Hyderabad of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. But now, in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon violence, the RSS is worried that Mevani’s rise might bring its attempts at social engineering to naught. “Jignesh Mevani has brought ‘us versus them’ back into the discourse, and this ‘versus’ stands in the way of RSS attempts at Hindu consolidation,” says political expert Badri Narayan.

Mevani’s rise began in July 2016 during the Una protest, which he became the face of after four Dalit men were tied to a car and thrashed by Hindu extremists there on suspicions of killing a cow even as they pleaded that they were only skinning a dead one. Soon afterwards, thousands of Dalits responded to his call and took out a march from Ahmedabad to Una—a distance of over 300 km—protesting atrocities against members of the community. Many Dalits swore not to dispose of dead cows or skin them anymore, as they had been doing for generations. He brought back the issue of land reforms, coining the slogan, ‘Keep the cow’s tail, give us the land’ (among Una’s 57 Dalit families, only three owned any). As PS Krishnan, former secretary to the Government, wrote in a column at that time, ‘There have been several instances of massacres and other atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis in the past. But none of them secured the same attention, nor led to state-wide mass mobilisation as now.’

From the sequence of events at Bhima Koregaon, Mevani is now hoping to become an all-India face of Dalit politics. From Gujarat to Maharashtra to Karnataka, he wants to become a raging force that will stop the BJP juggernaut of Hindu consolidation and result in its defeat in 2019. In the post-Ambedkarite era, Kanshi Ram had emerged as the most viable face of Dalit politics. In the post-Kanshi Ram era, Mevani wants to occupy that position. But his recent romance with the Left may come in his way, feel some of his supporters. “He needs to focus on Dalit issues, like he did in Una. For that to happen, he must distance himself from ultra-Left elements which will appropriate him,” says Dalit entrepreneur and commentator, Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Kanshi Ram’s politics was confrontational, says Dalit scholar Abhinav Prakash, but not anarchist. The community discourse after Kanshi Ram’s death and Mayawati’s failure to uphold his legacy has been infiltrated by ultra-Left and even Islamists, he says (see his essay, ‘Anatomy of a Pastiche’ in this issue).

Unless he gets appropriated by the Left, Mevani’s current rise, as many of his well-wishers fear, poses a threat to the RSS vision of ‘one well, one temple, one crematorium’ for all Hindus

IN MANY WAYS, Mevani’s politics is reminiscent of the rise (and fall soon after) of the Dalit Panthers, a party formed in Bombay in the early 70s. Inspired by the Black Panther movement in America, the Dalit Panthers burst upon the scene that decade, spreading fast in cities like Nagpur and Pune. The party lacked a clear political ideology, but used both Ambedkarite and Marxist idioms to attract youth.

The Panthers were known for their aggression against Hindu deities and mascots like Shivaji. Two events would hoist them onto the chariot of history and later throw them under its wheels: the 1974 by-election for the Lok Sabha seat of Central Bombay and the Worli riots. The contest for this seat was mainly between the Congress, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the Communist Party of India. The main Dalit party of those times, the Republican Party of India, decided to support the Congress candidate, which was also supported by the Shiv Sena, formed only a few years earlier. The Dalit Panthers called for a boycott of the election. This invoked the wrath of the Shiv Sena, and in the next few months, clashes broke out between the Panthers and Sena. During a protest, a cement slab was thrown at Panthers from a building, resulting in the death of a young activist, Bhagwat Jadhav. The chawls in Worli became the setting for dozens of pitched Panthers-Sena battles in which stones, soda bottles, tube lights, swords and even petrol bombs were used.

It was the CPI candidate who won the election. But by then it was clear that the Panther leadership was divided into two factions: those who wanted to pursue an Ambedkarite model of struggle and those who were influenced by extreme leftism.

Ironically, the Left itself was unsure of what to make of the Dalit Panthers. While it is clear that the panthers were helped by Naxal elements, the main Naxal group in Mumbai opposed it, calling it a ‘Dalit Shiv Sena’. The Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy, who supported the Dalit Panthers at the time, told me in 2011 that another extremist Left group considered Panthers ‘lumpen’ and when he wrote a piece for the group in support of the Panthers, they sat on it for three months and finally told him that “rats had eaten it up.”

Some leaders of the Dalit Panthers ended up being co-opted by the state. Their supporters got tired of the violence and began to distance themselves from party activities. By 1979, it had splintered into nine factions. One of its founders, the poet Namdeo Dhasal (1949- 2014), was accused by other leaders of being influenced by Marxism; he became a Shiv Sena supporter later, and, according to his associates, turned bitter towards Indian Communists.

In the run-up to 2019, the RSS has planned a series of events across India, especially Uttar Pradesh, to woo Dalits. But so far there are no indications that it has learnt tangible lessons from Bhima Koregaon

Will Mevani learn any lessons from the Dalit Panthers? In his speech in Pune on December 31st, Mevani declared that if ever a revolution had to take place in this country, it could not happen through Parliament or any state assembly, but via street battles. That sounds phoney, coming from someone who won himself a legislator’s seat with the help of a mainstream political party whose president-in-waiting had to be portrayed as a janeu dhaari Hindu before the Gujarat elections. After winning his seat, Mevani told a Huffington Post reporter that he wanted to use the “bourgeois glamour” (of being an MLA) for the cause of poor people.

In the run-up to 2019, the RSS has planned a series of events across India, especially UP. But so far there are no indications that it has learnt tangible lessons from Bhima Koregaon.

At the heart of the matter is not Bhima Koregaon, but a small village called Vadhu Budruk a few kilometres away, where the samadhi of Shivaji’s son Sambhaji, put to death by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in March 1689, is located. Close to it is another memorial with the mortal remains of a Dalit, Govind Gopal Mahar. The Mahars of the area believe that it was Gopal who defied Aurangzeb’s orders to not touch Sambhaji’s remains and cremated him, for which he was also killed by Mughal soldiers. A board narrating this story was put up at his samadhi by Gopal’s descendants about 20 years ago. Three years ago, the board was removed by some people. “We petitioned the local administration, but they chose not to act,” says Rajendra Gaikwad, a Pune-based entrepreneur and descendant of Gopal.

On December 28th, 2017, Gaikwad put up another board, he says, for benefit of those who would have come to the memorial in Bhima Koregaon and might have wanted to visit Gopal’s samadhi as well. But a day later, not only was this board removed, the samadhi had also been vandalised. “Why are Hindutva forces reluctant to acknowledge the valour and sacrifice of Dalits?” asks Chandra Bhan Prasad. That is a question the RSS must ask its supporters, notwithstanding the limitations of electoral politics. If the BJP is assured that the new Dalit is with the party, then why does it get jittery at Dalit assertion?

There is already enough evidence that the events in Bhima Koregaon may not die easily. Mevani’s current rise, unless he gets appropriated by the Left, as many of his well-wishers fear, poses a threat to the RSS vision of ‘one well, one temple, one crematorium’ for all Hindus. Already, members of the Dalit family flogged in Una have decided to convert to Buddhism on Ambedkar’s April 14th birthday, as their attackers are already out on bail. In Mumbai, after the recent violence, the police have picked up several minor boys from slums, charging them with legal violations under various sections.

Mevani and his new friends are keeping a close watch on these events. So are Dalits across India.

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