08/08/2016 2:12 PM IST | Updated 09/08/2016 8:33 AM IST

3 Reasons Why PM Modi's Rhetoric Won't Cut Ice With Dalits

Himanshu Sharma / Reuters

Prime Minister Modi has finally broken his silence on atrocities against Dalits and the gau rakshaks or cow protectors responsible for several such cases. Speaking at a Hyderabad rally on 7 August, Mr. Modi, who appeared visibly irked, asked those who are attacking Dalits to shoot him first. Only a day before, speaking at the town-hall, Mr. Modi had said that he gets angry when people pose as gau rakhsaks as cover for their criminal activities.

So, will these back-to-back comments pacify angry Dalits who are seeing a sharp increase in crimes against their community under the present government? The answer is no. Here are some reasons why I think Mr. Modi's rhetoric won't work.

Too little too late

Firstly, a Prime Minister is seen as the head of state and people want to hear words that sound as if they're coming from the man in charge. On both the occasions, it was quite the opposite. Had Mr. Modi said something like, "If you target or attack Dalits, You will not be spared and you will be punished," it would shown more conviction. Instead, the PM chose the melodramatic route of asking the perpetrators to kill him before targeting Dalits. Even with gau rakshaks he "urged" the state government to create a dossier on them rather than commanding them to take strong action.

At best, he may be trying to prevent Dalit office bearers of BJP from leaving. But as far as common Dalits are concerned his comments will fall on deaf ears.

Manjula Pradeep, a human rights activist who works with Navsarjan Trust -- an organization working for Dalits spearheading the recent protests -- told me over the phone, "The Prime Minister's comments appear rather funny... He's trying to do damage control but this will not cut ice with common Dalits in Gujarat. Even when he was the Chief Minister, he had not contributed towards Dalit atrocity prevention. In fact, the famous quote from his book Karmayogi stating that Dalits enjoy a spiritual experience while doing manual scavenging was widely criticized. At best, he may be trying to prevent Dalit office bearers of BJP from leaving. But as far as common Dalits are concerned his comments will fall on deaf ears."

It may be recalled that Modi said little amid the national outrage resulting from the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. He chose to remain silent for the most part, only once referring him emotionally as "Ma Bharti ka laal". Even that didn't prove effective as the BJP lost Bihar elections badly, owing at least partly to the party's eroded support base among Dalits and backward communities.

All words, no action

Secondly, Mr. Modi's words against gau rakshaks were not accompanied by any actions to lend them weight. It is worth considering that the rally took place in Hyderabad, which is the region to which BJP MLA Raja Singh belongs. It may be recalled that in a 30 July Facebook post, Singh had brazenly called for more attacks like Una. Calling Dalits, "galich" (filthy), he ended his Facebook video message with "Jai Sri Ram" and "Jai Gau Mata". Singh is a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Hyderabad, representing the constituency of Goshamal. He also occupies the position of party whip for Telangana. So far, no action has been taken against Raja Singh by the party. Although his video has gone viral, the BJP leadership is yet to even issue him a simple show-cause notice, further exposing hollowness of Mr. Modi's words, coming ironically from Hyderabad.

Jignesh Mewani, a young Dalit activist and lawyer who is mobilizing Dalits in Gujarat, wrote a Facebook post saying that it was only when the Prime Minister realized that Dalit protests and the tail of the gau mata could tighten the noose around the government neck that he finally opened his mouth.

A massive shift in mindset and method

Thirdly, and most importantly, the BJP is yet to come to terms with the tectonic shift in the mode of Dalit mobilization, especially in Gujarat. For the first time, Dalits are pledging to stop doing menial work assigned to them by their social hierarchy. Hundreds of such pledges are taking place across villages and towns. For the first time, hundreds or even thousands of cow carcasses are lying on the streets unattended for days. Dalits are demanding justice but also respect from the very society that has humiliated them for so long.

Modi invoked Gandhi's way of dealing with social problems... But as is evident from the post-Una protests, Dalits are now invoking Dr. Ambedkar's way...

Post Una, Dalits are appearing closer to heeding Ambedkar's call for abandoning "dirty" work and demanding justice and equality by challenging the status-quo. In light of these unique protests, offering a Gandhian response to the Dalits' anger may not work, which is what Mr. Modi tried by asking gau rakshaks to attack him instead of the Dalits. He invoked Gandhi's way of dealing with social problems – where the onus for change lay on a change of heart in the oppressors. But as is evident from the post-Una protests, Dalits are now invoking Dr. Ambedkar's way of dealing with the problem -- whether it is peacefully asking for invoking provisions of the SC/ST Atrocity (Prevention) Act, making the police accountable or even demanding provisions for Dalits in the budget and its utilization. The difference is clear. No imagery of Gandhi photo or use of his coinage "Harijan" is seen in the protests. Instead, images of Dr. Ambedkar appear to be enough of an inspiration and mobilizing force to fight against oppression.

The BJP may have removed Anandiben Patel as Chief Minister but the Dalit stir has not slowed down. Dalits have embarked upon a two-week-long padayatra from Ahmedabad that will culminate in Una on15 August. They will be mobilizing thousands of Dalits en-route, reiterating their demands, taking pledges and demanding justice. It seems Narendra Modi and the BJP in Gujarat have their work cut out for them.

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