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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Their journey from Ambedkar to Thackeray

Maharashtra's Dalits are beginning to see the Shiv Sena-BJP combine as a possible source of hope, writes Ranjit Hoskote.

During the mid-1990s, when the Dalit writer and former Dalit Panther radical, Namdeo Dhasal, announced his espousal of the Shiv Sena's ideological line, he was widely denounced within Maharashtra's Dalit community for having betrayed the Ambedkarite cause. Over the last few years, however, significant numbers of activists belonging to the Republican Party of India (RPI), which B.R. Ambedkar established in the early 1950s, have joined the Sena in Pune, Satara and Aurangabad. In an apparent reversal of the values of social revolution that Dr. Ambedkar cherished all his life, Maharashtra's neo-Buddhist Dalit community, which he led out of the darkness of untouchability and exploitation, has begun to perceive the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine as a possible source of hope.

On March 19, the Shiv Sena working president, Uddhav Thackeray, announced that the `Shiv-Bhim Shakti' would jointly contest the next Assembly elections in Maharashtra (Sena power is styled as `Shiv Shakti'; `Bhim Shakti' refers to the Dalit presence, Bhimrao being Dr. Ambedkar's given name). While claiming that the alliance had received an enthusiastic response from the Dalit youth in the State, who, he said, had promised to campaign for the Shiv Sena-BJP front in the national elections, Mr. Thackeray conceded that no Bhim Shakti candidate had been given a ticket for the Lok Sabha elections.

The groundwork for this alliance between two forces that have long been violently opposed to each another was laid last February, when Ramdas Athavale, leader of one of the RPI factions, met Mr. Uddhav Thackeray at a function honouring the latter's grandfather, Prabhodhankar Thackeray, a leader of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. The function, not coincidentally, was organised by Arun Kamble, an academic who was a member of the radical Dalit Panthers grouping that flowered during the 1970s.

Observers read the move as a reluctant attempt by Mr. Athavale to adapt himself to the changed ground reality. The Dalit masses, especially the youth, have grown impatient with a leadership that is seen as having failed them. Many young Dalits feel that their leaders have sought personal gain at the expense of the larger causes of social justice and economic improvement. Despite the co-option of the Dalit political elite into the dominant political class, and notwithstanding the long-term alliance between the RPI factions and the Congress in its various avatars, the Dalits feel instrumentalised as a vote bank and blame the Congress for having done little for them. At the village level, the presence of the Dalits, particularly the ex-Mahars, can be gauged from the frequency with which blue RPI flags and statues of Dr. Ambedkar appear. And yet, this defiant symbolism is not matched by political power, because the fragmentation of the Dalit leadership renders the community weak and susceptible to influence by other parties. Not surprisingly, frustrated young Dalits now increasingly regard the Sena as an alternative worth trying.

It is probable that the younger generation among the castes that make up Maharashtra's Dalit community — the ex-Mahars who are numerically strongest, followed by the ex-Chamhars and the ex-Mangs — are indifferent to the history of Sena-RPI antagonism since the 1960s. Like their counterparts in other communities, young Maharashtrian Dalits are children of the liberalisation process, motivated by dreams of globalisation. With Buddhism never having taken firm root as a philosophy of resistance among the neo-Buddhists, young Dalits see no paradox in allying themselves with forces that have never departed substantially from their Brahminical biases. In the absence of a firm religious identity, they are attracted to the aggressive regional-linguistic platform of the Sena. They may also be drawn to the regimental purposefulness of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has taken its most trenchant critic, Dr. Ambedkar, into its pantheon and has been holding grass-roots level `dhamma parishads', forums for Buddhist instruction in villages. . And perhaps young Dalits, especially in the urban centres, will turn to image-conscious leaders such as Mr. Thackeray, given the lack of effective and charismatic leaders within their own fold.

Historically, the Sena and the RPI have reason to harbour fiercely negative perceptions about each other. The Sena's attitude towards the Dalits was manifest as early as the 1970s, when it fought violent street battles against the Dalit Panthers. Through the 1980s, the Sena consistently rejected the idea of reservation for Dalits in education or in jobs; it spearheaded a bitter protest against the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr. Ambedkar, which erupted into violence after the renaming ceremony in 1994.

The Sena's somersault is all too clear. The Congress-NCP front has given Maharashtra its first-ever Dalit Chief Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, who is an ex-Chamhar. By exploiting ex-Mahar resentment over this, the Sena hopes to build itself a Dalit mass base. A basis of common interest already exists between the Sena's power base among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the Dalits, who are ranged together, at village level, against the Maratha elite that forms the bulwark of the Congress-NCP alliance and controls Maharashtra's agrarian economy. While community activists such as S. Daithankar, a former civil servant, believe that the Dalits' natural allies are the Left and liberal parties, it is this common OBC-Dalit perception of advantage that will determine the actual pattern of caste alignment.

The Sena also wishes to project itself as a messianic party that will bring self-assertion and development to a community that has so far had little share in the fruits of progress. In this, the Sena is helped by the decades-long factionalism that has afflicted Maharashtra's Dalit political formation: the RPI is notoriously divided with several splinter outfits, including those led by Mr. Athavale, R. S. Gavai, Jogendra Kavade and Prakash Ambedkar.

Dalit politics in Maharashtra has not produced, since Dr. Ambedkar's death in 1956, a leader of his stature. Dalit faction leaders have so far been content to jockey for limited influence, holding the significant marginal votes that can help one or another of the major parties into power. However, in the changing political scenario, however, this swing politics may soon vanish. From the Sena's overtures, it is apparent that the major parties will now bypass the gatekeepers and approach the Dalit masses directly, tapping into the vast power of Dalit demography that the community's own leadership has never really managed to consolidate into an effective instrument of social and political transformation.

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