On April 14, the Anusuchit Jati Morcha, the SC unit of the BJP, organised Ambedkar Pujan across Gujarat on the occasion of Dr BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. The party also organised Bhim Dayra (a cultural programme of folk songs) in Ahmedabad to mark the occasion. Its state SC unit also launched a ‘membership by miss call’ for Dalit youths.
As the 2024 parliamentary election closes in, the BJP in Gujarat is going all out to woo Dalits. It has already succeeded in getting a sizable number of Dalit youths from urban areas to join the party. Dalits from BJP strongholds like Ahmedabad and Vadodara have also joined right-wing organisations VHP and Bajrang Dal in considerable numbers over the past year.
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Rural vs urban areas
However, the BJP’s outreach programme might not have a similar effect in rural areas. Even as it organised events on Ambedkar Jayanti, thousands of Dalits from across the districts gathered in state capital Gandhinagar and converted to Buddhism in an event organised by a Dalit rights organisation the same day.
“The BJP and its sister organisations have been trying to bring in the youth of the lower sub-castes of the community like Chamar or Valmiki,” Subodh Parmar, a lawyer and Dalit rights leader based in Ahmedabad told The Federal. “These sub-castes are considered lower in social hierarchy amongst Dalits. The party has been successful to an extent too. The primary reason is that in urban areas, Dalits are divided into ghettos of sub-castes.
“The Vankars and Rohits, the two sub-castes considered higher in hierarchy, have traditionally benefited more from the job reservation policies. So, there always has been a sense of disgruntlement amongst the lower sub-castes that the BJP is trying to turn into its own electoral gain.”
The situation in rural areas is different. “In rural areas, where discrimination against Dalits is more rampant and brazen, the community resides in ghettos comprising all sub-castes. The divide in villages is that between upper castes and Dalits who are socially and economically marginalised,” added Parmar.
Dalits, who form about 10 per cent of the electoral population in the state, were traditionally Congress voters since the regime of Madhavsinh Solanki. The Congress leader and former Chief Minister came up with KHAM – Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim — concept to consolidate the party’s vote base.
However, the community began shifting towards BJP from 2002. From being the primary foot soldiers of the riots in 2002, the Dalits have been a part of BJP’s Hindutva umbrella along with the upper castes since the saffron party began consolidating Hindu votes.
The turning point
The polemics of caste politics in Gujarat began to change in 2016 following the Una flogging incident, where seven Dalit men of a family were flogged and paraded around Una town in Gir-Somnath district. The incident was video recorded and widely circulated on social media that earned the anger of the Dalit community across the state.
In the wake of the Una flogging incident, Gujarat witnessed statewide massive protests by Dalits. Around the same time, a rally – Dalit Asmita Yatra — was organised by people of civil society in Ahmedabad that culminated in Una on August 15, 2016. The rally saw unprecedented support from opposition parties including the Congress, BSP and RJD, along with Muslims of Gujarat who joined the rally in a shared anger against upper caste Hindus.
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The 15-day rally gave birth to a new generation of Dalit and Muslim leaders who advocated land for Dalits and for Dalit-Muslim unity. Jignesh Mevani, currently a Congress MLA from Vadgam, was one of the leaders who rose to prominence during the Dalit Asmita Yatra.
Musabhai Khatumbara was one of the many faces that brought Dalits and Muslims together during and after the rally. Khatumbara had lost his job after the 2002 riots when the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport System (AMTS) fired 3,000 bus drivers and conductors.
“My brother was a victim of what transpired in Gujarat post-riots. He used to work in a garage when his life changed one night when the police, along with some vigilantes, picked him from our residence in Ahmedabad. Ever since, he has been arrested many times and criminal cases were filed against him. Later he was released on bail only to be slammed with an exile order,” shared Khatumbara.
“The memories of riots are still fresh but one has to realise that the BJP in the state has pitted the Dalits against the Muslims, while the higher caste people have been orchestrating such a strategy. After all these years, both the communities remain marginalised and exploited,” he added.
In June 2017, a public meeting was organised in Ahmedabad by the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM) and Dalit-Muslim Sangathan, organisations that were set-up after the Dalit Asmita Yatra. Mevani, who had led the event, had said, “When the Una incident happened, the Dalits and the Muslims got united and took it as their own fight. That was a slap on the face of the BJP government. Let’s unite again and show them our collective power.”
The sentiment echoed through the 2017 state election, where the BJP tally reduced. It managed to win just 92 seats, the lowest the party had won since it came to power 28 years ago.
In 2019, Ashok Parmar and Quttubddin Ansari — Dalit and Muslim men who had unwittingly become the faces of two sides of 2002 riots — came together to inaugurate Parmar’s shoe shop in Ahmedabad.
Parmar had been clicked during the 2002 riots with a saffron band tied on his forehead, brandishing an iron rod in his hands as he stood in front of burning tyres, while Qutttubdin Ansari was photographed with his hands joined, eyes welled up in tears as he fell on ground asking for mercy from rioters.
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In their changed circumstances, Parmar, who named his shop ‘Ekta Chappal Centre’, told the media: “I had to take a loan to fight the legal cases mounted against me; nobody from political organisations came forward to help. Eventually the loans made me homeless and I lived in my makeshift shoe shop made out of tin for years.”
“In 2012, Ansari and I met in an event organised by some social workers and we have been friends since then,” added Parmar.On April 14, the Anusuchit Jati Morcha, the SC unit of the BJP, organised Ambedkar Pujan across Gujarat on the occasion of Dr BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. The party also organised Bhim Dayra (a cultural programme of folk songs) in Ahmedabad to mark the occasion. Its state SC unit also launched a ‘membership by miss call’ for Dalit youths.