It was a turning point in the politics of north India when the Jat leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, Mahinder Singh Tikait, apologised to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati for making casteist remarks against her.
Mayawati, on her part, sent out a strong message to all Dalits by threatening to arrest him. Tikait capitulated, surrendered to a Bijnore court and apologised.
The Maya-Tikait face-off has set a new precedent in north Indian politics. Tikait is a powerful leader of the north Indian peasantry and Mayawati is a self-confessed Dalit ki beti.
This seems to indicate that Dalits can finally look upper castes in the eye. To discuss the issue on CNN-IBN’s show Face the Nation were Dalit author and thinker of the Dalit Bahujan Samaj, Chandrabhan Prasad; writer and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Sudha Pai; and Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari.
War of words
Many have said that the politics is in the word. Empowered with increasing awareness, the Dalit Bahujan Samaj is no longer tolerant of words like ‘chamaar’, ‘achhoot’, ‘shudra’, ‘untouchable’, ‘Harijan’ being used for them.
These are considered violent words, tantamount to an African-origin person being called ‘nigger’.
“Yes, the words like ‘Chamaar’, ‘Paasi’, ‘Khattiar’, ‘Bhangi’, are abuses against Dalits and these abuses are very violent in nature,” said Chandrabhan Prasad.
He, however, pointed out that though Dalits are now resisting, there are still social groups like middle-castes, which are now increasingly using such words against Dalits.
“It is a very new thing happening in India,” Prasad said.
Sudha Pai has recently stated in an article that the long-festering conflict between Jats and Jatavs in Western UP is a part of a confrontation between Tikait and the community represented by Mayawati. But now, the feeling among the OBCs is that the Dalits are now monopolising resources.
Pai agreed that Dalits have certainly improved their position.
But OBCs are unhappy and feel that ever since the BSP government came up in mid-90s, only the Dalits benefited, thereby intensifying the confrontation.
“It is not just from the point of view of caste. OBCs in the countryside and Jats own land whereas the Dalits are landless labour. So there’s a certain dependency relationship and Dalits are now trying to move out of that,” she explained.
Slamming the victim?
Tikait’s apology shows how the caste situation of western UP has changed since the 90s - when it would have been unthinkable and unimaginable that a Jat leader – a patriarch – could apologise to a Dalit woman for using the kind of words that he did.
In a way, it is a tremendous mark of progress, yet certain political parties such as the Congress feel that Mayawati has overreacted and tried to make it an emotive issue.
Manish Tiwari defended his party and asked that the Congress’s reaction be seen in its context.
Stating that the Congress considered Tikait’s remarks “abominable” and “reprehensible”, and roundly condemns them, Tiwari pointed out that Indian society, since 1950, has been based on the rule of law.
“You’ve put a legal superstructure in place which has progressively tried to end different forms of discrimination. So it is expected from people who are in power to behave within the paradigm of that rule of law,” he reasoned.
Tiwari added that the Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act very clearly mandated that any offence registered would be investigated and chargesheeted within 30 days.
“It is not that we were defending Mahinder Singh Tikait. What he said was completely indefensible. What we were saying is that there was no need for the kind of overreaction that she (Mayawati) displayed,” he pointed out.
Chandrabhan Prasad leapt at that and censured Tiwari’s statement.
“Tiwari is saying this is all rubbish because he has not undergone the kind of humiliation that a chamaar or a paasi or a khattiar or a bhangi go through! Congress in this entire episode has become thoughtless!” he fumed.
He slammed Sriprakash Jaiswal’s reaction and said that he was Home Minister yet he endorsed Tikait’s statement.
Tiwari clarified Jaiswal’s stance.
“On the contrary, he condemned what Mahinder Singh Tikait had said. All that he had said was that in a society based on the rule of law, let the law take its own course, let there not be overreaction because certain people happen to be in office. That’s the only point he made,” he said.
Maya for upwardly-mobile?
There is also a prevalent a feeling that Mayawati has not had a “transformative” vision for Dalits of UP. Only eight per cent SCs have become white-collar workers.
There is an intellectual deficit within the BSP. Many feel that the Chief Minister is focussed on the upwardly-mobile middle-class among the SC community; she has actually not had any material transformation but is just seeking to whip up the Dalit community by emotions and slogans and victimhood.
Prasad did not think that Mayawati could be considered in such a reductive light.
“If Mayawati could make Tikait apologise, this is a huge message of social transformation. People have now improved their lot a lot. It is a huge, socially crucial moment,” he said.
Pai added that there is more than one way of looking at this social transformation.
“One is that Dalits getting some sort of material benefit. But I think what Dalits have understood and gained from Mayawati is what they describe as self-respect and for them that is important,” she noted.
“Today, a Dalit can walk through a village, in some cases sit together with a Jat and talk to him. The kind of new social equations which are emerging are also part of the social transformation,” Pai observed.
The one word – when a word like ‘chamaar’ is used and you can threaten someone with arrest, it’s a fundamental act of empowerment.
While empowerment for Dalits is fine, if they are threatened with derogatory words, they ought to still move the court rather than take emotional stances.
Tiwari maintained that as for the upper-castes, the legal superstructure existed for Dalits as well, and they ought to take recourse to the same.
Unless the law is followed, one would keep getting trapped in casteist abuse and counter-abuse.
“The founding fathers of the Constitution abolished untouchability,” Tiwari reminded.
In the transformation that Mayawati has achieved, there is a lot she hasn’t done; material transformation may not have happened, but she still has done quite a bit in terms of social transformation.
Pai agreed with the assessment.
“Dalits can really look at Jats and other middle-castes in the eye because of her, because of the mobilisation and the identity assertion which has taken place in UP,” she corroborated.
“If there was a rule of law established by the Constitution, it’s only – really speaking – from the late 80s and during the 90s that such acts have actually been put into practice and have really been used,” she said.
Pai reminded everyone of one of the first things that Kalyan Singh had done on coming to power – instructing officers that the so-called Dalit Act should not be used so much.
“It was really used during Mayawati’s time. In fact, it’s supposed to have been overused. And it did empower the Dalits and give them a certain kind of self-confidence,” she stated.
It is precisely that self-confidence that has stemmed from the feeling that there is an umbrella over the Dalit community, namely, Mayawati.
But why can’t caste be an emotional matter?
Tiwari felt that the rule of law ought to have acted supreme, especially when the victim is in a position of power, instead of going in for the emotional kill.
“The basic issue today is if that consciousness has come, if that empowerment has come, it is because of a legal structure that you’ve put in place and there are laws that can be set into motion to discipline those who violate the laws so that is the basic point,” he said.
“According to me, after he made those remarks, an FIR should have been registered, the case should have been handed over for investigation – the law mandates that within 30 days a chargesheet should have been filed – and after the chargesheet was filed, if Mr Tikait was trying to evade arrest, it would have been Mr Tikait and the court,” Tiwari stated.
Prasad offered an apologia of sorts for the mind-sets of non-Dalits, and went on to explain, “There are a big number of people in India who still have not been able to psychologically adjust with a Dalit being the ruler. It is the psychology of the past – how can a Dalit order arrest of a brigand like Tikait?”
“A society where a Dalit asks the administration to act and arrest Tikait is not acceptable to a large number of Indians,” Prasad offered.
Act of power
It is felt that the kind of psychological potency involved in Mayawati’s manoeuvre could never be matched by the law taking its course.
Pai accepted that there was a rule of law. “But if Mayawati was able to arrest Tikait and do all that she has done, it is not so much of rule of law as movements within civil society, including movements she has led for identity and for respect,” she noted.
“I would definitely agree that rule of law is very important in a democratic society and it stood the test of time but this rule of law was able to actually function for a Dalit, only after identity-assertion took place in the 80s and in the 90s,” she said.
After all, the law has not shown a good record in functioning for a Dalit. It could be said that the law had not reached a Dalit earlier.
“In lot of states of India, you have the law actually functioning for those people for whom those laws have been made. So therefore, to isolate a particular case and say that the law wasn’t functioning and it has started functioning because of an individual, I do not think that is the correct perspective to evaluate the situation,” he stated.
Pai did not concur with the assessment.
Acknowledging that while it could be true of UP that earlier there was no rule of law and it didn’t really apply to Dalits, Pai offered an example of Tamil Nadu, which is supposed to be more advanced, better governed and where human development levels for Dalits are much better.
“Look at what has happened at the panchayat level. In Madurai district, at least six panchayat Sarpanches were beheaded. There is, today, a memorial for them. Atrocities against Dalits, the violence against them, the extent to which the rule of law can be used is not so uncommon across the country,” she pointed out.
Getting Tikait to apologise has been a true achievement for Mayawati, though. She has achieved empowerment, assertion and a certain moral victory.
“Sometimes there are symbols and sometimes, when you hit the biggest symbol, you score a point over all the evils. Tikait has been a symbol of lawlessness,” concluded Chandrabhan Prasad.
SMS poll: Can Dalits finally look upper castes in the eye?
Yes: 58 per cent
No: 42 per cent