Janeudhari Pandit Rahul Gandhi – an avatar of the Congress President that was discovered in the run up to last year’s Gujarat assembly elections – these days is busy showing how he and his party support Dalits.
Among massive steps he has undertaken for Dalit empowerment is tweeting furiously whenever he or his party can plug in the rhetoric of Dalit rights or empowerment. For them, though, it doesn’t matter that in the process they end up spreading fake news about atrocities against Dalits or end up eulogizing an incoherent demagogue who didn’t exactly have favorable views about Dalits.
He did the same again earlier today, attacking BJP and the RSS over the SC/ST act dilution controversy even though it was not the government that diluted the law. A Supreme Court ruling has mandated that some preliminary inquiry must be done by the police before acting on any complaint filed under the (prevention of atrocities) SC/ST act, which the court said was aimed at stopping the misuse of the law. It didn’t matter to him that the BJP led government had, on the contrary, filed a review petition against the ruling.
While Rahul Gandhi trying to score political points over Dalits is entirely understandable and even legitimate given the kind of politics we are attuned to seeing in India, it amuses me no end when Congress tries to project itself as the messiah of Dalits, and gets away with it.
As someone born in Bihar and having witnessed the deeply casteist politics and society in the state, Congress being a party sympathetic to Dalits sounds as much bizarre to me as Dawood Ibrahim being a person who is paragon of patriotism. But wait, there are journalists who do try to paint Dawood as patriotic, so it’s not really surprising that Congress gets away with it.
However, I decided to pen down my thoughts because sometimes what we assume to be a common knowledge, becomes ‘revelations’ for many; something that was witnessed yesterday when many people on Twitter shared stories about Lalu Yadav’s jungle raj, and they were surprised to find that their stories, which they thought were common knowledge, ended up ‘opening the eyes’ of many.
Congress being painted as a party that was ‘naturally’ supported by the Dalits comes as a shock to me, for I can’t imagine that scenario due to the political history of Bihar that I have witnessed and heard about.
Let me explain why.
I was born in an upper-caste family in Patna, Bihar. Virtually every member of my family supported the Congress party. Not just members of my family, members of the extended family from both the parents’ side, and members of the same caste too supported Congress as their ‘natural party’.
We were so much emotionally attached to the party and the Nehru-Gandhi family, that when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, I, barely an eleven years old boy then, cried as if someone in the family had died. Obviously, I had no idea about politics then, but this shows the extent of support the party enjoyed among the upper castes.
The fact that Congress was the preferred and the ‘natural party’ of the upper castes in Bihar is not only supported by my anecdote, but by the fact that Congress could never get back to power in Bihar – they were reduced to being a marginal player – once Lalu Yadav rose to power riding on slogans that targeted the upper castes.
It is a separate story that the same Lalu is now a loyal soldier of the same party, but that’s an analysis for later day.
One may argue that Congress being the preferred party of the upper castes does not essentially mean that Dalits didn’t like the party or that the party didn’t like the Dalits. However, when you note that Congress’ demise in Bihar is synonymous with upper castes losing political clout and rise of the other castes in power structure, you can’t infer it any other way.
Bihar was and possibly continues to be one of the most caste sensitive states in India. One can’t deny the power imbalance between the upper castes – four castes primarily, viz. Brahmins (also called Baabhan in local dialects), Bhumihars (who are supposed to be Brahmins as well, technically), Rajputs, and Kayasthas (also termed as Lala) – and rest of the castes. This imbalance resulted in frequent and consistent social friction.
In Bihar, even Baniyas are listed in the backward castes, while almost everywhere else in the country they are supposed to be a forward caste. There was a widespread belief – and it was not entirely unfounded – that the aforementioned four castes enjoyed disproportionate power and wealth in the society.
During the 90s, Lalu rose to power with the slogan – ‘bhura baal’ saaf karo (get rid of the ‘brown hair’) – where bhura baal didn’t mean brown hair, but actually was a term coined to symbolize the four upper castes: Bhu-mihar, Ra-jput, Baa-bhan, and L-ala. It was a clarion call against a set of people and it worked like magic. Lalu lahar (Lalu wave) in Bihar was as good as Modi wave, in fact, much potent.
Due to the sheer caste arithmetic in his favor, his supporters as well as detractors believed that Lalu will break all records and rule for a record duration, breaking the communists’ record in the neighboring West Bengal. He indeed in a way represented aspirations of the lower castes – OBCs as well as the Dalits.
Again, Lalu’s fall from that position of might and invincibility is another topic of analysis. But what I want to highlight is the vertical division in the society between the upper castes and lower castes (including the Dalits) where they virtually stood for opposite things and their interests clashed. So, if the upper castes supported the Congress, it’s ridiculous to suggest that the party was a pro-Dalit party, at least in Bihar.
One can wonder how come Congress continued to rule Bihar if only a handful of castes supported it. What about the numerous assembly elections that returned Congress to power? How come it took only Lalu in the 90s to exploit an arithmetic that was so obvious for anyone else to exploit?
That’s where I’ve to fall back on anecdotes because our ‘intellectuals’ clearly have not been honest in assessing Congress’ legacy in these matters.
Stories from elders would reveal how the lower castes, especially the Dalits, were not even aware of their democratic rights, especially in the villages. Either they just wouldn’t vote – while ballot papers would be stamped in their names – or they would forcibly be kept away from voting.
The ‘booth capturing’ by Lalu’s goons was inspired from these acts earlier by the upper castes, who captured booths for the Congress party. Lalu’s men took it to a new level, which was one of the reasons for their downfall.
A village elder would tell me that earlier, for a few bucks, Yadavas would wield lathis on behalf of Bhumihars and capture booth, but they (Yadavas) soon realized that if they possessed the power of lathi, why should they wield it for Bhumihars and settle for a few bucks when the entire government treasury could be theirs!
I’m sure every village in Bihar has such stories, which somehow our darbari historians won’t write about prominently, because finally someone would ask why the pure and pious Dalit friendly Nehru-Gandhi family didn’t ask their local leaders to stop this mockery of electoral process and blatant violation of democratic rights.
The family has that paint, which doesn’t allow any mud to stick.
Irony is that many such ‘historians’ would cite Belchi massacre near Patna during the post-emergency days when Congress was out of power for the first time in center and was also out of power in the state. Indira’s visit to Belchi, where at least 8 Dalits were killed (not by men belonging to the any of the aforementioned four upper castes by the way), is shown as proof of how she won back public support, especially support of Dalits.
At best she might have impressed Dalits of a one particular village by making a personal visit, but to suggest that Dalits voted for Congress in Bihar en masse has to be a fiction. There was no reason why they should vote for a party that hardly gave them any share in power and which patronized those goons who’d chase them away from polling booths or do much worse things to their life and dignity.
Due to this history and context of caste politics in Bihar, I find it entirely farcical and ironic when Congress tries to paint itself as a party that has cared for Dalits or the lower castes. Two of their citadels – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – were the first to become Congress mukt, much before Narendra Modi was even a force to reckon with, and the reason was rise of politics of so-called lower castes.
That’s why I find the pro-dalit statements, rather noises, by Rahul Gandhi mere a lip service. While he and some others in Congress have expressed regret over the 1984 anti-Sikh genocide, not one leader of Congress has expressed regret for what they did to the lower castes via their proxies. Keeping people away from voting is murder of democratic rights. Patronizing goons who unleashed caste violence is literally patronizing murder.
But no one asks the family such questions. The latest trend is to hound and insult anyone who dares to put a question to Rahul Gandhi, so that the Congress President can continue with his meaningless rhetoric. Today, he is essentially blaming BJP and RSS for a mess and imbalance created by elements emboldened and promoted by his party and family.
Nonetheless, these questions have to be asked and these stories need to be told, else the darbari historians will get a free run and Rahul Gandhi’s tweets will become part of the history textbooks a few years down the line.