With the recent indictment of Dalit activists and lawyers by the Pune police, the term has moved beyond the BJP’s political lexicon. It has been appropriated by law enforcement agencies in the discourse of public security.
The question is: Will this strategy of displacement deflect attention away from the government’s policy failure towards the poor?
Two major problems in the way of the re-election of the Modi government are – the alienation of Dalits and the plummeting popularity of Prime Minister Modi. Somebody has to carry the can for policy failures. Blaming the old enemy, the “beef-eating” minority communities, will not work. A new one will have to be found.
The government was unable to predict the huge participation in the Dalit agitations from Bhima-Koregaon on Januray 1 to the Bharat Bandh called on April 2. It could not identify those responsible. The intelligence agencies have attributed the April 2 Bharat Bandh to ‘Urban Naxalites’, organised apparently through word-of-mouth and WhatsApp groups. The fantastic proposition that an ultra-Left conspiracy was afoot against the government has been eagerly lapped up. The alternative would be to accept that Dalits across the country were deeply upset with the government.
Dalits have good reason to be angry with the BJP and its government. Many Dalit youngsters were killed and others virtually skinned alive for trading in cattle products. The anti-beef and anti-cow slaughter agitation not only led to widespread violence against Dalits but also to the growth of a new leadership within. In Gujarat, the emergence of Jignesh Mewani and Dalit consolidation against the BJP cost the party heavily in the state elections.
The violence in Saharanpur and the arrest of young Chadrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army; the Bhima-Koregaon violence instigated by upper caste Hindutva ideologues; and the perception that the government tacitly encouraged the dilution of the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, have pitched Dalits against the BJP.
The ensuing Dalit anger has got the government’s knickers in a twist. Its somersault on the provisions of the SC/ST Act before the Supreme Court, after having not even sending the Attorney General to defend its initial case has failed to impress Dalits. Nor have they been impressed by the government’s move to permit SC/ST quotas for promotion in government jobs.
Another problem is the government’s awkwardness in dealing with the new Dalit leadership. The BJP knows how to deal with the older established Dalit leaders who are formidable electoral warriors. Its government has twisted the tail of the recalcitrant ones and thrown a bone or two to the amenable.
However, this strategy won’t work with the new generation of Dalit street-fighters. They are educated, they know their rights and are politically aggressive. Their leadership is organic and their legitimacy does not depend on electoral successes.
Even when the new leaders can be identified – say, a Jignesh Mewani or a Chadrashekhar Azad – dealing with them is difficult for an inflexible and ideologically committed government. It cannot alienate cow vigilantes and the BJP’s upper caste cadre. At best it can throw Chandrashekhar Azad in jail, or use the police to restrict Jignesh Mewani’s movements.
Large-scale use of force is ineffective against a movement that is diffuse and decentralised. However, branding protestors under the vague catch-all term ‘Urban Naxalites’ allows for a comprehensive crackdown. “Naxalite” invokes an association sufficiently dangerous to publicly justify arrests and the use of draconian internal security laws.
The term might be usefully extended to tar all those associated with any anti-government agitation. Academics who question the government’s higher education policy and its attitude to public universities, artistes who question its cultural policy, media which is critical, and human rights activists can all be branded ‘Urban Naxalites’.
One ‘Urban Naxalite’ no longer has to look like another. They can be lumped together ideologically simply by their opposition to the government. Soon, the BJP may blame the Tuticorin agitation leading to the shutdown of the copper smelting plant of Vedanta’s Sterlite Corporation on such elements. The huge farmers’ protests across India could also be ascribed to the intervention of ‘Urban Naxalites’.
Already the State has begun to implicate the lawyers of Dalit activists in the cases they are fighting for their clients. This has happened to advocates A Murugan in Tamil Nadu, Upendra Nayak in Odisha, Satyendra Chaubey in Chhattisgarh and now Surendra Gadling in Pune in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
However, the incarceration of social activists advocating the rights of the socially marginalised is likely to bring diminishing returns. If Dalits and Adivasis unite against the BJP, that is a quarter of the population gone. If only the Dalits and the Muslims unite, that is 30 per cent voters. This arithmetic is bound to give the BJP’s election managers insomnia.
Grandiose politics can only explain its failure by blaming conspiracies. As the BJP becomes fearful of the people and sees an enemy in every shadow, its political language sounds increasingly neurotic. It is incredulous that an assassination plot against the prime minister would be discussed over open email with no attempt to hide the identity of the conspirators. “Half-Maoists” would sound “half-assed” were the consequences for Indian politics not so serious.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi