Bharat Bandh: As Dalit protests simmer, Amit Shah cancels Karnataka visit

Late Sunday evening, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted Narendra Modi government's intent to file a review petition "against the Supreme Court judgement on the SC/ST Protection Act”. The Centre filed the review petition on Monday.

The government move came amid reports of widespread protests to mark the 'Bharat bandh' call by Dalit organisations, and supported by mainstream political parties.

At the time of filing of this report, Bharat Bandh was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter. In the Lok Sabha, the Congress, Left and other parties raised the issue.

However, the narrative on the ground, as Savitri Bai Phule, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha member from Bahraich, said at a rally in Lucknow on Sunday, wasn’t just about dilution of the SC/ST prevention of Atrocities Act. She said the “conspiracy” was to review the Constitution and end reservations.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s own clarifications on the issue, and subsequently that of the Modi government and BJP chief Amit Shah notwithstanding, the impression has taken root on the ground that there is a move to tinker with reservations.

Bhagwat's comments in the run-up to the Bihar assembly polls in November 2015 calling for a review was thought to have hurt the BJP grievously in that election. The violence on Dalits in Una in Gujarat in 2016 remained an emotive issue in the Gujarat assembly polls of December 2017.

According to sources, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah postponed his two-day visit to Karnataka. Party sources said Shah would undertake the visit later this month. Voting in Karnataka is on May 12.

While party sources pointed to other urgent commitments in New Delhi as the reason, the ‘Bharat Bandh’ call contributed to the decision. Karnataka has a sizeable Dalit population. Dalits of the state have traditionally voted for the Congress, but have also moved towards the BJP in the last couple of decades.

Last week, Shah had to apologise to a Dalit gathering in Karnataka after protests at party Lok Sabha MP Anant Kumar Hegde having used offensive language against Dalits. Hegde called Dalits “barking dogs”, but the BJP is yet to take any action against him.

Equally worrisome for the BJP is the near rebellion among its Dalit Members of Parliament, and also its allies like Ram Vilas Paswan, on the issue.

On Sunday in Lucknow, Phule didn’t name either the BJP or RSS, but several other speakers pointedly attacked the Sangh Parivar for being anti-Dalit.

Phule, 37, who is always clad in saffron, had in 2014 and during the Uttar Pradesh assembly election campaign, had led the BJP’s outreach towards Dalits. Her open revolt could hurt the BJP grievously. Phule said she would launch a nationwide campaign to protect the Constitution, and “couldn’t care less if she continues to remain an MP or not”.

Just as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s candidate for the last month's Rajya Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh was a former legislator Bhimrao Ambedkar, Phule's name is inspired by Savitribai Phule, wife of 19th century social reformer Jyotirao Phule.

Along with BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, the Phule couple have been an inspiration for the Dalit movement in Maharashtra and rest of the country. The Bahraich MP’s rebellion comes at a time when there are those in the Dalit movement who believe it's time for a successor to inherit the mantle of BSP chief Mayawati needs to emerge.

In Patna, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav said all of his party's 80 legislators will take out a protest march from the legislative assembly. Mahadalit leader and former BJP ally Jitan Ram Manjhi has already joined the RJD-led grand alliance.

Let alone rest of the country, Dalits not just turning away from the BJP but aligning with OBC dominated parties like the RJD in Bihar and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, could jettison BJP’s hopes of reelection in 2019.

The Modi government and BJP need to do much to reach out to the Dalits in the coming months.

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