Will Rajendra Pal Gautam Rise to the Occasion?

By over-reacting to the latest incident of mass conversion involving Rajendra Pal Gautam, the BJP has thrown up a new Dalit leader at the time when the SCs are struggling to have a prominent face to lead them. But much depends on the way Gautam himself plays his cards, observes Soroor Ahmed

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Soroor Ahmed

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The mass conversion was nothing new, Dr. Ambedkar along with five lakh Dalits did it 66 years ago

By over-reacting to the latest incident of mass conversion involving Rajendra Pal Gautam, the BJP has thrown up a new Dalit leader at the time when the SCs are struggling to have a prominent face to lead them. But much depends on the way Gautam himself plays his cards, observes Soroor Ahmed

When thousands of Dalits recently embraced Buddhism – a non-Abrahamic religion having its origin in India – the most prominent among them Rajendra Pal Gautam, a minister in Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party created storm forcing him to resign from his post. The objection was on the pledge made by the converts on this occasion that they would never worship Hindu gods and goddesses.

This mass conversion was not something new. Exactly 66 years ago, on October 14, 1956, the architect of Indian Constitution and the first law minister of the country, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar along with five lakhs of his followers undertook a similar exercise in Nagpur, where the headquarters of RSS is situated. This city is also considered a sort of Dalit capital of India as Vidarbha region of Maharashtra has a very strong presence of the Scheduled Castes. Not only that, Nagpur had become the epicentre of Dalit movement in post-Independence India.

All this had happened when the BJP is trying its level best to appropriate B.R. Ambedkar and leaving no stone unturned to woo Dalits. Needless to suggest Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inducted Ramdas Athawale, a neo-Buddhist, in his cabinet as the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. This leader of his faction of Republican Party of India (an NDA constituent) had, as a Union Minister, some years back, openly appealed to the Dalits to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism.

So why this double standard when it comes to an AAP minister embracing Buddhism? Does the saffron party see these latest developments as a challenge to the Brahmanical order?

In contrast to Buddhism, there is another religion of non-Abrahamic origin called Jainism, which had little history of political tussle with the Brahmanical order.

Buddhism, which under the reign of Emperor Ashoka and even later, spread to different nooks and corners of India subsequently vanished from the sub-continent though it continued to have a strong presence in all the neighbouring countries – thanks to the revival of Brahmanism. Though both Buddhism and Jainism were in fact a revolt against the Brahmanical order, it was the former which emerged as a sort of protestant movement against the established order. Thus, it was dealt with strongly.

Contrary to this, Jainism was accepted by many trading communities; and, unlike Buddhism, there was little trace of defiance of Hindu order even now.

So, there are several prominent Jain figures in the present-day Hindutva movement too. Till 2018 there was a general belief that Amit Shah (then BJP president) is a Jain. It was only then that he had to clarify that he is Hindu and hails from a trading community.

Unlike Muslim invaders the British seriously lacked human resources to carry out expansion in India. Therefore, at several places, especially in Maharashtra, they recruited Dalits in army. In the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-19, the Dalits, which formed a substantial part of the British army, played a pivotal role in the defeat of Peshwas, who were Brahmans. In the later decades, this boasted the confidence of the Dalits of the then Bombay Presidency, which later came to be known as Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Many Dalits and backward castes now came to realise that the British had in fact came as an emancipator. As Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar had more problems with the upper castes then with the British and Muslims, they were dubbed pro-British.

It needs to be noted that the British even formed a Mahar Regiment. Ambedkar belonged to this caste and his father was in army. So was that of Jagjiwan Ram, another Dalit minister, in the first Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet.

Ambedkar had even visited the battlefield, where the British army, which have substantial Mahars, defeated the Marathas in 1818.

Ambedkar, a scholarly personality, was out and out a rebel. He strongly disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru on various counts – remember his differences with the former on separate electorate issue for Dalits. But Nehru, notwithstanding these facts , appointed Ambedkar as the law minister though he lost the first Lok Sabha poll in 1952. He was later elected to the Rajya Sabha.

Yet Nehru as a counter-balance to Ambedkar, also inducted Jagjiwan Ram (a Ravidas), then only 39, in his first cabinet. Ram, who rose to become the Deputy PM of India, is the father of the former Speaker and present Congress leader Meira Kumar, and hailed from Bihar.

As there was hardly any strong presence of Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the earlier version of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ambedkar always suspected the role of Congress and would equate it with the established Brahminical order. As he died just 52 days after embracing the new religion, the neo-Buddhists and the Republican Party of India formed by him could not consolidate itself. In later years, the RPI got divided into several factions and lost its direction.

Some of its leaders were so much swayed away by the anti-Congressism that they started playing into the hands of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. What they failed to acknowledge is that the saffron camp has a much stronger root in the Brahmanical order than Congress, which apparently projected itself as a secular party.

So far as Dalit parties of North India are concerned, they face the same predicament. Kanshi Ram, a Dalit Sikh from Punjab, the state with the highest percentage of SC population (31.9 per cent) formed Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984.

Incidentally, the BSP grew in Uttar Pradesh, the state having highest number of Dalits, at the time when BJP and the Mandal forces were also gaining grounds. It was really difficult for it to expand its support base in such a situation. So, it has to, as a part of strategy, either join hands with the BJP or the forces of Mandal, for example, Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

However, in 2007, that is several months after the death of Kanshi Ram on October 9, 2006, the BSP came to power for the first time alone. Its leader Mayawati succeeded in wooing Brahman votes towards her side. Brahmans form the highest percentage of population in UP after Dalits, Muslims and Yadavs. They did so because the BJP had grown quite weak in UP then and they were not inclined towards the SP. But in 2012 the same Brahmans turned away from the BSP as they felt that the empowerment of Dalits may, in long term, prove detrimental to them.

On the other hand, the Lok Janshakti Party, essentially a Bihar-based party, had little to do as a real Dalit movement though its founder now late Ram Bilas Paswan hailed from this section of the society. He kept changing alliance just for the sake for political survival. Thus, the Dalit movement actually failed to take off in his home state.

The advent of Moditva dealt a big blow to both the BSP and LJP as it did to Dalit movements elsewhere in India. The BJP tried to drive a wedge within various Dalit sub-castes. Thus, politically both the BSP and LJP are at their lowest point with hardly any likelihood of reviving in near future. Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, a young lawyer from west UP, tried to fill this gap and floated Azad Samaj Party, but could do nothing in the just concluded UP poll.

The latest incident involving Rajendra Pal Gautam may give a new lease of life to the Dalit movement, at least in North India. By over-reacting, the BJP has by default thrown up a new Dalit leader at the time when the SCs are struggling to have a prominent face to lead them. But much depends on the way he himself plays his cards.