Valjibhai Patel, Director of the Ahmedabad-based Council for Social Justice, is a noted lawyer and Dalit activist. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand for NewAgeIslam.com, he talks about his work and the Dalit movement in Gujarat.
Q: As one of the pioneers of the Dalit movement in Gujarat and one of the few surviving leaders of the Gujarat Dalit Panthers, how do you account for the relative weakness of the movement in the state today?
A: Not only is the movement weak and fractured, it has actually rapidly declined over the years, because of the role of Hindutva forces as well Gandhians and the Congress, all of whom represent different faces of ‘upper’ caste hegemony. Another cause is petty politicking among Dalit leaders. Yet another factor is the role of many NGOs, who, by pumping in money in the name of Dalit welfare, have caused a widespread de-politicisation of educated Dalit youth associated with them and who, otherwise, could have been in the forefront of radical Dalit politics.
The spirit of radicalism is now quite missing in Dalit activist circles in Gujarat today. Most of our so-called intellectuals really have no commitment to our cause, and have become totally careerist. Dalit organisations in Gujarat have, for the most part, become the personal domain of different politicians and political parties.
Q: How have NGOs contributed to the decline of the Dalit movement in Gujarat?
A: I don’t mean to generalise for all NGOs. A few of them are seriously engaged with Dalits. But these are exceptions, rather than the rule. My point is that the Dalit movement should be led by Dalits, only then can real transformation happen. But this many NGOs do not wish to see occurring. They want to use Dalits as a bait to get funds, from the government or abroad. They offer us some token assistance and I don’t know what happens to the rest of the money they get in our name. So our issues have been converted simply into projects for them, and just as we are exploited by the ‘upper’ castes we are also exploited by many NGOs who are exploiting our issues to get money from various donor agencies. In this way, peoples’ movements, including the Dalit movement, face the risk of being completely sabotaged. Crores of rupees are spent by NGOs every year on what they call ‘Dalit welfare’ but the situation of the Dalits has, in fact, worsened
Q: What sort of work is your organisation, the Council for Social Justice (CSJ) engaged in?
A: The CSJ is an Ambedkarite organisation, and we see that Dalits, Tribals and Muslims, who together account for more than half of Gujarat’s population, have common problems and face similar sorts of oppression and marginalisation. One of our main activities is legal activism, working on issues related particularly to these communities. We have taken up numerous cases and have filed almost 80 public interest litigation petitions in this regard. Besides this, we are working to promote political awareness among the Dalits so that they can struggle for their rights and against oppression.
Q: It is said that Hindutva forces have managed to make deep inroads among Dalits in Gujarat, using them to attack Muslims, as in the recent genocide in Gujarat. In this context, how do you see your efforts in trying to focus on the common concerns of Dalits and Muslims?
A: What you say is correct, to an extent, but this should not be exaggerated. It is not that all Dalits were complicit in the attacks or that they have been entirely co-opted by the Hindutva forces or that they have been completely Hinduised. This is not true. In fact, most of the attacks on Muslims in 2002 were engineered by ‘upper’ caste groups and elements and in relatively few areas were Dalit involved. In many places in Ahmedabad, the violence was led by migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Because Gujarat is relatively more prosperous, in recent years all sorts of babas, sadhus and mullahs and even criminals have been making their way from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Gujarat and are known to be the backbone of reactionary and obscurantist groups here, Hindu and Muslim, including those that spread communalism and violence. So that is another source of conflict.
Dalits are being wrongly blamed for the attacks, in order to give them a bad name and to perpetuate conflict between Dalits and Muslims. Some NGOs have also made this claim, either deliberately, to defame the Dalits, or in ignorance, since many of them have little or no grassroots experience. In rural areas Dalits played little or no role in the attacks, which were mainly done by the ‘upper’ castes. This is because, in contrast to urban areas, in villages Dalits have no civic rights, and their oppression at the hands of the ‘upper’ caste Hindus is direct and stark. So, few Dalits in the villages have supported the Hindutva agenda since they see that main backers of the Hindutva forces are their own immediate oppressors. In those parts of rural Gujarat where Dalits have some strength they supported and protected Muslims, and in other parts, where they are simply powerless, they remained silent but did not join the ‘upper’ castes in attacking Muslims. In several villages, Dalits actually saved Muslim families. But in urban areas the situation is different. Here the exploitation of Dalits by ‘upper’ castes is generally less direct or stark, so the Dalits, almost all of whom are pathetically poor, can easily be used by Hindutva groups to act as their foot-soldiers to attack Muslims. Today, Hindutva forces are going out of their way to woo the Dalits. This a major challenge that the Dalit movement faces in Gujarat today, with ‘upper’ caste forces trying to pit Dalits against Muslims so that Dalits cease to struggle for their rights.
Yet, we are still continuing our work, taking up various issues related to Dalits and Muslims and other marginalised communities in Gujarat today. We set up the CSJ soon after the anti-Muslim riots of 1992 in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. We tried to get Muslim leaders and community activists also involved, but few of them showed any interest in our agenda of Dalit-Muslim unity.
Q: Why was that?
A: I think this has much to do with the caste-class nature of the Muslim political elites. It also has to do with the fact that Dalits and Muslims have so many problems of their own that they naturally give their own issues topmost priority. Most Muslim leaders in Gujarat are with the Congress, although the Congress has done nothing for the Muslim community as such and, from time to time, has even been complicit engineering anti-Muslim riots, such as the massive anti-Muslim pogrom of 1985-6. In fact, the Muslim middle-classes, ‘educated’ Muslims, have never supported the Dalit movement and our demands such as reservations, and have preferred to side with the ‘upper’ castes. This is another major hurdle in the path of Dalit-Muslim unity. Further, the maulvis, who exercise a very powerful influence on many Muslims, are least concerned about Dalits or any other community but their own, and, if at all they think of us, it is possibly only as objects of conversion, which most Dalits are really not interested in.
Q: You mentioned earlier on that your organisation has also filed some public interest litigation petitions on issues concerning Muslims. Can you cite some examples?
A: Our major focus is on Dalits, but since Muslims in Gujarat are in much the same condition as the Dalits today in being victimised by the state and ‘upper’ caste chauvinist forces, we have also taken up some Muslim-related cases. In this we have worked together with Muslim friends. For instance, in the Patan district the Vishwa Hindu Parishad captured a Sufi dargah and sought to convert it into a temple. The local Patels attacked the Muslims there, but some Dalit families rescued them and sent them safely to Patan town. After this we filed a petition in the High Court against those who had taken over the shrine. Similarly, in 1998 the BJP government issued a circular to the effect that the overseeing of examinations, to prevent cheating, was to be given over to private organisations, and it so happened that almost all of these were RSS-related groups. So, we filed a petition saying that this job was the duty of the government and not of the RSS. The High Court issued a notice and then government was forced to withdraw its order. Another issue that we took up related to the nefarious role of several Gujarati newspapers in fanning hatred, spreading false rumours and inciting Hindus to attack Muslims in 2002. The most notorious of these papers was the ‘Sandesh’, which is fanatically pro-Hindutva. We sent a complaint against this paper to the Press Council of India and filed a public interest litigation against it in the High Court demanding that Sandesh be prosecuted. The court admitted the petition and issued a notice but the government did not take any action.
Q: Coming back to the question of Dalit-Muslim relations in Gujarat, do you think the tensions between the two are increasing or have they reduced or what?
A: There is no inherent conflict between these two communities. In the Walled City part of Ahmedabad and in many other parts of urban Gujarat, Muslims and Dalits live in the same or adjacent mohallas. Traditionally, relations between Dalits and Muslims in Ahmedabad have been fairly tension-free. Before 2002 of course there were minor disputes but these generally did not take the form of major confrontations. The violence of 2002 was not a spontaneous thing. Rather, it was engineered by the state government and the police, in league with Hindutva forces. And lumpen elements, including some Dalits in some places, joined in the attacks which gave them a free license to loot under police protection. Their participation in the attacks was more due to the chance they got to loot, not really because of any ideological commitment to the Hindutva agenda. And then, looting wasn’t done only or mostly by Dalits. In Ahmedabad, posh Muslim-owned stores were ransacked not by Dalits but by ‘upper’ caste people, including women with bob-cuts and wearing jeans, but why is it that this is never talked about? Another point that should be considered is that in the wake of the violence, some Dalits who had engaged in the violence on the instigation of the RSS, were arrested by the police, and then the RSS-walas went to the prisons to have them released and so became ‘heroes’ and ‘saviours’ in their eyes. So there is this nexus between the police and the RSS-walas that must be highlighted.
In many places in Gujarat where Muslims and Dalits continue to live together in the same localities relations between them are fairly cordial. Some Dalits may now be with Hindutva groups but this is more a question of survival rather than acceptance of Hindutva hate ideology or the Brahminism that Hindutva groups actually espouse. But the repeated cycles of violence in Gujarat have also led to migration of Dalits from Muslim areas, as in parts of Ahmedabad’s Walled City. They disposed off their houses in distress sales and shifted elsewhere because of insecurity. The same thing has happened with Muslims in areas where they were in a minority. So, the Hindutva forces have succeeded now in geographically dividing Muslims and Dalits, dividing them in order to rule them.
Q: Dalit organisations, mainly led by retired or serving government servants, have tended to focus almost wholly on the question of reservations in government services, which, while vital, concerns only a small, educated section of the Dalits. What about issues such as poverty and landlessness? Why have these issues not received much attention?
A: This is obvious because many of these organisations are essentially status quoits. Many of our educated Dalits are what I call ‘new Brahmins’. They are happy with their material comforts and have little or no concern for the plight of their fellow Dalits. They are also vociferously anti-Marxist and so seem to be allergic to any talk of economic, as opposed to social or religious, oppression, although these different types of oppression cannot be separated from each other. Some of them try to hide their Dalit identity and think they can in this way be accepted by the ‘upper’ castes, but this is impossible. Even if they rise up economically they still remain ‘low’ castes for the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, which explains why it is almost impossible for even an educated and wealthy Dalit to get a flat on rent in any Brahmin or Bania residential society in any Gujarati city. A large section of the Dalit middle-class simply wants to climb up within the existing system rather than breaking it down to build a new one. Many of them also want to preserve their own status within the Dalit community as ‘leaders’, so they have a vested interest in not taking up issues other than reservations, issues which concern the Dalit masses. Yes, I agree that reservations for the Dalits are a must, but in Gujarat, where Dalits have 7% reserved seats in government jobs only 2% have been filled.
I do not believe that Dalits can really get their due through the present system as it exists, so heavily loaded against Dalits is it, but still we need to use whatever democratic spaces that exist. But the struggle has to continue at the broader, political front, which we are also trying to do. To strengthen the Dalit movement we should move beyond simple ritualistic obeisance to Babasaheb Ambedkar or simply taking about reservations alone and also take up issues related to land, poverty, communalism and the neo-liberal economic policies that, under the garb of ‘globalisation’ and led by imperialist countries and their Indian ‘upper’ caste/class agents, are playing havoc with the livelihood and cultures of millions of Dalit families in India, leading to massive impoverishment.
Few Dalit groups in Gujarat talk about the burning question of Dalit landlessness, although most Dalits continue to live in villages, where land is the most important issue. Even today, under Modi’s so-called Hindu Raj, most Dalits live as landless labourers or own very small and uneconomic plots. Under the Agricultural Land Ceiling Act surplus lands were to be given to Dalits and Adivasis. Some 12,700 acres of land have been distributed to them but this is only on paper. According to the government records the Dalits and Adivasis own this land but in most cases they actually do not have possession of it. However, because it is in their name they have to pay taxes to continue their nominal ownership because according to the law if you don’t cultivate the land you possess for three consecutive years the government can take it over. And when, as happened some years ago in Dhrangadhra, when Dalits try to get possession of these lands they are violently attacked. One of the major sources our marginalisation is the fact that we do not possess land, because of which we are fully dependent on the whims of the ‘upper’ castes, who own the lands and businesses and can institute a complete boycott of the Dalits the moment we start demanding our rights. So, perhaps we need to seriously consider Babasaheb Ambedkar’s suggestion of separate Dalit settlements.
Another issue that is sorely neglected is that of atrocities against Dalits, which are rampant and widespread in Modi’s ‘Hindu Raj’. We have published a leaflet titled ‘Chargesheet Against Government of Gujarat for Non-Implementation of Atrocities Act 1989’, based on research of some 400 judgments of cases related to atrocities on Dalits in 14 districts of Gujarat. We found that in 95% of the cases there is acquittal due to negligence and hostile role of government pleaders. In most of the remaining 5% cases the accused are punished under provisions of the Indian Penal Code and are acquitted under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. In many cases severe strictures are passed by courts and directions are issued for action against erring officials for negligence in cases of atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis, but instead of taking any action against them they are rewarded with promotions. In addition, Dalit and Adivasi government employees are regularly charge-sheeted on false and fabricated charges to stall their promotions. We made several representations to the Gujarat government in this regard but no action has been taken. The government has not filled up the numerous posts for Dalits that are still lying vacant. Even in the SC Welfare Department of the Gujarat government, which is meant to be the apex government department working for Dalits, there are many such vacant posts. For instance, the Department has been sanctioned 23 PSI class III officers, but only 2 posts have been filled up. While there are meant to be 185 Inspector Class III officers there are only 83. In the Junior inspector Class III grade there are supposed to be 40 posts but only 17 have been filled up.
All said, the situation in Gujarat, as far as Dalits are concerned, is very depressing. The only way out is struggle against caste/class oppression, uniting with other marginalised communities and sections of the Left that recognise the salience of the caste question. But, as far as I know, that is not really happening.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.