India: Why Dalits and Minorities fear Freedom Struggle

The media has finally noted the absence of the Dalits, OBCs and religious minorities from the mobilisation for the Kejriwal-Kiran Bedi-Hazare gathering at Ram Lila grounds. This was perhaps because former Union ministers and OBC leaders Sharad Yadav and Lalloo Yadav exposed the ulterior motive of the campaign in their forceful speeches in the Lok Sabha.

Religious minorities and the Dalits kept away fearing the absence of space for them in the campaign, and apprehensions that they could become eventual targets of a hyper nationalistic piece of legislation when implemented by administrative and judicial structures whose caste and religious origins have made them suspect among the people on the margins.

The Muslims quite openly distanced themselves from the movement. Several organisations issues press statements, which were not widely covered in the media, expressing their fears. Pointing at Anna's signature tune - "Vande Mataram", "Bharat Mata Ki Jai", which have been echoing in the Ramlila grounds, venue of Hazare’s hunger strike, Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s historic Jama masjid asked all Muslims to stay away from Anna's movement. "Islam does not condone the worship of the nation or land. How can Muslims then join his stir with a war cry that is against the basic tenets of their religion?"

Not all Muslims share the Imam’s worldview, but they too kept away, citing reasons varying from his alleged "communal" supporters and what they call his "dictatorial attitude", even as they said they did not have any problems with slogans like 'Vande Mataram' or 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai'.

The Dalits have kept away more aggressively. Neo Buddhist Dalit leader Udit Raj organised a counter march at the India Gate and denounced the leadership of the Hazare movement. Dalit spokespersons analyse from a caste perspective the reason why the oppressed have shown little or no interest in the Arvind Kejriwal-Kiran Bedi-Hazare jamboree. They note that when Anna went on a fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, the banners that his supporters put up depicted a whole range of icons, from Bharat Mata to Gandhi, Shivaji and Lakshmi Bai. But Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, who they maintain as the true liberators of the oppressed castes, were conspicuous by their absence. At the venue of the fast, slogans like 'Scrap Reservations, End Corruption!' rent the air. But that was not all. When the joint drafting committee for the Lokpal was formed and five members from 'civil society' were nominated for this purpose, “not a single one of them was found to be from among the Dalits, Adivasis or religious minorities. Not one of them was a woman.”

Dalit leaders also questioned the movement on its stand on reservations for the oppressed castes in the private sector, and the condition of Dalits in Anna's own village of Ralegan Siddhi. Perhaps unfairly, but they also raised questions against Hazare himself. They wanted to know why Hazare and his followers did not care to go on a fast when heinous atrocities were committed against Dalits, as in the brutal massacres in Khairlanji village of Maharashtra. The Dalits said Hazare and his team had no interest at all in the injustice and oppression that millions of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities have to suffer on a daily basis. A particularly sharp observation was Hazare’s past praise of Gujarat Chief minister Narendra Modi, the political demon of the massacre of Muslims in 2002. “He has also never sat on a fast to protest against the suicides of tens of thousands of impoverished peasants in Maharashtra.”

The Christian church was more divided, and perhaps more confused than anyone else in what to make of the Hazare movement and whether to join it or side with the Dalit-Bahujan and Muslim groups.. Many in the laity and the clergy of the Catholic and protestant churches were swayed by the Television frenzy, and enthusiastically joined the first phase of the movement. It was natural. The laity, specially in north India, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka, has made common cause with the largely Hindu majority in their neighbourhood. In his travels in various parts of the country, this writer has often found the church and the community on the wrong side of civil society. Christians of the Hindi-Gujarati-Marathi belt are seen firmly on the side of the majority, making common cause on most social, political and economic issues.

The distance from the Muslims has to do with local reasons and demography, as much as it has to do with a sort of safety-shelter syndrome in not challenging the aggressive majority. In Kerala of course, the Church sees itself as threatened by the rise of Islam and the increase in their population in their enclave districts of Malappuram and environs. The absence of a genuine political lay leadership, the severe divided nature of the church in terms of denominations, rites, liturgy, ethnicity and mother tongues makes it impossible for the Christian community to think as, or act as, an organic whole. In the Catholic Church, divided in the three rites of the Latin, Syro Malankara and Syro Malabar cultural entities, there was no occasion to discuss the issue and come to some sort of reasoned and studied response. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai and President of both the multi-rite catholic Bishops Conference of India, CBCI, and the Latin Rite Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, CCBI, ultimately issued a statement urging upon Hazare to call off his hunger strike once it had gone beyond a week.

The Archbishop of Delhi, Vincent M Concessao, himself an activist in his youth, is in fact a founder member of ‘India against Corruption’ (IAC), created by Arvind Kejriwal who he first met ten years ago. Concessao was among several other patrons of the movement, but patently had no say in the policy formulation or day to day activities. Eventually, the Archbishop formally distanced himself from the movement, stressing his continued commitment to the war against corruption. In an explanatory statement, the Archbishop said “corruption is not only illegal it is also immoral, unjust and exploits the helplessness of people who are forced into bribing. “We need an effective Lokpal. However, we cannot set aside the democratic processes. I am in favour of fasts to make a point but fast unto death is not acceptable as life is a gift of God and God alone has the right to take it away”

A more politically nuanced statement was made by the All India Christian Council which, while expressing happiness at the ending of the hunger strike which had put at risk the life of an ageing Hazare, said the council was “even more happy that after a seeming capitulation to mobocracy, Parliament finally asserted its dignity and its sovereign rights. Calling the government inept, the council commended the interventions of Rahul Gandhi who gives a formula that should be looked at, and the draft presented by Aruna Roy.. Hazare’s aides -- specially Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi -- have repeatedly shown they have no faith in a Parliamentary democracy. Both push for a unitarian, even dictatorial, regime where decisions, good or bad, are taken instantly. Hazare patently has been used by these people. The council agreed with Roy and Rahul Gandhi that there must be a series of laws to curtail corruption in various sectors, not just one monolithic and super-ombudsman who can easily become a threat to democracy and national security and unity. For the religious minorities and the Christians in particular, the council felt it was a dangerous precedent where mobs could paralyse the national capital and almost dethrone the elected government of the day, dictating policy and laws. “Tomorrow Hindutva mobs will demand the disenfranchisement of Muslims and Christians as alien religions,” the council cautioned.

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Date: 31/08/2011




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