Dalits and Adivasis: Cannon fodder for Hindutva?

Gujarat's 'mobs' are not a random mix of Hindu activists. Rather, they are the designed outcome of the RSS-VHP-BJP strategy to weaken Dalit-Adivasi activism and turn it against Gujarati Muslims.

One of the most cruel ironies of the violence in Gujarat is the significant participation in that state-supported anti-Muslim pogrom by the 'subaltern' classes of Hindus, in particular Dalits and, to an extent, Adivasis (indigenous tribal people who are not quite Hindus). These are the very same forces whose self-assertion in the 1980s was seen as a major threat by the upper caste Hindus who proceeded to crush it.

In fact, it is impossible to understand the strong roots that Hindutva has struck in Gujarat's society and politics and the success that communalism has come to enjoy in that state without understanding the origins of the consolidation of the rule of the upper castes, particularly of Brahmins, Banias (traders), and the patidar (upwardly mobile land-owning) Patels.

These origins go back to the formation of a social coalition known as KHAM (Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) conceived of by the left-leaning Congress strategist, the late Jinabhai Darji. The KHAM strategy, based on the "core minorities" and the lowcaste groups known in Gujarat as Kshatriyas, was itself a part of a new political mobilisation that Indira Gandhi tried to evolve in the late 1970s/early 1980s. This sought to distance the Congress from its dependence on uppercaste Hindu groups such as Brahmins and Marathas. It represented a major attempt at "political engineering" based on the common interest of these groups in gaining access to political power from which they had been excluded for long decades, if not centuries, by the "twice-born".

The KHAM coalition won the state legislature elections in Gujarat in 1980. The upper castes rightly saw it as a challenge to their established hegemony and mounted a militant agitation against the policy of positive discrimination in favour of Dalits and Adivasis, which in India takes the form of reservations of specific quotas in government jobs and in access to education. The agitation was targeted at Dalits in Gujarat's major cities and it managed to weaken KHAM by putting it politically on the backfoot.

The anti-reservation agitation was followed in 1985-86 by another street-level upper-caste protest against a proposal to implement a version of the Mandal Commission report in Gujarat — via affirmative action in favour of the low castes in the Hindu hierarchy, technically called OBCs (Other socially and economically Backward Classes). This too was an extremely violent campaign to resist any dilution and sharing of the power that upper caste Hindus had hitherto monopolised in Gujarat.

None other than Narendra Modi led this violent conservative right-wing agitation. To this day, he recalls his role in it with pride. Modi rose rapidly within the hierarchy of the RSS and BJP thanks to his able stewardship of this movement. He was honoured by being given charge of drawing up a detailed plan of Lal Krishna Advani's rathyatra in 1990 to canvass support for the cause of demolishing the Babri mosque and building a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The 1980-82 and 1985-86 agitations were crucial in creating an ideological and political base, as well as the organisational support structure and cadres necessary for the BJP's growth and consolidation in Gujarat — itself a remarkable story of spectacular gains leading to the longest uninterrupted and undiluted role of that party in any state of India. It is precisely the leaders, planners, strategists, crowd-gatherers, and arsonists of the agitations of the 1980s that provided leadership and organisational muscle to the Hindutva pogrom in progress in Gujarat, now in its third month. Yet, paradoxically these upper caste leaders and cadres seem to have been joined by a minority of their own erstwhile victims — namely, Dalits and Adivasis.

What explains this?

The best possible hypothesis, based on a degree of oversimplification, would appear to be a combination of four factors. The first factor is the crucial role played by the collapse of the cotton textile mill industry in Gujarat, particularly in Ahmedabad, which had concentrated a large 200,000-strong workforce within itself. This labour force was amazingly plural and diverse in its composition, including workers belonging to different religious, ethnic, linguistic and caste groups.

This plurality, and the bonds of solidarity – some of them consciously nurtured by the Majoor-Mahajan Sangh with its Gandhian ideology and its conscious promotion of programmes such as adult education, primary health centres, library and sports clubs, had acted as a strong dampener on previous episodes of communal violence which recurred in Ahmedabad since 1969.

The closure of the textile mills in the 1980s and 1990s meant not only the loss of more than 100,000 jobs, but the collapse of a whole social infrastructure and culture, and the growth of pauperisation and destitution among Ahmedabad's working class. As sociologist Jan Breman says, "it comes as no surprise that the front organisations of the sangh parivar were able to mobilise mercenaries from the lumpenised milieu of subaltern castes to assist in the operation of killing, burning and looting" in the latest episode of violence (Economic and Political Weekly, 20-26 April).

The transition was itself linked to the hardening, lumpenisation and morphing of capitalism in Gujarat into its neo-liberal avatar. As Breman says: "During the struggle for national freedom in the first half of the 20th century, Indian leaders made promises to the working class for a better deal… Although repeated again this pledge has fallen into abeyance in the postcolonial era. The brand of lumpen capitalism that came to dominate… is based on an ideology of social-Darwinism, could not care less about the urgent need to raise labour standards and shows precious little interest in increasing the dignity of the working poor."

Given the demobilisation of the working class and its total marginalisation in Ahmedabad's social life, the Hindutva forces have had a free run, gathering some support from pauperised, desperate subaltern castes and classes.

A second factor is the effort of a number of Hindu organisations and religious cults in Gujarat – where they happen to be particularly strong – to project Hindutva consciousness in ways that would make it relatively attractive or acceptable to subaltern or plebeian layers. This has a long history. Thus, way back in the 1920, recounts JNU scholar and Gujarat sociological expert Ghanshyam Shah, the Hindu Mahasabha floated the Bharat Sevashram and Hindu Milan Mandir which argued for "cooperation and unity" of the upper and lower castes.

These organisations consciously represented lowcaste Hindus as hard-working and suffering, but strong "salt of the earth" who were discriminated against and humiliated. More recently, the VHP has tried to build on the same appeal. KK Shastri, one of its prominent leaders, says: "All Hindus should unite against 'vidharmis' (people of other religions)… 'Savarna' (upper castes) Hindus should now become alert and not widen the gap between the castes. They must compromise with the Dalits…"

Similarly, movements like Swadhyay, Gayatri Parivar, and Swaminarayan have followed the same "Hindu unity" perspective, says Shah. They emphasise the dignity of labour, pride of individual identity and unity of all Hindus. These cults have politically moved close to the RSS and BJP over the past decade or so. This has made it easier for some Dalits and OBCs to aspire to the Sanskritisation process – of upgrading themselves within the Hindu hierarchy. The use of symbols like the sword, the trishul and the saffron flag has helped to create a semblance of "unity" and widened the appeal of some aspects of Hindutva to low-caste groups.

A third reason pertains to the virtual collapse of the Dalit Panthers, a radical movement of Gujarat's Dalits which acquired great prominence during the early and mid- 1980s. As Valjibhai Patel, one of its leaders, says, there has been a generational change in the leadership, along with the growth of the Dalit middle-class, who are conscious of their individual rights, but reluctant to participate in collective or solidarity actions.

The decline and near-collapse of the Panthers has produced a great deal of demoralisation. Says Patel, "With this new generation it seems everything has changed. They have forgotten resistance against injustice and atrocities… Their capacity for retaliation and assertion has declined … So-called Dalit leaders and organisations have almost become captives of political leaders …" Some of these Dalits were lured by inducements offered by the RSS-VHP-BJP. Anti-communal activist Teesta Setalvad reports that over the past few years, scores of them were put on the Hindutva groups' payroll with a monthly "honorarium" of INR 1500 or more. The effort to recruit them got a big boost with the Ram temple agitation beginning last December, and Gujarat sent karsevaks to Ayodhya in large numbers – much larger than any other state – prior to the horrible Godhra episode, which was itself the result of an over-reaction to the karsevaks' harassment of Muslims during the preceding week.

A fourth, altogether different, factor explains the involvement of the Adivasis, especially in and around Godhra town, the headquarters of the predominantly tribal Panchmahals district, and in the Bhil belt of Chotaudaipur and south-central Gujarat. This is related to economic tensions between the Advasis and Muslims, particularly the Bohras, who are the dominant group of moneylenders in the area.

The vast majority of Adivasi households in Gujarat are heavily indebted and are forced to borrow money at usurious rates of interest as high as 120 percent a year. A significant proportion have lost their land and other means of livelihood and got embroiled in petty crime, including bootlegging thanks to prohibition, which exists in Gujarat alone among all the Indian states.

Some of these Adivasis became willing accomplices of the VHPBJP's upper-caste Hindu goons. "This was done through bribery and inducement," says GN Devy, scholar-activist working among the tribals bordering Baroda. "This was the Hindu bania moneylender's offer to lower the interest rate from 120 to 80 percent in order to squeeze their main economic rivals, the Bohras, and to win over the Adivasis to the Hindutva plan to kill Muslims."

The effect was greatly enhanced by generous free supplies of alcohol to the Advasis, along with the promise of impunity from legal prosecution. Some of them joined hardcore VHP workers in leading the mobs that lynched Muslims in Godhra and Chotaudaipur.

The participation of Dalits and Adivasis in India's worst-ever pogrom or ethnic cleansing of Muslims is truly regrettable. It is all the more deplorable because Hindutva in the last analysis cannot possibly overcome its parochial narrow upper-caste orientation and core-base and promote "Hindu unity", itself a myth. Rather, it will deviously use these subaltern groups as cannon fodder and eventually turn against them with the same fury as it demonstrated against the Muslims — indeed, against these very communities, as it did in the 1980s.

Yet, Dalit-Adivasi participation in the Gujarat pogrom is likely to occasion some reflection among activists in these communities — if only because parties like the Congress, which have traditionally had a base among them, have at last become assertive against Modi and his ilk, and because Gujarat's Muslims have shown remarkable restraint and sobriety even in the face of the gravest of provocation. All secular political and social activists should build on the possibilities of reconciliation that this opens up. Dalits and Adivasis must not be allowed to become victims of the upper castes' manipulation.

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Himal Southasian