Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Gohana and the Limits of "Dalit" Politics?

In a departure from my usual practice, this post won't have me rambling (or not for too long anyway) -- rather, I paste excerpts from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights' preliminary report on the Gohana basti-burning below. What should outrage about these incidents is not their shocking irregularity, but their depressing recurrence, on scales larger and smaller than this one. In Haryana itself a few years ago, five Dalits were killed in Jhajjar based on accusations that they had killed cows; in Bihar 61 Dalits were massacred by the Ranveer Sena in December 1999 (lower casualty assaults are seemingly a daily affair). The Gohana incident is generating a firestorm, hardly surprising given the mood of Dalit self-assertion that has taken root over the last decade or two -- it's a welcome change in my view, but the recurrence of such incidents raises questions about who is paying attention (yes that is a rhetorical question; don't bother commenting purporting to answer).

But Gohana raises questions about the efficacy of the Dalit movements too; or perhaps, more accurately, provides some answers as to the limits of the Dalit movements. Consider: the very "Dalit-orientation" of the Dalit movements narrows their appeal (particularly in an era where it seems that in some states every three reasonably populous jatis have "their own" political party), ensuring that even if a party like, say, the Bahujan Samaj Party comes to power, it will do so in coalition with those who have no truck with the BSP's agenda.

The result is an over-emphasis on the politics of symbolism by the likes of the BSP. Such counter-symbolism or subversive symbolism is essential, but with the BSP one often gets the sense that its symbolism conceals a poverty of strength, and perhaps of ideas as well.

The solution? No clue; but it seems clear that as long as "Dalit pride" and Dalit dignity is only on the agenda of "Dalit parties" (at least in a meaningful way; no the Congress' "Harijan" rhetoric does not qualify; yes Digvijay Singh that does mean you have little future in the party), that agenda is not going to get very far. A broader, "Bahujan-based" politics might get further, but the practicalities of organizing and forging such a political solidarity are enormous, particularly in light of the Ambedkarite movements' worst-kept secret: that in contemporary India, Dalit conflict with non-Dalit jatis typically takes the form of Dalit-OBC conflict (check out two pieces by Chandrabhan Prasad in his typical take-no-prisoners style: One; two)

Yet again (I know, I know, I sound like a broken record) I recommend Nicholas Dirks' Castes of Mind; at a minimum, read one chapter, and then read the excerpts from the NCDHR report below:

A Preliminary fact Finding Report

ByN. Paul Divakar-- National Convenor, NCDHR
Dr. Vimal Thorat-- National Co-Convenor, NCDHR
Ms. Shabnam Hashmi-- ANHAD
Dr. Umakant-- Secretary-Advocacy, NCDHR
And Others

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR)8/1, 2nd Floor, South Patel Nagar, New Delhi-110008Tel: 011-25842249, Tel/Fax: 011-25842250

Website: www.dalits.org

Dalit Houses Burnt Down at Gohana in Haryana

Gohana is a small Tehsil, a local administrative unit, in Sonepat District in the State of Haryana. It is situated about 60 kilometers away from the National Capital, New Delhi. It witnessed a caste rivalry between Dalits and the dominant caste ‘Jats’, culminating into mass exodus of Dalits and finally burning down of about 55 to 60 Dalit houses with full support of local Police from 27 August 2005 upto 31 August 2005. A violent mob of about 1500 to 2000 Jats armed with spears, batons, petrol and kerosene oil went on a maddening spree burning down hoses belonging to a particular Dalit caste ‘Balmikis’, who are other wise called ‘Bhangis’, the manual scavengers.

. . . On 27 August 2005 one Dalit named Shivpal, a resident of Balmiki Basti, went to a Photo Studio to a photograph clicked for himself. At the Photo Studio itself there were some quarrel between Shivpal, another person named Baljit and some others. After this minor scuffle, Shivpal was joined by some other Dalits from the Balmiki Basti and in the fights which ensued Baljit who was Jat by caste died. · The dominant Jat community of Gohana took it as insult on their caste pride and protested with the Police on 27 August itself. . . . happy with the arrest of four Dalits, the Jats convened a Maha Panchayat on 28 August and gave an ultimatum to the Police and Administration that if within 48 hours the culprits are not apprehended and justice done to the Jats, the Jats would burn the entire Balmiki Basti.· Fearing retaliation from the dominant Jat community and also harassment by PoliceDalits in the Balmiki Basti started fleeing from their houses in search of security to their kith and kin in the neighbouring places like Sonepat, Panipat and others from 29 August 2005. It is also alleged that Police was also asking them to leave the Basti.· Around 1500-2000 Dalits living in the Balmiki Basti left their houses by 30 August 2005.· On 31 August, another Maha Panchayat of Jats took place and as it was still going on, a large group of 1500-2000 Jats fully armed with batons, axes, spears, petrol and kerosene oils entered the already deserted Balmiki Basti and started burning the houses. In the entire operation which lasted about four hours, around 55 to 60 Dalit houses were burned by the rampaging mass of Jats.

. . . The tension has been simmering since a long time. The Balmikis and other Dalit families in Gohana have refused over the years to do beggars (forced labour) and also after getting educated have been working at various places engaged in Government jobs and some petty businesses too. The killing of Baljit Singh on 27 August 2005 gave an opportunity to the Jats to teach a lesson to Dalits especially the Balmikis about showing them their place in the society.

The Role of Police and Administration in the Present Crisis· Inaction by the Police and the Administration
. . . Knowing it very well that the killing of a Jat by Dalits might see retaliation from the Jats on Dalits, no preventive measures were taken at all by the Police and the Administration.· It is alleged by the some of the residents of the Balmiki Basti who have now returned to their burned houses that Police itself was forcing them to leave their houses. . . . Another argument by the Police and the Administration that it is very normal and it has happened in the past that Dalits generally desert their houses whenever any criminal activity takes place in Gohana also does not help in explaning that how around 2000 Dalit families were allowed to flee from their houses.· The claim by the Police and the Administration that they have filed cases against 23 persons on charges of arsoning and burning of Dalit houses does not seem to be satisfactory as only two persons have been arrested till date. . . . The Deputy Commissioner of Spnepat, Mr. S.K.Goyal and the Senior Superintendent of Police at Sonepat, Mr. A.K.Roy, have failed to handle this crisis therby leading to large scale caste violence. · So far no arrangement have been made to assess the damage to the property in the Dalit houses by the District Administration.· Neither immediate relief nor any compensation have been provided to the Dalit families.· Mr. Goyal says that Dalits in the Balmiki village are exaggerating the details of damage in order to claim high compensation. . . .

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