Protests triggered by the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and other Dalit and tribal organizations over Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide have drawn comparisons with the suicide by the Dalit Ph D scholar, Rohit Vemula, in 2016, one that had convulsed campuses across the country.

However, with Ambedkar statues vandalized in certain parts of the country, rallies to safeguard SC/ST reservation, and a Dalit bandh over the alleged dilution of SCs/STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Dalit politics seems to be on the boil.

When people in India were protesting against the irreverence shown to a statue of BR Ambedkar in Mumbai in 1997, news trickled in from New York that a small group of NRIs had expressed their fury over the incident.

The protesters had identified themselves as Dalits. In fact, the projection of Ambedkar as a symbol of Dalit emancipation in the post-Ambedkar era, has harmed the Dalit movement, apart from portraying Babasaheb as a sectarian leader.

What was essentially a crusade against an unjust social order, when Jyotiba Phule laid the foundation of the Dalit movement in Maharashtra more than 100 years ago, has now been denuded to political frivolity by our present-day leaders who are in the process of alienating this class group from mainstream Indian society.

Social tyranny in the 19th century had led Phule in 1875 to organise the Other Backward Castes and the Dalits against the Brahmanical order of Hindu society.

Realising that no movement for the uplift of Harijans would succeed without involving the numerically strong non-Brahmin castes, Phule who belonged to a backward community of Maharashtra roped in the OBCs to the Dalit cause to launch a virulent attack on the orthodoxy of Hinduism and the doctrine of Varnashram based on Manusmriti. It was politically expedient for Phule to equate the OBCs with the Dalits who were called the Bahujan Samaj ~ the class which was oppressed for centuries by the caste Hindus.

In spite of his sustained campaign against Hinduism, Phule could not unite the OBCs and the Dalits, the reason being the upsurge of Hindu nationalism during that period and the subsequent creation of the Indian National Congress (1885).

After Phule’s death in 1890, Shahu Maharaj, also of Maharashtra, revived the Dalit movement and in 1920 he convened the first-ever Depressed Class Conference in Nagpur. Ambedkar had attended this meeting. It was the humiliation suffered as an untouchable in Baroda that drove him to Shahu Maharaj who hated Brahmins and was also against the nationalist movement because of his alliance with the imperialist power.

Ambedkar’s outburst against some non-Harijan social reformers like Ramji Shinde who worked for the uplift of Dalits betrayed his deep-rooted mistrust of people other than the Dalits. Ambedkar did not have the vision of Jyotiba Phule although his hostility towards Hinduism and the Brahmanical order was not less pronounced than that of Phule.

Ambedkar announced in 1935: “Though I am born a Hindu yet would not die a Hindu”. However,it was in 1954 that he finally renounced Hinduism to become a Buddhist at the fag end of his life. The Dalit politics of the Bahujan Samaj proved nothing.

It was merely an extension of Phule’s movement which propounded the theory of plurality of the OBCs and the Dalits. When Kanshi Ram talked of the BSP’s right to rule in the country, he was acutely aware that the Scheduled Castes could never become a dominant social force even if they were united.

In fact, Phule had this vision when he formed the Satyashodhak Samaj, drawing the OBCs and the Dalits to his fold to reduce the caste to a minority status. There were many reasons why the movement did not succeed then, though Ambedkar did achieve his limited goal of giving a place for Dalits in power and in politics with the active support of some radical caste Hindus and social reformers during the movement.

The inherent contradiction in the Dalit movement was its assault on Hinduism as a religion. This was more pronounced than the leaders’ fight against the Hindu social order. In identifying their class enemy, the leaders targeted the Brahmins rather than the Brahmanical order which was the root cause of oppression of the Dalits and other weaker sections of society.

Phule refused to recognise Hinduism as a religion. As he wrote in Marathi: “Hinduism is not a legitimate religion but superstition; a bag of tricks ,a weapon of domination”.

The 19th century Dalit movement witnessed a virulent attack on Hindus who were described as descendants of the Aryan invaders of India. The Aryans were viewed as ruthless aggressors who established Hindu society by imposing Hinduism on the untouchables.

The so-called Harijans were described as the Adi Hindu ~ the Dadas of the North and the Dravidas of the South and as such were held as the undisputed heavenly owners of Bharat that is India. Those who espoused the theory of Hinduism being alien to the Indian subcontinent also rejected the Vedas, the Upanishads and other scriptures such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

This later had an echo down South when E V Ramaswamy Naicker, better known as Periyar( founder of the Dravidas Kazhagam ), led the movement against Dalit oppression and began attacking temples and images of Hindu gods to erase the Brahmanical dominance in Tamil Nadu. However, Periyar who was an atheist turned his rebellion into a separatist movement to establish a sovereign independent Dravidian Republic.

But he failed in his mission. The paradox of the Dalit movement was marked by its acceptance of the caste system of Hindu society on the one hand and the rejection of Manu’s Varnashram on the other. Ironically, it rejects the ancient Vedas but uses its characters in works and speeches to highlight the age-old exploitation of Dalits and OBCs by the upper caste Hindus.

That even Ambedkar failed to give a direction to the Dalit movement was evident from the disillusionment that he suffered in his final years. As a critic of Gandhi he once observed, “This Gandhi age is the dark age of Indian politics”.

Though critical of the Congress and Nehru, Ambedkar also accepted a berth in the Congress government as Law Minister under Nehru. He wanted to die not as a Hindu which he indeed did; but it took him 19 years before he renounced Hinduism.

On the eve of his conversion, he declared that he had told Gandhi that when the time comes for his renouncing Hinduism, “I will choose only the least harmful way for the country… I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land”.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata.)