Fuel hikes and rupee drops are urban matters. In rural Uttar Pradesh, the Bharat Bandh gaining steam are the protests centered around what never ceases to matter – one’s caste.
The Constitution might be drawing up to almost seven decades, but the Ambedkarite vision of an India free of caste hostility remains a distant, if not downright impossible, vision. In what has been a reign dotted by innumerable hate crimes against Dalits, Muslims, and other minorities, this time, it is the so-called upper-caste Hindus who are enraged by the actions of the incumbent government. Amendments made by the Modi government to the Schedule Castes and Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (“SC/ST Act”) have sparked off a series of protests across various districts of U.P. and other parts of the country as well.
In March this year, in response to a complaint of ostensible misuse of the SC/ST Act, the Supreme Court had passed an order to the effect that the prior approval of a senior superintendent of police be taken to arrest a person accused of an offence under the act, and that a preliminary inquiry be conducted to ascertain whether a prima facie case has been made against the accused before an FIR is filed. However, in the following monsoon session, the Parliament amended the SC/ST Act dispensing with the requirement of a preliminary inquiry, allowing arrest of an accused on the receipt of a complaint, as well as prohibiting anticipatory bail in such cases – thereby nullified the Supreme Court order in effect. This hurried albeit imperative amendment, while undeniably prompted by the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, has left Modi’s conventional fanbase seething with anger.
In UP’s Mahoba, Chitrakoot and Varanasi districts, upper class Hindus have taken to the streets in huge numbers demanding that the above amendment be reversed, calling it a grave atrocity on the non-SC/ST populace of the country. Though the protests are somewhat peaceful at the moment, the protestors have vowed to continue till their demands are met – with some calling for a pan-Indian Bharat Bandh. As Anil Singh of Varanasi put it, “Unless this black law is repealed by Modi ji, these protests will go on. We will call for an even bigger revolution.”
Last week, the residents of Chitrakoot’s Mau did not get to witness the colourful hustle-bustle of the Thursday special market. Instead, they woke up to the cries of “SC/ST Murdabad! (Down with SC/ST Act)” resounding in the streets. Arvind, all fired up, is of the view that politicians are pursuing a politics motivated by selfish interests. “Gross injustice is being done to 78% of the population, merely to please the other 22% and win their votes. These politicians don’t seem to care whether the 78% live or die. But we, the 78%, are and will remain united as one.”
Not surprisingly, misinformation and rumours are being circulated to sway people. For instance, Abhishek Dwivedi, said, “Earlier, one at least got the chance to defend himself before being arrested, a proper investigation would be carried out. But now, even if someone wrongly accuses you of an offence under the SC/ST Act – he merely has to say it – and you can be put in jail for 6 months, and only after that will there be a hearing! Even the presumption of innocence has been reversed. Instead of the state proving the guilt of the accused, now he has to prove that he is innocent. Modi’s dictatorial rule has wreaked havoc in the country. People are being turned against each other in the name of caste and religion – and now they are trying to drive a wedge amongst the Hindus. This is nothing but vote-bank politics.” This, however, is factually incorrect. The presumption under the law is that if an accused person was previously acquainted with the victim or the victim’s family, it will be presumed that the accused was aware of the victim’s caste or tribal identity. Otherwise, the presumption of innocence continues to operate until the offence is proved by the prosecution, only after which can the accused be awarded the prescribed punishment of six months.
In Mahoba, the bandh wielded least control, with shops, courts and offices open through the day. The local police were deployed across the district to maintain public order, and the Commanding Officer informed us that people had been cooperating.
However, the situation was all the more worse in Varanasi. Not only were all shops closed by the angry crowds, they also broke through the gates of the compound housing the local court and administrative offices and staged a protest in front of the D.M.’s office. The logic of the demonstrators reeked of insecurities peculiar to the privileged classes that feel instantly threatened by any kind of affirmative action taken in the interests of poor and marginalised sections. Dev Bahadur Singh complained of the way meritorious “upper-caste” children suffer at the hands of reservation. “Considering the dearth of jobs in our country, even a well-educated person feels conned looking at his degree. Our children study so hard to secure a good rank in competitive exams but they still are not able to get jobs anywhere in the public sector. Despite this, they are introducing reservation in jobs, promotions, practically everything. And now we have heard that there will be reservation in the private sector too.”
On the other hand, Gopichand Singh applauded the apparently huge sacrifices made by “upper-caste” Hindus for the welfare of backward classes. “Since before independence, no one has had to make the kind of self-sacrifice that upper caste Hindus have. We readily gave up all our land and property for the unity of the nation on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s request. And today, injustice is being done to us again and we are being cast down to favour 28% of the population.”
Mahendra Verma, a Dalit resident of Mahoba, laments the idea behind the ongoing protests. “Those who are against this law and are doing this façade of a Bharat Bandh are entirely wrong. Dalits live in a state of extreme penury, and have been systemically kept away from the education system and all other human development activities since forever. Not only is this law supremely necessary, it must be enforced with full force.”
This Khabar Lahariya article first appeared on Firstpost.