Dalit tourism: When defeat finds a parent

Bharatiya Janata Party Parliamentarian Udit Raj is right in slamming his own party leaders’ stunt of eating at Dalit homes. This practice “neither empowers the Dalit families nor benefits the politicians. Rahul Gandhi is an example of it.” It is actually worse: it makes Dalits look like people who ought to be pitied and sympathized with, the condemned souls that deserve BJP leaders’ compassion; it’s like ruling party bosses telling them, ‘We care about you.’ Notice we and you, us and them. It’s a hole in the socio-political continuum that nobody is interested in filling up.

In fact, what is really problematic is the very fact that such a drive can be conceived and carried out in this day and age. Has any BJP leader, or for that matter Rahul Gandhi, ever made a spectacle of eating at the home of a Brahmin, Rajput, or even a Muslim? Why should dinner at only a Dalit home become news? Or, to be precise, made news by the guests?

A century and a half ago, inter-caste dining was promoted by socio-religious reformers; at that time, it was a bold, revolutionary move; it required tons of guts, intellectual integrity, and moral courage to break the age-old, religiously sanctioned customs and to take on the orthodox. That was then; the objective was virtuous and selfless; the men and women taking the initiative were great humanists. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then; the objective of contemporary inter-caste dining is selfish—getting Dalit votes; and the folks doing this are mean politicians.

Three points need to be made here. First, the ruling party tends to believe that the chasm between Dalits and others is age-old and natural. So, Union Minister Uma Bharti said at a rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, “I am not Lord Ram who will be able to purify the Dalits by dining with them. When Dalits come to our house and eat together it is then that we will become pure.” Further, she said, “My house gets blessed when I serve Dalit with my hands in my house.”

The purity-pollution complex, which has been the bane of Hinduism, was also detectable in the remarks of the UP Cabinet minister Rajendra Pratap’s. He said just like Lord Ram blessed Shabari (a Dalit) by eating his berries, BJP leaders are blessing Dalits by going to their homes. The phraseology of decadent Hinduism litters the so-called Dalit tourism—purification, blessings, et al.

Second, socialism or welfarism has blended perfectly with the worst notions of Hinduism: only important people like politicians can ‘bless,’ ‘purify,’ and redeem Dalits. The diligence, intelligence, capabilities, faculties, and enterprise of Dalits are of little worth; only the grace of the powerful can deliver them.

Third, the powers that be believe that tokenism can substitute for good governance. There are reports from all over the country, especially from rural areas, about atrocities against Dalits. Bridegrooms from the community are not allowed to ride horses; many have been beaten on suspicion of having killed cattle; their economic conditions have scarcely improved. Against this backdrop, token measures like dining at their households cannot endear politicians to the community.

On top of that, even such condescending steps are flaunted with brazenness. For instance, Uttar Pradesh Education Minister Anupma Jaiswal said, “Schemes are made for benefitting all the sections and to ensure proper implementation, ministers are paying several visits, even if mosquitoes bite them all night.”

What she was saying was: ‘Look, what sacrifices we make for you! We bless your pathetic households despite great physical discomfort to us!’ It didn’t occur to the Honorable Minister that her statement is also a comment on the poor amenities her administration provides to the Dalit localities.

But Jaiswal is only regurgitating what the top leadership wants the BJP to do. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who last month had appealed the lawmakers of his party to spend at least one night in villages where there are 50 per cent or more Dalits. It is astonishing to see the man who wants to extirpate the Congress from India adopt a failed tactic of the grand old party. As Udit Raj pointed out, the Rahul Gandhi’s poverty tourism came a cropper in 2014.

Victory has a thousand fathers, John F. Kennedy said, but defeat is an orphan. At least in India, defeat is lucky enough to find a parent. Modi is an example.