Indian Gujarat state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister (CM), Anandiben Patel, has resigned after the state has been rocked since last month by protests against atrocities and attacks on Dalits, the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy.
The protest on July 31 in the state capital Ahmedabad seems to have finally tipped the scales against the incumbent CM when thousands of Dalits, joined, some reports say, by Gujarat’s hard done by Muslims, blocked roads and attacked buses.
This was an unusual show of militancy by the discriminated against but generally quiescent Dalit community.
What has incensed the Dalits to the point where they have taken militant protest action is a series of incidents since the BJP government came to power in 2014 in which Hindutva offshoots of the BJP have been taking vigilante action against cow slaughter in many states across India.
These attacks have led to beatings, torture and deaths at the hands of hard-line ‘gau rakshak’ (defenders of cows) Hindutva vigilantes.
In Gujarat the protests erupted in July when four Dalit men in the city of Una were tied to a car, stripped and flogged by Hindutva vigilantes for allegedly skinning a dead cow.
The incident was recorded on video and went viral, was eventually picked up by TV channels and enflamed the community beyond endurance.
This latest atrocity against Dalits came as the culmination of a series of incidents in which Dalits (and even some Muslims) were attacked on accusations of cow slaughter or eating beef.
Slaughter of cows, considered holy by orthodox Hindus, is banned in most Indian states, including Gujarat. Landless Dalits earn a livelihood (as do some Muslims) by skinning cows and buffalos that have died naturally.
The protests and their fallout in the shape of the resignation of the Gujarat CM come at a particularly sensitive time for the BJP, which faces a state election there next year, as well as in UP, which has also seen some spillover of the Dalit protests.
The BJP is desperately casting around for a replacement for Anandiben Patel, a long-time confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appointed her as his successor in his home state in 2014.
Having ruled as CM Gujarat for 13 years, Modi is credited with the state’s rapid industrialisation on his watch, a model the BJP pitched successfully as the path forward to prosperity for India’s 1.3 billion people and which won Modi the prime ministership in 2014.
Anandiben Patel’s relatively brief tenure was full of caste-driven strife, first by the peasant-entrepreneurial powerful Patel upper-caste community, whose agitation brought the Gujarat government to its knees and forced it to concede job and education quotas to the relatively well off Patels.
The BJP had barely had time to digest the outcome of that agitation when its young leader, Hardik Patel, was released from prison and greeted by thousands of supporters. If the possibility of that upper-caste agitation being revived were not troubling enough, the provocations of Hindutva hard-liners against Dalits has now confronted the BJP with a lower-caste protest movement that has taken its toll of its sitting CM because of inept handling of the troubles.
It should be recalled that Modi rose to national prominence after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat when he was CM. If those atrocities helped Modi electorally then, 2016 presents an entirely different scenario, with aggrieved Muslims in Gujarat joining hands with the Dalits in a joint movement against the BJP.
The BJP’s troubles, brought on entirely because the Hindutva brigade hard-liners are attempting to impose their religiously motivated ideology on India’s diverse religious, ethnic and caste reality, could translate into political disadvantage in state elections and even take the shine off its development promises.
Quick to take advantage of the opportunity, the Aam Aadmi Party’s leader and CM of New Delhi Arvind Kejri has claimed Patel’s resignation is because of the challenge the rise of his party poses for the BJP.
He adds that the government is arresting his party’s MLAs to harass them, and warns he may be killed by a BJP that has lost its composure.
Whatever the weight of these assertions, the irreducible fact remains that the very hard-line atrocities against Muslims and Dalits that brought the BJP to power are now turning against them. The BJP is discovering just how bitter the fruit of being hoist by its own petard may prove.