BJP is making inroads among Dalits but at the same time, Dalits come together when they are attacked
Saharanpur, a district known for its woodcraft products in western UP, is in the news for two caste and communal incidents, involving clashes with Dalits. The ongoingin the district, which has now reached the capital New Delhi, suggests a new phase in Dalit politics in UP, closely related to the declining fortunes of the BSP, and efforts by the BJP to bring the Dalits into the ambit of its more socially inclusive Hindutva strategy.
Dalit politics has been through a number of phases in UP related to the strategies pursued by the BSP and rapid social change in the state in recent decades. In the 1990s the construction of Dalit identity by BSP leaders Kanshiram and Mayawati, promoted a radical, anti-upper caste politics, demanding self-respect and dignity. The BSP was still a movement-party, a democratizing force moving downwards to mobilize the smaller and marginal Dalit sub-castes in the poorer regions of UP.
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By the end of the decade two developments introduced significant change: class divisions within the community with rise in literacy and attainment of non-agricultural employment among a small better off section of the Dalits, which coincided with the weakening of identity politics and the return of a desire for development in the state. For the better-off, upwardly mobile, section of Dalits, the improvement of economic status became as important as identity and self-respect and they tended to move away from the BSP, becoming more open to parties that promised economic betterment. This shift has been more marked among the non-Jatav Dalits rather than the Jatavs who form the core constituency of the party.
The second significant change was the attempt in the 2000s by the leadership of a resurgent BJP to widen its social base and incorporate the OBCs and Dalits. While this strategy had begun in the 1990s, under Amit Shah the party began a second round of more strident experimentation with non-Brahmin Hindutva to create a ‘Maha Hindu’ identity which would enable them to both win elections and create a united Hindu force against the Muslim ‘other’. These changes have contributed to fragmentation within the Dalit community, which are visible in Saharanpur.