Home » Opinion: Congress bid to win back Dalits – The Siasat Daily

Opinion: Congress bid to win back Dalits – The Siasat Daily

by Arifa Rana

Dalits have been described as the reed ki haddi, or the backbone of the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi started the historic battle against Untouchability, as part of his Constructive Programme, alongside his political mission to achieve Indian Independence.
As part of the drive, Gandhiji took notable steps for the cultural and social empowerment of Dalits. Indira Gandhi took this battle to the next level, of economic and political empowerment. Over time, Dalits started drifting away from the Congress.
Why have Dalits deserted and drifted away from the Congress and how can Dalts come back to the Congress-fold?
The Dalit Truth, the book edited by senior Congress leader Koppula Raju, was released by Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi on April 9. In his address, Rahul Gandhi made an important point. It is argued that Constitution is a weapon in the hands of the people. But the Constitution is implemented only through institutions. Now all institutions have been captured by the RSS. As a result, Constitution loses its potency, as there are no institutions for implementing the Constitution. The only way out is to awaken the people, who alone can change this dispensation.
In this book, K Raju seeks answers to the questions as to why they are drifting away from the Congress and how they can be brought back into the party-fold.
K Raju examines the issue in three parts: What the Congress has done for Dalits, which is unparalleled; the Congress losing Dalit Connect; and how can the Congress win the Dalits back to the Congress-fold.
In fact, K Raju cites the instance of Damodaram Sanjeevaiah, the first Dalit leader to become Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister at the age of 40 years and remained in the post from 1960-62 and the first Dalit Congress President in 1962-63. Long before Mandal Commission, Damodaram Sanjeevaiah, as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, introduced 27 percent reservation for OBCs in Government jobs and in educational institutions.
The Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin combine was the mainstay of the Congress electoral base. The party’s political fortunes plunged, after a three-way split in the vote base. Dalits drifted to BSP, Muslims to the Third Front parties and Brahmins shifted en masse to the BJP. The Congress, under Rahul Gandhi, has launched gigantic efforts to reclaim the lost electoral base.
For the accomplishment of this major and momentous task, Rahul Gandhi handpicked K Raju. He has been recently appointed as AICC Observer for SC, ST, OBC, and Minority Departments. K Raju, who served earlier as Secretary of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under NAC Chairperson Sonia Gandhi during the Congress-led UPA Government in 2004, was later appointed as the Chairman of the AICC SC Department in August, 2013, under Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
It signals that K Raju is the Congress pointsperson not just for winning over Dalits, but also the Bahujan, that is to say, Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, and Minorities, who constitute 85 percent of the electorate.
These efforts are critical for the Congress Revival at the national level, ahead of the General Election in 2024.
Mahatma Gandhi’s journey in the Congress commenced with the launch of the long-drawn battle against Untouchability. Gandhiji described Dalits as Harijans; launched Harijan Fund; started working in Harijan-wadas; started the newspaper, The Harijan; encouraged upper-caste Hindus to have Sahpankti Bhojan, sitting alongwith Harijans for meals, in a bid to break the stranglehold of Untouchability; organized their Temple entry movement; forcing the issue of Dalit Equality with other caste Hindus.
Indira Gandhi launched a concerted move for the economic and political empowerment of the Dalits. Dalits and the downtrodden looked up to Indira Gandhi as their veritable icon.
Over time,  the Dalits drifted away from the Congress-fold, almost at a time even the Minorities moved away from the Congress. This resulted in the shrinking of the Congress political and electoral base.
Rahul Gandhi’s political journey began with his single-minded resolve to win the Dalits back to the Congress-fold. Rahul Gandhi stayed overnight in a Dalit house in an Uttar Pradesh village, taking a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, the original and primordial Messiah of Dalits and Minorities in India.
In 1931, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru piloted the Resolution in Karachi Session of the Congress. It reiterated the goal of Purna Swaraj, or Complete Independence, as the goal of the Congress. Besides, it set out in clear terms Equality of all People, signaling a Message of Hope for Dalits and Minorities.
In addition to Fundamental Rights, which protected Civil Liberties, the  Resolution set forth a list of socio-economic principles/rights that the Indian State had to adhere to. The Karachi Resolution, along with the Nehru Report, in a sense, set the direction for the Constitution. In the Constituent Assembly in 1949, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru piloted the Aims and Objects Resolution.
On Mahatma Gandhi’s direction, Dr B R Ambedkar was appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, which had luminaries like Sir B N Rao and M Anantashayanam Ayyangar. It was on Gandhiji’s direction that both Dr B R Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee were appointed Union Ministers, in order to make the Provisional Government as the National Government, which lasted till the First General Election in 1952.
K Raju lists out what the Congress had done for Dalits. Untouchability was outlawed. Rights through Constitutional mechanism were accorded to Dalits and Minorities. This Constitutional arrangement inspired successive Congress Governments to implement schemes such as pre-matric and post-matric scholarships, the establishment of welfare hostels.
Indira Gandhi chalked out concrete schemes for Dalits like financial assistance for livelihood and grant of house-sites, instilling a sense of confidence in the Dalits.
Indira Gandhi’s landmark visit to a remote Belchi village in Bihar, where 11 Dalits were burnt alive, in August 1977, created a wave of sensation.
The saga of her travel, to reach the remote village, first by plane to Patna, then by jeep, tractor and finally on elephant-back, as the road was marshy, in order to be in their midst in their hour of trial and tribulation, touched the hearts of Dalits.
Dalits raised slogans, saying: Indira, tere abhaav mein, Harijan zinda jalaye jate hain, Aadhi roti khaayenge, Indira ko bulayenge (Indira, in your absence, Harijans are being burnt alive; we will eat half-a-roti, but will bring Indira back to power).
Rajiv Gandhi brought the landmark Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Similarly, he created National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation for mobilizing funds for the economic empowerment of Dalits.
From Ambedkar Prism, the book forcefully argues for using the Constitution as a tool for achieving the goal of equality.
K Raju says in his Introduction that statues of Ambedkar, holding Constitution in one hand and showing the way forward with the other, is iconic. “The Dalits are among the world’s largest group of people with a long history of discrimination against them. In their quest for equality, as promised by the Constitution, they have been waging relentless battles against the Caste System. The essays in this book, are about those battles.”
Projecting the adoption of the Constitution as not only marking a political shift but also a social shift, K Raju says, “The Indian Constitution was a Charter of Social Reform, a bold attempt to give freedom to Dalits from a plethora of entrenched hierarchies.”
The Poona Pact of 1932, which was the result of Gandhiji’s opposition to Seperate Electorates for Dalits, decreed by the British as Communal Award on August 4, 1932.
Gandhiji proceeded on fast-unto-death opposing the Communal Award. Gandhiji provided for Reservation for Dalits, which helped them in education and employment.
Major challenge for K Raju remains marrying the Congress Deeds with Ambedkar Diktats, in wooing Dalits back into the Congress-fold.
The Congress faced a stunning setback politically in the just-concluded round of Assembly elections. The silver-lining on the political horizon is BSP Supremo Mayawati giving up the fight launched by Kanshi Ram.
This provides an opportunity for the Congress to go back to the Dalits through outreach programmes, to win them over. The challenge is daunting, but K Raju has an uncanny commitment to the cause, which may eventually crown his efforts with success.
Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.
Views expressed are personal
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