The most disturbing aspect of Dalit protests that brought entire Mumbai to a standstill on Wednesday and inflicted massive damage on state resources and properties was not just the violence itself that took the life of one more youth, but the normalisation of it.
Democracy ensures the right to air grievances and lodge protests, not resort to violence. When protests lead to violence, it must be curbed or at least questioned — regardless of its identity or character. Failure to do so results in condoning it. This is dangerous in a country such as India whose superstructure is built on a rainbow coalition of faiths, ethnicities and identities. Condoning one act of violence will unleash genies that cannot be rearrested.
Even as media telecast non-stop the footage of thuggish conduct by Dalit protestors amid calls for a statewide bandh, the Devendra Fadnavis government (rightly) came in for a lot of flak for failing to curb rioting and vandalism. Yet not even once was the onus of hooliganism put on the mob or leaders who had incited it. And as if to confirm the narrative, the administration and its entire law and order machinery stood by and steadfastly looked the other way.
The scale of the violence was staggering. Media reports indicate a 16-year-old boy was crushed to death by a mob who had gathered around a police station in Nanded. Indian Express reports that two officers and eight constables were injured in clashes in Aurangabad, another nine injured in Mumbai while five cops were hit by missiles in Latur. A BJP MLA’s office was vandalised in Chandrapur, more than 55 buses were damaged, arterial Mumbai trains were stopped in tracks, traffic halted, businesses, shops and commercial establishments forcibly shut. Schools remained closed and exams were affected.
Times of India reports that the mob tried to set alight a police station in Powai. The newspaper says 20 cops were injured in the attack and some police bikes were set on fire. Around 90 BEST buses were also damaged and four drivers sustained injuries from glass shards.
While all of this was being reported and telecast, Prakash Ambedkar, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) leader who had called for a bandh on Wednesday, appeared on TV screens and nonchalantly denied the violence. He told Sanjay Sawant of Firstpost, “I want to congratulate the protesters for keeping their calm when emotions were running high.”
For his blatant denial of violence despite the presence of live footage, the BBM leader faced no media scrutiny from otherwise irascible TV anchors who usually double as interrogators. There were no questions asked why “protests” would lead to widespread violence despite lack of any provocation.
It wasn’t as if the protestors were chased or accosted by the cops. In fact, despite the adequate deployment of forces in sensitive locations, violence continued unabated because cops were reportedly under instructions not to act. Times of India quotes affected citizens in reporting that police failed to tackle miscreants even on sight and in some areas were found even “escorting” the angry mobs. A BJP minister told the newspaper that police were asked to play it cool instead of using physical force. Instructions apparently came from the party high command.
Contrast the Maharashtra cops’ kid-glove approach in tackling Dalit aggression with other caste-related violence in India. Identity-based agitations are nothing new. In most cases when protests turn from peaceful to violent, the law and order machinery kicks in. Be it the Jat quota agitation in Haryana, demand for Gorkhaland in West Bengal or Patidar stir in Gujarat, violence has nearly always been met with censure. Patidar leader Hardik Patel has been arrested multiple times for his conduct. (See here and here).
In some cases, the boundary between peaceful protests and blatant violence wasn’t crossed despite grim provocations. Last year’s Maratha agitations that stemmed from the brutal rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar and later grew in scope to include demands for quota in education and jobs never once descended into violent behaviour.
It was strange, therefore, to see protestors paralyse parts of Maharashtra on Wednesday, cops refusing to act, media failing to ask questions and politicians blaming widespread destruction on everyone but the perpetrators.
Dalits doubtless have suffered historical, institutional caste oppression and a denial of history. Their anger is rooted in legitimate grievances. But should that grievance be taken as an allowance to indulge in violent conduct?
If violence is allowed to assume an identity and administration becomes selective in implementing law and order, then the underpinnings of civil society are threatened and the social contract comes unstuck. Stripped to the bone, every act of violence can be taken to mean lawful resistance. This is a slippery slope.
It is not hard to grasp why the Indian society finds it difficult to meet Dalit assertiveness with firmness. On the one hand, it is driven by a memory of institutional and civilisational oppression that a still casteist Hindu society is unable to look in the eye. On the other hand, Dalit assertiveness falls in a sweet political spot. The BJP doesn’t want to take a misstep and be dubbed as “anti-Dalit”, and the combined Opposition wants precisely that outcome.
This explains why the Fadnavis government went out of its way not to censure the rampaging mob. It also explains why Parliament reverberated with cries of ‘atrocities against Dalits that sparked violence’ without even once condemning the actions of those who indulged in blatant aggression. Violence is a short step away from assertiveness and in this case, it slips through the cracks of political compulsions. The price could be too steep for India in the bargain.