The decision by the Modi government to bring a bill to address the situation arising out of the Supreme Court decision to strike down a key provision of the law dealing with atrocities against Dalits removes a major ground of discontent among the backward classes. The court decision had created such distrust among Dalit communities that even BJP allies in NDA felt compelled to join the protest. In fact, Dalit leader and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan had written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh opposing the appointment of one of the judges who issued the verdict as the new chief of the National Green Tribunal, as it gave the impression that the judge was being rewarded for the landmark decision that struck at the root of Dalit protection. Paswan also wrote to the PM seeking the introduction of a bill during the current session of Parliament to restore the struck-down provisions of the law. The government has obliged, with the Union Cabinet approving the draft of the new bill.
The issue had snowballed into a major controversy that questioned the very approach of the Modi government towards the downtrodden and it began to appear that the court action would prove to be the nemesis of the Modi government, although it had nothing to do with the order per se. But there was widespread feeling among the affected communities that the Modi government was not doing anything to overcome the situation. This prompted all Dalit elements to come together and launch an all-India strike on August 9. What would now happen to the strike call is not known, as there may still be other issues that agitate the backward classes.
It is difficult to say whether the stringent laws relating to atrocities against Dalits, providing for summary arrest of the accused, was effective enough to stop violence against the backward classes. For, despite the existence of such laws, the Dalit communities have been facing violence and other serious violations. Still, the striking down of the provision created a new sense of fear and uncertainty in the minds of the communities. It was taken as a symbolic strike against Dalit assertion, which is increasingly finding manifestation in different ways, including violent protests.
Symbolism has been the staple diet of the Indian Establishment’s response to the demands and aspirations of Dalit communities, whose old generation of leaders were contended with make-belief solutions. But a new crop of Dalit leadership is emerging, which is questioning the old approach and adopting a more aggressive posturing. This is causing worries not only to governments, but also to the traditional Dalit leaders, whose relevance is increasingly being challenged. And this is what lends urgency to more result-oriented action, the introduction of the bill being one such step.