The Rowlatt Act of 1919 has been on top of the reading list of several BJP leaders for the past few weeks, 99 years after the British passed it. The reason for this renewed interest is another Act—the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which has triggered an internal struggle in the party. The conflict between the BJP’s Dalit outreach and its attempt to keep its elite-caste core votebank in good humour threatens to unravel the party’s best-laid plans for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The first few refresher lessons on the Rowlatt Act on social media actually came from some of the ‘savarnas’ or elite castes. Comparisons were made between the “dictatorial” SC/ST Act and the Rowlatt Act. Point-by-point comparison was made between the two—“both allow arrests of Indians without a warrant, both allow keeping Indians in jail for an indefinite period of time, both are dictatorial…” Amid calls to boycott the BJP and choose the NOTA option, a group calling itself the ‘Bharatiya Vikas Manch Arakshan Virodhi Sangathan’ claimed, “After Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Narendra Modi is the second prime minister who will be remembered for conspiring against the savarnas.”
Ironically, the provisions of the same Rowlatt Act—officially, the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act—were cited by those on the other side of the debate too. Writing about Dalit leader and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, columnist Aakar Patel stated that his arrest under the National Security Act (NSA) last year “without a case” against him was reminiscent of the colonial government’s Rowlatt Act that allowed arrest of any Indian without a trial. “No dalil, no vakil, no appeal,” is how one newspaper had then described the Rowlatt Act.
While Patel uses this to describe Chandrashekhar’s arrest, an elite-caste BJP leader, who recently read the colonial law, uses it to describe the arrests that can be made under the SC/ST Act. With the elite castes alleging they were being misused to target them, the provisions of the 1989 law had been modified by the Supreme Court. It was seen as dilution of the SC/ST Act and led to widespread protests by the SC and ST communities earlier this year. Fearing an electoral backlash from the SCs and STs, who comprise 25 per cent of India’s population, the government moved to amend the law in the monsoon session of Parliament. It re-introduced the earlier provisions, effectively overturning the Supreme Court’s verdict. The move drew a backlash from the elite caste groups, who called for an all-India bandh on September 6 demanding restoration of the safeguards the court had provided against immediate arrest of a person booked under the law.
Ever resentful about the party’s wooing of the Dalits and the OBCs, this backlash has become the rallying point for the BJP’s elite-caste votebank. The BJP’s campaign in poll-bound Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had to be suspended as elite-caste protesters took to the streets against the “kaala kanoon” (black law). BJP’s poll managers in Madhya Pradesh are said to be desperately trying to placate the Brahmins and Vaishyas, who together account for nearly 10 per cent of the total population. A number of elite castes are also seeking reservations.
Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad
Even as the party top brass put their heads together to find a way to assuage the savarna rage, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh decided to withdraw charges under the NSA against Chandrashekhar and released him on September 15, with an eye firmly on the 2019 general elections.
A senior BJP leader tells Outlook that the party is still trying strike a balance between the two competing interests as both are equally important for them. As of now, the scales seem to be tilting towards the Dalits, whose support helped the BJP win big in Uttar Pradesh, both in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 assembly polls.
Kalraj Mishra, a senior BJP parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh, says elite-caste anger does not augur well for the saffron party.
“The BJP had managed to get the support of non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav backward castes in Uttar Pradesh. Also, with Chandrashekhar out now, a new battle for Dalit votes is starting with BSP supremo Mayawati not willing to work with the young leader. How can the BJP back out now?” remarks a BJP general secretary, who insists the Modi government is committed to safeguarding the interests of backward and the marginalised. But Kalraj Mishra, a senior BJP parliamentarian from UP, strikes a note of caution, saying elite-caste anger does not augur well for the BJP. “The SC/ST Act is being misused on the ground, leading to social tensions. Innocent people are being framed and arrested,” the Brahmin leader tells Outlook, urging all political parties to come together and make changes to the law.
An elite-caste MP from Bihar regrets the confusing signals the BJP is sending. “The problem is that the BJP is taking the upper castes for granted,” he says. “Just now, the party is listening to Ram Vilas Paswan and other Dalit leaders. The party believes the Brahmins, the Banias, the Rajputs and the Bhumihars are captive voters who won’t go anywhere else. They are mistaken. They have the NOTA option on the EVMs. Or maybe they won’t come out to vote, reducing the party’s votes.”
The party should remember the lessons from the bypolls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur where lack of enthusiasm among the BJP’s core voters led to embarrassing defeats when they just didn’t turn up to vote, says the MP, who hopes some urgent counter-measures would be adopted before it’s too late.
Badri Narayan, professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, believes the elite castes have already started moving away from the BJP. “They feel they have been abandoned by the BJP. Not just the BJP, nobody is speaking for them,” he says. “Due to the resentment, I believe the savarna vote is already split. As of now, 60 per cent will still go with the BJP. However, if their mobilisation happens and the anger increases, the percentage of votes in favour of the BJP will keep going down as the elections approach.” According to him, the elite-caste vote may move to the Congress where it is in a direct fight with the BJP, or even to the ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) where it is in a position to defeat the saffron party.
The academic thinks it is unlikely that the BJP will reap any electoral benefit from Chandrashekhar’s release. “Whatever victory the Dalits get, they believe they have fought hard for it. I don’t think such a move will translate into votes for the BJP,” he says. The central leadership of the BJP does not have a plan to deal with the situation as of now. “We can only hope to appeal to the savarnas, who have been our staunch supporters, to understand the electoral compulsions of reaching out to the Dalits and the OBCs,” says a senior BJP leader.
That may not be enough. Like the BJP MLA for Ballia, Surendra Singh, says, “Even we are under pressure from our voters.”