By K Raveendran
It seems April 2 will for ever remain as a landmark day in the history of Independent India, particularly with regard to Dalit politics, which is acquiring a hitherto undiscovered dimension. The spontaneous response to the Bharat Bandh call – it wasn’t clear by whom until later when more clarity emerged – has rattled the ruling establishments, political parties and above all the current crop of exploitative Dalit political leaders, who claim to represent the country’s 30 crore Dalits.
The protest, which turned violent, leading to large scale loss to public property and at least 9 deaths, hit life across the country, disrupting communication and transport services, including curtailment of train services. Incidents of arson and vandalism were reported from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab, among other states. Hundreds of protesters carrying swords, sticks, baseball bats and flags forced shops and establishments to shut down in across the Hindi heartland. There were also reports of shooting, arson and clashes with police forces. The administrations, both at the Centre and states, were completely caught off guard as they apparently had no clue as to what was coming.
It now turns out that it was a WhatsApp message by a lesser-known Dalit activist from Delhi calling on the country’s Dalits to protest against the dilution of the SC/ST Act that did the trick. The activist, whose name is Ashok Bharti, is now said to be on the radar of intelligence agencies, which are also monitoring the spread of agitation through social media. Ashok is the chairman of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) which strives to emancipate the Dalits, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes from their prescribed roles as the bottom of the hierarchy. Active in 23 states, NACDOR is positioned to mobilise Dalits in over 1,000 locations across India. The reach of his organization perhaps explains the huge response to the bandh call.
After the success of the bandh, Ashok told a television channel that no political party, whether BJP, Congress or BSP, has the slightest clue about the sort of resentment brewing among Dalits in the country right now. “A new crop of grounded, firebrand leaders have just taken over the Dalit community. This is not Mayawati’s preserve anymore. She and the rest better fall in line or fall out of our way,” he said.
April 2 now seems poised to reset the Dalit political dynamics, which used to be centred on a few self-seeking leaders like Mayawati, the Yadav triumvirate of Lalu, Mulayem and Sharad, Ramvilas Paswan etc. Though the Bharat Bandh was marred by widespread violence, which has been condemned by all, its success in vending the Dalit anger is now widely recognised and feared. Ashok has threatened another protest on August 15, which according to him will pale the April 2 protest if certain demands made to the government are not conceded by that time.
Ashok Bharti is bringing to the table a new type of leadership that is set to disrupt the prevailing Dalit political order. Inspired by the life and work of Dr B R Ambedkar, Ashok could well become the inheritor of his legacy. Unlike Gujarat Patedar leader Hardik Patel, Mewani Jignesh and the new breed of Dalit leaders, who are quickly turning out to be run of the mill stuff, Ashok Bharti is an accomplished activist with an impressive record of work.
As the chairman of NACDOR, he is leading the movement against discrimination and injustice based on caste, creed or gender. His influential work to provide fair services to Dalit slum communities in Delhi has given Dalits a national platform to campaign for a more inclusive society. Bridging the gap between these marginalised people, companies and the government, he successfully negotiated with service providers to gain accessible, reliable and fair services such as electricity in Delhi slums.
Beginning with an electricity cooperative in Delhi’s slums, Ashok is reinventing the relationship between poor consumers and service providers and paving the way for an inclusive ownership structure of all civic amenities. He is setting up cooperatives for the distribution of electricity in slums, using a participatory model that is profitable for both the private sector and the consumers. In doing so, he is replacing with quality service what is currently a corrupt system controlled by a power mafia, thereby turning poor people into legitimate consumers, connecting them with the democratic process, and protecting them from extortion as well as harassment from the authorities. His work relating to electricity is backed by his expertise in the area from his career. An officer belonging to the Indian Engineering Services, he has held senior positions with the Gas Authority of India, the Central Electricity Authority and Power Grid Corporation of India, the national power grid, where he served as manager looking after transmission.
His profile, given on the website of Ashoka, one of the largest networks of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with over 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries creating large-scale impact through new innovations, makes impressive reading. Born in Basti Rajaram, a slum for untouchables near Jama Masjid in old Delhi, Ashok was one among seven children. His parents struggled hard to give their children a good education. Ashok, on his own merit, managed to study in Delhi’s Hindu College and then the prestigious Delhi College of Engineering. He later studied manufacturing management for his post-graduate degree in Australia, where he served as president of the international students’ body and, later, as the central representative of the entire students’ body.
“The whole government suffers from a mindset of the upper castes, who are victims of their own guilt and will therefore try to hide their faults,” Ashok had said in response to a report on caste-based discrimination in India by the UN Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues, which had irked the Indian government. He said that if the Indian government had done so well in supporting Dalits, “why have there been thousands of cases of atrocities in the past 25 years? How many perpetrators have been punished?” (IPA Service)