Meet the IITians who quit jobs, businesses to enter politics for the Dalit cause
More than 50 IIT alumni have formed a political party to work for the Dalit cause. Without any grassroots experience and support of a mainstream political outfit, how far can they go?
Last week, 26-year-old Naveen Kumar had to cut short his Patna trip to participate in a discussion at Lok Sabha TV’s Delhi studio about the state of Dalit politics in India and the idea behind the Bahujan Azad Party (BAP).
Kumar is part of the team of 50 Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumni who quit their jobs and businesses to launch BAP in early April this year. The reservation-based system has enabled them to get through to IIT. They now intend to work for marginalised groups through their party.
Most of the BAP founders are from Bihar and have graduated from IITs in Delhi and Kharagpur over the past five years. They have got the party name registered with the Election Commission and wish to get the weighing scale as their election symbol to debut in the Bihar assembly elections of 2020.
“We are getting an overwhelming response from like-minded people across the country. We don’t have the wherewithal to contest elections in all states but we want to make sure that we go to all the states in which people want to have a dialogue with us,” said Kumar, sporting a black Che Guevara beret, sitting on a bench at the IIT Delhi campus along with his friends and party members.
Disgruntlement with mainstream political parties is the primary reason for launching BAP, said its members. Kumar left his village in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district to pursue B.Tech in Textile Technology at IIT Delhi. He graduated in 2015 and decided to prepare for the Civil Services exams.
Around the same time, he said, he began to closely observe the relationship between the Dalit community and political parties, particularly how genuine the parties were in improving the condition of the community.
Kumar said that “increasing corruption in the Congress, apart from kitchen politics” led to the BJP forming the government at the centre in 2014. But he doesn’t give a clean chit to the BJP either. “Being a Brahaminical party, the BJP has ignored the lower castes,” he said.
He also has no hope in the established regional parties of the Hindi heartland. “Leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav who emerged from the JP movement and were supposed to fight the Congress, are now pro-Congress. On the other hand, leaders such as Nitish Kumar and Ramvilas Paswan, who originally wanted Sangh-mukht Bharat, now support the BJP. Kanshiram established the BSP for the Bahujan samaj but today his disciples appear to be puppets of Brahmins,” he claimed.
Sarkar Akhilesh, 29, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus and BAP co-founder, said that University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the lynching of Dalit men in Una (Gujarat) for allegedly skinning a dead cow, both in 2016, strengthened his belief and that of his friends from marginalised communities that the traditional parties have failed them. “When we raise issues of privatisation, employment and social injustice, the government machinery comes down heavily on us. They beat girls on the Banaras Hindu University campus. Young leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Chandrashekar and Hardik Patel, who challenge the government, are treated like hardened criminals,” he said.
‘Go, study at home’
In BAP, the line between the personal and the political is blurred. Before they formed BAP, the IIT alumni tried to address gaps in education system in rural Bihar, something all of them experienced first-hand. In 2008, Akhilesh co-founded the Mauka Foundation study centre in Sitamarhi to provide free coaching to school students. Two years later, Vikrant Vatsal, a resident of Bihar’s Muzaffarnagar district, established Friends of Bihar and Jharkhand, a website that offered online education and mentorship programmes to village students who wanted to crack the Joint Entrance Exam. Education, as their own experiences have taught them, hasn’t been easy for Dalit students.
Vatsal, one of BAP’s co-founders, vividly remembers his school teachers discouraging him from attending classes because he was an OBC. “Go study at home” was what they would tell me, this was their only interaction with me,” he said. “Caste discrimination continued at IIT. We found ‘SC, ST are not allowed in the campus’ written on the hostel walls. There is discrimination in recruitment of SC, ST professors and even in marks distribution,” said Vatsal.
While both the Mauka Foundation and Friends of Bihar and Jharkhand continue to run, the people behind them realised that they had to take the political plunge to bring about positive changes in their communities. “There is a reason why Dr Ambedkar said that the political key is the master key. Now we understand why,” said Akhilesh. “By working on the educational aspect, we can intervene in an important but limited capacity. Politics allows us to work on a much bigger canvas. It touches everyone’s life,” he added. BAP members claimed that they have been getting positive feedback from like-minded individuals in and outside political parties in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. “We are not committing to anyone yet. We are just gauging the mood,” said Kumar.
The BAP members, however, seemed unclear how they can be more than another Dalit party. But these are early days for the new outfit. It, however, seems firm on one point: the findings of numerous reports and committees pertaining to the Dalit community, minorities and women should be implemented at the earliest. Reservation in proportion to population for the SCs, STs, OBCs and 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, land reforms and implementation of affirmative action in the private sector are BAP’s priorities, as listed in the party’s handouts.
“People belonging to SC, ST and OBC communities together make more than 80 per cent of the country’s population. Yet, their representation in various sectors including public policy and decision making is nil,” said Akhilesh. The party’s tagline –– Hum is desh ke shaasak hain (We are rulers of this country) –– at this point, therefore, seems just wishful thinking.
“We don’t have a target group or votebank. We are against majoritarianism, casteism and patriarchy,” he said.
Those keeping a close watch on Dalit politics are doubtful if the BAP can become the game changer for the community. Vivek Kumar, JNU faculty and author, India’s Roaring Revolution: Dalit Assertions and New Horizons, said: “By deciding to go solo, they have undermined the legacy of the Dalit movement. They should have reached out to various leaders working for the community to explore if they could collaborate with them. It is not fair to claim that everyone has failed.”
Ashok Bharti, chairman, National Confederation of Dalit Organisations, agreed. “The concept of Bahujan is a fractured concept. Any new party at this stage will only confuse the community. They should have worked with the BSP that has been trying to uphold the values of the Bahujan samaj,” he said.