The violence that swept across northern India during the Bharat Bandh called by various Dalit groups in the month of April rattled the politicians and the observers alike. And another such Bharat Bandh has been called on August 9 to protest the government ‘inaction’ on the Supreme Court verdict on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (or the SC/ST Act).

India has a long and rich history of mobilisations and protests by the Scheduled Castes, but most of them have carefully avoided clashes and violence despite their massive scale.  Why did what was supposed to be another peaceful mobilisation then turn violent and why are apprehensions running high for the bandh of August 9? Even if we keep aside the possible hijacking of the protests by the opposition and vested interests, there are palpable signs of rising Dalit anger and unrest. There are several factors responsible for it.

First is the recent spate of judgments widely seen as detrimental to the interests of the community like the Allahabad High Court verdict that the roster for reservations in the faculty recruitment should be prepared department-wise instead of taking the total number of seats in an institution as a whole. The Supreme Court later upheld it and the UGC promptly issued a circular regarding the same — whereas pro-reservation decisions in the past have languished for years without any action. The department-wise roster drastically reduces the number of reserved posts under the present 13-point roster formula.  Several smaller departments may not even have any reserved posts at all. The SC/STs seats have been virtually wiped out after the judicial verdict.

Then there is a PIL being entertained by the Supreme Court to extend the concept of creamy layer to the SC/STs on the lines of the OBCs. Apart from glossing over the fact that discrimination in the case of SC/STs is based on the identity itself, removal of the so-called creamy layer will lead to several seats remaining vacant due to unavailability of the candidates unless the ‘merit’ criterion is dramatically reduced. This again is a ploy to render the guarantee of representation to the community via reservation ineffective in actual practice.

And then came the verdict on the ‘Atrocities Act’ and the widespread apprehension building up for months reached the tipping point. Among the Dalits, all these instances are being seen as part of a deliberate strategy to dilute the constitutional guarantees and protection they enjoy — a precursor to amending the Constitution itself. And it does not help that the judiciary in India is a closed and socially unrepresentative body. Worse, people are asking why Justice Chinnaswamy Swaminathan Karnan was hounded for holding press conferences and raising allegations against the judiciary, but four senior judges of the Supreme Court were free to do the same as they please? Instead, they were hailed as heroes by the many!

Second point is the toxic mix of social media with identity politics. The amount of fake news today aimed at provocations is staggering. Even protestors in April had no coherent response to as to why exactly they were on the streets. Some thought reservations had been scrapped; others were against rising atrocities against Dalits and so on. Every instance of anti-Dalit violence anywhere is being used to create the impression of a community under siege. Throw in a mix of exaggerated or fake news and the situation is turning explosive.

Third is the dithering of the government in such instances. The lack of clear communication and quick action to assuage the apprehensions of Dalits is all too apparent. Nothing really was done to correct the situation arising due to the University Grants Commission circular until the monsoon session of the Parliament started. Across the country, the recruitment process in the universities and colleges, which in some cases were frozen for a decade, suddenly started on the top gear even while the government said it would file an SLP in the Supreme Court. The reluctance of the UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development to stop the process sent the message down to the towns and villages that decimation of reservations via the judicial route enjoys a tactical support of the government. And that similar shenanigans will soon be extended outside the educational institutes. On its part, the government completely failed to communicate its stand clearly, thanks to the gross incompetence of the HRD and UGC.

Fourth is the stagnancy in the job scenario and reduction in the number of seats in government jobs and, by extension, in reserved seats. Dalits are feeling the squeeze as jobs have been the most important avenue of socio-economic mobility of the community. Unlike others, Dalits, as a community, don’t have enough social or economic capital, leaving them overly dependent on jobs, especially government jobs. And there is no prize for guessing that government jobs are declining and, even where they are available, the vacancies are not being advertised for reasons known only to the government. This has led to a negative perception not only among Dalit castes but across all the castes and communities. Now the overall employment scenario is not as bad as it is being made out by the opposition, but the slowdown in the availability of regular jobs, especially government jobs, is the main issue here.

And increasingly, the government is hiring on temporary or contractual basis without any provision for social representation. The NITI Aayog is the best example of it. It hardly has any SC/ST or OBC representation in the recruitments it has made so far. It supposedly is the premier policy making body, an in-house think-tank of the government. It has no ears on the ground in the case of social and political impact of its policy suggestions. No wonder, its ill-thought out reports and suggestions are adding fuel to the fire like the proposal to grant autonomy to educational institutions. It has been interpreted by most among the SC/ST and OBCs as a move to abolish reservations by diluting the constitutional provisions in the name of autonomy and making higher education a distant dream for most by increasing fees.

It is mainly the employment scenario that is feeding into the anxiety and unrest and not the technicalities of the SC/ST Act per se. Whether the law should be restored to its original form or not is a different debate, but it is unclear how far the government decision will be of help when the cause of the increasing Dalit unrest lies elsewhere. The situation gets further complicated by the judicial encroachment on the executive and legislative turfs. One wonders, what the need for judiciary to decide how the roasters are prepared is or what formula is used unless there is a violation of the constitutional provisions.

The road ahead lies in addressing the root cause of the unrest and not flashy actions. What is needed now is not judicial activism by overzealous high priests of the judiciary with zero political accountability but political statesmanship by the executive and the legislature.