At “Chalo Delhi” rally, stories of a country-wide Ambedkarite uprising against the CAA and NRC

In a mix of voices and tongues, those gathered at the "Chalo Delhi" rally spoke of a vast and largely overlooked struggle in India’s hinterlands against the CAA, NRC and NPR—showing it is not just Muslims who oppose them. utkarsh for the caravan
06 March, 2020

“This is not a war they are waging against Muslims alone,” Thol Thirumavalavan thundered from the stage. “This is a war against Annan Dr Ambedkar’s constitution.”

Thirumavalavan—a member of parliament from Tamil Nadu and the president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, or Liberation Panther Party—spoke in fiery Tamil, which many of those listening did not understand. The crowd of over a thousand people nodded along, and encouraged Thirumavalavan with occasional shouts of “Jai Bhim.” This was so with many speakers at the “Chalo Delhi” rally of Ambedkarite organisations from across the country in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on 4 March, called by Prakash Ambedkar of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, an alliance of oppressed caste groups with its strongest presence in Maharashtra. The speech before Thirumavalavan’s was delivered in the Telugu dialect of the mining hinterlands of north Telangana, and the speech after his in the terse Marathi native to drought-stricken Vidharbha. But in a mix of voices and tongues, those gathered told a common tale of oppressed groups struggling for state recognition and the protection of the Constitution in the middle of a right-ward lurch in the country’s politics. Many spoke of a vast and largely overlooked struggle in India’s hinterlands against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Registry of Citizens and the corresponding National People’s Register—showing that it is not just Muslims who oppose them, as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies often claim. Other oppressed groups and Ambedkarite organisations have also risen up against these policies, in solidarity with Muslims and in reaction to the threat they see to themselves from the policies.

Standing in the crowd, I spoke to Eremalla Ram, the convener of the SC, ST, BC, Muslim Front in Visakhapatnam. He spoke of the political tumult in Andhra Pradesh over the last three months. “Most Dalit organisations before this were looking only at our own issues, ignoring the larger changes that are sinking this nation,” Eremella said. “It was only after the Bharat Bandh, when we knew we were as much a target as our Muslim brothers, that we took to the streets.” The bandh was a nationwide strike in February against a Supreme Court ruling that stated, “It is settled law that the State Government cannot be directed to provide reservations for appointment in public posts. Similarly, the State is not bound to make reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in matters of promotions.” Oppressed-caste organisations saw this as a move to deny them the promises and protections of the Constitution, much as the ruling government is trying to do with Muslims. 

Oppressed-caste organisations saw the Supreme Court judgment weakening reservations as a move to deny them the promises and protections of the Constitution written by BR Ambedkar—much as the ruling government is trying to do to Muslims via the CAA and NRC. utkarsh for the caravan

Dilkarrao Ambore, from the Dalit Muslim Sena of Indore, told me of an increased Ambedkarite presence at Muslim-led protests in Maharashtra. Muslim women in Indore had begun numerous sit-ins against the CAA and NRC in January, the most prominent of them in Badwali Chowki, a predominantly Muslim area in the centre of the city. When these were attacked by police soon after they started, “only a few Dalits went there to help them.” After the bandh, Ambore said, Ambedkarite organisations brought Dalits from surrounding rural areas into the city to lend more support. “We all go there now, protect them from any police attacks,” Ambore said. “We even cook for the protestors. They all eat the food we cook. We eat it together. Would any of these people who call us Hindu do that?”

Thirumavalavan, on the stage, said, “This is a war between sananthanam”—the Tamil term for caste Hinduism—“and the Constitution.” Another representative of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, speaking earlier, had told the crowd of the CAA and NRC’s threat to disenfranchise Dalits as well as Muslims. Many Dalit women who change their names after marriage, the speaker said, don’t have papers to link them to their earlier names and original families, meaning they would not be able to establish the unbroken documentary chain of heredity that the government now plans to demand of all citizens. Another speaker pointed to how a former hostel for students from the SCs, STs and Other Backward Classes has been turned into a detention centre in Karnataka. He added that groups such as the Narikuruvas—a nomadic community from Tamil Nadu previously classifies as a criminal tribe—have no documents to show where they are from, and are already treated as outsiders by any government office they approach. A speaker from the transgender community said that more than two thousand transwomen were excluded from the NRC in Assam because they had changed their names when they transitioned, so their earlier documents were not recognised. 

“It is the Constitution that allowed inter-caste marriage, it is the Constitution that allowed us to learn and study,” Thirumavalavan said. “That is why the upper castes in power need to destroy every aspect of the Constitution. They fundamentally can’t believe in anything that allows for equality and fraternity. They cannot allow a document that allows us to question their supremacy.” 

“It is not brahmins who die when they massacre Muslims and destroy the country,” Thirumavalavan added. “It is our people—SCs, STs and OBCs.” 

I spoke to Aadhi Mozhi and VR Jayanthi of the VCK at the close of the rally, as they were clearing away trash, taking down placards and folding their blue-and-red flags for the long train journey back to Tamil Nadu. Aadhi Mozhi, the VCK’s propaganda secretary, said that just days after the CAA was passed, in mid December, the party joined protests across the state. The VCK cadre in Chennai, she added, helped organise sit-ins in Chennai as part of an alliance with Muslim political parties such as the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi—the Humanist People’s Front. Aadhi Mozhi pointed out concerns over the future of more than a hundred and fifty thousand Sri Lankan Tamils living in India after escaping the civil war in their country. The CAA is worded to aid non-Muslims fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but has no provision for persecuted people from other neighbouring countries. “The Modi government will not take those fleeing these countries,” Aadhi Mozhi said, “because they appreciate these genocidal governments—the Burmese destroying the lives of Muslims and the Sri Lankans destroying the lives of Tamils.” 

VR Jayanthi, a member of the VCK’s women’s wing, listed a string of sites that had seen protests by Ambedkarite, Periyarist and Muslim groups. A highlight for the VCK cadre was the Desamkaapom Maanadu—the Save the Nation Rally—that the party held in Thiruchi on 22 February, alongside the national Bharat Bandh. The thousands in attendance passed resolutions that called for an end to the CAA, NRC and NPR, and for reservations to be given constitutional protection. Jayanthi described some creative forms that the protests had taken. In at least one place, protestors had performed vallakaappus—traditional Tamil Hindu celebrations of pregnancy—for Muslim women, with the hope that their children will not be blinded by divisions of faith. Aadhi Mozhi described how Muslim protestors were making kolams—traditional designs drawn on the ground with powdered rice—saying “No CAA, No NRC, No NPR.” Usually, “only women usually make kolams,” she said, but at the protests she was struck “to see a man making them.”

Vincent Ekka, a Jesuit priest from Jashpur in northeastern Chhattisgarh, told me that Adivasi groups in the state were also mobilising against the CAA and NPR, and preparing to boycott all government officials collecting demographic data in their villages. “Everything we fear, we have seen it happen in Assam,” he said. Ekka described the shock of learning that Puna Munda, one of the first people to die in a detention camp in Assam, was an Adivasi migrant from Jharkhand. Munda had been wrongly classified as a Bangladeshi, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in detention.

After the cultural colonisation and ruptures that have marked Adivasi history, followed by movements for their cultural reassertion, many Adivasis have ancestors with different surnames across generations, Ekka explained. “My grandfather was called Shani Oran, but my father’s name was Gujua Ekka and mine is Vincent Ekka. What documents can I have to prove that I am of the same lineage?” He said Adivasis also often do not have land records—another documentary gap that could prejudice their case for inclusion in the NRC. Ekka linked the government’s efforts on citizenship to the issue of Adivasi land. “Till now to steal our land they had to call us anti-development, anti-state and anti-national,” he said. “Now they can simply disenfranchise all of us.”

Earlier, a speaker from Maharashtra had suggested that among the people excluded from the NRC in Assam, many of those classified as Hindus were from oppressed castes outside the four Hindu varnas. Ekka told me, “They tell you that 13 lakhs of those struck off the list are Hindus. That is absurd.” Large numbers of the excluded are Adivasis, he added “who have just been written off as Hindu.” The CAA, he said, “is made to make our people disappear.”