“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.
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?”