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India's Dalit president - symbolism and reality

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
July 20, 2017

Ram Nath Kovind, a low-caste Dalit, has been elected as India's president. Kovind was chosen for the post by the ruling BJP party in a largely symbolic move, which experts say is unlikely to improve the Dalit situation.

Ram Nath Kovind
Image: Reuters/A. Dave

Indian media had described the presidential contest as "Dalit versus Dalit." The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies had nominated Ram Nath Kovind, a former governor of the eastern state of Bihar, whereas opposition parties had backed Meira Kumar, India's first woman speaker for parliament. Both Kovind and Kumar belong to the lowest segment of the Hindu caste hierarchy, the Dalit.

In India, the president is chosen by an electoral college composed of the two houses of parliament and state legislatures. In all, 4,120 members of state assemblies and 776 parliamentarians vote.

Kovind's election was a foregone conclusion given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP and its allies have a clear majority in parliament and a number of state assemblies. On July 24, Kovind will formally take up the largely ceremonious post, replacing Pranab Mukherjee, who has held the office since 2012.

Dalits in India still struggle for rights

Unusual circumstances

In normal circumstances, the presidential election in India carries little political significance. But since the Hindu nationalist PM Modi took power in 2014, the plight of Dalits and other religious minorities has come under sharp focus. Attacks on Dalits have steadily risen across the country, particularly in states ruled by the BJP.

Political observers in India had dubbed Kovind's nomination a "masterstroke" by PM Modi. Under fire for his inability to protect religious minorities and rein in Hindu supremacists, Modi supported Kovind for presidency, thus projecting that he and his party believe in the empowerment of Dalits.

Votes from the Dalits and rightwing Hindu nationalists helped Modi secure a sweeping victory in 2014, as well as pick up several key states, including politically salient ones like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Analysts say Modi is trying to secure Dalit support ahead of the critical 2019 general elections.

Although there is a symbolism attached to Kovind's election, Dalit activists don't foresee any improvement in the situation of one of India's most marginalized communities.

Read: India's caste system: Weakened, but still influential

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Dalit president - PM Modi's political masterstroke?Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/R.K. Singh

Widespread discrimination

"Suicides, murders and rapes are rampant in India. The victims mostly belong to society's marginalized sections, especially the Dalit community," Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, a Dalit activist, told DW.

According to India's National Human Rights Commission, every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit, with an average of three Dalit women raped and two murdered every day. Despite strict laws, caste-motivated killings, social exclusion and discrimination against Dalits are a daily occurrence.

Social tensions between Dalits, whose number exceeds over 200 million according to the latest census, and upper Hindu castes are rising in the South Asian country.

"Crimes against Dalits are on the rise in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but the authorities have turned a blind eye to them. We are subjected to the worst kind of humiliation," Jignesh Mevani, a Gujarat-based Dalit leader, told DW.

Priyadarshi Telang, convener of the Dalit Adivasi Adikari Andolan organization, says more than politics of symbolism regarding Kovind's presidency, India needs to make sure that laws to protect Dalits are implemented.

"Discrimination will continue unless the government takes strong measures. We have laws, but they should also be enforced," Telang told DW.

Read: Dalit magazine turns spotlight on India's low-caste plight

Enforcement of laws

It is unclear whether the symbolism of a Dalit president will help the BJP consolidate its political base among low-caste Hindus.

After India attained independence in 1947, the country introduced laws to make discrimination against lower castes illegal and to improve their socioeconomic status. Quotas were introduced for college admissions and jobs.

As a result, some Dalits have made it to leading positions, such as BR Ambedkar, who wrote the Indian constitution, and KR Narayanan, who was elected president in 1997.

Inequalities under the system still exist in modern India despite these measures, which have even served to reinforce the divisions to some extent. Violence based on caste has also erupted in recent times, much of it involving attacks on Dalits.

The caste system has also spilled over into other religions in India, with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jains all employing similar forms of social stratification.

"An increasing number of violent incidents and crimes against Dalits in several states ruled by the BJP are a manifestation that symbolism is not working," Arun Khote of the Dalits Media Watch Team, told DW.

Read: 'Not in my name' – Indians protest vigilante attacks on Muslims

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11