Mayawati’s Shoes and Dalit Empowerment

Mayawati's Shoes and Dalit Empowerment
by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, February 9

Dalits are beaten up. Dalits are raped. Dalits are humiliated. In Uttar Pradesh. In the past few days. Did you hear anyone complain about the feudalism of the perpetrators of the crime? No. Now, they have woken up.

Mayawati’s chief security officer and the state’s Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Padam Singh bent down to clean her shoes with his handkerchief when the chief minister was on an inspection tour.

Feet of clay?

The Opposition that remains silent over serious issues has raised its voice. What is the reason? If the objection is to a senior officer performing a menial task, then they themselves reveal an obsession with status quo. Don’t we have shoeshine boys everywhere, not to speak about government quota for Grade 1V jobs that no one else will do? Go to any village and the zamindar will wait for the servant to bring his slippers; sometimes, the womenfolk in the family are supposed to perform this as part of their household duties. It is a contemporary version of preparing for conquest reminiscent of the kings of old who were handed over the sword by their regal consorts.

In India we have a strange relationship with the soil and the concept of Mother Earth. What is known as the cow belt (the cow, again, has holy symbolism as ‘gau mata’, the goddess-nurturer), a Dalit in power upsets the hierarchy. Mayawati was sanctified as a ‘Dalit Goddess’ because that was one way in which to make her acceptable. That did not alter the ground reality, and in this case the ground has its own metaphorical resonance. The backward castes are dragged through the mud, they as bonded labourers get submerged in the soil, they are pummelled and pushed on the floor, and they cannot step on hallowed territory.

A crown of thorns

Today, Mayawati is stomping on this very terrain. Her feet and shoes become a subject that is more manifestly potent of power-reversal. When she was sworn in as chief minister, the Brahmin MLAs refused to touch her feet, a practice that has become fairly common. Surprisingly, some of them went ahead and touched her Brahmin minister Satish Chandra Misra’s feet. Therefore, she may have striven to take the Dalit agenda ahead but due to the nature of our society her own attitude had to change. Her brashness could well be part of her personality and nothing to do with her caste, but there is no denying that some of it is a response. Her exaggerated projection of herself and her ideology is clearly an indication. The statues of herself, a ridiculous granite park, the portrayal of herself as the inheritor of Ambedkar via Kanshi Ram are at odds with the commonly-held view of the backward classes. It is this that shakes the citadel.

It unnerves those who would not blink had a high-born been the recipient of such obsequiousness. They would put the onus on the person performing the task. In this case, she has to bear the brunt. Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan said, “It all reflects feudal mentality of Uttar Pradesh chief minister, who believes in reliving the royal monarchy. It appears that the security officer had some serious compulsions that made him perform the shameful act. I would suggest Mayawati appoint a separate contingent to take care of dust along her route and to do such errands as cleaning of her sandals.”

Was the security officer trying to please? Are there no coteries? Did the Mulayam Singh government not run like a private limited enterprise with its nobility – the Bachchans, Anil Ambani and Amar Singh?

There is a peculiarly devious tactic employed by smart politicians to fake humility for public consumption. The padayatras through dusty trails are part of this image-building. Nobody asks questions about who cleans those shoes inside the privacy of the neta's domain. When Rahul Gandhi did his stint with Dalits, his shoes too must have got soiled. Rajiv Gandhi’s Gucci loafers became a symbol for India marching towards the 21st century, a wholly simplistic totem. The savvy Omar Abdullah has been quoted as saying, “I won't let my security chaps carry my briefcase, but I guess to each their own.” His statement itself reveals a certain amount of arrogance, that he can hand over his briefcase to his staff anytime he wishes. And by emphasising each to her own, there is an element of being above such acts performed.

Congress state president Rita Bahuguna Joshi said, “Mayawati should resign. On the one hand, she claims to fight for the rights of Dalits and, on the other, she disrespects a Dalit in such a manner.”

This Dalit was a President’s gallantry award winner and stayed with Mayawati even when she was not in power. Did she order him to clean her shoes? Or do they have a problem with someone of rank bending down? In that case, what about politicians who genuflect before godmen? What about the very ethos that expects ministers to bow before their seniors?

The governor and the godman:
At Satya Sai Baba's 85th birthday celebrations

It is culture-specific and acceptable in those situations, but should political leaders do so? Does the Congress party have problems when young ministers, especially from erstwhile royal families, have people rush to touch their feet? What about South India where the form of complete devotion is to lie flat on the stomach and pay their respects?

Buta Singh had to clean the shoes of worshippers at the Golden Temple as penance for a political act that rubbed the religious leaders the wrong way. We cannot pretend to be non-committal towards tradition and faith. It is there around us in every sphere.

Padam Singh, the man in the news, said, “Yeh to manavta ke nate kiya that (I did that on humanitarian considerations).”

The problem here is humanitarianism is a class issue. Have you heard about Dalit humanitarianism? You are not supposed to. This ‘act of grace’ has been taken over by the higher castes and classes, sometimes garbed as philanthropy, tax exempted of course.

Mayawati may be aggressive, greedy and feudal. She may do nothing for the Dalit cause at the micro level, but the large picture sends out a clear message and reveals the true face of the high-born opponents. Even if inadvertently, she ends up thinking on her feet.

(c) Farzana Versey