From the Saharanpur caste riots in 2017 shortly after Yogi Adityanath came to power, to how his government handled the Hathras rape case in 2020, from the clamour over unemployment to murmurs about Mayawati missing in action, what are the factors that will swing the Dalit voters of west UP this election? Who stands to gain, and why?
Find out in this comprehensive ground report as we travel across the 'swing district' of Saharanpur and listen to what the voters have to say.
'No Compensation, No Justice': Scars From 2017 Saharanpur Riots
The 2017 caste riots of Saharanpur are still fresh in the memory of the district's Dalit residents, especially in the village of Shabbirpur, where on 5 May that year, violence had erupted between Thakurs and Dalits. Houses were burned, vehicles torched, and several left injured in the clashes.
Five years later, Dalit residents allege that they have neither received compensation nor justice.
Meenakshi, a 30-year-old homemaker who says she was at the receiving end of the violence in 2017, says, "There was such a big riot, so many affected families seeking justice. But we did not get anything. No compensation. Cases have been filed, but they have been kept pending, lying locked away. We got no justice."
Memoh, a woman we had interviewed in May 2017 while reporting on the violence, echoed a similar sentiment when we caught up with her again in January 2022. She said, "It’s been 5 years, we got nothing. And the Rajputs who did this aren’t even in jail, they are at home."
A Child Named 'Winner': Mother Recalls 'I Was Pregnant When Assaulted'
Meenakshi recalls the fateful day of 5 May 2017, "I was pregnant then. They tried their best to kill me. They beat me up, hit me on my stomach. There were five to six people after me. They hit me inside my house too."
"They hit me with a hockey stick on my leg and I fell down. I was pregnant, and scared about what would happen. But here is my child. He was born a month after the violence. "Meenakshi
"What is your name?", we ask the kid.
The child baffles us with his response. "Stainer Winner," he mumbles.
We check with the mother. She repeats, "His name is Winner."
"Winner? That’s what his name is on official documents?" we ask incredulously.
"Yes! We kept his name Winner because even in the middle of so much rioting and violence, we won. They were trying to kill us. Yet, we won. I ran, I struggled. But in the end, we survived, we won. Both mother and the baby. That’s why he is Winner."
When had they decided upon the name?
Meenakshi responds, "A few days after the violence, I decided that I would name the kid Winner. My husband works in painting - wood work, polishing, etc. There is a chemical he works with, called ‘stainer’. Whatever other substance you mix, the stainer makes it like that. Our aim is that whoever he interacts with, he should create an impact on them. Hence, the name - Stainer Winner."
With a chuckle, she adds, "They didn’t write his first name on the Aadhaar card. The Aadhaar card fellows probably didn’t know how to write it."
"So, they just wrote ‘Winner’?" we asked.
What happened in 2017 would continue to affect how she votes in 2022, Meenakshi tells us.
She asks, "Why would we want Yogi back? Under his governance, what happened to us? We would want him if there was anything in it for us. If SP is the main challenger to defeat the BJP, then I will vote for them because the BJP must be defeated."
Is BJP's Valmiki Voter Base Breaking Away? Anger at How Yogi Govt Handled Hathras Gangrape Case
According to the 2011 Census, members from the Scheduled Castes form 22% of Saharanpur's population. Among them, the Valmikis are considered to have supported the BJP by and large in recent elections.
But this election, several Valmiki voters say they have reason to rethink their allegiance.
Bharat Bhushan of the Rashtriya Valmiki Krantikari Morcha says, "Look, I am a member of the BJP. And there could be a number of other reasons why we should vote for BJP. However, the Hathras case is definitely a sore point for our Valmiki community."
He adds, "The girl belonged to our community. Till today, we have not been able to figure out what the compulsion was for Yogi ji to remain silent on the matter. And for Prashant Kumar who was the ADG (Law and Order) to make wrong statements about the case." He was referring to the ADG's controversial remark that the Hathras incident was not a case of rape.
Bhushan continues, "So, this painful case, a case that hurt our self respect and dignity, is not one that the Valmiki community will ever forget. It is possible that some voters may shift from the BJP as a result."
David Dhingiya, a businessperson and member of the Valmiki community, concurs, "The hurt caused will cause a section of the community to change their allegiance."
In 2017, BJP had won four out of Saharanpur's seven Assembly seats and the SP-Congress combine had won three. The BSP had drawn a blank. Can a potential shift in the Valmiki vote hurt BJP's prospects this time around?
'Where Are The Promised Jobs?': A Common Grouse of Unemployment
Avinash Birla, a 34-year-old contractor asks, "The Modi government had said they would give 2 crore jobs to the youth every year, but where are the 2 crore jobs?"
In Saharanpur's Ram Nagar, Suresh Singh, a 66-year-old retired station master laments, "There is no employment. Children are not getting jobs, that is the biggest problem. My two children - they are graduates but they are unemployed."
Singh says he had voted for the BJP in 2017 in the hope that the BJP government would provide jobs. He remarks, "The expectation was that they would do good work, increase employment - but they did not."
Lots More In the Ground Report
How do Dalit voters rate Yogi's five years in power?
Is Chandrashekhar Azad more hype than hope? What do voters on his home turf of Saharanpur feel?
Would they say that Mayawati is missing in action this election season, given her rare campaign appearances? If so, what do they feel are the causes and consequences?
And does Akhilesh have a chance of drawing traditional BSP voters towards the Samajwadi Party?
We discuss all these themes in detail with the voters of Saharanpur. Watch our full video to find out what they have to say, and stay tuned to our coverage for more such reports from the ground.
Cameraperson: Ribhu Chatterjee
Editorial inputs: Sankalp Neb
Production Assistant: Arkopriya Pal
Video editors: Purnendu Pritam, Mohd Irshad Alam, Subroto Adhikari