A Dalit man beaten to death in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal; a 18-year-old Dalit girl gang-raped in Thanaghazi in Rajasthan’s Alwar district; stones hurled at a Dalit wedding procession in Gujarat’s Aravalli district – these are some of the crimes that have taken place in the past few weeks, even as the country was in middle of, as the cliche goes, the ‘festival of democracy’.
These aren’t isolated incidents. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against Dalits have increased by 25 percent between 2006 and 2016 and the trend has been continuing since then.
Subjected to physical attacks as well as more day-to-day forms of humiliation, there is a simmering anger among Dalits across India. While the anger goes beyond politics, in this election it appears to be mostly directed towards the ruling BJP.
According to Lokniti-CSDS’ pre-poll survey, 50 percent Dalits said that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi there has been no development or that it has been only for the rich.
Forty one percent said that development has benefited everyone.
What Turned Dalits Against BJP?
Dalit anger against BJP wasn’t a sudden outburst. It built up gradually through events like Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January to 2016, the public flogging of Dalits at Una in Gujarat in July that year and the attack on Mahars in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in January 2018.
There is also perception among Dalits that BJP being in power emboldens upper castes at the local level and leads to violence against the community.
“Modiji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) might say ‘attack me before you attack Dalits’ or he may make a Dalit the President (of India), it doesn’t help us in any way. Whenever the BJP is in power, upper castes trouble us in different ways. They get protection,” says Vinod Kumar Jatav, a resident of Bhind in Madhya Pradesh.
On being asked what he meant by “protection”, Jatav says, “We go to the police station, our complaints are not acted upon if it is a case of caste violence. The courts are also dominated by them (upper castes). They act under political protection”.
This is where the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act comes into the picture, providing some kind of protection to Dalits.
But in March 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that no arrests under the Act can be made without prior permission and allowed a court to grant an anticipatory bail if it feels that the law has been abused. For Dalits, it was as if their only source of protection was being taken away.
Dalit outfits held a Bharat Bandh and protests across the country on 2 April 2018. Their target wasn’t just the Supreme Court but also the Modi government, which they accused of abetting the dilution of the Act. Upper caste outfits attacked the protesters and the caste battle lines were drawn.
This was the turning point which decisively turned Dalits against the BJP. It harmed the BJP in the 2018 Assembly elections and could harm it in the Lok Sabha polls as well.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey in Madhya Pradesh in 2018, 53 percent Dalits said that the SC/ST Act was an important issue for them and nearly half of those voted for the Congress in the Assembly elections.
Bhind, where Vinod Kumar Jatav stays, is emerging as the ground zero of the Dalit factor in this election. Here the Congress has fielded Dalit activist Devashish Jarariya, who played a key role in organising the 2 April Bharat Bandh. The BJP, on the other hand, has responded by accusing Jarariya of being a “radical” and presenting him as “anti-national”. The idea is to defeat Jarariya by polarising upper caste voters against him.
While the Congress appears to have consolidated Dalit votes in Madhya Pradesh, the trend can be seen in other states as well. For instance in Rajasthan, the BJP’s open promotion of Jats in this election is said to have provoked a reaction from Dalits who are said to be rallying behind the Congress. At the ground level, Dalits main conflict is often with intermediate castes like Jats, especially on issues of access to land and water.
In neighbouring Haryana, the picture is different. Here the BJP is aggressively mobilising non-Jat voters against Jat voters.
However, one of the few communities that isn’t quite consolidating behind the BJP in the state are Dalits. Despite their differences with Jats, many Dalits are said to be shifting back to the Congress, which has also fielded prominent Dalit faces like Kumari Selja and Ashok Tanwar in the state.
But a chunk of Dalits are also rallying behind the Bahujan Samaj Party which is fighting in alliance with the newly formed Loktantra Suraksha Party, that is led by former BJP leader Raj Kumar Saini.
When The Quint visited Rangpuri in South Delhi, many of the Dalit voters seemed to be against the BJP.
“There is so much of caste discrimination at every level. There’s caste discrimination in schools. Teachers speak in a casteist manner. There is no future for our children...We will vote for change this time,” said Mahesh Kumar, a labourer.
The picture was no different in Punjab, where the BJP is a junior partner to the Shiromani Akali Dal.
“We are against the BJP. We don’t want Modi to come back to power. Violence against Dalits has increased under this government. And they (BJP) are also against the SC/ST Act that gives us protection,” said Kuldeep, a resident of Jalandhar, who belongs to the Balmiki Dalit community.
However, not everyone who is against the BJP is voting for the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh, of course, the main beneficiary is the Mahagathbandhan of the SP, the BSP and the RLD. But the Mahagathbandhan has captured the imagination of Dalits, particularly Jatavs, outside UP as well.
One came across Dalits in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab who were excited about BSP chief Mayawati’s prospects of becoming prime minister because of the Mahagathbandhan.
“Akhilesh (Yadav) already supports her (Mayawati). If there is a hung parliament, she has a good chance of becoming prime minister,” said Sunita Jatav, a government employee in Gwalior.
But even though the BSP has put up candidates in states like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Dalits are doubtful on voting for the party because it may not win. The next option for them is the Congress.
Congress’ Revival Among Dalits
Despite some support for Mayawati, it is the Congress which is emerging as the main beneficiary of Dalits’ resentment towards the BJP.
According to the India Today’s Political Stock Exchange survey in March 2019, Congress president Rahul Gandhi was more popular among Dalits than Prime Minister Modi.
While 44 percent Dalits surveyed said they want Rahul Gandhi to be the next prime minister, 41 percent chose Modi.
What’s particularly interesting in this survey is that Modi’s popularity fell and and Gandhi’s increased despite the Pulwama attacks and Balakot strikes. In January 2019, 47 percent Dalits picked Modi as their choice of PM and 34 percent chose Gandhi. By March, Modi’s popularity had fallen by 6 percentage points while Gandhi’s had increased by 10 percentage points.
Based on ground inputs, it appears that the Balakot strikes and Modi’s national security pitch doesn’t have much impact on Dalits.
Shiv Balak Das, a cobbler in Delhi’s Rangpuri, responds angrily when asked about the Balakot strikes. “Modi killed them (terrorists), Modi killed them. Did Modi drop bombs by himself?”
In Jalandhar, Kuldeep says, “It is insulting. Are we fools that we will forget all other issues just because Modi keeps talking about Pakistan?”
2014 was the only Lok Sabha election in which the BJP got more Dalit votes than the Congress. According to Lokniti-CSDS’ post-poll survey, 24.5 percent Dalits voted for the BJP in 2014 against 19.3 who voted for the Congress, a lead of little over five percentage points. This is likely to decrease this time and it won’t be surprising if the Congress wins back its lead among Dalits.
To counter the surge against it among Dalits, BJP is hoping to capitalise on the divisions within the community.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP gained by mobilising Dalit sub-castes against “dominant” communities.
The narrative the party sells is that the benefits of reservation have been cornered by a few dominant and the party promises to ensure that other Dalits “get their due”.
The states where this worked best for the BJP are Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
In Uttar Pradesh, BJP mobilised Dalits by saying that Mayawati’s BSP only empowered Jatavs. In 2014, BJP’s vote share increased 21 percentage points among Pasis and 35 points among “Other SCs” compared to 2009.
In Karnataka, it secured over two-thirds of the Madiga Dalit vote, an increase of 43 percentage points from 2009. They party consistently pushed the narrative that the Congress has deprived Madigas of representation.
In Maharashtra, it gained more among non-Mahar SCs than among Mahars.
Symbolic of this process of mobilising sub-castes within SCs is the appointment of Ram Nath Kovind as President. He belongs to the Koli sub-caste within Dalits and his example is used by the BJP to woo “non-Jatav” Dalits.
Another Dalit sub-caste the BJP has been mobilising in the Hindi heartland are Khatiks. On the ground, Hindutva outfits are helping Khatiks increase their presence in the meat business, to break the Muslim dominance over meat trade.
However, the BJP is unlikely to replicate its 2014 mobilisation of Dalits. The most it can hope for is that sub-castes like Khatiks and Madigas shift to a lesser extent than other Dalits.
The “Dalits vs BJP” narrative solidified by the 2 April protests is still quite dominant. The “anti-Dalit” image of the BJP was further vindicated by the rebellion of BJP’s own Dalit faces like Bahraich MP Savitribai Phule and much later North West Delhi MP Udit Raj and Hardoi MP Anshul Verma.
But how much Dalit discontent will harm the BJP will be shaped by two aspects: The unity of Dalits across sub-castes and the ability of Dalits not to split their votes between the Congress on one hand and parties like the BSP in the Hindi heartland and Punjab, the AAP in Delhi and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in Maharashtra.