"Ever seen a man burn?"
One afternoon this winter, a long convoy of white cars thundered through east Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district on a mission that was part condolence visit, part election campaign.
In the Toyota Innova in the lead, sat Shravan Kumar Nirala – Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) zonal coordinator and chief troubleshooter for the Gorakhpur region – looking at, and then away, from a video clip on his cellphone before concluding, “I can’t bear to watch this.”
We were headed to Dumri Khas to the home of Santosh and Narmada Paswan, two men doused with diesel and set alight on the night of 10 October 2016. Santosh died right away; Narmada, barely alive in a Lucknow hospital, had identified his assailants in a declaration recorded on a cellphone and WhatsApped to Gorakhpur’s press corps.
The footage was very disturbing, imbued with the shaky graininess and visceral violence of the cellphone videos that defined India in 2016: policemen thrashing university students, young men blinded by paramilitary pellet guns, gau-rakshaks flogging Dalits and Muslims, and the banal, quotidian sadness of a man breathing his last in an ATM queue.
Pare away the horror, and in each instance, the camera’s unflinching gaze carried a desperate hope: Perhaps now they will see what we see; perhaps now they will know what we know; perhaps now this will stop.
In Gorakhpur, the impact of Narmada Paswan’s words was a matter of debate. As one journalist put it, “Charcha hui hai, par viral nahi ho saka.” It had attracted comment, but could not go viral.
This violence, this video, this silence, Nirala said, as we bumped along a narrow highway hemmed in by tall stalks of ripening sugarcane, was Uttar Pradesh in a nutshell.
“This case,” he said, “is all you need to understand caste in Uttar Pradesh.”
Santosh and Narmada were Paswan, or Pasi Dalits, the second most populous scheduled caste community in Uttar Pradesh. Two of the accused – Radheshyam and Om Shivai– were Maurya Other Backward Classes (OBC), the same caste as Swamy Prasad Maurya, a former BSP heavyweight who had been lured to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in hope of winning over his OBC supporters. Ajit, the third accused, was Yadav – the same caste as Chief MinisterAkhilesh Yadav and his Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party (SP).
The newspapers suggested that the ruling party was standing by its base: Accused Ajit Yadav, reports alleged, had negotiated his surrender from the sanctuary of a prominent SP politician’s home – a claim denied by the police and the SP. The BJP and Swamy Prasad had seen prudence in silence.
So who, then, would speak up for a burning man?
“Behenji,” said Nirala as we drove towards the village, “Behenji and the Bahujan Samaj Party.”
In January this year, the Indian Supreme Court prohibited political parties from campaigning on the basis of either caste or religion; but the judiciary’s orders seem far removed from the reality of how caste continues to mark the lives of millions of Indians.
The upcoming state elections in Uttar Pradesh could offer an insight into how two of India’s most gifted and controversial politicians lay claim to their own particular notions of identity. Campaigns, after all, don’t just decide how voters see their leaders, but also how voters see themselves.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes that an ingrained suspicion of Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim minority will push the state’s many castes and sub-castes to identify themselves as “Hindu”, and vote for his Hindu-nationalist BJP.
The BSP and Kumari Mayawati, Behenji to her followers, have long sought to forge India’s Dalits, adivasis, backward castes, Buddhists, and Muslims into a single “Bahujan”, or majority, united by their opposition to a Brahmanical Hinduism of the sort espoused by the BJP and its affiliates.
The outcome of the contest is likely to reverberate till the general elections of 2019. A win here for Modi would almost guarantee a second Prime Ministerial term. A loss for Mayawati could imperil her political relevance.
“People think Dalits will mindlessly vote for Mayawati. This is simply not true,” said Dr Ajay Kumar, who wrote his doctorate on Dalit political movements in Uttar Pradesh, “UP has 66 different Dalit castes, each with their own political alliances shaped by their specific histories. UP’s Dalit movements reflect this diversity.”
In its 33-year history, the BSP has united large parts of this diverse community and won over enough swing voters to rule Uttar Pradesh on four occasions, most recently from 2007 to 2012.
In the process, Mayawati’s many critics have accused her of everything from cosying up to Hindu fascists to pandering to Muslim fundamentalists; from focusing solely on the Dalits to selling out to the Brahmins.
In her radicalism and her expediency, analysts like Kumar say, Mayawati embodies the essence of India’s democratic experiment: An audacious bid to transform a feudal, caste-ridden society by striking a compromise between the oppressor and the oppressed.
“Behenji is personally affected by your tragedy,” Nirala said as he stood before the crowd gathered under the mango tree in the courtyard of the Paswan family home in Dumri Khas. “She has sent us to stand with you in this time of need.”
Dumri Khas is a large village of about 10,000 residents, a quarter of whom are Dalit. Concrete two-storey homes, the obligatory patchwork of fields and kitchen gardens, but a sense that few families still rely solely on agriculture for their income.
Kamal Paswan, Santosh’s uncle, spoke up. The Paswans and Mauryas were rivals since 2005, he said, when Radhe Shyam Maurya defeated Kamal’s brother, Raj, to become the village pradhan. Raj Paswan won in 2010, when the seat was reserved for Scheduled Castes. In December 2015 the post was reserved for women candidates; Radhe Shyam’s wife won.
Why a routine rivalry escalated in such brutal fashion remains a mystery, yet things allegedly took a turn for the worse with the appearance of Maurya’s associate Ajit Yadav, a “history-sheeter” with a storied police record of criminal intimidation.
“Ajit threatened us during the election. We complained,” said Paswan, “But the daroga at the police station is also a Yadav, so he ignored us.”
The capture of state power in Uttar Pradesh begins with the annexation of the village police station. In a state marked by routine violence between its many communities, it is important to control the men who decide if a crime has been committed.
When the SP was in power from 2003 to 2007, the government recruited 22,500 police constables to stuff the local stations with their supporters. When Mayawati won the election in 2007, she cancelled 17,400 of these posts. When the SP returned in 2012, they reinstated all posts, and recruited another 41,160 constables and firemen.
The impact of this back and forth is starkly visible in the state’s crime data. When the BSP is in power, the police tend to register more cases of crimes against Dalits than when the SP runs the administration.
“Political power,” as BSP founder Kanshi Ram often quoted BR Ambedkar as saying, “is the Guru killi (master key) that opens all doors.”
In Behenji, his biography of Mayawati, journalist Ajoy Bose describes a wintry night in 1977 when Kanshi Ram first met Mayawati, who was hoping to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
“Join me,” Kanshi Ram told her, “I will make you such a big leader that not one, but a whole row of collectors will line up with files in front of you.”
Social transformation, Kanshi Ram believed, was only possible through control of all organs of the state.
The tragedy in Dumri Khas suggested as much. “If we had our own government,” said Kamal Paswan, “The police would have helped us when we complained.”
The meeting was coming to a close. Ghanshyam Kharwar, a former MP for the BSP, sat with the women of the family and handed them an envelope emblazoned with a picture of Mayawati and a slightly smaller picture of Rajkumar, the local BSP candidate.
“No one can compensate you for your loss,” Kharwar said, “but Behenji has sent some help to cope with this tragedy.”
He bowed before the family and got back into his car.
It was afternoon; the convoy presented an incongruous sight as it threaded through a patchwork of muddy fields.
“In the past, voters liked their politicians poor. Behenji used to cycle from village to village,” Nirala remarked, “Now people want leaders to look powerful; with a convoy of big cars to prove they can fight the system.”
We were on our way to Campierganj to meet the family of Suryabhan Pasi, a Dalit inmate of Gorakhpur Jail, who had died two days ago. His family learnt of his death when his fellow inmates rioted, claiming Pasi was beaten to death by the prison staff when a mobile phone was found in his cell.
It was no coincidence that we were visiting two Pasi families in the same day. The Pasis are the second-largest Dalit sub-caste, but haven’t always voted BSP – which is seen as a Jatav-Dalit formation. Nirala said the Pasis had voted BSP in 2007, but had abandoned the party in 2012 – one of the reasons why Mayawati lost.
“We need the Pasis back,” Nirala said, but insisted that today’s sojourn was a condolence visit sans politics.
Suryabhan Pasi’s wife and their nine children lived in a hamlet of mud-walled huts perched on a high bank of the Rapti river. They seemed bewildered by the sudden stampede of party workers crowding into their small courtyard, but stood to attention as Nirala and Karwar spoke up.
“Today we are in the opposition, so our hands are tied,” Nirala told the family, “But if we form the government, we will ensure the guilty are punished.” Kharwar handed Pasi’s brother-in-law Shambu an envelope – this time with a different candidate’s face emblazoned beside Mayawati’s.
“Caste violence is an attack on our samaj,” Nirala said, “So we project strength. We show the victims our entire party is with you – Dalit, OBC, Brahmin, everyone supports you.”
Nirala had brought along the party’s candidate for the Gorakhpur rural seat: Rajesh Pandey, a young Brahmin with a rakish moustache and an entourage of gunmen kitted out in jeans, sneakers, and bespoke country-made shotguns.
The BSP’s electoral victory in 2007, the first time the party won a majority by itself, was engineered by an unlikely Dalit-Brahmin alliance. Yet many supporters feel that the presence of Brahmin candidates like Pandey has compromised a party that initially canvassed supporters with the slogan: tilak, tarazu, aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar.
The BSP’s Brahmin candidates, Badri Narayan writes in The Making of the Dalit Public in North India, came up with a slogan that suggested that if the BSP came to power, the Brahmins would set the agenda: Brahman sankh bajayga, haathi badta jaya.
When I asked Nirala about Pandey, he demurred. The top leadership was Dalit, he said, and so the main aim was to win enough seats to form the government. Gorakhpur rural had Muslims, Brahmins, and Dalits in significant numbers.
“Our first preference was a Muslim candidate, but the sitting MLA from the SP is a dabang-type person,” he said, reflecting the BSP’s current focus on winning the vote,“We couldn’t find a Muslim who was dabang enough, so we found a dabang Brahmin instead.”
Back at the village, Rajesh Pandey’s supporters asked Pasi’s kids to stand beside the candidate. One of his shooters, shotgun slung over one shoulder, pulled out a tiny digital camera from the pocket of his jeans and took a picture.
In September 2016, when party workers were told to organise crowds for Mayawati’s election rallies in Saharanpur, Yudhister Singh, Pradhan of Dasa Majra and loyal BSP worker for 17 years, told his village to stay home in protest.
“The manuvadis are holding us hostage,” Singh said, when I met him a few days after my trip with Nirala, “Our MLAs know that if they have a BSP ticket, Dalits will vote for them no matter what they do. So they ignore us and cultivate their non-Dalit base.”
Contrary to the picture painted by Nirala in Gorakhpur, Singh said, the famed party machinery in Saharanpur had had been replaced by the personal staff of Dharam Singh Saini, the BSP MLA, and worked to further his many business interests.
Singh said the leadership continued to pander to Saini, who was OBC, because “if you deny them tickets, they defect."
“Meanwhile, dedicated cadres spend their lives working for the party, but are told – 'be patient, be patient. Have faith in Behenji.'”
“The problem is that the BSP has been contaminated by manuvadi thinking,” said Kumari Mamta, a young woman who was so disillusioned by the BSP that she had joined a more confrontational Dalit formation called the Bhim Army.
As it turned out, Singh’s protest against Saini didn’t go unnoticed. A week after the Saharanpur rally, Mayawati cancelled Saini’s candidature for the upcoming polls. As predicted, Saini promptly joined the BJP. The new candidate is yet to be announced, but a senior BSP functionary told me the new candidate was unlikely to be Dalit.
“The BSP is part of the ruling classes, so it must maintain relations with the powerful,” said Anand Teltumbe, a writer and rights activist who has written perceptively, and often critically, on the BSP.
The first-past-the-post system of elections, he said, “ensured the perpetual rule of the ruling classes,” by forcing any radical movement to strike a compromise with the status quo.
Teltumbde said the BSP was a much-needed political alternative in the present context of a resurgent and violent Hindutva directed at Dalits and Muslims alike, “But it is not the revolutionary force that can annihilate caste.”
In 2004, Kanshi Ram invited Teltumbde and a delegation of academics and activists to a meeting in Mumbai to discuss the future direction of the BSP. Kanshi Ram’s long struggle with illness, Teltumbde recalled, had put him in a reflective mood that evening.
“When my turn came, I said, ‘You say power is the master key. But my question is, ‘Power for what? What do you do once you have grasped the master key?'”
It was evening when Nirala’s convoy finally left Campierganj. I found myself sitting beside Om Prakash “Tun-Tun” Mishra, president of the Gorakhpur chapter of the BSP’s Brahmin Samaj.
“I wanted to join a party that worked for the poor and the downtrodden,” he said, when I asked him why he chose the BSP. But when we spoke in private a few days later, he sounded like he was changing his mind.
“My own Brahmin samaj keeps asking me, 'Mishraji what are you doing?'” he muttered, “Initially, I told them, the BSP is not anti-Brahmin, we support everyone – Sarvajan Hitai Sarvajan Sukhai.”
But over time, Mishra said, he had begun to change his mind about his fellow party workers. “They would send WhatsApp messages saying ‘The cow is not our mother’, ‘We are not Hindus’, ‘Vedas are nonsense’."
“You tell me, which self-respecting Brahmin can tolerate this?”
One day last year, Mishra was attending a cadre camp in Lucknow when he stepped out for a break and spotted a stall selling various Ambedkarite books and pamphlets. “I picked up a book to read. Aman bhai, you will not believe what was printed in it.”
At least some of the books in that stall, I would later learn, were produced from an incredible personal archive of over 4,000 books crammed into a small, windowless room in east Delhi.
“If you believe the Hindu scripture, only the Brahmins or the Kshatriyas do anything of consequence. If a Dalit or a tribal does something, they say, ‘Wait wait, this person was actually a Brahmin in his previous life.” SS Gautam, founder and proprietor of the Gautam Book Centre, sat in his library, pulling out title after title to prove each point.
On the walls around him were books on Dalit martyrs in the Indian freedom struggle, shelves dedicated to Ambedkar’s writings, a near complete anthology of “Oppressed Indian” – a monthly journal started by Kanshi Ram in 1979 – a wall devoted to biographies of Dalit saints, sages, and heroes. A section on all government reports on caste, the Indian Commissioner’s report on Scheduled Castes and Tribes 1953, stacked beside the Colonial Caste Census of 1872.
“For the Brahmin to control the present,” Gautam said, ”he must control the past. Our project is to reclaim history.”
Now in his 50s, Gautam is a retired armyhavaldar who turned to reading BR Ambedkar in his centenary year in 1991, which led him to establish Gautam Book Centre, a popular publishing house and book store devoted to Dalit history and literature.
I met Gautam to ask him about the books that had so unsettled Tun Tun Mishra, the Brahmin BSP worker.
In the 1980s, Gautam said, the BSP’s cultural wing set out to record histories of Dalit legends who had been written out of popular record: Figures like Jhalkaribai, a Kori woman who disguised herself as Rani Laxmibai and fought in the 1857 rebellion to allow the Queen to escape to safety. Or Uda Devi, a Pasi woman, who shot and killed several British soldiers in the battle of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow in the mutiny as well.
These stories were collated and published as small, inexpensive books that were distributed at BSP rallies. Many of these books sought to reclaim figures like Eklavya from the Mahabharata, Raavan from the Ramayana, and gurus like Kabir and Baba Gorakhnath.
“Why is this important?” Gautam asked me, “Sethi, you are a Khatri – do you know the history of your caste?”
When Pasuram, the Brahmin sage of Hindu mythology, set out to kill Khatriyas, Gautam told me, he turned their wives into his concubines. Their children were called Khatris.
“How do you feel now, Sethi?” he said, “That’s what the Brahmin does – he tells stories to make us feel inferior. That’s why we need to tell our own stories.”
As night fell over Gorakhpur, Nirala and I pulled into a roadside hotel to draw a line under our day together. The convoy had dispersed, MLAs and candidates back to their constituencies, workers to their homes and families.
A waiter brought us coffee; Nirala’s phone rang.
Namrata Paswan, the second of the two men burnt in Dumhri Khas, had just breathed his last in his hospital bed.
“We will win this election,” Nirala said quietly, “Those who debate on television will not understand us; they will bring out surveys, they will talk about alliances and how Dalits are “aspirational” and "no longer care about caste.”
They will say these things, Nirala said, because they have never seen a man burn.