Bengaluru may turn blue on 11 December 2022, just a few months before Karnataka steps into the thick of the 2023 Assembly elections. Starting 18 November, Dalit organisations – especially those affiliated with Madigas, who fall under the Scheduled Castes (SC) category in Karnataka – will embark on a month-long protest to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their Belagavi march of 2012.
On 11 December 2012, protesters affiliated with the Madiga Reservation Horatta Samithi (MRHS) held the march to Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi to demand sub-caste reservation for Karnataka's Left Dalits, including Madigas, who fall a notch below the Right Dalits, including Holeyas, on the caste spectrum. During the protest, state police fired teargas shells at Dalit protesters and arrested hundreds. The BJP's Jagadish Shettar was the chief minister at the time.
Why would the commemoration of this protest bother the BJP when the state government has already announced, in October this year, that SC reservation in the state would be increased from 15 percent to 17 percent?
Reason: If the BJP does not demarcate the percentage of reservation each of the prominent Scheduled Caste sections in Karnataka – Left, Right, and Touchable Dalits – are to get within the SC reservation block, it would elicit the displeasure of the Madigas. The last time the BJP got into trouble with the Madigas was in 2012. In the subsequent Assembly elections, which were held in 2013, the saffron party lost to the Congress.
How Demand for Internal Reservation Affected BJP's Prospects in the Past
On 11 October, the BJP increased the percentage of reservation for Scheduled Castes in the state from 15 to 17 percent even as it upped the reservation for Scheduled Tribes from three to seven percent.
While the move could be an election sop, the Basavaraj Bommai government's cabinet decision was based on the recommendation of Justice HN Nagamohan Das Commission, which was constituted in 2018. The commission was set up by the Congress-JD(S) government, which was in power for a little over one year, before the defection of MLAs to the BJP led to its fall.
The BJP government, which came to power under Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa in 2019, allowed the Nagamohan Das commission to continue its work. The commission submitted its report in 2020, and the recommendations were approved by the state government in October.
This was, however, not the first attempt to study the reservation demand of Dalits in the state.
In 2006, Justice AJ Sadashiva Commission was set up to re-examine the reserved categories in Karnataka. In 2012, the commission, which submitted its report to the BJP government under Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda, recommended the reclassification of SCs in the state into four categories – Left, Right, Touchable, and other Dalit castes.
Each of these groups was to be given six, five, three, and one percent reservation, respectively, to form a total of 15 percent. These recommendations for internal reservations, however, were not implemented before the polls held in 2013.
"When a huge crowd of Dalits stormed the Suvarna Soudha (Legislative Assembly in Belagavi), the police used force and attacked us. The Madigas were disillusioned with the BJP and voted against the party in the subsequent elections," said A Ambanna of MRHS, who was at the protest. In Karnataka, as per the 2011 census, Dalits form 17.15 percent of the population. Of the 103 castes among Scheduled Castes in the state, around 51 are Left Dalits or Madigas and other castes, who form the majority of Dalits in the state.
"With Yediyurappa's efforts, the Madigas had moved to the BJP from the Congress in the early 2000s. But at times, whenever the community felt betrayed by the BJP, these votes have also swung in favour of the Congress. Keeping this community happy will turn out to be important for the BJP this time too," Ambanna said.
While the BJP's rout in 2013 could partially be attributed to Madigas voting for the Congress, the party lost the electoral battle essentially because veteran leader Yediyurappa left its fold and formed his own outfit, Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), in 2012. As Yediyurappa, who had to step down from his role as the chief minister in 2021, is no longer the face of the party for 2023 polls, keeping the Left Dalits close will be crucial for the BJP.
But if the saffron party does not show any inclination towards implementing internal reservation, the exercise could yield no result.
'Bengaluru March To Echo Bhima Koregaon Sentiments'
In the early 2000s, the BJP attracted the Left Dalits to its fold by giving prominence to these castes over the Right Dalits, who have leaders in the Congress party.
Following the same trend, even Basavaraj Bommai has given prominence to Madiga leaders, including Mudhol Govind Karjol, who is one of his three deputy chief ministers. But representation alone need not cut it for the BJP this time.
"The increase in the reservation that the government has announced is not guaranteed. This reservation can be implemented only by a constitutional amendment and the announcement is a mere eyewash," said Dalit activist K Harshakumar.
If the government increases the reservation as planned, Karnataka will cross the 50 percent reservation cap imposed by the Supreme Court. That is, if the revision proposed by the BJP government gets implemented, 56 percent of the seats in the state's educational institutions and government establishments will be reserved for SC, ST, and OBC categories.
"Only a constitutional amendment can allow the implementation of this increase and the state government will have to rely on the Centre to bring about this amendment," Harshakumar explained.
Karnataka government's plan, however, is to prevent legal scrutiny of its reservation policy by including it under the ninth schedule of the Indian constitution.
Tamil Nadu implements 69 percent reservation in the state as its reservation policy is included under this schedule, making it immune to legal challenges. "Even for this, the Central government will have to intervene and table a constitutional amendment. This can happen in 2023 at the earliest. This means that the state's BJP government is only dangling a carrot in front of the Dalits," Harshakumar rued.
However, the BJP can attempt to win the elections by posing as the only party which can force the Centre to amend the Constitution. Even then, the question of internal reservation could come to haunt the party.
"The agitation we plan to take up in November will culminate in a Bengaluru march on 11 December. Thousands will march to demand internal reservations under the banner of Dalit Sangharsha Samithi," Ambanna said.
"This march will shake the government like the Mahars shook the Marathas in Bhima Koregaon," alluding to the 1818 battle of Bhima Koregaon. In this battle, a Mahar battalion of the British army defeated the Maratha army of Peshwa Bajirao II. In the caste system, the status of the Madigas is almost as low as the Mahars of Maharashtra.
The Dalit Sangharsh Samithi has now claimed that the Dalit vote will go to the party that implements internal reservations. "We plan to put forth our demands and those who implement the internal reservation strictly will get our votes," said Ambanna. Meanwhile, with the government increasing the reservation for Dalits, some of the dominant castes, too, have started clamouring for reservations.
Other Castes Demand Hike in Reservation
The state government had already been facing protests from Panchamasali Lingayats, who have been demanding that the BJP include the community under the 2A category within the state's Backward Classes list. Panchamasali seer Basavajaya Mruthyunjaya has been threatening to withdraw the community's support for the BJP if the party fails to implement the 2A reservation.
However, the party clamped down on the Panchamasali protest by sidelining one of the leaders of the agitation and MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal. Recently, BJP's Karnataka in-charge Arun Singh slighted Yatnal, calling him a disgruntled leader.
The BJP, however, has not won the battle among non-Dalit castes. Vokkaligas, a powerful caste in Karnataka, has asked the state government to increase their reservation percentage from four to 12. One of the prominent Vokkaliga seers, Nirmalananda, said, "If the government plans to cross the reservation cap of 50 percent, the state should increase it for Vokkaligas too." The Vokkaliga population in the state is 16 percent, he claimed.
"With these castes rallying against SC reservation, the BJP is in a fix. The only way forward will be to accede to the demand for internal reservations," said Dalit activist S Narasimhappa.
Especially since there is growing anger against the rising cases of atrocities against Dalits, the stalemate over reservation could adversely affect the BJP, he added. "Internal reservation is necessary because some castes among the Dalits have historically been more disadvantaged than others. This disadvantage, which was perpetuated over the ages, can be rectified only through internal reservations that give a proportionate opportunity to avail education and employment benefits," Narasimhappa said.