Circa 1980: the speaker of the Rajasthan assembly, a Brahmin, hosted a dinner in honour of chief minister Jagannath Pahadia, a Dalit, at his Bharatpur residence, from where both hailed. The family resentfully served him food in an inferior plate, which Pahadia noticed. The incident later found a mention in the Supreme Court order on Appa Babu vs State of Karnataka, 1993 as “the wife of the speaker trembled to serve food to the chief minister thinking to have been polluted”.
Dalit activist Bhanwar Meghvanshi quips, “The running battle is on even three decades after Pahadia as CM faced untouchability. Quite often Dalit legislators are compelled to remain subservient to upper-caste leaders who get them the ticket or spend money on their elections.”
He quotes a glaring case of a scheduled caste seat in Bhilwara where for 20 years a Rajput leader controlled the politics of the area so much so that the MLA himself lived in the servant’s quarters for 10 years while the leader occupied the bungalow allotted to him.
The officers are also known by their caste labels and not the positions they hold. Advocate Satish Kumar says, “Even today caste reaches the village before the position – ‘he may be a Meghawal but is a good officer’.”
Every caste has its own gods and temples and Dalits are kept out of them. Thus while officers use the Dalit leaders to mobilise lucrative postings, they fail to deliver or face political pressure in initiating action under the SC/ST Act.
Nothing has changed in royalty-dominated Rajasthan in the past three decades where the Dalits’ fight for ownership of five bighas of land, where their dream of empowerment is buried, continues unabated.
The neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh showed them the way where ownership of allotted land gave them the elusive dignity. But here they have yet to find a Mayawati of Rajasthan. The Dalit leader, whose catchphrase of dignity catapulted her to national political heights, has not become a household name in the desert state though her mentor, Kanshi Ram, had built the party’s base of a bureaucratic network.
Ostensibly, there are two reasons – the Jatavs are not a dominant caste and the 17% Dalit population is not only scattered in the state but are also divided into 62 sub-castes. Meghvanshi says: “The political parties also prefer puppets or docile Dalit leaders of a sub-caste who are small in numbers in a constituency. For example, the Bairawas are a dominant caste but the ticket will go to the Mochi caste, which has barely 300 votes in the Shahpura constituency.”
The chairperson of the Centre for Dalit Rights, PL Mimroth, laments, “The fight for land rights is interlinked with social and political empowerment as five bigha zameen gives them dignity as well as economic independence. But we will have to wait for another 50 years to achieve it.”
According to him, the Bhoodan movement could not be implemented in letter and spirit because of the feudal social structure, both in political and social set-ups. “At least 50% of the land allocated to Dalits is either encroached or has gone back to the powerful landowners,” he says.
Thus, the Dalits are fighting a two-pronged battle – for economic independence and political participation.