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Feeling discriminated, Dalits look for their voice in Gujarat elections

With no real alternative available, Dalits are likely to vote for Congress, though they are say that neither it or the BJP have done much for them.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 22, 2017 07:37 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, Vadodara/Ahmedabad/Anand
Dalits,Gujarat Dalits,Gujarat elections
Dalits shout slogans during a protest march from Ahmedabad to Una where four from the community were brutally beaten by alleged vigilantes for skinning a dead cow, in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, in August 2016. (Siddharaj Solanki/HTFile  PHoto)

Laxmiben Nadia dreams of a day when a real estate developer will offer to purchase the slum she lives in Ahmedabad’s Hatkeshwar to erect a multi-storied building. A waste picker by profession, she says, shanty owners like her would get a “bigger, better home”, while the sale of remaining houses would help the builder make a neat profit.

“The only problem is that the builder will have to sell the rest of the houses to non-Gujaratis, because if the locals find out that we live here, they will never buy houses here,” she laughs.

Laxmiben is a Nadia, a Scheduled Caste. She says even in the metropolis that is Ahmedabad, Dalits are kept at a distance by the other castes.

Being Dalit exposes Ratnesh in Gujarat’s Anand district to similar experiences. A history major, Ratnesh who does not use a surname says he’s used to frequent jibes about caste-based reservation. The Una flogging, where Dalit men were beaten up by alleged cow vigilantes last year, exposed the “underbelly” of the “developed Gujarat model”, he says.

Post Una

As the state gears for upcoming assembly polls next month, stories of discrimination against Dalits, who make up for 7% of Gujarat’s population, are pervasive.

Dalit groups are demanding representation in the electoral process; young leaders such as Jignesh Mevani who started the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti have emerged challengers who seek to force mainstream parties to rejig their strategies.

“Discrimination continues, only how it is exhibit has changed. Now there is no untouchability, but the upper castes find ways of controlling us. For instance, only the acquiescent Dalit can become sarpanch from a reserved seat, Dalits have begun to question that,” says Madhu Koradia, a social worker and a Dalit.

The Dalit uprising is expected to bruise the BJP’s electoral fortunes, but several voices within the SC community say the Congress cannot be absolved of blame. Mevani was recently quoted as saying that Dalits wouldn’t support any party, and want an exclusive space, in the absence of a viable alternative, the Dalit vote is likely to weigh in favour of the Congress.

“The BJP has been in power for two decades and the Hindutva model it forces has done nothing to end discrimination, but the Congress did no better. What prevailed then is perpetuated now,” says Koradia.

The Congress is moving in quickly to cash in on the anti-BJP sentiment; to fight back, the ruling party has deputed 150 Dalit leaders, including MLAs and MPs from within the party fold to spend a week across Dalit bastis in the state. But many have criticised the BJP’s claims of being pro-Dalit after its list of candidates had far fewer SCs, with the influential Patidars and OBCs getting a bigger share.

“The BJP will be biggest beneficiary of the Dalit and tribal votes. They don’’ identify with the politics of the Congress,” says BJP general secretary Bhupinder Yadav. On behalf of the BJP, its ideological fount, the RSS too is reaching out through its social harmony programmes.

In Anand and Vadodara, community members say the chasm between the Dalits and the Muslims is an outcome of the 2002 riots, where Dalits were pushed to the frontlines as aggressors. They are also quick to point out that within the Hindu community, castes such as the Patidars have for long grudged the Dalits the benefits of quotas in jobs and education.

Not just political

The struggle to assert the Dalit identity is not limited to the political arena.

In Vadodara, V Divakar, curator at the Conflictorium, of a museum in Ahmedabad where stories of conflict are narrated through different mediums, is striving to help Dalit artists take centrestage.

He talks about the struggle that many of these artists endure and how in the absence of support, their work remains unacknowledged.

“There is Raju Patel, a gifted Tribal artist who sometimes sells mangoes to sustain. He’s been around for 14 years and had never had a solo show,” he says. Divakar manages Knots, an experimental space for artists such as Patel to showcase their work.

Mevani’s growing clout, Divakar says imbues hope, even though many are skeptical of its outcome.

Dalit entrepreneur Mukesh Makwana attributed Dalit anger to persistent social discrimination. “I know Dalits who are afraid to get into the business of eateries or mineral water production; they fear that people will stay away on learning of their caste,” said Makwana, president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DICCI), Ahmedabad.

He blamed the absence of social and political support systems for keeping the Dalits on the fringes of empowerment. “Recently, Rahul Gandhi at a meeting remarked why don’t Dalits have an Ambani among them. How will there be Ambanis when there is no political support or social inclusion. We have only been used as a vote bank.”

Martin Macwan of the Navsarjan Trust, an NGO that works with Dalits, said he did not foresee any changes until a Dalit rose to a position of power.

He said while the Dalits were no longer swayed by the BJP’s appeasement to them on religious lines, the anti-BJP mandate couldn’t be read as pro-Congress.

As for Mevani, he said: “political awareness among the Dalits is high. They are frustrated by their representatives in the BJP and Congress and are looking for an alternate.”

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 07:26 IST