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Gujarat elections: Dalits in the state make a new statement with moustache

Even though SCs make up just 6.74% of the Gujarat’s population, Dalit votes count, especially where contests are tight.

GujaratElection2017 Updated: Dec 12, 2017 09:02 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, Junagadh/Ahmedabad/Banaskatha
Gujarat elections,Gujarat Dalits,Gujarat polls
People attend a protest rally over the attack against Dalits in Una, in Ahmedabad on July 31, 2016. (AFP File Photo)

The Dalits of Gujarat are unhappy and angry; their mood is mirrored in their WhatsApp profile photo that shows a stenciled moustache underlined with “Mr Dalit” written in bold.

The anger stems from an assault this October on a group of Dalit youth near Gandhinagar by Rajput men for sporting moustaches. The assailants said keeping the strip of male hair above the upper lip is a privilege reserved for the upper caste community.

A few days before the moustache attack, a Dalit was fatally assaulted in Anand for daring to watch Garba — the popular dance during Navratri — organised by Patidars.

Prior to this, in 2016, vigilante groups flogged four Dalit men in Una on the suspicion of cow slaughter, an attack that created countrywide uproar.

Attacks on Dalits and scheduled caste people are rampant in most Indian states and steeped in an ancient caste system. Gujarat ranks fifth in crimes against scheduled castes in India and has recorded a 30% rise in such cases from 2015 to 2016.

Dalits aren’t allowed to enter temples in most Gujarat villages and their children are served government-sponsored lunch separately in many schools, Dalit rights activists Martin Macwan alleged.

“Dalits are treated as untouchable, but their vote was never untouchable,” he said.

The atrocities propped up Dalit activists such as Jignesh Mevani, who is contesting this year’s Gujarat assembly polls from Vadgam in Banaskantha district, about 500km from Una.

The Congress-backed independent candidate is drawing support from Dalits and Muslims. Together, Dalits and Muslims constitute about 100,000 of the 250,000 voters in Vadgam.

“Whether Mevani wins or loses, people are talking about Dalits for the first time in recent elections,” said retired school teacher Bharatbhai Mewada. “The community has made its presence felt.”

In Mangrol assembly constituency of Junagadh district, a group of three young Dalit voters accused the BJP of letting the community down. “You make a Dalit the President of India and don’t stand by the community when they face atrocities by people close to your ideology,” said Rajesh Gohel, in his 20s.

Gujarat’s Dalits had their share of limelight when the Congress was in power in the state more than two decades ago. But their influence waned after the Congress rule ended in 1995.

Dalits, led by Jignesh Mevani (centre), during a protest march in Ahmedabad. (Siddharaj Solanki/HT File Photo)

The scheduled castes don’t matter much numerically as they make up just 6.74% of the state’s 60 million-plus population.

There are 3,100 villages and towns that have a scheduled caste population of 250 and above.

These contain more than 50% of the state’s 4 million-plus scheduled caste population.

But they are so sparsely distributed that they are a minuscule minority in most of the assembly constituencies. Still their vote counts, especially to squeeze out of a tight contest.

The scheduled castes continue to share an uneasy relationship with dominant communities such as Patidars, who have been the BJP’s main support base in Gujarat, said Dr Gaurang Jani, an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences, Gujarat University. “The BJP never made any serious effort to win over this community in Gujarat … They are numerically insignificant and socially non-aligned to the BJP,” Jani said.

According to political scientist Ghanshaym Shah, the Congress remained the first choice of these voters.

A post poll survey by Lokniti and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, shows 65% of the scheduled caste votes went to the Congress in 2012. The BJP got 23%. But the result was different. Of 13 assembly seats reserved for scheduled castes, the BJP won 10 and the Congress took three.

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BJP strategists attributed the outcome to overwhelming support from communities that are not scheduled castes.

The BJP is counting on every vote to achieve its “mission-150” in Gujarat, having won 115 seats in the 182-member assembly in the 2012 polls. It has tried to win over Dalits with government schemes and social outreach programmes.

The BJP government moved swiftly to undo the Una damage and announced to set up 16 special courts for speedy trials of cases relating to atrocities against the Dalits and Adivasis.

But Dalit rights activists Martin Macwan believe Una still rankles. “This election would be a different story,” he said.

First Published: Dec 12, 2017 07:46 IST