Dalit and the Dominoes

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THE BUNDELKHAND RIDDLE

Bundelkhand was supposed to be Mayawati’s fortress. But the BSP’s elephant is no longer universally revered in these parts. Revati Laul travels across the region to find out why

Photo: Pramod Adhikari

“THE ELEPHANT is shit.” The voice of a single disgruntled voter in election season does not count for anything by itself. But when it comes from the heart of Mayawati’s vote base, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, is the voice of a Dalit farmer, and is part of a growing crescendo of discontent, it’s an alarm bell. This time, as she readies for the state Assembly election in February-March, the challenge before the Dalit leader is formidable.

Bundelkhand straddles Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It is stuck in vivid visual memory as the land of the Rani of Jhansi, heroine of the 1857 uprising against the British. But ever since Mayawati and the revival of Dalit icons, statues of the Rani’s maid — Jhalkaribai — a woman from the traditionally “lower castes”, also appear prominently in the belt from Jhansi to Hamirpur.

Jhalkaribai is said to have told the Rani, when the British soldiers had surrounded her fort, that she would pretend to be the Rani of Jhansi so that the real queen could escape. Now, in the land of the Dalit chief minister, Jhalkaribai of the Kori community — a sub-caste among Dalits — has pride of place in statues across Bundelkhand. But alongside this assertion of Dalit pride is another stark visual of the region. Punishing drought and farmers’ suicides. Over 500 suicides in the seven districts of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh alone every year. Mostly poor farmers from so-called “lower castes”, many of whom had voted for Mayawati in 2007.

Unlocking the key to why the elephant — the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — is no long universally revered in these parts, is to tell the story of Mayawati’s predicament in 2012, as any story on a Dalit leader should be told: bottom up. From the ground.

Gurcharan, 54 Gurcharan displays a photo of his son, Ram Nishad Babbu, who he says died trying to prevent the administration from snatching the village’s land for what he claims was a ridiculously low price. He blames the Mayawati regime for the death. “We will now vote for the Congress,” he says.,
Gurcharan, 54: Gurcharan displays a photo of his son, Ram Nishad Babbu, who he says died trying to prevent the administration from snatching the village’s land for what he claims was a ridiculously low price. He blames the Mayawati regime for the death. “We will now vote for the Congress,” he says. Photos: Revati Laul

Amrahiya is a small village in the heart of Bundelkhand — the district of Banda. The village is 95 percent Dalit. And most political observers would bet that here at least, almost everyone would vote for Mayawati’s BSP. And they could possibly be right. But Balbir, 27, a man who owns four bighas but works outside Banda as a taxi driver, had an interesting qualifier. “If we are dying of fever, it’s not the BSP from Lucknow that will come running to our aid… We have to vote for a local candidate who can come to help us when we need it and we are not sure who that is just yet.” And Balbir is from the community that has always stood firmly behind Mayawati. He is a Jatav, like the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Banda is also the region where the erstwhile BSP minister and former aide of Mayawati, Babu Singh Kushwaha, is from. Sacked as minister after being implicated in the embezzlement of 8,500 crore meant for the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). He is the same man who was then roped in by the BJP to appease voters from his caste (Kushwahas make up about 4.5 percent of the state’s voters). Babu Singh Kushwaha’s murky trail may spell trouble for the BJP. But it has also left a big black spot on the BSP in Bundelkhand, and on some of Mayawati’s loyal voters.

Barethi Askaran, a Kushwaha-dominated village in the region, was quick to disown the tainted man. “We’re not the same community,” says one farmer quickly. Another says: “Babu Singh Kushwaha was an utterly useless man… here we live in small hovels and we have got nothing. This time the winds are blowing in favour of the Congress. In favour of Daljeet Singh.”

Negative factor Kushwaha’s sacking could prove costly for the BSP in the region
Negative factor Kushwaha’s sacking could prove costly for the BSP in the region

Ironically, Daljeet Singh, the Congress party candidate from the district, is a businessman in a very opaque trade — mining. He swears he is completely above board, an honest man. He contested as an independent candidate in 2007 and lost narrowly to the BSP. This time, he says, he’s on a stronger wicket with the Congress. When questioned about his mining business, he was all injured innocence — as all mining barons always are.

What Daljeet Singh and other Congress candidates fighting an election in a largely Dalit-populated region hope to do is steal a small percentage of Mayawati’s Dalit vote. They then hope to add to this a larger slice of OBC and Brahmin votes. Weakening Mayawati is the key.

BUT THE Bundelkhand story, like most stories in Uttar Pradesh, is not a straightforward one. Among the many twists is that when Mayawati has tried to clean up things, she has actually lost as much support as she’s gained. In the same region of Bundelkhand, large sections of upper caste voters are unhappy that ‘their’ goonda — Shiv Kumar Patel, the dreaded gangster of the Dadua gang (a Kurmi/OBC gang that was the face of upper-caste vigilantism) — was hunted down and killed by Mayawati’s police. This caused an upper-caste revolt against Mayawati in Bundelkhand when the Lok Sabha elections took place in 2009.

The BSP does not have good candidates despite the fact that they have a committed vote base here

Since 2007, when Mayawati swept to power, numerous crimes have been reported as specifically anti-Dalit crimes from across Uttar Pradesh. Since there are more Dalits in Bundelkhand than anywhere else in the state, police stations were stuffed with FIRs under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Many upper-caste voters claim these are false cases. The enforcing of this equalising law by Mayawati has damaged her carefully stitched together Dalit-Brahmin alliance, making the 2012 election that much more difficult for her. It is, however, the enforcing of justice for Dalits, via this very Act, that has kept even otherwise unhappy Dalits loyal to Mayawati.

An unusually assertive woman, Motibai, 30, in Sarhat village (Chitrakoot district) sums up the Dalit voter’s worst fear. Retribution. If their leader loses this election, many Dalits may feel the heat. “Every caste has someone to protect them,” Motibai says, “why shouldn’t we? So the Kol community is with the elephant. If the elephant doesn’t win, then the other parties may withdraw the Act.”

The term ‘Dalit’ only loosely defines a group of 66 sub-castes in Uttar Pradesh, and they are a highly stratified lot. The Jatavs, the caste Mayawati belongs to, are at the top of the Dalit pyramid in Uttar Pradesh and the 65 other castes are roughly branded as Ati Dalit (Extreme Dalit). A group that has, from 2007 on, increasingly felt doubly discriminated. First, for being Dalit and second for not being the most favoured amongst the Dalits.

In Bundelkhand, where a big chunk of voters owe their life to Maya, some blame her neglect for the suicides

Still, even with the dissenting voices, there is a large core constituency of Scheduled Caste voters that have until now felt they have no choice but to stick to Mayawati. Their survival is at stake, or at least self-respect. These are the voices that tell stories of having cleaned the shit from the village for 10 a day. Beaten, raped and barely allowed to exist, often completely at the mercy of more dominant castes. Until Mayawati.

THE TANGIBLE gains for at least the Jatavs amongst the Dalits have been many. Dalit-dominant villages were handpicked for the Ambedkar Village schemes. Those villages are home to decisively pro- Mayawati farmers, like Bindu Kumar and his wife Urmila. Now supervising the building of their pucca home, bricks and mortar and all, by availing a scheme for Dalits. They are proud to present their toilet, still a novelty in a Dalit home. Across Bundelkhand, the sight of a Dalit woman bathing in the open, right in the centre of the village square, is commonplace. A bathroom and a toilet is not just a secure vote. It’s a tectonic shift in the dignity and sense of self it affords.

Mining for votes Congress candidate Daljeet is optimistic of a good show this year
Mining for votes: Congress candidate Daljeet is optimistic of a good show this year

But in the many-headed hydra that is Bundelkhand, where a large chunk of voters owe their life to Mayawati, some blame her neglect for the deaths in the region. This is suicide country. In which Himmat Rai was a teenager when his father hanged himself, because he couldn’t pay off a Rs 80,000 loan. He is a ‘Thakur’ and says he is now going to vote for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.

Also in suicide land is the proud and distraught Gurcharan, displaying the funeral photograph of his son, who he says died trying to prevent the administration from snatching the village’s land for what he claims was a ridiculously low price. Ram Nishad Babbu, 32, was one of a few hundred agitating villagers who stormed off to the tehsildar’s office, saying the local administration had snatched their land to build a dam for not even a quarter of the market price of the land.

The local official retorted tauntingly, “You villagers keep threatening to immolate yourselves, but no one has the guts to actually do it.” At which point, Ram Nishad doused himself with kerosene. The dam has been stalled. Bundelkhand has no water. Land rates have been revised. And Ram Nishad is dead. To his father, Mayawati’s government is the culprit. “We will vote for the Congress,” he says.

This time around, Maya’s rivals have learnt some caste arithmetic from her and reapplied it to their own parties

In election season, the question of whose fault the extreme poverty and indebtedness is comes down to perception. In 2008, Mayawati created the Bundelkhand Special Area Development Authority. She wrote repeatedly to the Centre asking for farmers’ loans up to 2011 to be waived. And made sure the public is aware that she requested the Centre for a special assistance package of Rs 80,000 crore for Bundelkhand. What the Centre did give is Rs 7,266 crore for all of Bundelkhand (encompassing both states). Uttar Pradesh’s share was about half: Rs 3,506 crore.

Pink campaign Congress’ Sampad Pal is the wild-card candidate in the mix
Pink campaign: Congress’ Sampad Pal is the wild-card candidate in the mix

But even of this amount, sanctioned in November 2009, only 23 percent has been used so far. Whose fault is it — Mayawati’s or the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s? In Bundelkhand, farmers’ suicides may impact the BSP only to the extent that it is the incumbent government and some amount of disenchantment with the administration will affect votes.

But Bundelkhand has been in an ever worsening crisis for over a decade. So the only recourse for any sort of protection, or even the reason to vote, isn’t development. It’s caste.

Here, there is a quantifiable loss to Mayawati’s vote base, indirectly stemming from the stark poverty and backwardness of Bundelkhand. A large chunk of Dalit voters consists of migrant labour, driven into Delhi, Haryana and Punjab to build other people’s homes and highways. The Congress candidate from Banda, Vivek Singh, cites polio-drop statistics as proof. Fifty-thousand households to be administered the drops were counted to have locked doors — that’s at least 1.5 lakh fewer voters, calculates Singh. One-and-a-half lakh people that would in all likelihood choose Mayawati, except they are too poor to stay and vote.

THERE IS, however, one other large piece of this electoral math that hasn’t been explored properly so far. According to the Election Commission’s data, 44 percent of all Dalits in Uttar Pradesh vote. Where are the remaining 56 percent?

Political scientist AK Verma of Christ Church College, Kanpur, has been digging into the question. “They can’t all be migrant labourers, I thought, and so I kept digging deeper. And came up with this startling fact. Much of this other half is actually tribal.” He explains that this until-now-unsolved piece of arithmetic could hugely upset Mayawati’s and everyone else’s calculations in this polls. Verma says, most of the communities listed in UP as Scheduled Castes are actually Scheduled Tribes, but the government’s incorrect nomenclature has resulted in these tribes not getting their recognition as tribals. Not getting their status under the quota system as Scheduled Tribes is causing them to become increasingly disenchanted people who form that other half that hasn’t been voting.

He explains this phenomenon further. In 1950, when communities were being listed as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe by the framers of the Indian Constitution, only five were listed as Scheduled Tribes in Uttar Pradesh. It took the rest of Uttar Pradesh’s tribals a shocking 53 years to get the government to notice. Finally, in 2003, 10 more communities were transferred from the Scheduled Caste to the Scheduled Tribe list. There are many other tribes still awaiting their turn. And their point of view, Verma says, is that by not getting Scheduled Tribe status, their slice of the reservation pie and access to political power and economic growth remains nil.

This group includes communities like the Gonds and the Kols, who have gained little and in some cases nothing from voting for Mayawati. And stand to lose nothing by voting elsewhere. A lot will depend on their getting out to vote at all. So much of Mayawati’s challenge still lies in making her candidates campaign aggressively in the days ahead.

Bindu Kumar, 34 The tangible gains for at least the Jatavs among the Dalits have been many. Bindu Kumar is supervising the building of a pucca home, bricks and mortar and all, by availing a scheme for Dalits. He is proud to present the toilet, still a novelty in a Dalit home.
Bindu Kumar, 34: The tangible gains for at least the Jatavs among the Dalits have been many. Bindu Kumar is supervising the building of a pucca home, bricks and mortar and all, by availing a scheme for Dalits. He is proud to present the toilet, still a novelty in a Dalit home.

“The BSP doesn’t have good candidates despite the fact that they have a committed vote base,” explains Sudhir Singh, a CPM party worker and resident of Banda. Indeed, the big challenge for Mayawati in 2012 will be to win despite having a loosely strung together cadre.

A Dalit farmer in Banda sums it up, “We Dalits are a thoroughly disunited lot. We cannot stand the next person’s success and will do anything to tear him down.” He was describing the biggest stumbling block to mobilising the most downtrodden, most oppressed into one party. Dispossession often breeds divisiveness.

Political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Sudha Pai wrote of the structure of the BSP: “The party’s concept of social justice, therefore, is not a moral or ethical position, but a plan of action… based upon the exigencies of the situation.” In this marriage of convenience, BSP party workers point out, power cannot and is not shared. Its only owner is Mayawati.

However, her close aide Naseem Uddin Siddiqui fends off the criticism. “The political pundits and press have said this before about us, that we are losing ground. We don’t need to reveal our strategy to anyone. And we like challenges.”

Will the old recipe of “we are victims because we are Dalits” work again? It’s what has driven Mayawati’s election campaign earlier and this time as well. “The Election Commission is anti-Dalit,” she said on her 56th birthday, in reference to the EC’s order that statues of elephants across the state be covered during the election campaign. And in an effort to not come across as anti-anybody herself, she released a list of candidates that sought to renew her rainbow alliance of 2007: 88 tickets to Scheduled Caste candidates, 113 to OBCs, 85 to minorities (largely Muslims) and 117 to the so-called upper castes, including 74 Brahmins.

‘Political pundits have said this before about us, that we are losing ground,’ retorts a Mayawati aide

But this time around, her major rivals have learnt some caste arithmetic from her and reapplied it with great precision to their own parties. Everybody wants to replicate her rainbow. Whilst publicly campaigning against caste politics, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have watched and learned. “This time, the Congress is doing the practical thing in putting up the right caste candidates,” says political observer Sudhir Singh.

One such candidate is a wild card choice for patriarchal Bundelkhand: Sampad Pal, leader of the Gulabi Gang. The pink ladies have, since 2006, stormed into district collectors’ offices, slapped a few of them and administered on-the-spot justice for the poor and particularly for women. Their leader, Sampad Pal, is a sort of female Robin Hood with her thousand women in a thousand pink saris. She is now a Congress candidate from Chitrakoot.

“What have all those bastard f***ers done for you, huh?” Sampad thunders on her campaign trail. “Vote for the hand. You know me — Sampad Pal of the Gulabi gang.

“I was married off when I was 12, became a mother when I was 15,” she later reveals. “Then I thought, will I be a slave all my life?” But she swears, if she wins, her gang will never enter politics with her; “Or I will end up becoming like Mamata Banerjee — hankering for power to sustain the gang.” Then she throws her head back and laughs.

BY CONTRAST, the party meant for the downtrodden in the land of the downtrodden has kept itself and its candidates as far away from the media as possible. And all its conversations play out in an elliptical loop. “I will win…we will win… Behenji is everything…” says Ache Lal Nishad, BSP candidate against Sampad Pal.

If there is one thing in Ache Lal and the BSP’s favour, it’s that the Congress with its careful stitching and the BJP with its obvious attraction for the Brahmin voter and the resurgent Samajwadi Party may all cut into each other’s votes.

This may end up as Bundelkhand — and indeed the Uttar Pradesh — pie being sliced into many smaller pieces, leaving the BSP still with sizeable number of seats and vote share, but nowhere close to the majority it won in 2007.

The big cover-up Mayawati has tried to portray the EC as an anti-Dalit entity
The big cover-up: Mayawati has tried to portray the EC as an anti-Dalit entity, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

A diminished elephant may be trouble not just for Mayawati, but indeed result in a throwback to the pre-2007 era — of coalition politics and even more instability in Uttar Pradesh. There are also the limits. Dalit identity qua Dalit identity. In the past decade, Verma reasons, a section of the Dalits has come into its own, economically and politically. This lot may not care much for the protective umbrella that the BSP offers Dalits, especially if it faces hostility from less-well-off Dalits.

A senior official in the Uttar Pradesh government talked about what five years in power had done to the cadre of the BSP. Damage. “An inherently insecure group has spent the past few months pulling each other down,” the official says. Which explains why for the first time ever, the BSP has shuffled around candidates at the very last minute. There are even some among the BSP who are now disgruntled enough to want to campaign against their own party. These are symptoms of an insecurity that is bred right at the top; many insiders say Mayawati is not comfortable with promoting any other charismatic leader who happens to be a Dalit.

She is the Sole Spokesperson. On 6 March, what will her voter tell her?

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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Maya’s image makeover turns out to be a farce

Two of the tainted ministers sacked by the UP CM have ended up getting BSP tickets, reports Abhishek Bhalla

Photo: AP

EVEN AS Mayawati is trying hard at an image makeover by sacking ministers ahead of the Assembly polls, Uttar Pradesh Lokayukta Justice (retd) NK Mehrotra is furious that his recommendations to initiate criminal proceedings against tainted ministers have gone unheard.

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has axed 26 ministers till date on charges of graft but Opposition parties have called it an orchestrated attempt to temporarily sideline the corrupt.

While Mayawati showed the door to at least 10 ministers against whom the Lokayukta found evidence of corruption, land grab and misusing their office for personal gains, she ignored Justice Mehrotra’s demand to book them under the appropriate legal framework.

“We had asked for action taken reports but not a single one has been provided. I’m in the process of giving a special report to the Governor regarding noncompliance,” an angry Justice Mehrotra told TEHELKA.

The inaction has left whistleblowers surprised. Sobodh Yadav, the complainant against one of the ministers, says, “The idea was to send these corrupt men to jail. But that will never happen. When the Lokayukta has already found evidence against them, the chief minister should have ensured that criminal cases were registered.”

Mayawati’s pre-poll farce is corroborated by the fact that from the list of BSP candidates, two ministers indicted by the Lokayukta and sacked by Mayawati — Ranganath Mishra and Rajesh Tripathi — are back in the fray.

Mishra, the former higher secondary minister who is contesting from Mirzapur, is accused of land grab and possessing disproportionate assets. The Lokayukta had recommended that a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act be registered against him. It also recommended that Mishra be charged under the Abolition of Zamindari Act and the land occupied by him in Sant Ravidas Nagar district must be given back to the village. An action taken report was to be submitted within a month. But no criminal proceedings have been initiated more than three months after the report.

Back in action: Sacked BSP ministers Rajesh Tripathi and Ranganath Mishra are once again in the fray

“I’m told that a probe is underway but till now nobody has bothered to even record my statement,” says Swaminath Mishra, complainant in the case. “This is just an eyewash. Now Mishra is also contesting on a BSP ticket. It is clear Mayawati’s act of sacking was a farce.” When TEHELKA contacted Mishra, his nephew came on the line and said, “The Lokayukta report was flawed and when Behenji (Mayawati) realised the mistake, she took him back.”

Tripathi, the former homoeopathy minister who will be contesting from Gorakhpur, is accused of grabbing land belonging to a cremation ground in the same district. He is also accused of diverting the MLA local development scheme funds to his school. The Lokayukta had recommended that a probe should be carried out by the Rural Development Department to look into the misuse of funds by MLAs and other officials who might be party to this loot. “There has been no such probe and not a single official punished,” says Justice Mehrotra.

Meanwhile, Anant Mishra who was sacked as health minister for his alleged role in the multi-crore National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) scam, was denied nomination, but his wife Uma has got a ticket from Farrukhabad.

Mayawati, who released her latest list of candidates on 15 January, said that while selecting candidates, special attention was paid to the fact that they had a clean image. “In the last election, many people from other parties managed to get BSP tickets,” she said.

“After coming to power, instead of working towards the development of their areas, they were involved in wrong activities out of personal interests. These are the people who spoiled the old BSP cadre and this is why they were denied tickets.”

Party insiders say that Mayawati is not taking any chances. “She is banking on her old formula of gathering support across castes and not banking alone on Dalit votes. She is hoping to repeat her 2007 poll victory,” says a BSP leader on condition of anonymity.

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