In high-stakes poll battle, will Mayawati succeed in uniting warring Dalit castes?
NEW DELHI, Apr 20: A diehard follower of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, Tittal has been on a whirlwind tour of the state's Agra district over the past few weeks on a unique mission - reach out to the Valmikis, a Dalit sub-caste that the BSP wants to bring to its fold.
"We are eating together. I myself had food at 200 homes of Valmikis. Not only do we shake hands but also hug each other. Soon, we will start solemnising marriages between our families. We have already started sending wedding invites to each other," said Tittal, who heads BSP's district bhaichara (brotherhood) committee in Agra.
Dalits comprise 21.2% of Uttar Pradesh's population and their support is crucial to the electoral plans of the BSP, which has forged an alliance with traditional rival Samajwadi Party (SP) to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India's most populous state. The Dalit vote is important because in as many as 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, the community constitutes between 15 and 39 percent of the total votes .
But Dalits have 65 sub-castes among them - Jatavs (the caste Mayawati belongs to) make up 54.2%, followed by Pasis (15.9%) and Valmikis (1.3%).
A deep divide exists among the scheduled caste (SC) fold, and a common refrain among the Valmikis is that they are "double untouchables" - facing bias from both upper castes and the more developed Jatav community.The BSP's effort is aimed at assuaging this hurt.
"We are brothers who got lost in the political melee. One joined the shoe manufacturing units as labourer, the other became safai karmachari (sanitation worker). Politicians only exploited the social divide," Tittal said.
Sitting at the Babu Jagjivan Library in the heart of the city, veteran Dalit activist Deoki Nandan Son explained that while Jatavs prospered by following BR Ambedkar's teachings in a landmark speech in Agra on March 18, 1956: "Shikshit bano, sangharsh karo, sangathit raho" (educate, agitate and organise), Valmikis could not.
Such is the schism that the SP-BSP alliance, which otherwise is focusing on the backward class and Dalit vote, is not confident of winning Agra, often called the Dalit capital of the state because it is home to roughly one-fifth of scheduled castes in the state.
"Both Jatavs and Valmikis are urban castes and historically at loggerheads with each other," said Badri Narayan, the author of several books including one on Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP.
THE POLITICAL DIVIDE
As Mayawati rose to power in the mid-1990s, the divide between Jatavs and other Dalit sub-castes deepened as the BSP chief attempted to form social alliances with other communities such as Brahmins (during the 2007 assembly polls) and Muslims (during the 2017 assembly polls).
"She gave tickets to Brahmins and not us. Why should we support her in the elections when she never invited or involved us? We voted for change in 2014 as we had this hope that our lives will also change for the better. But (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and Yogi (chief minister Yogi Adityanath) did nothing for us," said Raju Karoshia, a resident of Agra who hails from the Valmiki caste.
As the Jatavs moved closer to the BSP, the Pasis and Valmikis cosied up to the BJP. There were non-political reasons too. Valmikis revere Maharishi Valmiki, who is believed to have penned the Hindu epic Ramayana. Pasis are followers of mythical saints Parshuram and Uda Devi.
In projecting Hindu unity and Hindu gods, the BJP was able to attract these castes and the party's thumping victory in the 2017 aseembly polls, when it won 325 seats in the 400-member assembly, is attributed by experts to the support of smaller SC castes.
Activist Bengali Babu, convener of the Jatav Utthan Samiti, explained that the BJP painted Jatavs as "the villains" who had grabbed all benefits of reservation.
Another flashpoint is the annual Bhim Nagri festival celebrated during the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar and is attending by hundreds of thousands of people. The festival began in 1996 as an assertion against upper castes but has seen tensions between SC sub-castes, sometimes over things like having Ambedkar's portrait at home (many smaller sub-castes follow Hindu gods instead of keeping Ambedkar's photograph).
"The Valmikis supported the BSP in successive elections but frustrated by neglect, they moved to the BJP in 2014. Even now, they are furious. Their slum areas here have shrunk.It's a social struggle and their political empowerment remain a dream," says Dalit activist Anup Shramik.
But the BJP received a jolt last year when protests broke out across the nation, including in UP, over a perceived dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court. Though the government rolled back the changes by legislation, opposition parties have since used the issue to paint the BJP as anti-Dalit.
"No one else but Mayawati is responsible for dividing Dalits. Jatavs have never considered other 65 sub-castes as equals," said Nand Kishore, a Valmiki who is also a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). His home is on Devri Road, a 10-km-long stretch that is known locally as a BSP stronghold because several party MLAs and office bearers hail from the area. Many like Kishore have abandoned the BSP, where they resent the so-called hegemony of the Jatav caste.
THE UNITY MOVES
Realising the need to consolidate her base, Mayawati launched a campaign to unite several Dalit sub-castes through brotherhood committees six months ago - a move experts said mirrored the effort of her mentor Kanshi Ram, who spent his life attempting to unite the "Bahujan" (literally meaning the majority, a combination of all communities except Hindu upper castes).
But it may not be easy. The BJP now has a formidable base among smaller SCs and even the Congress has started to make attempts to win back a community that used to be its loyal votebank until the 1990s.
"Now, Mayawati has been working for months to unite Dalits through their bhaichara samitis. It's too early to comment. The Congress has also jumped into the fray with (party general secretary) Priyanka Gandhi leading the campaign. A small section may support the Congress," said Badri Narayan.
Last month, Priyanka Gandhi's meeting with Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar in a Meerut hospital grabbed headlines. Mayawati has often called the Bhim Army, which has considerable support in western UP, a B-team of the BJP.
Tittal is confident Mayawati's move will pay political dividends but is aware of the stakes involved in the ongoing general elections. "We have to win this election, if we don't, we will never rise again. We will divide and disappear." -Hindustan Times