Even a native-born can feel a slight twinge of an unnamable fear as he or she enters Jansath, east of the highway running to Haridwar from Delhi. Even by western UP standards, it’s tough country: people here may still prefer to get astride a horse to travel, as if they know travelling is also about staying in one place. In the middle of this tehsil in Muzaffarnagar district, surrounded by those ubiquitous sugarcane fields, is a crossroads from which radiate routes to seven villages—Nanhera, Nanheri, Kasauli, Gadla, Rasulpur, Shahdara and Baruki. They are part of an intimate cluster; residents say they are yoked together by ties geographical and neighbourly. In recent days, this supposed attachment is fraying from the inside out as anxieties both primordial and modern have bubbled to the surface.
The latest rash of animosities erupted—leaving this micro body politic red and raw to the touch—when local Dalits joined the Bharat Bandh to repudiate a Supreme Court ruling that dilutes the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It was part of a larger map of anger: Dalit protests had swept across 22 states like a little tectonic rumble. Everywhere, for a social bloc that had mostly forfeited its electoral strengths of late, the protests were a demonstration of how powerful their movement still is.
This applies in particular to the Jatavs of Uttar Pradesh, traditional supporters of Mayawati and her BSP, who make up 65 per cent of the state’s Dalit population. “At least 20 per cent of Chamar (Jatav) votes went to Modi in the last two elections. It won’t get a single vote now,” says Sobha Ram, a BSP supporter from Nanhera, a Jat-dominated village, who travelled to Muzaffarnagar city, roughly 40 km away, to participate in the bandh. “Ambedkar’s statues are being broken, the Atrocities Act is finished and reservations all but over. Everything we had is gone,” he says. Perhaps a bit overstated, but the besieged feeling is not difficult to understand at a time when an Ambedkar statue was rebuilt decked out in a saffron attire.
More than an isolated question, the resilience of Dalit politics on the ground feeds into a shifting kaleidoscope this time. That the agitation left a mark despite not being spearheaded by any single party or leader has naturally led every political formation to draw inferences about the intensity of local Dalit sentiments. The immediate questions are: a) how isolated do Jatavs feel from the BJP? and b) what positions will other castes, Dalit or not, take in coming months? This would determine how the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which recently teamed up successfully for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls, would orient themselves towards the upcoming Kairana bypoll—and of course the 2019 national elections.
The alliance seems to be off for the Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll that’s coming up soon. The BSP has reportedly told the Samajwadis that it will be busy with an organisational revamp in the run-up to 2019. It doesn’t contest bypolls anyway, and can’t promise any vote transfer either. Yet, Kairana has 2.5 lakh Jatav votes, besides around 5 lakh Muslim votes, and it won’t be easy for the BJP. Beyond the result, it’s the signalling between the BSP and SP that’s worth watching out for.
But party loyalties are one thing. The intensity of Dalit anger is potentially such that it may solidify the pan-identity, imparting a higher level of adhesion between Jatavs and other Dalit castes than is usual. “People are only talking about Jatavs in the bandh, but all SC communities were together this time,” says Sobha Ram. This view is backed by the details of police cases on Dalits filed after the protests in different places. Locals in Muzaffarnagar and Meerut say the cases name agitators from across Dalit communities, Valmiki, Kori and Jatav alike. The ruling BJP would be justified in worrying; this may presage an era in which Dalit communities find common cause against it.
“In one hour, they killed three Dalits and now that protection of the Atrocities Act is gone, wait and see how we are hounded,” says Jugal Kishore, a schoolteacher in Basera, a village near Nanhera. The other prong of empowerment is quotas: here, he feels “top people” among Dalits have captured most of the advantages. In this, he echoes the feelings of many OBCs and dominant caste members. “There should be a system so that the poor get to access reservations, not just Dalits who are from successful educated families,” he says.
Those who supported the bandh vividly recall every recent “law and order” problem, from the Jat agitation for reservations in Haryana to Rajput protests over the screening of Padmavaat and the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 that rocked four blocks, including Jansath. Each of these events is cited as proof of a systemic “bias” against Dalits. “Those agitators” either faced no police action or, even if they did, cases against them were withdrawn sooner or later. From this point of view, the UP police has come down hard on the Bharat Bandh because Dalits, especially Jatavs, are low priority in the hierarchy of BJP voters (who are mostly Brahmin, Rajput, Vaishya and OBCs).
“It’s almost a tradition to use some appellations when addressing Dalits—they get angry and use the Atrocities Act over such small matters. It’s good the court has curbed it,” says Ranbir Malik, a Jat farmer from Nanhera. His son Manish, an ABVP activist, says, “The bandh was not completely unjustified but it did become violent. The job crisis affects everybody so reservations, if at all, should be on economic criteria,” he says, citing his own unfruitful struggle to find work with the state government despite trying for years (and despite OBC status for Jats in UP).
The future offers a jumble of political options for all castes, none too palatable or unpalatable. For those from weaker, non-Dalit sections, like Praveen Kumar, a Prajapati, the watering down of the Atrocities Act is satisfying—“SCs were using it for every small thing”. But he’s a fence-sitter on the Yogi Adityanath-led government. Reasons for being happy: a toilet was built in his home and he got a “zero-balance” bank account. “Seven months ago, the bank deducted Rs 500 from that for some insurance that I know nothing about. So I stopped depositing money in that account,” he says.
Equally non-committal are Satpal, a Tyagi farmer from Gadhla, and Yashpal, a Jat from Nanheri. “Electricity bills have doubled in a year. An LPG cylinder worth Rs 350 two years ago is now worth Rs 800. Diesel is getting costlier too,” says Satpal. Yashpal, meanwhile, describes his shift from the Rashtriya Lok Dal and towards the BJP in 2014 as a “compulsion”. That is, Hindu-Muslim polarisation—there was an infamous incident in Kawwal, in the same tehsil, during the riots of 2013.
Most people list the BJP government’s suppression of crime as a big plus, but struggle to come up with more reasons in its favour. “There was no benefit. We suffered losses, struggled to get cash for months after demonetisation. We stood in lines but in vain,” says Yashpal.
Praveen Kumar, a non-Dalit, finds the dilution of the Atrocities Act satisfying—for a personal reason too
Another grouse is Aadhaar. Satpal does not own a mobile phone, so he struggled to buy manure for his crop. “Nobody in my family has a mobile number so it’s a big problem for us. I told the shopkeeper I’d get a mobile before I come again for more manure but I can’t afford to,” he says. Motiram, also a farmer, says he had to get an Aadhaar card to get an anti-rabies injection after a recent dog bite. “When I returned for the next shot, they said the medicine wasn’t available,” he says. “Soon they will want an Aadhaar card for letting us go to the toilet, but we don’t get money for months for our sugarcane.”
Even non-Dalits temper their support for the Yogi regime and Prime Minister Modi with a 20/20 vision—they feel neither has benefited farmers or the poor. Yet, when it comes to the Atrocities Act and reservations, the wedge between the various social groups is only deepening since the agitation. If the divisions grow, it will be increasingly difficult for the regional parties to keep their flock together and form a wider alliance. It would be in a sense, the antidote to the BJP getting discredited on the development front.
Naresh Tyagi, a middle-aged farmer, his son and two workers, including a woman, come on a bullock cart loaded with sugarcane to this spot, a hundred metres from Gadla, a village dominated by Tyagi (half-Brahmin) farmers. “The court ruling was correct. Dalits used to file cases under it due to personal enmity. It should only be used when someone actually says something, not otherwise,” says Naresh.
Rishipal Tyagi, another farmer, says, “We were staunch Congress supporters until its leadership faded away. Now we are with BJP no matter what.” Both he and a Banjara called Motiram say reservations should be shown the door. “There should be fresh reservations along economic lines, if at all. Right now, even with 100 per cent marks our children cannot get admissions while Dalits get admission even if they do badly,” says Motiram.
They point to Preetika, the woman sitting atop the sugarcane. “She’s a Dalit but will agree with us,” they say. Preetika speaks, but only after the Tyagis leave. “They cleverly told you my caste though I was silent while they complained about Dalits. Where’s the fear they claim to feel?” she asks. Some Tyagis in her village are big landlords, she says. Her family is poor and virtually landless. “Poor people’s children work as labourers and so fare badly in school. They have land but want Dalits as their slaves. That’s why they are happy with the ruling. But our rights are in the Constitution—they can’t make new laws just to revoke them,” she says.
Preetika is an MA in Sanskrit, but has been trying in vain to find work for three years. She was close to Amaresh Kumar, a young man killed by a police bullet in Muzaffarnagar on April 2. “We weren’t related. But isn’t other people’s grief our grief? Amaresh’s mother has not eaten for days,” she says, breaking down. The reason for her discomposure—and that of other Dalits in these parts—is the police crackdown on “all SCs”. “They arrested 14 men who had gone to a Muzaffarnagar hospital to meet Amaresh,” says his mother, Ruby. The Dalits had to agitate overnight until the men were released.
“Police picked us up from the hospital and beat all of us very badly,” says Hemraj from Gadla, a daily-wage driver. “Even if the Act was sparingly used, it still created a sense of fear among other castes. They dared not touch us,” he says. Gadla’s Dalits are trying to raise funds to help the family.
The death has driven people apart, fragmenting the social mosaic of these seven villages. Will that imperil the SP-BSP alliance? The Gadla village pradhan, Ashok Kumar, who is trying to resolve the multitude of cases filed against the 14 residents, foretells 2019. “The bandh was for a justified cause. Nobody from the BJP offered to compensate the bereaved, nor did they visit them even once. If this is not bias, what is?” he asks. “Just wait—there’s SP, there’s BSP, the Opposition is uniting. The BJP will have nowhere to go next year.”