In Madhya Pradesh, BJP repeats the UP experiment of dividing Dalits

Key issues of governance have been side-tracked by concerns about embracing certain castes and communities to suit electoral expediency after BJP began unwrapping the divisive agenda of RSS

Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Chandarakant Naidu

The BJP’s predicament over the treatment of Dalits, Adivasis and of minorities rarely assumed such proportions as it has now. Key issues of governance have been completely side-tracked by concerns about embracing certain castes and communities to suit electoral expediency after the BJP began unwrapping the divisive agenda of RSS.

At its 1990 national conclave in Bhopal, the Bharatiya Janata Party had for the first time found space for portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Jaiprakash Narayan on the dais. That was a marked departure from a leadership that had treated Gandhi and Ambedkar with scant respect. The same convention had also finalised Advani’s watershed Rath Yatra in response to Mandalisation. Party president Atal Bihari Vajpayee didn’t like his colleagues’ unabashed lust for power. But, he favoured the outreach towards Dalit and secular vote banks.

Modi’s brazen efforts to apportion Ambedkar’s legacy have only managed to put off Dalits who were earlier drawn towards his promises to improve their lot. The Sangh’s and the party’s backstage activity has often been the opposite to the public projection. Dalits have been suffering in several states and with most states under its rule, BJP can no longer criticise adversaries without looking at the mirror.

Madhya Pradesh, where BJP is entrenched for nearly 15 years, has consistently figured among the states with the highest rate of atrocities on Dalits. According to National Crime Records Bureau its record on the treatment of Adivasis has been only marginally better.

Dalits and scheduled tribes had suffered even under Congress regime in Madhya Pradesh. Social transformation was quite tortuous. Industrialisation and urbanisation did trigger attitudinal changes. But crucial schemes for inclusive development have now hit a stonewall in rural and semi-urban pockets. Mid-day meals scheme for instance, ran into trouble with upper caste students refusing to eat stuff prepared by Dalits.

Badami Devi, 34, of Puravas village in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh had been a sarpanch of the Panchayat for a couple of years before Modi ascended to power in Delhi. Upper caste people never allowed her to hoist the national flag on Independence Day. Independence started making sense to her in 2014. In the euphoria of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first I-Day speech, Badami Devi could breach the upper caste bastion after media outcry over the denial of her rights. But similar liberation failed to reach many others in the region.

So acute is caste discrimination in Puravas that despite the allotment of land for a school, no building could be built for many years because the land happened to be close to a Dalit settlement and upper caste families didn’t like their children walking in that area.

The same year the National Human Rights Commission took cognisance of a media report that a Dalit bridegroom was forced to dismount a horse during his wedding procession and beaten up by an upper caste group in Sadwa village of Chhatarpur district on June 7. The perpetrators escaped punishment due to social pressures.

The Chambal region was in the news in August 2014 following the arrest of nine persons for religious conversions in Shivpuri district. Protests by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal led to their reconversion. The administration expectedly acted with alacrity to invoke the anti-conversion law for the first time in the state to arrest them and ensure their reconversion. What remained unaddressed though was the government’s failure to check discrimination that drove Dalits to the other faiths.

Madhya Pradesh, where BJP is entrenched for nearly 15 years has consistently figured among the states with the highest rate of atrocities on Dalits. According to National Crime Records Bureau its record on the treatment of Adivasis has been only marginally better

More zeal for anti-conversion

Before the last assembly elections, the BJP government had proposed the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2013 to supersede the 1968 legislation mandating prior permission and prescribing stringent jail term for forcible conversions. While the 1968 legislation provided a jail term of one year for forcible conversions, the proposed Bill stipulates a jail term of up to three years or a fine up to Rs 50,000, or both.

The government has, however, not shown the same zeal in punishing those committing atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis. In 2016 Madhya Pradesh (1,823 cases) reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against Scheduled Tribes (STs) accounting for 27.8 per cent.

A fair share of the BJP’s Dalit vote in 2014 General Elections came from young and upwardly mobile Dalits who were taken in by Modi’s economic agenda. There was greater support for the BJP among educated Dalits. However, the government’s failure to deliver benefits of various programmes among Dalits have caused discontent.

Dalits 22% but divided

The state government now must pay for its own failure since 2013 as well as for the union government’s failure to live up to promises since 2014. A series of incidents during the election year have added to chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s worries.

In March a Dalit youth, Balram Ahirwar, was allegedly pushed into a Holi bonfire by an upper caste couple in Futera village in Sagar district. The police said the couple got angry fearing the bonfire lit by the victim and others would engulf their house. Balram survived though and the perpetrators are on bail with little progress in the case.

In April, a methodically orchestrated riot pitted Dalits against upper castes. After Supreme Court diluted the provisions under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, several Dalit organisations called for a bandh on April 2.

The groups observed Bharat Bandh in Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The protests turned violent leading to death of nine persons and left many others injured. Six people were killed in firing in Madhya Pradesh alone.

The Bandh call and consequent closing of shops as also rumours that Dalits fired at the non-Dalits in Gwalior district triggered violence which soon spread to other districts.

Soon Gwalior, Bhind, witnessed violence. Seven people including five Dalits were killed and 153 people were injured in the riots. A fact-finding team that visited the 13 families affected by violence and met the Superintendent of police and district collector in Bhind observed that the administration had paced the inquiry to suit the ruling party’s priorities. Caste bias was obvious in the action against Dalits while the others involved in violence could move freely. The SP and Collector were transferred after the team filed its report.

In 2017, the BJP had extended its Dalit outreach by retaining support among Dalits in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. The party had effectively turned the caste arithmetic in its favour by repeatedly claiming that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) cared more for the interests of Jatavs over other Dalit groups. This worked among non-Jatavs. The same divide was sought to be created in Madhya Pradesh.

Dalits who form a sizeable 22 per cent of the state’s population have been spread across different districts in varying proportions. They have largely remained isolated from the mainstream in most parts. The lowest group of Jatavs is concentrated in the Chambal and Vindhya Pradesh regions of the state. The Chambal Jatavs have prospered over the years and have left behind other Dalit groups like Koris, Mallahs and Valmiks. The new BJP strategy seems to be to isolate the Jatavs in the region.

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