Why the BJP is unlikely to get Dalit votes in the Rajasthan elections

The 2 April 2018 Bharat bandh, called to protest the Supreme Court's ruling diluting the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, left ten people dead and hundreds injured. Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
28 October, 2018

On 14 May 2015, a five-decade-old land dispute between the Meghwals, a sub-community of Dalits, and Jats of Dangawas village in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district exploded into caste violence. That morning, a mob comprising hundreds of Jats marched to the disputed 15-acre plot of land outside the village, where 16 Meghwals from the family of Ratna Ram—a resident of Dangawas who claimed ownership of the property—were keeping vigil over the land. In an ensuing altercation, shots were fired and a bystander was killed. The police allege it was one of the Dalits who opened fire, a charge vehemently denied by the Meghwals. The crowd then violently assaulted the Meghwals, including running them over with tractors. Ratna Ram Meghwal and his brother Pancha Ram Meghwal died that day, while three others—Pokar Ram, Ganpat Ram and Ganesh Ram—succumbed to their injuries later.

The police registered two first information reports on the incident—one on a complaint filed by Ratna Ram’s family, naming 70 persons as accused, and another against the Meghwals for the death of the bystander, Rampal Goswami, who was neither Dalit nor Jat. When I visited Dangawas, Govind Ram Meghwal, Ratna Ram’s nephew, told me the local political and administrative machinery was insensitive to Dangawas’ Dalits. He also said that Vasundhara Raje’s government had not extended much support, while Sukharam Meghwal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of legislative assembly from Dangawas, had sided with the Jats.

“We filed an FIR under the SC/ST Act and the police had to register it, despite the Jats political and financial clout,” Govind Ram told me, at his home in the Meghwal basti, situated on the outskirts of Dangawas. “We may vote for the Congress in the coming elections, but we will definitely not vote for the BJP,” he said, gazing at the temporary police tent outside his home, meant to contain caste tension in the village. In recent years, Rajasthan has witnessed recurring caste atrocities, such as the Dangawas violence, all of which present a challenge to the BJP’s support from the Dalit community for the upcoming assembly elections.

In the 2013 state elections, the BJP won 163 of the 200 assembly seats—its highest ever poll victory in Rajasthan. A key element of this margin of victory was the BJP’s success in the constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes, where the party won 32 of 34 seats, while the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party failed to win a single seat. The Congress won 21 seats, while Mayawati’s BSP managed only three wins from the 195 seats it contested. This trend carried over to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won all 25 parliamentary constituencies of Rajasthan. According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti data, the BJP’s vote share among Dalits in Rajasthan increased 26 percentage points between the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and 2014. In the state polls scheduled for 7 December, however, Dalit anger may upend the BJP’s electoral sweep.

Rajasthan’s Dalits comprise around 17.2 percent, or 1.25 crore, of the state’s seven-crore population, and Meghwals, in turn, constitute around 50 percent of the Dalit community. The Meghwals are further subdivided into Salvis, Bunkers, Balais and Meghwanshis, concentrated in the central and western parts of the state. The remaining half of the Dalit community comprises sub-castes such as the Jatavs—who are concentrated in the eastern districts that border Uttar Pradesh—Bairwas and Raigars. Additionally, almost 20 percent of the community is urban, made up of the Valmiki and Jingar sub-castes, along with the entrepreneurial Dalit communities such as the Khatiq.

While the Dangawas atrocity catalysed the first rumbles of discontent against the ruling BJP, the Supreme Court judgment diluting the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, pronounced on 20 March 2018, has triggered a full-scale rebellion. The apex court ruled that a preliminary inquiry would have to be conducted before registering an FIR against public servants or private individuals and that anticipatory bail for the accused, which was unavailable before, would be now be par for the course.

The ruling provoked tremendous anger among Dalits, Tarachand Varma, a Jaipur-based lawyer, told me. “The justice who gave the ruling has been elevated to the National Green Tribunal,” Varma said. On 2 April, thousands of Dalits took to the streets in protest across India, as Dalit groups mobilised via Facebook and WhatsApp to call for a nationwide bandh. Organised on a massive scale, the protests were marked by violence against Dalits by police and caste groups such as the Karni Sena—an upper-caste group comprising Rajputs that is known for its violent tactics.

The Dangawas atrocity provoked massive outrage in the community. Subsequent incidents, ranging from caste humiliation to violent assaults against Dalits in the state, started rupturing the community’s link with the ruling party. The mass mobilisation for the 2 April protest was a visible omen for Dalit-BJP relations. “Dangawas and the 2 April protests were the turning points for Rajasthan’s Dalits,” Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a journalist and analyst from the state’s Bhilwara district, said. “The BJP lost by-elections because of the former, and the latter will influence how Dalits vote in 2018 because the key question is: what happened to us on 2 April?”

In the aftermath of the 2 April protests, the police registered FIRs and arrested Dalits across Rajasthan. While there is no official disclosure of the number of complaints filed by the state, Varma claims 311 FIRs were registered against Dalits and Scheduled Tribes across Rajasthan and none of them have been withdrawn.

Varma, who was protesting on the streets that day, claimed that the police filed several false cases. In Jaipur, for instance, the Gandhinagar police station registered an FIR against Roshan Mandothiya, a student leader at Rajasthan University, for vandalising public property. Mandothiya was also charged in another FIR for the same charge, on the same day, in Neem ka Thana in Sikar district, 200 kilometres from Jaipur. According to Mandothiya, he was at neither location that day.

“I am the only person in Rajasthan against whom two different FIRs were registered at two different places, neither of which I was present in. I was in a peaceful march that was headed from Malviya Nagar [in Jaipur] towards Alwar toll plaza,” Mandothiya said, when I met him at the student’s union office at Rajasthan University. “The dominant communities, in connivance with the police, wanted to fix Dalits who speak out and foisted false FIRS against us.”

Govind Ram, a nephew of one of the Dangawas victims, also echoed the opinion that Dangawas and the Supreme Court ruling could be the BJP’s undoing. “We were only able to register an FIR in the first place because of the stringent provisions in the act,” Govind said. “The Supreme Court ruling is an injustice to Dalits. In cases of future atrocities how will we be able to get justice?”

On 6 October, Dalit leaders, intellectuals and activists from eight states across the country participated in a roundtable in Jaipur that highlighted the churn among Dalits in Rajasthan. Questions were raised regarding low Dalit representation in the higher judiciary and education, the existence of a caste hierarchy within the community and the future course of Dalit mobilisation. Jignesh Mevani, an independent MLA from Vadgam in Gujarat, was the star attraction. Later in the evening, after the formal proceedings were over, people mobbed Mevani in the hopes of securing a ticket for the elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. A Dalit activist from Rajasthan explained to me that popular perception was that Mevani had a “direct line” to Rahul Gandhi, after the Congress helped him get elected by not fielding a candidate against him.

According to the journalist Meghwanshi, the Meghwal community is vocal in its resentment towards the BJP, and will most likely vote for the Congress. He added that the Jatavs, like their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh, are likely to vote for the BSP, while the Bairwas are split between the Congress and BJP. The urban Dalit communities have a pro-BJP bent, but they constitute approximately 2.4 percent of Rajasthan’s population.

Dharmendra Jatav, the former general secretary of the BSP’s Rajasthan unit, said that the BJP swept the state’s Scheduled Caste constituencies, in 2013 and 2014, because of promises made by Narendra Modi on the election trail, coupled with the anger against the Congress. “The promises of employment, fighting corruption and achche din made a lot of Dalits vote for the BJP,” Jatav said. Five years on, that support has turned to resentment, as Jatav explained that, “The 2 April protests were enabled by social media. The anger was also about joblessness, since there is tremendous unemployment among Dalit youth.”

According to Govind, none of the BJP’s 32 Dalit MLAs, 16 of who are Meghwal, have stood by the community. “After the Dangawas incident the local MLA, Sukharam Meghwal, did nothing for the community,” he said. When I called Sukharam he picked up the phone, but he disconnected the call as soon as I introduced myself as a journalist. When I called back, his phone was switched off.

Khemraj Choudhury, a resident of Dangawas, told me that Sukharam was in the “kabza”—hold—of the Jats. Sixty percent of the Dangawas population is comprised of Jats—a demographic that is reflected across Nagaur district. “In front of Jats, he will sit on the floor to show his deference because the community voted for him,” Choudhury said.

Chandrakanta Meghwal, a BJP legislator from Ramganj Mandi, in Kota district, was reportedly the only MLA who spoke up in favour of her community after Dangawas. “Dalits are not angry with the BJP,” Chandrakanta told me. “The government is trying to convince the community about the various schemes it has implemented for them and I can say that we will work very hard to woo the Dalit vote in the next 2 months.”

Nitin Raut, chairperson of the All India Congress Committee’s Scheduled Castes cell, said that in order to gain the support of Rajasthan’s Dalit community, the Congress intends to incorporate a slew of promises in its manifesto. Tailored specifically for Scheduled Castes, the party is including sops for specific professions within the community, such as weavers and manual scavengers. He added that the Congress “will take the responsibility” to withdraw the cases filed against Dalits on 2 April. When I asked him what the Dangawas Dalits could expect from the Congress, Raut responded, “We will do whatever has to be done for the Dangawas victims. Compensation will not bring those Dalits back to life, so whatever their demands are, we will give them justice.”

Gaining the support of the Dalits will not be easy for the Congress. At most, Dalits account for 20 percent of the population in the reserved constituencies, so winning the seat requires political parties to avoid alienating the Jats and other communities. This will be particularly difficult for the Congress since the BSP is contesting independently and may eat into Congress votes.

Jatav told me that the BSP had decided not to form an alliance with the Congress for the upcoming polls because the Congress rejected the proposed seat distribution. “The BSP asked for 25 seats, but the Congress didn’t want to give so many seats,” he said. Raut, however, dismissed the failure of the Congress-BSP alliance and its impact on the Congress’ prospects.

The BJP, too, has begun its efforts to retain the Dalit vote. As part of its outreach, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje waived loans amounting to Rs 114 crore, which were sanctioned by the Rajasthan Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Cooperative Development Limited. The BJP’s confidence-building measures have included party leaders, such as Amit Shah, dining at the homes of Dalit residents, while the RSS organised mass weddings for Dalit couples across the state. The BJP has also constituted a team of Dalit workers, called the Bhim Pratinidhi, which will fan out in reserved constituencies and other seats with a significant Scheduled Caste population to create awareness about welfare programmes for Dalits.

Come election day, Rajasthan’s Dalits will decide their own fate, said Bhanwar Meghwanshi. “No behenji, bhaisaab or Buaji sitting in Lucknow, Delhi or Ahmedabad will cut deals on our behalf. The Dalits of Rajasthan know who was standing with the blue flag on April 2 and who was standing against it. They will vote accordingly.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly dated the Dangawas caste violence incident on 14 May 2014. The actual date was 14 May 2015. The Caravan regrets the error.