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.