On 2 April, thousands of Dalits across the country took to the streets to protest a Supreme Court judgment that diluted the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Violence ensued, as protestors were attacked by the police and Hindutva goons, leading to the death of at least nine people. “Since the protest on 2 April, against the dilution of the SC/ST Act, the condition has become so hostile for Dalits that if we go to lodge a complaint with police, they rather start looking into our background,” Mahesh Kumar Mandeliya, a 30-year-old labourer from Gwalior, told me.
Mandeliya is a Jatav resident of Galla Kothar, which is one of several Dalit colonies around Chauhan Pyau—a Rajput stronghold in Gwalior. According to the residents of these colonies, the Chauhans and Tomars of Chauhan Pyau—both Rajput communities—are some of Gwalior’s most influential families, all of whom enjoy political patronage. The residents said that on 2 April, Rajput men from Chauhan Pyau fired pistols and rifles indiscriminately at the protest rally in the area and stormed nearby Dalit colonies, such as Galla Kothar and Bhim Nagar. Two Dalit men died in the violence—one from each colony—and over a dozen others sustained bullet injuries.
Following the violence, the state police registered multiple first information reports on complaints filed by both Dalit and Rajput residents of the area. In Chauhan Pyau, I spoke to two Rajput men—Raja Chauhan and Mahendra Chauhan—who were accused of firing at protestors. Raja was granted anticipatory bail before he was arrested, and claimed he fired his weapon “to protect their women,” while Mahendra, who was accused of killing two Dalit residents, was released on bail within three months of his arrest, and claimed he fired in “self-defence.” But there were no casualties among the Rajputs, and neither was any weapon seized from the Dalits.
According to data collated by the National Crime Records Bureau, or NCRB, Madhya Pradesh has seen over 1,700 cases registered under the Atrocities Act, each year since 2014. The Bureau data also shows that crimes against Dalits across India have increased since 2014, and Madhya Pradesh witnessed the highest proportion of crimes against Dalits among all the states. The state’s Chambal-Gwalior division has the largest consolidation of Dalits in the state, comprising 20 to 25 percent of the division’s population. The division comprises six districts and constitutes 34 of the 230 seats in the state assembly. Despite this demographic, the Chambal-Gwalior division has also witnessed some of the most vociferous opposition to the Atrocities Act, and seven Dalit residents of the region were killed during the 2 April protest.
This October, I travelled through Gwalior and Morena—both important cities in the Chambal-Gwalior division—and spoke to residents from different communities, including Dalits, Rajputs, Brahmins and Other Backward Classes. Across communities, the silence of political parties on the Atrocities Act appeared to be one of the most important issues for the upcoming state elections, scheduled to take place on 28 November. The upper-caste residents believed the act was a tool that could be used against them. They said they expected the Bharatiya Janta Party to come out with a clear denouncement of the law at a national level, and criticised the central government for displaying a double standard on the issue. “Suppose a Dalit is passing by and I spit in that moment, he will slap SC/ST case against me, and I go behind bars for six months,” Raja Chauhan said.
The Dalit residents, on the other hand, sought assurances from political parties in the wake of the violence and hostility they have been facing from the police and their upper-caste neighbours, since the 2 April protest. Yet, neither the controversy over the act nor the safety of Dalits appears to be on the election agenda of the Congress and the BJP. The Dalits of the Chambal-Gwalior division indicated that this would reflect in the poll results. “If there is one thing we will keep in mind when we go to vote, it is which political party and leaders came in our support after 2 April, and who left us to fend for ourselves,” Mangal Tamotiya, a resident of Bhim Nagar, whose brother Rakesh was killed in the violence, told me.
Both Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah—the national presidents of Congress and the BJP, respectively—have held multiple election rallies across Madhya Pradesh, including the Gwalior-Chambal division, without addressing these issues. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, too, overlooked atrocities against Dalits in the state during his entire Jan Ashirwad Yatra—a spree of road-shows and election rallies that he has held since mid July. On 24 October, Chouhan conducted a road-show through Chauhan Pyau and addressed a rally, three kilometers from the spot where the two Dalits were killed, without a single reference to the deaths.
In August, following the nationwide protests against the Supreme Court judgment, the parliament passed an amendment to the Atrocities Act, restoring the provisions that it had diluted. This included the provision that mandates the immediate arrest of a person accused of an atrocity under the law. At the time, most political parties, including the BJP and Congress, had supported the bill. However, state leaders of both parties have indicated in statements to the media that there would be no immediate arrests. In September, Jyotirao Scindia, of the Congress, said nobody would be falsely implicated under the law, while chief minister Chouhan stated that there would be no arrests without an investigation. Despite maintaining this position—which panders to upper-caste voters—in personal interviews, both leaders have avoided the issue during election rallies.
At the Gwalior offices of both national parties, the prevailing opinion reflected a position aligned closer to a feudal caste-hierarchy than constitutional values; or even their stand in parliament while adopting the amendment to the Atrocities Act. Local leaders and party workers espouse a “samajik vyavstha”—an ancient social structure based on caste—that they believe is necessary to maintain public order. They argued that the violent retaliation by upper-castes, against Dalit assertion in the city, was a justified response to the maintenance of this social order, as mandated by ancient scriptures.
On 20 October, I met Devendra Sharma, the president of the Congress district unit, in his chamber at the Congress Bhawan in Gwalior. A large poster, with Jyotirao Scindia and Rahul Gandhi in the middle, and Rajiv Gandhi and Madhav Rao Scindia towards the corner, was on the wall behind the desk. Around six men, each of whom appeared older than 50 years, sat around him, and one young karyakarta, who was in his late thirties, was quick to add a postscript to everything Sharma said.
“I have two SC/ST, two OBCs and savarnas as my neighbours,” Sharma, who is a Brahmin, told me. “Ram rajya means seeing Ram in all your neighbours … Dharm toh ek hi hai na, Sanatan”—After all, everyone follows only one religion. When I persistently asked him about his party’s stand on the Atrocities Act specifically, Sharma said, “We did not bring the amendment bill, so we have nothing to clarify.” The bill was moved by Thawar Chand Gehlot, the minister of social justice and empowerment. Sharma believed that there was no need to restore the law, and that the government should have allowed the protest to die.
Dharmendra Sharma, another Brahmin karyakarta I met at the Congress office, claimed the amendment to the Atrocities Act has put the two communities at disadvantage. “Look, our SC/ST brothers are wage laborers. Now, because of this law, contractors have stopped hiring them because they fear that the act will be invoked against them,” he said. “Traditionally there has been a social order in the society. It should stay that way.”
Devendra echoed his views: “Kya jarurat thi SC/ST Act mudde ko chedne ki. Aur kya jarurat thi usko baad mein sahi karne ki. Chahe SC/ST ho ya savarna ho, hum kissi ke sath anyay hone nahi denge.” (What was the need to meddle in the SC/ST Act issue? And what was the need to then later correct it? Whether it is someone from the SC/ST community or a savarna, we will not let injustices happen to anyone.) This argument portrays all communities as equal victims and reinforces the misconception that there is widespread misuse of the Atrocities Act, whereas NCRB data shows that the all-India conviction rate from 2006 to 2016 dropped by two percentage points, to 26 percent.
Before my meeting at the Congress office, I visited Galla Kothar. There I met at least 20 Dalit residents who had gathered under a tree to remember Deepak Jatav, a resident of the colony who had died during the 2 April violence. While discussing the prevailing caste violence in the area, several of them described a recent attack against their ward’s corporator, Chaturbhuj Dhanolia. Ramavatar Singh, a resident who appeared to be in his fifties, recounted the circumstances leading to the attack. On 10 September, Singh said, a Rajput man was riding through the colony, when a wheel of his bike got stuck in a manhole, which happened to be in front of the corporator’s house. The man then approached Dhanolia and asked him to clean and cover the sewer. Mandeliya recalled that the man wanted Dhanolia to personally clean the sewer, which led to an argument between the two. The Rajput man then left, but returned within 20 minutes with several others and surrounded Dhanolia’s house.
Dhanolia told me that at least 20 Rajput men attacked his house and pelted stones at his family. He did not, however, mention the sewer incident—he referred to it as “just caste hatred.” Dhanolia said the police took one man into custody after he lodged a complaint, but a Rajput mob swarmed the police station later that day and forcibly released the man. “Even though I had named some of the Rajput men who attacked my family, the police registered the FIR against unknown persons without recording any of the names I mentioned,” he said. Instead, Dhanolia added, “The police registered a case against me for assault and creating public mischief, and I had to bail myself out.”
The BJP local leadership’s views on the Atrocities Act were largely similar to that of the Congress. Ramesh Chandra Sen, one of three people in-charge of the BJP’s election campaign for the Gwalior assembly constituency, told me that the oppressed class should forget about atrocities and focus on governance, since Dalits and Adivasis can now contest elections and enter politics. “After Emergency, when the Janata Party government came, the [RSS] sarsanghchalak Devaras”—referring to third RSS chief, Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras—“gave a one-line message to them: forget your past and rule,” Sen said. : “Atrocities were inflicted upon you, sins were committed, don’t get caught in things like sending these people to the police or to jail,” he added. “You work on making yourself and your line bigger.”
Sen also blamed the Dalits for the violence that erupted on 2 April. “That class”—referring to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—“is not literate,” he said. Sen said that these communities “lacked resources and that is why they created riots due to a false belief” that the law was diluted by the judgment.
Sen directs and supervises the BJP’s door-to-door campaign within Gwalior. When I asked him what the party would offer to Dalit voters, he said they would highlight several development schemes introduced by the chief minister, including one for providing a discount on electricity bills. He said he would not bring up the Atrocities Act in his canvassing for votes. Congress workers, too, said they would not address the Atrocities Act or Dalits’ safety in their local campaigning efforts. “Our priorities are women’s safety, farmers’ issues and youth employment,” Devendra, the district unit’s president, said. Neither parties’ manifestos address the Atrocities Act either, though the BJP has included promises for the OBC communities, and the Congress’s manifesto promises to introduce a law to protect lawyers and journalists.
The national leadership of both parties have also been focusing on other issues during their respective campaigns. For Rahul Gandhi, primary poll issues have been the controversy surrounding the government-to-government agreement to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, women’s safety, unemployment and farmers’ distress. Amit Shah has centred his rallies around the danger of ghuspatiye, or infiltrators, and development projects under Chouhan.
Jayant Verma, the vice president of the All India Agragami Kisan Sabha—the peasants’ wing of the All India Forward Bloc, a left-wing nationalist political party in the state—told me that the two main national parties are not addressing the issue because people in urban areas are the only ones concerned about the Atrocities Act. Verma said that it is not an issue in rural areas, because of which party leaders believe “that their respective vote share of Dalits will not be disturbed.” PS Mandaliya, the Bahujan Samaj Party state secretary, who is contesting elections from the Dabra seat in the Chambal-Gwalior division, disagreed with Verma. Mandaliya told me that atrocities against Dalits are pervasive in Madhya Pradesh. According to Mandaliya, Congress and the BJP are quiet on the act because “both parties comprised upper-caste leadership. They don’t want to anger their voters. Their silence would go in their favor.”
According to election commission data, Congress and the BJP polled 36 and 44 percent of the vote share, respectively, in the 2013 assembly elections. The BSP received only 6.3 percent of the vote, indicating that the contest has primarily been between the BJP and Congress. In the Chambal region, however, the BSP has a stronger presence, receiving 13.7 percent, 20.4 percent and 15.6 percent of the vote share, respectively, during the 2003, 2008 and 2013 assembly elections. Ahead of the 28 November polls, Mandaliya said, the BSP has been raising the issue of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. “Hum 2 April ko bhulne nahi denge”—We will not let them forget 2 April.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Chaturbhuj Dhanolia as Chaturbhuj Dhanol. The Caravan regrets the error.