IT’S EARLY FEBRUARY in Matsura Gram Panchayat in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district. The Matsura Panchayat, a collection of 11 rural settlements, is holding a historic election. Its 2,700 voters are about to elect their sarpanch. Panchayat sarpanches, in a few states also called panchayat presidents, are the leaders of the smallest administrative units of the decentralised democracy.
This is not the first time a panchayat election is being held in Matsura, but it’s the first time the sarpanch’s seat in Matsura has been reserved for a member of the Scheduled Castes (SC)—the Dalits, the lowest of the low, the former Untouchables.
Dholpur district sits in eastern Rajasthan, just across the Uttar Pradesh state border from Agra. Once ruled by a Jat dynasty, Dholpur was never directly controlled by the British. The landscape is dominated by barren, brown sand ravines, and the district is famous for its red Dholpur stone. It’s even more famous for its Gurjar landlords, and their history of using violence to drive Dalits out.