A garlanded photo of Deepak Mittal sits beside a small bust of B.R. Ambedkar on a shelf in a white-painted wall, sharing space with idols of various hues and a stack of magazines. The dingy room is both kitchen and bedroom for the family of five. “Now that the elections are near, people have started coming to meet us. No one came to us in the past seven months after Deepak was killed in the firing,” says Mohan Singh, Deepak’s father, a resident of Gallar Kotha, a Dalit settlement in Gwalior that was the epicentre of the violence that broke out during the protests across the country on April 2 against alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court. Clashes between the elite castes and Dalits left seven people dead in Madhya Pradesh.
With the state going to polls on November 28, caste will undoubtedly play a divisive and decisive role in this northernmost region. Mindful of the high concentration of the scheduled castes in the region, both the main players—the BJP and the Congress—are leaving no stone unturned to bag their votes. But Deepak’s brother Rajan Mittal says the Dalits still live in fear. “Deepak was shot when he was standing near his tea stall. I don’t think we can even vote as the polling booth is near the houses of Thakurs (elite caste),” he says.
Following the April 2 protests, the BJP government at the Centre had got into damage-control mode and eventually restored the atrocity act to its original form. However, the wounds of the violence, which are yet to heal, have also left a deep scar on the social fabric. The Jatavs, numerically the most dominant Dalit community in the area, feel they got a raw deal. “What is the use of the atrocity act when the culprits are roaming scot-free and the BJP government is with them? They are yet to book the culprits despite clinching evidence in the form of videos,” says Deepak’s mother Draupadi. “Thakurs can even get away with murder.”
A kilometre away, in Bhim Nagar, 18-year-old Kajal, who will be getting married next month, wonders why her father Rakesh Tomatiya was killed. “Rakesh was killed on April 2 while returning from work in the morning,” says his distraught father. “Only Mayawati-ji helped us. Her party (the BSP) sent around Rs 1 lakh after my son’s death. Otherwise, no political parties have helped us so far.”
Mukesh, an electrician from nearby Tatipur, who voted BJP the last time, says caste violence has become a bigger issue now and the popular mood is turning against the party. “My vote for the BJP was a waste as nobody listens to Dalits. Now I have faith in the BSP and will vote for them,” he says.
It’s not just the Dalits who are a disgruntled lot. The BJP’s traditional elite caste supporters are also disappointed with the party, creating space for the emergence on the political landscape of a new party—the Samanya, Picchada, Alpasankyak Varg, Adhikari, Karmachari Sanstha. “SAPAKS was formed to oppose the government’s reservation policy and amendment in the atrocity act, to protect the interests of Dalits as well as the elite castes,” says Amit Dubey, the party’s candidate from Gwalior. “We will make significant gains in the elections.”
Despite its name boasting a full panoply—general category, backwards, minorities, officers and employees—most support for SAPAKS so far has come from the elite castes in the region. Raja Singh Chouhan, who became the face of the April 2 violence after a video showing him firing at a crowd of Dalits went viral, alleges that the BJP has become a “party only for Dalits”. Denying his role in the firing, Chouhan says, “I am against the atrocity act because innocents should not be punished, and I am with SAPAKS.”
With candidate lists announced by both the main parties, the battlelines have been clearly drawn in all 34 (of the state’s total 230) assembly seats where the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior is an influential factor. In the 2013 assembly polls, the BJP had won 20 seats in the region and the Congress bagged 12, while the BSP got two. According to Mahesh Shivhare, a local journalist, there is a clear swing in favour of the Congress this time as the BJP is struggling with anti-incumbency and other issues such as agrarian distress and the atrocity act. “Caste plays a prominent role in the elections here. And the Congress has managed to put up some good candidates,” he says.
RTI activist Ashish Chaturvedi, who played a key role in exposing the Vyapam scam, says corruption will be a major issue. “In rural areas, it may not be a big issue. But people who bear the brunt of corruption will vote against this government,” he says.
Forty kilometres away, in Morena district, the state’s health minister Rustom Singh is in an upbeat mood. Contesting for the third time, he is confident the BJP will win again. “We brought development to this region and we are confident of victory. We could control the April 2 violence effectively. A flyover is under construction and we are upgrading the hospital here to a 600-bed one.”
But Morena, which also saw violence on April 2, is now witness to renewed political assertion and social unity among Dalits. “The elite castes have realised the strength of Dalits,” says Om Prakash Pirogi. “Dalits were detained after the April 2 violence. My brother is still in jail. We will vote Congress.”
Avinash Shithard, who runs a garment shop, concurs and says, “Factories are being closed down. I have an MSc degree in maths and tried many jobs. My factory was doing good until demonetisation and GST turned me into a pauper. I had voted for Modi hoping for better days. Now the Congress has a new candidate and I have heard he has done good work.”