Caste survey pledge adds a new poll edge in Madhya Pradesh
In some ways, the challenge is similar to the one that Mandal-era parties are facing in the original cauldron of social engineering.
April 2, 2018 is the day Anil Jatav came of age.
Then 17 years old, Jatav spent the spring of 2018 fretting about having done poorly in his school-leaving examinations, alternating between the possibility of spending another year in the grimy concrete cubbyhole that was his local school, and the opportunity of bunking yet more soporific morning classes to watch Bollywood movies. “I woke up worried every day that the results would be announced, and my father would thrash me,” he said.
In March that year, the Supreme Court delivered a controversial verdict, diluting significant provisions of the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act. Despite his detachment from what he called GK (general knowledge) issues – he only watched TV with his friends, and never his parents, he proclaimed proudly – Jatav couldn’t help overhear anguished murmurs from his parents in their two-room house at the edge of Morena town in Madhya Pradesh. Anger simmered at what was perceived as an unjust move in a country where a crime against a Dalit person is recorded every 10 minutes.
On April 2, 2018, that bitterness burst forth. Irate crowds of Dalit protesters swelled through the avenues of major cities across India, awash in the blue flags and Ambedkarite imagery that has come to signify Dalit assertion in the country. The agitation was particularly intense in Madhya Pradesh, where per-capita crimes against Dalits is among the highest in the country. By sundown, nine people were dead across the state, felled by police bullets and clashes, and scores injured.
Days later, the central government brought in amendments that effectively bypassed the changes sought by the apex court. Tempers cooled, scars healed. Yet, what lingered in Jatav’s mind was the memory of the people who opposed their march, who hurled slurs at his cousins and friends, and let tensions simmer for days after. Now 22 and pursuing a masters degree, Jatav remembers going up to his father, a small-time shopkeeper, and asking why some of their neighbours and customers were saying they needed to be taught a lesson.
“I didn’t exactly know what scheduled caste was before then. I had read about it in our textbooks, but dad sat me down and explained what was what,” he said. That was the day, he added, he learnt about the term ‘other backward classes’ or OBC. “I thought that people who got quotas stuck together – because in class, the teacher would often call us quotawalas and make us sit in a corner. But that day, I saw that my OBC classmates were the most vocal against us. I can never forget it.”
It is this chasm between some SC and OBC communities on the ground that could emerge as a potential hurdle to the Opposition’s plans to corral backward and Dalit communities together under the umbrella of an official caste survey. Instances of this schism abound across the length and breadth of the country, but incidents such as the April 2 protests, in places such as Morena, bring it into sharper relief. Madhya Pradesh votes on Friday as part of the five-state assembly polls that began earlier this month and are the first electoral test for the Opposition’s gambit to use physical headcounts of castes to try and pry away chunks of the lower caste vote instrumental to the success of the BJP’s electoral machine.
In Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress has repeatedly promised a caste survey if it comes to power, backward caste politics started around the same time the first signs of the Mandal churn started to upend electoral equations in the Gangetic plains. In 1980, then chief minister Arjun Singh set up a commission to provide reservation in government jobs to OBCs. In 1983, the commission said 48.8% of the state comprised OBC communities and recommended 25% reservation. The proposal kicked up a storm, and Singh was replaced.
Over the past decade, however, backward class politics has returned to the state with renewed enthusiasm, this time through the route of reservation in local body polls. Both the Congress and the BJP tried to expand the OBC quota but ran into legal hurdles. This time, the BJP has focused on its successful attempt at reserving seats for OBCs in local body polls and the Congress has promised increased share for the communities in jobs and educational institutions, by way of the caste survey.
“It’s the Congress’s commitment to get the caste census done,” said Congress spokesperson JP Dhanopia. The BJP ridiculed this promise. “The Congress opposed a caste census and Mandal Commission too. Suddenly they have taken a U-turn for the sake of votes,” said BJP spokesperson Pankaj Chaturvedi.
But can the promise of a caste survey – which the Opposition believes will benefit both Dalits and backwards (in Bihar, it has led to an expansion of the quotas for both segments of society) – paper over fractious community relations on the ground?
Fifty kilometres down a dusty road from Jatav’s home is the village of Antari in a densely packed corner of Madhya Pradesh. Dominated by Dalit and backward communities, the village has around 3,800 voters. Gaurs – a landed dominant OBC group that gave the state a chief minister in Babulal Gaur – is dominant here.
Trapped in that twilight between a hamlet and a village, Antari’s homes are packed with young men (and sometimes women) who dream of a more affluent future in a city, away from their traditional occupations, clad in white shirts and black trousers, in front of desk computers, employed in 9-to-5 jobs that urban India takes for granted.
Unlike in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, the more politically aware residents of Antari have heard of the caste survey . But their opinion is sharply divided.
Vijay Gaur, who runs a business at nearby Kailaras town and aspires to become hotelier one day, believes reservation should be on the basis of economics, though his two children avail the OBC quota. “The fact is, I never think I belong to a less privileged community and I always try to compete with the upper castes”, he said.
But his neighbour Magandeep Gaur is critical of this stance. “How will we know how many we are? When caste is the reality, what is the harm in getting the census done?” . Magandeep lives as part of a joint family of 10 who draw their income from a parcel of agricultural land nearby, but hope to use the caste survey to make the switch to formal jobs. “There is talk about expanding the reservation. Why should we not get more given our size?” he asked.
Rajendra Kumar Gaur, a masters student, is among the most educated people in the village. He is convinced that a caste survey will help . “It’s not for OBCs only. Every caste will come to know about its strength in society. Hence, it’s a welcome step.”
The Dalits are more certain. “We all want to know about our exact number in society. If our number is more, our reservation should be more too,” said Omprakash Shakya, a local resident. Devendra Jatav is even more strident. “From the moment we step into school, our caste names are asked and discrimination begins. Why shouldn’t we ask for quotas?”
Yet the thread of the apparent bonhomie breaks as the conversation veers to community relations. “Here, if an OBC member mingles with the upper caste he takes pride but when he sits with scheduled caste people his feeling is quite different,” said Rajendra. Magandeep admitted to simmering tensions over the 2018 protests. And Devendra lashed out at oppressive social practices that endure to this day. “If one of us goes to meet any OBC, they do not offer water to us,” he said.
In some ways, the challenge is similar to the one that Mandal-era parties are facing in the original cauldron of social engineering, Uttar Pradesh, of soothing social fractures with the balm of expedient political coalitions. But it won’t be easy. Many Dalits such as Devendra and Anil remain deeply opposed to committing to an expansion of dominant community power. “We might be on the same page on reservations now, but can we forget what we face everyday?” asked Jatav. “Till they change, we can’t either.”
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