Young, Angry and ‘Untouchable’
(Bloomberg) -- Surrounded by 200 armed police, Sanjay Jatav rode into his bride’s village in a horse-drawn carriage.
The wedding procession last July was historic: It had been 80 years since a member of the Dalit community—once known as “untouchables”—rode a horse into the upper caste-dominated village in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state. The act defied traditions demanding a simple ceremony for people of his lowly social status.
Derided, despised and shunned for centuries, Dalits are increasingly willing to make their voices heard. And making up close to a sixth of the country’s population, they are a crucial swing vote. Jatav is hoping that determination and a wave of fresh anger helps rally Dalits against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this year’s election.
“I broke an old tradition,” said a beaming Jatav, 27, who fought the system for almost a year to get his way. “Our Dalit community is becoming inspired by this.”
Uttar Pradesh will be a key battleground: In 2014, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won 71 of 80 seats in India’s most populous state on its way to the country’s biggest election win in three decades. It also won almost half the 84 seats specifically reserved for Dalits, far outstripping the caste-based parties.
This year, however, Modi may struggle to repeat that performance in the elections due by May. While there’s not much polling—one survey last May showed Dalit support for the BJP falling—Dalits are taking to the streets in protest at an increase in caste-related violence. Crimes and atrocities against Dalits rose in 2016, according to the most recently available government statistics, including a 25 percent jump in Uttar Pradesh alone.
“Dalits are feeling alienated and betrayed—they will go against the BJP,” said Ghanshyam Shah, an author and retired professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who studies the Dalit community. “They are in a position that no party can afford to ignore them.”
India’s ancient caste system places Hindus into four main categories divided into some 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, with Dalits—including those from minority groups such as Christians and Muslims—at the very bottom. Known officially as “scheduled castes,” they are traditionally assigned the most demeaning jobs such as cleaning public toilets and skinning dead animals for their hides.
India’s constitution—whose main author, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, was a Dalit—outlaws caste discrimination, yet prejudice remains rife in everyday life. Dalits are often denied basic rights such as attending regular schools, accessing public water supplies—and staging marriage processions.
Defying the caste system and embracing their identity, Dalits have increasingly taken to the streets to demand better treatment, driven by rising education levels, greater entrepreneurship and a growing awareness of their political clout: At about 200 million strong, their number approaches the population of Brazil, three times the U.K., or more than double that of California, Texas and New York City combined.
Young Dalits are showing their power like never before, even wearing T-shirts that read “It’s a Dalit thing, you won’t understand.” Leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad, who co-founded a Dalit group called the Bhim Army in 2015 to provide free schooling for underprivileged children, have delivered fiery speeches against Modi.
Dalits have at times resorted to violent demonstrations to press their point. In April, they protested a Supreme Court ruling they saw as diluting stringent anti-discrimination provisions, leaving 11 people dead. In January 2018, they clashed with Hindu nationalists in the financial capital, Mumbai, blocking roads and rail lines and attacking buses.
“There is unquestionably a growing assertiveness among Dalits in India that I expect will gather strength in the years to come,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The impact that Dalit anger will have on the 2019 outcome will depend on how effectively the opposition coordinates—which remains a big question mark —and to what extent Modi can create divisions within the Dalit community.”
In the key state of Uttar Pradesh, Modi also faces the challenge of a united opposition after the Bahujan Samaj Party formed a seat-sharing arrangement with the Samajwadi Party. Both oppose a second five-year term for the BJP.
Modi’s party says it still retains Dalit support after the government launched programs that directly benefit them such as preferential loans, according to spokesman Bizay Sonkar Shastri. The decision to name Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as India’s president in 2017 shows the BJP’s efforts to elevate oppressed groups, he said.
“It’s a misconception that Dalits are not with BJP,” said Shastri.
In the villages of Uttar Pradesh, discrimination against Dalits is still common. Jatav faced threats from upper caste residents when he announced his intention to ride into his bride’s village in 2017.
After the local administration refused to help, Jatav appealed to the district magistrate, the head of police, the chief minister and the High Court. The authorities finally allowed the procession to go ahead, and deployed a huge police force for protection.
The event brought the young lawyer to national prominence, and a Bollywood producer is turning his story into a movie. Police officers still guard his wife’s family home.
Jatav is using his newfound fame to take on Modi, denouncing what he calls unprecedented “atrocities against Dalits.”
“The people of our society are now united and organized,” he said. “We will fight to bring social and political changes.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.