Bengaluru, Karnataka: Just a half-hour drive from Bengaluru's IT hub of Electronic City, lies the town of Anekal - largely undistinguished and of no note to outsiders but known locally for its history of violence against Christians and its oppression of Dalits, who form nearly 30 percent of the population, but are divided between the "right hand touchables" or Chalavadis, who are traditionally Congress supporters, while the Madigas or the "Left Hand untouchables" have been associated with the BJP for the last decade.
- Dalits upset with centre over Supreme Court verdict on SC/ST Act
- This law punishes discrimination against lower castes
- Karnataka's 19% Dalit population key factor in state election
What has united them - and nearly 100 other sub-castes of Dalits - is last month's Supreme Court verdict on what is referred to as the SC/ST Act. Judges say their decision did not dilute the law, but ensures that its provisions do not violate individual rights - so, for example, arrests can no longer be made as soon as a Dalit files a police complaint of discrimination.
"Dalits are seeing this as an injustice, which had the tacit approval of the BJP government at the Centre", said M Prakash, a school teacher in Anekal who is an activist of a Dalit rights organisation.
Dalits believe that the SC/ST Act is sacrosanct because it is a powerful instrument in fighting caste humiliation and is as important for them as reservation as a tool of empowerment and upward mobility. The fear that these rights, safeguarded by the constitution, are under threat is fast gaining currency on the ground despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Dalit outreach which includes frequent ceremonies and monuments commemorating Dalit icon Dr B R Ambedkar, ensuring the election of Dalit politician Ram Nath Kovind as President of the country, and ordering MPs to spend nights in Dalit homes in their constituencies.
Dalits, according to a leaked census which was conducted by the incumbent Congress government but never formally shared, form 19% percent of Karnataka's population. They influence the results of nearly 60 of the 224 seats that will be decided when the state votes on May 12.
A countrywide bandh or protest on April 2 saw gigantic participation and left nine people dead. The centre then asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its verdict; judges refused to suspend the controversial ruling, but have agreed to hear the centre's case later this month.
Four Dalit MPs from the BJP have insinuated that its response was neither strong nor fast enough, while also massaging the point that in appealing against the Supreme Court's verdict, their party acted counter-intuitively and not without some reluctance.
This is also the impression in Anekal, where Dalits live in separate colonies and are discouraged from entering temples in areas dominated by upper castes. "The order has been welcomed by the upper castes who form the BJP's core constituency. It will help the party to further consolidate their vote before the elections," alleged R Shankar, a local Dalit activist.
The BJP has for decades been the homestead of upper caste Hindus; its opulent victory in the last general election was facilitated by Amit Shah, the party chief, managing to weave together traditional supporters with an assortment of lower and backward castes including Dalits in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In Karnataka, the BJP has been the preference of Lingayats and other upper castes; even in 2014, when the triumphant 'Modi wave' fanned across India, the Dalits remained unpersuaded. Of Karnataka's 28 parliamentary seats, four are reserved for Dalit candidates; the BJP won just one of those.
The PM has tried to persuade Dalits, who together with tribals form a quarter of the country's population, that Hindutva ideology is not hostile to their progress, but in 2016, nearly 41,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits were registered across India. 60% of those cases were from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, all states ruled by the BJP. "In Karnataka, crimes against Dalits have also shown an increase in the five years of Congress rule, so they cannot claim the moral high ground," former BJP chief minister Jagadish Shettar told NDTV.
But if the Dalits in the state do desert the BJP completely, the buck will have to stop with his colleague, Anant Kumar Hegde, the MP from Uttara Kannada constituency. At a public function in December , Mr Hegde, a union minister, said "The Constitution needs to be changed from time to time and we have come for that", which was seen as a remark on doing away with reservation or guaranteed government jobs and college places for scheduled castes. To make matters worse, Mr Hegde, a Brahmin, then referred to the protests staged by a group of Dalits against his statement as "the barking of stray dogs". The BJP argued that Mr Hegde's views were personal and not those of the party and thought it was a closed chapter.
Then, a fortnight ago, a meeting between Amit Shah and a group of Dalit leaders in Mysuru was marred by protests against the BJP bosses for failing to act against the minister. "The PM says that 'No government has given respect to Babasaheb the way our government has.' If this is true, then why doesn't he sack Mr Hegde? This can only mean that privately, the BJP's and its minister's views are the same," insists a Dalit activist who was one of the protestors at Amit Shah's meeting. "Since December, we have been warning our people to be vigilant, because even the poorest Dalit knows that his right to reservation is enshrined in the constitution and anyone who wants to rewrite it wants to snatch this right away from us." The derision that Amit Shah confronted was in Mysuru, the heart of South Karnataka, where the BJP won no seat at all in the last state election. It is crucial for the party to build support here.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress belongs to a shepherd community. He is backed by a cohort of Dalits, other backward castes, and minorities. He believes that crucial schemes that he introduced including give free grains to the poorest families, free milk for students up till Class 10, and interest-free loans for farmers have broadened his support to include economically backward sections of the upper caste Lingayats and Vokkaligas. He has also introduced Indira canteens serving subsidised food which are copied from the famous Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu.
The BJP is hoping that the Dalit vote in Karnataka will be split by the big play made by Mayawati, the Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, who has partnered with Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal (S) in an arrangement which allows her own party to compete for 20 seats, though she did not win any in the last state election in 2013.
But her workers say that her collaboration with Deve Gowda, seen as close to the BJP, lacks conviction. "She has not given us any clear-cut order to vote for Deve Gowda's candidates," claimed a BSP worker in Anekal. "Besides, JD(S) is a feudal party, supported by the dominant Vokkaliga caste which has always victimised Dalits."
As for the Congress, if it wants to win the Scheduled Caste vote in Karnataka, it will have to do more than ride the wave of Dalit anger erupting across the country and consolidate a significant section of the many sub-castes. Though the "left hand Dalits" are numerically stronger, the majority of the Congress leadership in the state including Mallikarjun Kharge and G Parameshwara, President of the Karnataka Congress, come from the "right hand Dalits" who have long been accused of helping their sub-caste to corner the larger share of government benefits.
Tempering that sentiment is no less a challenge than what the BJP is encountering.