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Home » India » UP Election 2022: Why A Farmers’ Party Is Seeking The Support Of Dalit Women

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UP Election 2022: Why A Farmers’ Party Is Seeking The Support Of Dalit Women

The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) is carrying out a Nyay Yatra to meet Dalit voters in 13 districts of western UP. Photo courtesy RLD.

MUZAFFARNAGAR, Uttar Pradesh — Usha, a Dalit woman in her late 50s, listened to speaker after speaker condemn the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh for the atrocities committed against Dalits in the state, especially crimes against women, while calling on the gathering of Dalit women to vote them out of power in the 2022 state Assembly election.

The speakers were from the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a regional party that was once favoured by mostly Jat and Muslim farmers of western Uttar Pradesh, India’s sugarcane belt. The party in power is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has swept UP in three successive elections — two parliamentary and one Assembly — but is now encumbered by its mishandling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and angry farmers wanting the Narendra Modi government to repeal three central farm laws. There is pressure also on the Yogi Adityanath state government to increase the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for sugarcane in UP.  

Usha, who had traveled three kilometers from Sisona village to Rampur village in the Purqazi Assembly constituency of Muzaffarnagar district, where the RLD was holding an event to reach out to Dalits in western UP. She told us that she did not know much about the party that she associates with or about the powerful Jat farmers of western UP and the reasons for their reaching out to Dalit women, though she did know about the two Dalit girls who were allegedly raped, murdered and forcibly cremated in the past year — a teenager in Hathras and a nine-year-old in Delhi. 

“What happened with this nine-year-old girl in Delhi is just so horrible,” said Usha, a mother of five children. “Why are they cremating these girls without the consent of their families? Why do they do it?” 

Babita, a Dalit woman and a mother to two girls, who had traveled with Usha from Sisonia to Rampur, “They can only do this to Dalit women.”

The RLD is carrying out a two-month-long Nyay Yatra, covering 13 districts of western UP. It started in Saharanpur on 8 August and ends in Agra on 9 October, the day that marks 15 years since Kanshi Ram, the political leader who formed the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984 and ushered in the age of Dalit politics in UP. 

It was the Jat agrarian landscape in western UP from where Chaudhary Charan Singh took off. He outgrew the mould of a Jat leader. As the state Revenue Minister, his championing of farm reforms, while laying the foundation of the green revolution’s enhanced food production, led to the increasing clout of landowning classes like Jats and Gujjars in the region’s political economy and electoral outlook. Charan Singh rose to be UP’s Chief Minister and India’s Prime Minister.

RLD’s Nyay Yatra is led by Prashant Kanojia, a journalist-turned-politician and a Dalit, who took the reins of the RLD’s SC-ST wing in April. Kanojia was arrested twice by the UP government for his views expressed on social media, and he is currently out on bail granted by the Supreme Court and the Allahabad High Court. 

When we asked him why the RLD was reaching out to Dalits in Western UP, Kanojia said,  “We want to gain the lost momentum after Kanshi Ram ji died. Mayawati ji, has confused the Dalits as to where they should go. It is time to defeat the BJP. People know that the RLD and SP are going to defeat them.” (Read our full interview with Prashant Kanojia here).

Mayawati ji has confused the Dalits as to where they should go.– Prashant Kanojia

Political observers say that there are around 144 Assembly seats in western UP, with each seat having about one lakh Muslims and 50,000 to 60,000 Dalits. 

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Now, the RLD wants a slice of the Dalit vote which has so far been the vote base of BSP supremo Mayawati, and since 2014, the BJP. 

The party was formed in 1996 by Ajit Singh, son of Chaudhary Charan Singh. Ajit Singh died of Covid-19 in May, this year. His son, Jayant Chaudhary, a graduate of the London School of Economics, is now taking the RLD forward.

The RLD’s performance in western UP took a nosedive following the religious polarisation in western UP after the Muzaffarnagar riots in August 2013. Eight months later, the BJP, fronted by Narendra Modi swept to power,  winning almost all seats in western UP, and winning all the 17 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in the state. 

The RLD contested eight seats and lost all of them. 

Three years on, as per RLD officials, they polled 16 lakh votes in the UP Assembly Election — 2.59% of the vote share. They won only one seat — Chhaprauli in Baghpat by less than 4,000 votes. (It won nine seats in the 2012 Assembly election).

But with the Covid-19 pandemic, the farmers’ protest, and a slew of crimes against Dalits, things have changed, Kanojia said as he traveled from village to village, speaking to gatherings of 300-400 people. 

Kanojia spoke about the people who die cleaning sewers and manholes, the rape of Dalit women, and the protesters who were killed on 2 August, 2018, the day of the “Bharat Bandh” called to protest against the Supreme Court’s order diluting stringent provisions of  The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

It was time to make the dignity of Dalit women front and center to the campaign, Kanojia told us. 

“Our sister from the Valmiki community was raped in Hathras. The DM did the work of cremating her body in the night. The police lathi-charged our leader Jayant Chaudhary who went there. Those blows are not just on the back of Jayant Chaudhary, but of the entire Dalit community,” he told one gathering. 

“There is no protection for women in the state. Open the newspapers, and you will see, everyday rape, everyday gang rape,” he said. 

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It was time to make the dignity of Dalit women front and centre to the campaign.– Prashant Kanojia

If the RLD were to come to power, Kanojia said that cases lodged against Dalit protesters would be withdrawn, and there would be special machines to clean manholes and sewers so that Dalit men did not have to risk their lives. 

“In the coming days, they will tell you to vote on the basis of Hindu and Muslims, don’t let them do it,” he said in his speech. “Wake up, Dalit samaaj, don’t become a weapon in someone else’s hands.” 

Wake up, Dalit samaaj, don’t become a weapon in someone else’s hand. – Prashant Kanojia

READ: RLD’s Prashant Kanojia On His Journey From A Journalist To A Politician

Easier said than done 

The BJP’s vote share in the 2017 UP Assembly election was 39.7% and it won 312 of 403 seats in the UP Assembly, as per the Trivedi Centre For Political Data. 

In addition to its mainstay of upper-caste votes, the BJP’s victory was attributed to weaning away the non-Jatav Dalits (Jatavs are the same sub-caste of BSP supremo Mayawati and remain loyal to her), and non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (Yadavs are the same sub-caste as the founder-leaders of the Samajwadi Party). 

As per reports, Dalits are 20.5% of the UP’s 220 million people, the OBC — 35%54.5%, upper castes — 20%, and Muslims — 19.26%. 

Of the 84 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in the UP Assembly, the BJP and its allies won 70, while the BSP won two.

The vote share of the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP, which had entered an alliance with the Congress Party, was 28.3%, just 1% less than in 2012, as per the Trivedi Centre, but it won 47 seats, its lowest tally ever. The vote share of BSP was 22.2% but it won only 19 seats, suggesting that it was losing the support of non-Jatav Dalits. 

In May 2018, there was a bright moment for the RLD when it formed an alliance with the SP and BSP for the by-poll in Kairana in western UP, and the candidate it fielded, Begum Tabassum Hasan, won. 

Hasan, who contested in the 2019 Lok Sabha election as an SP candidate, lost to BJP’s Pradeep Kumar. The BJP and its ally Apna Dal won 64 seats, and 15 out of the 17 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (two went to the BSP).

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Despite the SP-BSP-RLD alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the RLD did not win any of the three seats it contested — Baghpat, Mathura and Muzaffarnagar. But the caste-based alliance did hurt the BJP in the 2019 election. The alliance won seven constituencies in western UP — Amroha (BSP), Bijnor (BSP), Saharanpur (BSP), Nagina (BSP), Sambhal (SP), Moradabad (SP), and Rampur (SP) and — seats that the BJP took in 2014.

While the SP won five seats (it won five seats in 2014), BSP’s tally went from zero in 2014 to ten in 2019.

The RLD has allied with SP for the 2022 state election. In addition to its vote base of Yadavs and Muslims, Akhilesh Yadav is wooing Brahmins, believed to be miffed by Yogi Adityanath and what is perceived to be him favouring his own Thakur caste.  In the cabinet reshuffle in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted a Brahmin, three  OBCs, and three Dalits from UP.

Guru Prakash Paswan, a Dalit, a national spokesperson for the BJP, told us that his party is confident of retaining the Dalit vote.

“There are two reasons while we will retain the Dalit vote. Representation in governance and the party cadre and governance,” he said. “There was also financial untouchability. In the last seven years, schemes like Ujwala, Jan Dhan Yojana, have  helped people.”

When we asked him about the Hathras gang rape, Guru said, “It is unfortunate. The party and its leadership stand with the party. But we are against politicization and selective outrage.”

READ: UP Election 2022 – A Caste Pitch And Promissory Notes

Things have changed 

Close to a decade after the Muzaffarnagar riots, the political landscape is once again shifting in western UP.

It has been eight months since the farmers’ from western UP, Haryana and Punjab have been camping on the borders of Delhi, surviving a vilification campaign and the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. UP’s sugarcane farmers are also angry that there has been no increase in the Minimum Support Price (MSP) since the BJP came to power in 2017.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and its leader, Rakesh Tikait, the influential Jat farmer on the frontline of the farmers’ movement against the three central farm laws, who, some say, had helped the BJP in its rise to power in western UP, now wants to vote them out of UP. 

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When we met Tikait at the Ghazipur-Delhi border, last week, he said, “Poor people have been crushed. This election will be difficult for the BJP. They could suffer losses.”

This election will be difficult for the BJP. They could suffer losses.– Rakesh Tikait

Abhishek Gujjar, a spokesperson for the RLD, told us that he believed that the Jat farmers would return to RLD in the next election. He believes that farmers from other castes — like his own (Gujjar) — will follow. 

“Farmers found a home in the BJP but they found that the home was not comfortable,” said Gujjar. “They will return to their real home.”

They will return to their real home. – Abhishek Gujjar

In addition to the Jat and Muslim vote, the RLD is also looking to capture a share of the Dalit vote. 

The RLD’s outreach was not sudden, Gujjar said. When there were caste clashes between Dalits and Thakurs in 2017 in Saharanpur, and when a Dalit teenager was allegedly gang-raped in Hathras and forcibly cremated in 2020, Gujjar said that Jayant Chaudhary went to express his solidarity. 

“It is a tough task (getting the Dalit vote), but if we show them love, respect, and genuineness, they may listen to us,” he said. 

Ashutosh Mishra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, tells us that “there is undue prominence given to the cleavages within the Dalit community,” especially when it comes to the Assembly election. “The BSP and SP are still very powerful,” he said. 

The BSP and SP are still very powerful. – Ashutosh Mishra

READ: Muslim Representation In Up Was Rising, Then Came The Modi Wave

Usha and Babita 

Ever since Mayawati has loomed large over the electoral landscape of UP, Usha and Babita have never voted for anyone but “Behen ji,” (sister).

To not vote for Behen ji, who was twice the Chief Minister of UP, comes with a deep sense of betrayal for Usha and Babita, but this time, they seem to be weighing their options — or at least talking about it. But as they speak about Mayawati, it becomes obvious how painful it for her to criticise the Dalit leader, who was twice the CM of UP.  They drop their voices while doing so. 

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“We always vote for Didi but she doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the picture anymore,” said Usha. “She is suffering one loss after another.” 

“No matter what she does, she loses,” said Babita.

When we asked them what were the most pressing concerns in their life, Usha and Babita, whose family members work as labourers, listed the food and household items which they cannot afford to buy anymore. 

We always vote for Didi but she doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the picture anymore– Babita

“There was a time when we would get a cylinder of gas for 400-500 rupees, but now it is 900 rupees. It is too much for us,” said Usha. 

“Even things like cheeni (sugar) seem expensive when you are as poor as us,” said Babita. 

Still, not easy 

At Umarpur village in Budhana Assembly constituency in Muzaffarnagar, Prashant Kanojia told a gathering of Dalits that the BJP was a “virus of hate” that existed before Coronavirus, and that the only vaccine against it was “brotherhood.”

“One dose must be administered in 2022, and the second one in 2024,” he said. 

While Kanojia was speaking at a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas, a saint revered by the Dalits, we ran into a group of villagers, some of whom were from the OBC community, who told us that there had never been “any Coronavirus” in their village. 

Dharamvir, a Dalit voter, said that he used to vote for BSP, but he switched to BJP because he believes that the Mayawati favoured Jatavs over the non-Jatav sub-castes of the Dalit community, especially when it came to government jobs. “I will vote for the BJP,” he said. 

Dharamvir was sitting next to Naresh Saini, who used to vote for the SP before the 2014 election, and now votes for the BJP. 

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“I decided to vote differently after the riots,” he said. 

Saini was sitting next to Rajiv Pal, who said that he too would vote for the BJP. “Even if they do worse, I will vote for them,” he said. 

Pal then called out to a man who was crossing the street on his motorcycle. “You see him? He is Kashyap,” he told us.

Calling out to him, Pal said, ‘Who will you vote for?’ The man — Naveen Kumar — replied, “BJP.”  Another man in the group, Dhanpal Prajapati, told us that he too would vote for the BJP. 

Later, we spoke with a Dalit resident of Umarpur village, who was returning from the Ravidas temple. This man, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told us that he used to vote for the BSP, but he was puzzled by why Mayawati was suddenly speaking about speeding up the building of the Ram Temple. 

While Brahmins have always been part of Mayawati’s electoral strategy, critics say that her recent Brahmin gatherings have a distinctly BJP like quality about them. 

“What should we think? said the Dalit man. “In any case, there is too much time left for the election. Why are you asking all these questions so early?

Back at Ravidas temple, where the RLD had organized lunch for the attendees, BJP loyalist, Pal, was helping hammer down a sheet of paper on a wooden table that would hold the food. 

When we asked him why he was helping out at the RLD event, when he planned to vote for the BJP, Pal said, “Politics is politics. Lunch is lunch.”

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