Page last updated at 00:54 GMT, Sunday, 18 April 2010 01:54 UK

Kumari Mayawati: 'Untouchable' champion of India's poor

Ms Mayawati at the Lucknow rally with the rupee garland
Ms Mayawati's garland of 1,000 rupee notes is being investigated by the taxman

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Lucknow

The first woman Dalit (formerly "untouchable") chief minister of an Indian state, Kumari Mayawati, is celebrated by those at the bottom of the Hindu caste system as their champion, but also criticised for amassing vast personal wealth.

Standing in the afternoon heat close to the banks of the Gomti River, looking down from a flyover on a vast monumental park, you would be forgiven for wondering whether the sun is playing tricks on you.

Is it a mirage?

A row of 60 giant elephants, carved from sandstone, stand guard along a broad processional walkway.

Lucknow elephant statues
Mayawati is creating a special police force to protect her monuments and her army of statues from harm

There are domes and colonnades, granite pillars with brass elephant heads, a vast lotus-shaped memorial surrounded by shimmering marble and there are statues. Everywhere there are statues.

My first thought is to misquote the poet Shelley.

My name is Mayawati, Queen of Queens: Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!

Because this is the piece de resistance of Ms Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state.

On a scale that puts the Taj Mahal to shame, the Bhim Rao Ambedkar Monument celebrates the life of the man who wrote the Indian constitution and championed the cause of the downtrodden.

He is a hero in particular to India's Dalits, or "the oppressed", the community from which Ms Mayawati has risen.

Dalits used to be known as "untouchables".

Below the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, they were considered to be ritually polluted from birth.

Officially, untouchability was outlawed by Ambedkar's constitution 60 years ago.

And in urban areas, and among those who have managed to grab the lifeline of education, its shadow has been diminished.

Segregation

But out in India's teeming villages, caste remains a dominant fact of life.

In many rural regions, Dalits are still forced to live in separate segregated areas.

They are often prevented from collecting water from the same well as higher caste people, and they do the jobs that no-one else wants to do.

I have to confess that since I have been living and working in this country I have tiptoed around covering the caste system.

The elephant, the ubiquitous symbol of Ms Mayawati's political party, is now riding high

It is a failure on my part I will admit, as hierarchy reveals so much about India and the Indian mindset.

But for outsiders, caste is fiendishly complicated, hard to understand and even harder to explain.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, it is hard to avoid. The elephant, the ubiquitous symbol of Ms Mayawati's political party, is now riding high.

And so is the Dalit pantheon. There are an estimated 20,000 statues of Ambedkar across this state, most of them commissioned by Ms Mayawati.

Vanity projects

She has also built countless statues of other Dalit leaders, including of course, of her own good self, staring defiantly into the distance and clutching a trademark square handbag.

So it is easy to mock Ms Mayawati and her addiction to statues. Many middle class Indians frequently do.

Her political opponents accuse her of corruption and say she is wasting vast quantities of public money on vanity projects in one of the poorest parts of the country.

There has been a legal challenge, and the Supreme Court has ordered a stay on statue building while it considers the case.

Dalits
Dalits used to be known as "untouchables"

In response Ms Mayawati is creating a special police force to protect her monuments and her army of statues from harm.

What for, asked one incredulous opponent? Will they lose height or weight? Is someone planning to disfigure them?

But there is some method in this apparent madness.

The Dalits of Uttar Pradesh still vote en masse for Ms Mayawati.

And the more she spends to excess, the more some of them seem to revel in it.

At one huge rally, she was greeted with an enormous garland made entirely of 1,000 rupee notes.

The tax department is investigating, and some say the garland may have been worth up to £750,000 ($1.2m). But the crowds loved it.

Dalits have been denied public space for so long, consciously shut out of it, that her supporters see the statues as the ultimate riposte

And what of the statues?

Well, Dalits have been denied public space for so long, consciously shut out of it, that her supporters see the statues as the ultimate riposte.

She is reasserting our identity, they say, and reviving our lost history. Making Dalits realise that we too have a stake in this country.

And that means she is creating aspirations and she retains huge loyalty.

But what about distributing power among the grass roots? That is where her opponents say she has failed.

Caste enigma

So where do Dalit politics go from here? Can Ms Mayawati move from strength to strength?

I have my doubts, but for me caste remains one of India's enduring mysteries.

I remember many years ago meeting a professor in Chennai and asking him to explain the caste system to me.

He turned to his collection of books, and honed in on 24 thick, bound volumes of The Castes and Tribes of South India, stretching right along the top shelf like the Encyclopaedia Britannia.

Without a word he pulled out volume 24, opened it at the last page and handed it to me.

To be continued, it said.

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SEE ALSO
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