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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Rise of the untouchables
A tea shop in a dalit village in UP
Political power can help improve the dalits' fortunes
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The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder
in Uttar Pradesh
line

As voting takes place in the politically significant Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) some of India's poorest communities are finding a powerful political voice.

The Dalits, once known as "untouchables", and other low-caste Hindu groups have a strong political presence in the state and parties representing their interests are being seen as the key to forming the next state government.


It is high time that one of our own rules this state

Dalit villager in Bara Banki, UP
Two leading low-caste parties - the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party - are expected to challenge the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, with the once powerful Congress Party being relegated to a distant fourth place.

The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents the Dalits, is being seen in particular as the culmination of a struggle for political recognition which began before independence but is only now finding its feet.

Access to power

In villages across UP, communities which for centuries have been at the lowest rung of India's highly complex and stratified society are standing up to be counted.

Dalits in Uttar Pradesh
Dalits across UP are finding their political voice

"It is high time that one of our own rules this state and our destiny," says a villager in UP's backward Bara Banki district.

"That is the only way we can hope for change in our fortunes and help improve our lives," he added.

Observers say it is the promise of access to state patronage that has led the Dalits and other low-caste communities to seek political space.

"This is a very poor state - whatever industry existed has long gone and many of these communities are landless, working on farms owned by more powerful groups or as labourers," says journalist Arshad Khan.


Upper-caste men would block the road if a (Dalit) wedding party was travelling on it

Shantadevi Pasi
"They see government jobs as the only form of long-term security - and to get these jobs, they need access to power. They need to be in government."

For the first 40 years of elected governments in UP, every single chief minister belonged to upper caste communities - many of them were Brahmins, who are at the very top of the caste hierarchy.

"It was only in 1977, with the election of a lower-caste chief minister, that these communities were able to see a link between power and decisions that directly benefited them," says the BBC's Ram Dutt Tripathi, a resident of the state who has covered numerous elections.

Humiliation

But it is not just better jobs and improved lives that UP's Dalits are after.

For many of them, it is the only way to break a system of brutal oppression that they have endured for centuries.

Dalit rally
Dalits are flocking to political rallies with renewed confidence

"Upper-caste men would block the road if a (Dalit) wedding party was travelling on it, and force the groom to get off his horse and walk," said Shantadevi Pasi, in Mohammadpur village in Faizabad.

In other parts of the state, it is alleged that they would force Dalit brides to be left with upper-caste men for a night as "tax".

"It is this level of oppression that led many Dalits to rejoice when one of their own was able to hit back - like (the Bandit Queen) Phoolan Devi," said Arshad Khan.

In the present elections, many of the candidates representing the Bahujan Samaj Party or other lower-caste groups in parts of the state have criminal records - many accused of beating up or even murdering upper-castes.

"They are seen as heroes - as Robin Hood like figures who stood up against the oppressors," says Dr Chhedi Lal Sathi, a veteran politician and Dalit leader.

"For many poor villagers, the only way to counter violence is with violence."

Maturity

In Akbarpur, in eastern UP, thousands of villagers rush out towards a stretch of open ground as a helicopter lands, raising dust clouds in its wake.

They have come to glimpse the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and a former Chief Minister, Mayawati.

Ms Mayawati, is an ardent follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar - an Indian independence leader who championed the Dalit cause, even urging them to convert to Buddhism to escape Hindu oppression.


What we want is izzat (dignity in Hindi)

Chhedi Lal Sathi, veteran Dalit politician
But, in her speech to her followers, Ms Mayawati injects a note of conciliation, toning down a once patented anti-upper caste rant.

"We cannot come to power on our own - no one can by just appealing to narrow bands of caste loyalty," she says.

"That is why I am reaching out to all communities," she adds.

Analysts say that the BSP leader has calculated that she needs to broaden her appeal in order to win more seats in these elections.

The BSP is, therefore, represented by candidates drawn from all communities - upper caste-Hindus, Muslims as well as the Dalits.

"By improving her vote share, she is in a very strong position to bargain for power," says political analyst Devendra Yadav.

But for many Dalit activists, it is more than calculated bargaining for greater electoral spoils that is the key issue.

"What we want is izzat (dignity in Hindi)," says Dr Sathi.

"Only then would the struggle of Ambedkar have been worth it."

See also:

12 Feb 02 | South Asia
Indian states gear up for polls
14 Feb 02 | South Asia
Scattered violence in Indian polls
05 Nov 01 | South Asia
Buddhism's appeal for low-caste Hindus
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
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