Swathed in a blue cloth, the sculpture sits in wait against the barren landscape of Jadoli village in Alwar. Beneath the swaddle is a bust of Pawan Kumar Jatav, the 27-year-old killed in police firing during the Dalit protest on April 2, 2018. Set to be unveiled at a public ceremony after the Lok Sabha elections are over, the bust of the youth, who was studying for the civil service exams, has become a rallying point for the community that accounts for almost a quarter of the electorate in Alwar Lok Sabha constituency which votes Monday.
“He is a martyr for our cause. We thought it was important to install a statue in his village so that it would serve as an inspiration to youth for generations to come,” says Ramjeevan Bauddh, an advocate. Bauddh is handling the cases of many in Alwar who were arrested in the wake of the Bharat Bandh protests against the Supreme Court’s order that read down the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
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If, for the community, the sculpture lends a face to an amorphous and leaderless social movement, for his father Jallaram Jatav, it preserves the memory of a son who had big ambitions. “He was a bright boy and wanted to be an IAS officer so that he could be in the system and effect change. That day, he was part of the peaceful protests. Around 1 pm, we received a call saying that he had been injured. When we reached the hospital, he was declared dead, one bullet in his leg and two in his head,” recalls Jallaram.
There are different versions of the series of events that led to the firing. Some accuse unruly elements from dominant caste communities of setting ablaze vehicles at the police station premises while others say the anger of protesters spilled over, but all agree that the situation didn’t call for police firing.
Nisha, who married Pawan just three months before he died, says, “We have always voted for the BSP, but this time we will vote to defeat the BJP. No one should have to lose their husband this young.”
The ceremony to unveil the sculpture had to be called off twice. The first time in November, permission was denied citing the code of conduct for the Assembly elections in the state. “We had applied a month in advance. The event was scheduled to be held on November 11 and arrangements were made for over 50,000 people, but just a day before the event, permission was denied,” says Jeetu Kumar Jatav (25), a local youth.
In January, their request was turned down again. Anticipating a similar rejection in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, a blood donation camp was held near the sculpture to mark Pawan’s first death anniversary on April 2 this year. “Even then, there was heavy police deployment in the area,” says Jeetu.
The after-effect of the April 2 protests was evident in the 2018 Assembly election results — the BJP, which earlier held 31 of the total 34 Scheduled Caste Assembly constituencies, saw its tally go down to 12.
The movement is more pronounced in Alwar. The chairperson of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), Ashok Bharti, who was one of the key people behind the April 2 bandh, says that while Alwar has seen the highest rate of violence against Dalits in the state, its proximity to Delhi has led to more awareness among the youth. “This resulted in lakhs of people pouring out into the streets to be part of the protests and the state retaliated with mass FIRs and arrests,” he says.
In the small town of Khairtal, in Kishangarh Bas Assembly constituency of Alwar, where Pawan was shot, Suresh Kumar (46), who was part of the same crowd, was shot in both his knees. Unable to walk, he sits with his bandaged legs stretched out on a cot. “I used to provide for my wife and my three children with my earnings as a tailor. Now I need two people to even carry me around the house,” he says.
There is anger over the Centre’s failure to take a proactive stand to safeguard the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. A group of men, sitting beneath a mulberry tree in Khairtal, take a break from their game of cards to talk politics. Roopchand says that after the protests last year, in almost every other family, someone was put behind bars. Banwarilal Chawariya says the collective anger has galvanised them to vote en bloc for the Congress.
Ramchandra, who leads the Alwar Jatav Samaj Sansthaan which holds sway in nearby four dozen villages, adds, “Congress faayada nahin karegi par nuksaan bhi nahin karegi (Congress won’t do anything to benefit us but they won’t harm us either).” Ramchandra was among the many who were jailed for 45 days after the protests. “The BJP has, time and again, tried to violate our constitutional rights. When the call for the protests went out, they didn’t think it would bring people to the streets in such huge numbers. That boy’s (Pawan) sacrifice for our rights will always be remembered,” he says.
Many from the community are vocal about the fact that they still owe their allegiance to the BSP, but April 2, 2018, has given them a greater goal. In Alwar Lok Sabha seat, the Scheduled Caste voters number about 4.5-5 lakh. While some will vote for BSP candidate Imran Khan, most are lobbying for a vote for Congress candidate and former union minister Jitendra Singh.
The Muslim community, mainly Meo Muslims, account for an almost equal number in the constituency. They have been at the receiving end of the cow vigilante attacks in the state — Alwar holds the worst record for such attacks and lynching in Rajasthan.
Meanwhile, the BJP candidate, Mahant Balak Nath, is banking on the votes of the 3.5-lakh strong Yadav community.
Dharam Pal Rawat of the Rajasthan-based Dalit Adivasi Vikas Parishad talks of how Dalit groups have been advocating collective voting against the BJP, through public meetings and WhatsApp groups, where every policy decision impacting the community is discussed — from lateral entry in the bureaucracy to the concept of Ram Rajya.
“Jitni kranti paanch saal mein aayi hai, pachaas saal mein nahin aayi. Marey hue kaum ko jagaa diyaa BJP ne (The last five years have seen more revolution than the last 50 years. The BJP has revived the community),” he says.
Rawat is critical of the Congress for fielding SC candidates only in reserved seats. Yet, he says, the community will vote for the party in a unified stand against the BJP. “Unlike five years ago, when only the educated Dalit youth could use social media, even the masses have access to it today and we make use of it to mobilise them. We invoke our leaders Babasaheb Ambedkar, Periyar, Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule and Kanshi Ram to unite the youth,” he says.
Back in Jadoli village, the pedestal on which Pawan’s bust is placed has a vacant space for an epitaph that will be installed on the day of the unveiling ceremony, as a tribute to his place in the community’s history of assertion.