It is past 11 am and 22 men wait in the shade of trees. They are the unemployed, who gather near a temple at Kumharpara in Gwalior’s Thatipur every day at 6 am, hoping someone will pick them for an odd job that will provide for them and their families for the day. Also, they are mostly Dalits, an identity that will play a role in defining the election in Gwalior.
After Dalit groups called for a nationwide protest in April against the Supreme Court verdict that “diluted” the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, caste violence broke out in Madhya Pradesh. Eight people died, four of them in Gwalior. Two of them, Deepak Mohor (22) and Rakesh Jatav (40), lived in Thatipur. The area also witnessed a curfew, snapping of internet connections, arson, and incidents of stone-pelting and shooting.
Jatav was a daily wage labourer. “He was one of us, and he died. Every time we sit here, even if we don’t talk about him, we are aware. Ghaav bhara nahi. Election bhi usi mudde pe hoga (The wound is still fresh. Polls will also be held on that issue),” said Deepak Ram, one of the men sitting in the shade.
Dalits who voted for BJP earlier may now move away
The Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh was among the worst-affected when the Supreme Court order “diluting” the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in April triggered violent protests in various parts of the country. Eight people were killed in incidents of violence in the Gwalior region. The seeming inability of the Madhya Pradesh government to control the anger may now become a problem for the ruling BJP in the upcoming elections. The members from scheduled castes, who had voted for the BJP in the 2013 Assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha election, are now disappointed with the state government over its “one sided reaction” to the events during the April violence. These votes may now move away from BJP, hurting its prospects.
Shops flank Gandhi Marg, the arterial road that cuts through Thatipur and Murar. In the streets that spread out like a web from Gandhi Marg are concrete homes, most multiple storied, with BJP flags fluttering on them. But further away from the road, streets become narrower, the homes become smaller, and made of mud and asbestos. Also, the flags disappear. Ravi Pandit is one of those that flies a BJP flag from his home. “Everybody thinks that just because they are Dalits, they are victims. Theirs was not a peaceful protest. They were vengeful and aggressive. They were shouting “Jai Bheem”, and setting fire to our shops and cars. What we did was in self-defence. Now in this election, we have decided to back BJP. There was some talk of backing SAPAKS party, which is speaking for upper castes and is anti-reservation. But most of us think this will only weaken BJP. We have always voted the BJP, and will continue to do so. If the opposition comes, we will be worse off than we are now,” he said.
In the flagless homes is another version — one which accuses the upper castes of being the aggressors and the government of not taking appropriate action. This is worrying for BJP because in the 2013 state election and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, many of these people had backed BJP. Like Ganesh Jatav (26), who said he was a friend of Mohor. “In 2013 and 2014, everyone was saying that Congress has done no work. In 2013, people were also talking about Modi, and how he would bring vikas, and that would benefit us too. In 2014, he started talking about “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, and even though the upper castes who back BJP discriminate against us, we thought things would change. In four years, their true colours have come to light. People from our community died fighting for our rights, and they have done nothing. This time we will not vote for them, no matter what happens. It is only the BSP that stood by us and people might vote for them. Even Congress didn’t really take our side. Some leaders came and gave sympathy, but that’s it. Naam ke vaaste aaye the, lekin soch to yahi hai ki agar sarkaar ko rokna hai to unhi ko dena hoga,” he said.
As Ganesh talks, an old TV in his home shows a news debate on the events in Ayodhya. His father Ashok Mohor, who sells fruit from a cart, points at the TV and says something else has changed in the last six months. “In the last election, BJP workers who came here said we are all Hindus, we should be together. We believed they wanted to include us. But when the violence happened, they were shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, as if it was a chant against us. Are we not of Ram? It is clear they don’t think so.”
While the BJP has stated that this election will be fought on “vikas (development)”, Congress has given a call for “parivartan (change)”. However, privately, leaders of both the BJP and the Congress in Gwalior admit that it is caste that might sway this election. The BJP presently holds four of six seats in the area.
While the Congress believes it will gain due to the anger against BJP, BJP leaders said these factors may help them, making anger among traders against GST, demonetisation or rising fuel prices moot. One BJP leader, however, admitted, “The difficulty is that trader and upper caste votes were largely with us. If Dalit votes consolidate behind Congress, it might be a problem. The hope is that BSP cuts enough votes.”
Six months after the violence in April, Gwalior shows little signs on the surface. Many say they are proud of the city, with its mixture of ancient history and modern Smart City aspirations. And yet, there are these 22 men, who sit and wait for work, every day, day after day.