As one enters Uttarakhand through Uttar Pradesh, the most striking change is the disappearance of Dalit and Muslim politics. The complex caste-and-religion equations of UP’s border districts begin to fade along the journey towards the hills. Just next to UP, the plains of Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar do have a substantial number of Dalits and Muslims but no politician has publicly addressed any religious or caste identity.
Uttarakhand’s SC population, an estimated 19 per cent, is nearly as high as Uttar Pradesh’s 20-21 per cent while its estimated 14 per cent Muslim population is nowhere near UP’s 19 per cent. Uttarakhand’s OBC presence is less than 5 per cent. Its society is dominated by just two castes: Brahmins (22-25 per cent) and Thakurs (35 per cent), with STs around estimated at 3 per cent.
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Of the 70 seats, 13 spread across Uttarakhand are reserved for SCs, but the community is wanting for major leaders. Minister-turned-BJP-leader Yashpal Arya, once projected as the Congress’s Dalit face, is seen as holding little influence outside his home district (Udham Singh Nagar) as are Union MoS (Textile) Ajay Tamta and Congress MP Pradeep Tamta, the first Dalit to represent the state in Rajya Sabha.
“Leaders like Arya could not motivate and unite the Dalits the way Harish Rawat did with Thakurs,” says Professor Annpurna Nautiyal of HNB University in Pauri Garhwal. She adds, “Arya is often bypassed by upper caste leaders.” PCC chief Kishore Upadhyaya denies it. “The Congress gave Arya several opportunities and space but he could not utilise that,” he says.
Dalit leaders cite a number of factors as having caused the absence of a Dalit discourse — lack of education, resources and unity among Dalits, especially in the hills — as well as a key difference from their UP counterparts. “Dalits in UP mostly come from sub-castes such as Jatavs and Valmikis, while in Uttarakhand they are mostly of sub-castes such as Dhobis, Telis and Lohars. These sub-castes, to which the prominent community leaders such as Aryas and Tamtas belong to, do not want to come across as Dalits and have little interest in the Dalit discourse,” says Dharmendra Singh, a member of the trade union BAMCEF.
“In the hills, Dalit hesitate to even come to the BSP office. They do not want to be seen as BSP members,” he adds.
In other states, large populations of the “middle caste” OBCs have often led to confrontation with Dalits. “Since there are very few OBCs in Uttarkhand, and since Brahmins and Thakurs are in the relatively upper hierarchy, SCs do not have immediate space to confront and assert themselves,” says Ramkumar Chaudhary, BSP president for Rajpur Road constituency.
Rather than confront, Singh says, Dalits have been passive victims of discrimination. Last year, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay was assaulted when he was trying to ensure the entry of Dalits in a temple.
“Dalits in the hills had little education. Whatever they have learnt is only after the formation of Uttarakhand,” says Hari Mohan Juwantha, who recently resigned as an SBI deputy manager to join the Congress.
The BSP’s presence is limited to the plains, which have some of the same sub-castes that live in UP, leading to Dalit unity. The BSP won seven seats in 2002, eight in 2012 (six in Haridwar alone) and three in 2012. BSP chief Mayawati held both her recent rallies in the plains. In the hills, Dalits have tended to vote for either the Congress or the BJP.
Thakurs & Brahmins
Uttarakhand’s estimated 22-25 per cent is the highest proportion of Brahmins in any state, and they along with Thakurs dominate the political and social discourse. All chief ministers have been from either of these castes, whose vote has gone with either of the two major parties. Efforts to exploit the caste vote are not, however, as explicit as in UP.
The rivalries that CM Harish Rawat, among the state’s strongest Thakur leaders so far, had with former CM N D Tiwari and Vijay Bahuguna are widely seen as carrying a Thakur-versus-Brahmin undercurrent, as is the current one with PCC chief Kishore Upadhyaya.
In the current election, BJP candidate Narayan Singh Rana agrees that the 65 per cent Thakur vote in his constituency, Dhanolti, will be decisive. According to him, Satpal Maharaj (another Thakur) would be the best “chief minister” if the BJP wins.
Because of the dominance of these two castes, political parties do not make separate appeals to the Dalit and Muslim vote, which, except in pockets of the plains, mostly remains with candidates of the two dominant castes. “Since the Dalit vote is anyway coming to them, why would they want to address our concerns?” says Dharmendra Singh.
While Dalit leaders believe that “they cannot rise without confrontation”, leaders like Upadhyaya feel it is a unique characteristic of Uttarakhand that all castes have lived in harmony.
“The public perception has solidified here,” notes Nautiyal. “They see only Thakurs and Brahmins as chief minister.”