The Lowest Castes in India, Reaching for Power, Shake Up the System

New York Times

September 23, 1999


JAMALPUR, India—In this poor, muddy village in the heart of the world’s largest democracy, Binda Prasad, a burly man whose mustache twirls up in a flourish, tells a story about himself—a story of triumph, humiliation and fighting back.

As hundreds of millions of Indians vote in national elections this month, his parable of village life helps explain why people like him, from the most despised castes, are voting in greater numbers, gaining new influence and turning political calculations upside down as they redefine the very meaning of the centuries-old caste system.

His story goes like this:

Four years ago, Prasad, a landless laborer, became the first of his caste to be elected village chief under a new constitutional amendment that guarantees a portion of such positions to people from the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy. On India’s Independence Day, as hundreds of villagers gathered to watch him unfurl the national flag, he sat in a place of honor, at last an equal of the upper-caste men who had always governed.

But at that very moment, he recalled bitterly, a man from the dominant, landed upper caste grabbed him by the neck, threw him from his chair, beat and kicked him and demanded to know how he dared sit before his betters on a chair, rather than on the ground. The villagers looked on but did nothing to stop the man.

Shamed and frightened, Prasad fled. But he did not go home and give up. When the police failed to make a quick arrest, he said, he went to the local leaders of the Majority Society Party, which is grounded on the votes of humble, low-caste men and women like himself, and they pressed the local authorities to jail the culprit.

"The party’s leaders visit this area, listen to the poor people and do anything they can to help us," he said. "When we are subjected to caste atrocities, they console us, get the complaint registered and make sure action is taken."

In the 1990’s, most voters from the lowest castes here in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, have given their loyalty to the Majority Society Party, which has also built a strong following in several other northern Indian states.

The growing political power and independence of the lowest castes, generally referred to as "scheduled castes" because of their enumeration in the Constitution for special benefits, is being felt not just in northern India, but across the country.

They are voting in greater proportions than ever before, greater even than the upper castes, according to voter surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

"Democracy is leading to greater social equality for people who had been excluded from political power for the first three or four decades of Indian independence," said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist who supervised the surveys.

The founders of independent India dreamed half a century ago of a casteless society, but caste has proved a resilient and dynamic force. Paradoxically, this hierarchical, hereditary system that has oppressed the lower orders of society has also become an organizing principal that the downtrodden themselves have seized on to forge their own political identity and to seek electoral power.

Like blacks in the United States, many in the lowest castes have spurned the old names given to them—as ritually impure untouchables who cannot even drink from the same well as upper castes, or as Harijans, or Children of God, as they were called by the independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi. Instead, they have adopted the blunt term Dalit, which means oppressed or ground-down in Hindi.

In Uttar Pradesh, where Dalits make up a fifth of the population, they have largely deserted the Congress Party, which was dominated by an upper caste, an English-speaking elite that ruled India for most of its 52 years of independence, but failed to share real power with the lowest castes it depended on for votes.

Now, instead of stamping the Congress Party symbol of a raised hand, most chose the elephant, symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Hindi for Majority Society Party.

"I voted for the Hand many years ago," said Puran Kahar, an illiterate man in a loincloth who still performs his lowly caste job of carrying water for the upper castes here in the village. "But they didn’t listen to us, so we don’t vote for them anymore."

The Majority Society Party was founded in 1984 and its leaders have emerged from the still small section of Dalits who have gone to universities or held Government jobs because of constitutionally mandated affirmative action requirements.

"The whole party was born out of bureaucrats," said D. L. Sheth, a sociologist.

The greatest successes of the party have been in Uttar Pradesh, population 160 million, where its vote tallies have grown from 10 percent in 1989 to 20 percent last year, with substantial support from middle castes.

The party’s leaders have baldly sought political power, rather than building a movement based on an agenda of specific social and economic reforms. They believe that only by gaining power will Dalits be treated with dignity and win their share of patronage and development resources, say scholars who have studied the party.

Mayawati, a sharp-tongued, aggressive leader of the party, has relished talking back to upper castes, a heady reversal of roles for people who long kept silent out of fear. On a recent television talk show, a member of the audience asked how she could justify her lavish way of life in the name of the scheduled castes.

"Why is this pinching your stomach?" she scathingly replied, suggesting the questioner was an upper-caste man who couldn’t digest the idea of a Dalit succeeding.

In Uttar Pradesh, the party has parlayed alliances with other parties into brief spells when it ran the state. In 1995 and again in 1997, Ms. Mayawati—a former schoolteacher who like many Dalit women has only one name—became the first, and as yet, only Dalit woman ever to serve as Chief Minister of an Indian state.

In the two periods in which she ruled for a total of 10 months, she is widely credited—or blamed—for turning the state machinery to the benefit of Dalits, requiring that state jobs be set aside for them, insisting that land promised to the landless be handed over, and brusquely and summarily suspending bureaucrats who were laggards in carrying out her orders.

This April, the party’s five members of Parliament toppled the national coalition Government led by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, which lost by a single vote.

At a recent rally in Jansath, in western Uttar Pradesh, Ms. Mayawati gleefully recalled for the thousands who had gathered in a monsoon-swamped field how she had tricked the B.J.P. into thinking her party would abstain on the confidence vote, then cast the deciding negative votes on the floor—getting revenge on a party that she believed had betrayed her own in the dog-eat-dog world of Uttar Pradesh politics.

She also laid out the party’s unashamedly caste-based strategy for winning power. While keeping the party leadership firmly in Dalit hands, it has recruited candidates who are Muslims or from the middle and upper castes to run under the party’s banner in most of the 85 parliamentary seats in the state.

The calculus is simple: the party’s minority base among Dalits is not enough to win most elections, but with the support of even one more community it has a chance.

"For all those laws in the Constitution to be implemented," she said, "we have to have representation in Parliament."

Along the bumpy, bone-rattling road that runs south from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, into one of the poorest, most backward parts of India, the color blue and the elephant symbol of the Majority Society Party are everywhere visible.

Blue elephants are painted on the whitewashed sides of huts. Blue plastic flags festoon small shops. In one village, a homemade stucco statue of the hero of the scheduled castes, B. R. Ambedkar, stood erect and well tended in a small shrine in a weedy field, his suit and horn-rimmed glasses painted the party’s trademark blue. In another village, a small crowd gathered around a man with a megaphone who exhorted them to "Stamp the elephant!"

In Uttar Pradesh, the party’s organization has penetrated deep into the villages where most Indians still live.

The party workers who cover the village of Jamalpur operate out of Banda, a bustling provincial town whose streets are clogged with cows and scooters.

The roads and electrical system are typically decrepit in a state notorious all over India for how badly it has been governed.

One recent evening, just after the entire town went black in one of its regular power failures, the party’s offices were found up a narrow concrete flight of stairs. Half a dozen young men sat on the floor in a room with no furniture, huddled over voter lists illuminated only by two small candles.

Most had first become involved in party work during their student days. "The party stands for equality, brotherhood and social change," said Harish Kumar, 32, who is himself a Dalit and secretary of the party’s local division.

That evening, they pulled out the ledger where they had numbered and recorded in small, neat script each time a person came to them for help and what they had done.

No. 19 was a request for assistance in applying for a hand pump. No. 27 was a complaint made by a laborer who had not been paid for his work in the fields. No. 36 was a complaint from a Dalit man who said he had been beaten by upper-caste Brahmans. No. 59 was a complaint that upper-caste Thakurs had tried to rape a Dalit woman.

The party’s workers seek to spread its message from village to village. It is a hard, unglamorous job.

The village of Jamalpur, about six miles north of Banda, has a population of 5,000 and is fairly easy to reach, but the road stops at its edge. On a recent afternoon, after hours of torrential rains, the village pathways were a swamp of slimy muck marked by the deep ruts of oxcarts. Every cow wore socks of brown mud.

The thatched hut of Prasad, the village chief, was a half-hour hike into Jamalpur. Sitting on his wooden cot outside his front door, he reminisced about his schoolboy days, when upper-caste teachers made him sit at the back of the room because he was from a scheduled caste, and the times, years ago, when the upper castes kept his kind from voting by refusing to give them time off from the fields to go to the polls.

Things are better now, he said. The Government takes their grievances more seriously and the scheduled castes have also begun to stand up for themselves.

Still, the memory of his own disgrace on Independence Day 1995 rankles. Prasad is a farm worker who earns just a dollar a day, but what he wants from politics, more than an end to his poverty, is an end to the indignities.

"We can always work to fill our stomachs," he said. "But the humiliations hurt the most

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