Murthy, a Dalit resident of Mysuru city in Karnataka, is undecided about whom to vote for in the assembly election on May 12. He is against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because he is upset over recent atrocities against scheduled castes across India but he is not sure whether to back the ruling Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular).
“None of them have done anything significant for our community….Only lip service,” said the 67-year-old man who goes by only his first name.
His sentiments are echoed across the Mysuru and Hassan districts in the poll-bound state as Dalits say they are angry with the BJP because of the perceived dilution in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and rising violence against Dalits.
Additionally, in Karnataka, Union minister Anantkumar Hegde’s controversial remarks on the Constitution some months ago has added to the discontent.
Hegde, a Brahmin and a five-time Lok Sabha MP from Uttara Kannada, in December said, “We will respect the Constitution, but the Constitution has changed several times and it will change in the future too. We are here to change the Constitution and we’ll change it.”
The remarks were widely interpreted as an attempt to do away with caste-based reservations.
Party chief Amit Shah faced the ire of Dalits when he visited Karnataka’s old Mysuru region last month. Angry Dalits disrupted his meeting by protesting against Hegde’s remarks, prompting Shah to assert that the BJP had nothing to do with his comments.
Dalits from Hardanahalli, the home town of JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda, and Singaranahalli villages of Hassan district expressed similar sentiments. They feel their rights safeguarded by the Constitution are under threat.
“Modi government did not defend the act in the Supreme Court and then talk of Dalit empowerment. The dilution affects all of us,” said Mallesh (71), a resident of Yamasandhi village in Hassan district.
The community forms about 16% of the state’s population and 36 of the total 224 assembly constituencies are reserved for the members of the community. Dalits are largely divided into two groups – ‘right hand touchable’ or Chalavadis/Holaya communities and the ‘left hand untouchable’ or Madigas.
Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and state Congress chief G Parameshwara belong to the ‘Right Dalits’ while the ‘Left Dalits’ are considered to be the BJP supporters.
Throughout the election campaign, the BJP has made several attempts to woo the Dalits with top leaders BS Yeddyurappa and others staying in Dalit homes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has attacked the Congress over the condition of Dalits. “The Congress has no respect for Ambedkar. They did everything to defeat him in the 1952 general elections and the bypoll to Bhandara parliamentary constituency in 1953,” Modi told party workers through the NaMo app on Thursday.
The Congress, for whom Dalits form a key component of the AHINDA (other backward classes, Muslims and Dalits) alliance, has repeatedly attacked the BJP on the issue. But there is discontent over the state government’s refusal to implement internal reservations among the left and right Dalit groups, which would have benefitted the poorer sub-castes.
“They invoke Dr Ambedkar quite frequently but do not show any action on the ground. Besides, Dalit lynchings, irresponsible statements by BJP ministers, rhetoric about anti-Dalit promises, remarks regarding changing the Constitution have brought the Dalits closer to the Congress,” said state minister Priyank Kharge.
A third factor is an alliance between the JD(S) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is seen as a party for Dalits but one that had to forfeit its deposit on almost all seats it contested in the 2013 assembly election.
“The BSP is not an option for Karnataka Dalits. It has not worked at the grassroots level. Moreover, it has aligned with the JD(S) which in any case is going to go with the BJP. This is not acceptable to us,” said Gowri of the Dalith Damanithara Swabhimana Horata Samithi (DDSHS), an organisation run by scheduled castes.
With May 12 just two days away, many Dalits say they are torn between the BJP and the Congress. “There is no doubt that Dalits are tired of cow politics, Una and Koregaon incidents, diluting the SC/ST act. But Dalits have reservations with the Congress too.
The present Congress government did not accept the recommendations of Sadashiva Ayoga regarding internal reservations. So, while a section of Dalits is disturbed, the others are happy with other facilities given by the Congress,” said Vikram Tejas, an activist of the DDSHS.