BSP Missing, BJP on Edge & Congress Leading Protests: Can Hathras Rape Case Redefine Caste Politics in UP?
Protests at Jantar Mantar on Friday (Photo Credits: PTI)
On the morning of September 30, when the entire nation's attention was focused on the judgment in the 28-year-old Babri Mosque demolition case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attention was drawn towards another issue at hand — the gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras.
Mounting protests from Delhi to Hathras and Lucknow, and in response to it a highly insensitive approach of the UP Police and administration, had probably forced the prime minister to intervene and call up Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Following the phone call, Adityanath marched forward to douse the flames of anger. First he ordered a SIT probe in the case and later spoke to the family of the deceased girl.
The government also increased the compensation amount to 25 lakh from the initially sanctioned 10 lakh and promised a government job and a house for the family. The family may have come forward to express faith in the chief minister following these announcements, but the temper on ground, especially among the Dalits, continues to run high. And the biggest reason for anger is the administration’s move of hurriedly cremating the dead body, denying the victim’s family an opportunity to conduct the last rights as per their traditions.
Amid all this, the big question that remains is: why was the Prime Minister forced to intervene in the matter? Is the Hathras incident just another example of the poor law and order in the state and proof of rising crimes against women, or does it have a larger political dimension?
Has the BJP’s top brass been left a bit concerned about a possible breach in its Dalit vote bank and laboriously built Hindutva consolidation? After recent reports of seeping Brahmin discontent under the Yogi rule in Uttar Pradesh, can the Hathras incident mark the dangerous drifting away of the Dalits, or at least a section of them, from the BJP? The answer lies in the complex caste realities of India's most populous and politically important state.
The Caste Dynamics, Valmikis in West UP
With 403 Vidhan Sabha seats and 80 Lok Sabha constituencies, Uttar Pradesh has a sizable Dalit population. The state has also been the cradle of caste-based identity politics. From Dalit resurgence to backward caste politics, all have found a strong manifestation in UP.
Experts believe that Dalits constitute around 22 per cent of the total population. They are further divided into various sub castes, the most significant of them being the Jatavs, Pasis, Sonkars, Dhobi, Koieri and Valmikis. Valmikis, in particular, dominate the demography in West UP.
From Gaziabad to Saharanpur, Merrut, Muzzafarnagar, Bagpat, Aligarh, Hathras to Amroha and Moradabad, Valmikis have a sizable presence across 25 districts of the region. Politically speaking, while Jatavs have been a strong pillar of support for the BSP, Valmikis, just like Pasis in Central UP and Awadh region, had shifted towards the BJP over the past one decade. From 2014 general elections to 2017 assembly polls and then in 2019, Valmikis in west UP had strongly been by the BJP’s side.
This long association with the BJP is now under threat following the Hathras rape and murder case, in which the victim belonged to the Valmiki community. First the rape by the accused who hail from the upper caste Thakur community and then police’s alleged attempt to shield them, followed by administration’s insensitive move of cremating the body at midnight in gross violation of the community’s tradition, has all come together to become a major political challenge for the saffron party.
Is BJP’S Loss Congress’s Gain?
For the Congress, which has been steadily trying to build a base and strengthen its party in Uttar Pradesh, Hathras incident came as a big occasion to intervene. The newfound organisational strength was reflected in the strong protests launched by the party from Delhi to Hathras and across districts of the state.
Leaders of the Congress’s SC/ST front were continuously spotted along with the family of the rape victim. Pradeep Narwal, the AICC in charge of UP Congress’s SC-ST Wing, denies bringing politics in the matter. He says, “As a political party, it is our responsibility to raise people’s issues. The Yogi government has been acting with vendetta against the poor and marginalised. People have decided to teach BJP a lesson in the 2022 assembly polls”.
Congress leaders might deny, but they surely hope to reach out to the Dalits, especially the Valmikis, who till the mid-eighties had been with the party, before shifting towards the BSP and then to the BJP. Trying to gain the lost ground in UP, Congress has been since long trying to build a base among Dalits and the Brahmin upper caste. The party leaders believe that if a section of Dalits and Brahmins could be brought back to the party fold, minorities, too, will be drawn back, thus giving it a strong vote base in the state.
Mayawati’s Occasional Lashing Out, Party Missing in Action
Even as Hathras continued to witness strong protests for more than 48 hours and Congress seemed to have taken an edge, the BSP — party that emerged out of a Dalit resurgence —seemed to take a back seat. While Congress and Bheem Army workers emerged on roads from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, BSP was missing from protests and agitation.
Party chief Mayawati, whose angst towards the incident was limited to a couple of tweets, throughout the two weeks, from the day of the Gang rape to the girl’s death on September 29, came forward with a strong response through a media reaction on October 1. Launching a scathing attack against Yogi Adityanath, she said, “Yogi has failed to maintain the law and order. He should either resign or else BJP should remove him from the CM’s post and send him back to the Gorakhpur Math.”
There were twin concerns behind Mayawati’s late response. One, about a possible inroad of the Congress party in the Dalit vote bank, and second, countering the increasing perception about BSP being soft towards the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. How successful Maywati will prove to be in her purpose is not clear. The reality being her vote base had been seriously compromise over the past few years.
For the government which had been battling the allegations of caste-based discrimination, especially that of the Brahmins, Hathras gang rape and its handling by the police had further complicated the situation. How the BJP and RSS’s top brass will move to salvage the situation remains to be seen.