The Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power in Gujarat for 22 years – a record matched by few state governments in India. After a series of comfortable victories, the party now faces unprecedented anti-incumbency in the state assembly election scheduled for December 9 and 14. Its development model is under fire from agitating Patidars, Dalits, OBCs, farmers and traders.

Participating in this fraught election is a whole generation of voters who were born into BJP rule and have known no other government at the state level. What do they think of the BJP? How have their lives been shaped by its policies? visited five districts in Gujarat and spoke to first-time voters from five different demographic groups. The first part of this series focuses on young Dalit voters in Surendranagar district.

Swati Parmar does not discuss politics with her college classmates. “It leads to unnecessary fights, because the Darbars and other upper caste students openly support the BJP,” said the 19-year-old who is a second-year arts student at a government college in Gujarat’s Surendranagar town.

As a Dalit, Parmar supports the Congress.

She lives in a Dalit colony 50 km away, in the town of Thangadh, and travels to college once or twice a week, whenever she has fewer responsibilities at home.

Growing up in a town that witnessed the infamous killing of three Dalits in 2012, Parmar is acutely aware that the families of the victims are still struggling for justice. She has watched the men in her family participate in protest rallies after four Dalit youth were assaulted in Gujarat’s Una town for merely skinning cow carcasses in July 2016.

For Swati and other young Dalits in Thangadh, these incidents are an extension of the subtle forms of caste-based discrimination they continue to face in daily life. With their elders frequently describing the BJP as a party favouring the higher castes, they have come to view the saffron party as anti-poor. “The BJP has only worked for big businesses,” said Swati. “At least the Congress will work for the poor.”

Swati may not express her political views in college, but she intends to make them count on December 9, when she will cast her very first vote during the Gujarat assembly election. She got her voter identity card three months ago and has been excited about the election ever since her college held a workshop on the voting process. “Voting is important because that’s how the country will progress, and I want to see the Congress come to power in Gujarat,” she said.

The BJP has held power in Gujarat for the past 22 years, and Swati belongs to a generation of first-time voters that has never known any other political party in the state. Even though Thangadh’s Chotila constituency did have a Congress legislator from 2007 to 2012, all Swati and her peers can remember is growing up with Narendra Modi as their chief minister, and then as India’s prime minister.

Today, Dalits of all ages in Thangadh associate Modi with demonetisation, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and inflation that has steadily risen in the past three years. Congress, on the other hand, is still favoured as the party that gave Dalits prominence in its “KHAM” formula. Introduced by former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki in the early 1980s, KHAM stands for the Kshatriya, Harijan (or Dalit), Adivasi and Muslim – four groups that the Congress nurtured as its vote bank in Gujarat.

“Since the 1970s there have been radical people in the Congress who have supported Dalits, and some Congress MPs and MLAs have done good work for them,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a political scientist in Gujarat. “On major issues of atrocities, the BJP has often tried to deny what people are experiencing on the ground. So Dalits continue to support the Congress.”

Swati and her peers may not be familiar with the larger history, but this generation of first-time Dalit voters is rooting for the Congress in keeping with the tradition of their families. Almost all the young Dalits that spoke to in Thangadh claimed they hoped to elect what their elders describe as the “Dalit party” to the state Assembly.

Waiting for justice

Situated in the heart of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, Thangadh bears a distinctive look: the air is hazy with the fine dust of China clay and as far as the eye can see, the town is dotted with piles of half-made toilet bowls and wash basins. Thangadh is a major hub for the ceramic sanitary ware industry, housing more than 300 factories where basins, toilet bowls and pipes are moulded, glazed and exported all over the country. Most of the factory owners are from the upper-caste Darbar and Patidar communities while Dalits – who constitute 40% of Thangadh’s population – form a large part of the labour force.

Wash basins being moulded at a ceramic sanitary ware factory in Thangadh. Photos credit: Aarefa Johari.

In 2012, the town came to be associated with a violent atrocity that shook the local Dalit community. On the night of September 22, 2012, after a fight broke out between Dalit and upper-caste Bharwad groups at a local fair, a 15-year-old Dalit boy was killed in the police firing meant to disperse the crowd. Outraged that the police shot a child directly in his neck instead of firing in the air or using tear gas, local Dalits organised a protest march the next morning. Before the protesters could reach the police station, however, the police fired again, killing two more Dalit youth.

Five years down the line, only two out of the five cases lodged have culminated in chargesheets, and the state government has not yet made public an inquiry report looking into the incident. In August 2016, chief minister Vijay Rupani formed a special investigation team to probe the killings, but victims’ families claim their investigation has been stagnant for the past year. “Meanwhile, all the police officers accused in the case, who fired at our children in front of so many people, are out on bail and have been given transfers or promotions,” said Valjibhai Rathod, whose 16-year-old son Mehul was killed in the firing. “If this had happened to upper-caste people, they would have got justice immediately.”

Mothers of two of the three deceased Dalit youth at a memorial built for them in Thangadh. Photos credit: Aarefa Johari.

Daily discrimination

For Swati Parmar, the reality of caste differences plays out in her social interactions in college. “The Darbars, Kolis and other upper-caste students don’t really talk to us Dalits, and they don’t drink water from our bottles,” she said.

In another Dalit housing colony in Thangadh, 19-year-old Anand Parghi and his 21-year-old cousin Ravi Parghi allege similar discrimination at the sanitary ware factory where they work. “The non-Dalit workers are provided with filter water by the factory owners. We had to buy our own separate filter,” said Anand, who earns Rs 200 a day by working in the factory’s glazing department seven days a week. “When I was looking for a job last year, many places rejected me after asking for my caste.”

Swati and the Parghis are not sure if such social discrimination would end if they vote for the Congress in the upcoming election, but they expect a new government to at least deliver the promise of development that they believe the BJP has failed to bring in their region. One major problem is potable water, which the Thangadh municipality supplies just once a week. “The rest of the time we have to depend on borewells, which often has dirty water,” said Ravi Parghi.

Ravi and Anand Parghi face discrimination at the ceramic factory they work in. Photos credit: Aarefa Johari.

“Modi has also been boasting a lot about giving Gujarat good roads but in Surendranagar, which is such a big district, the roads are still terrible,” said Swati.

Aakash Parmar, a second-year arts student at a private college in Thangadh, believes some of these civic problems are more acute for the Dalit community, whose housing colonies are smaller and more cramped than those of the upper-caste residents. “Their [upper-caste] areas have smoother roads, while our neighbourhoods are full of potholes and open gutters,” said Aakash, one of the few Dalits in Thangadh whose family owns a ceramic ware trading business. “Even the sanitation workers are not sent to clean our gutters regularly. The BJP government has been sucking our tax money without working for us.”

Aakash, too, has decided to vote for the Congress, and is confident he can do it even though he does not have his voter identity card yet. Displaying misplaced faith in Aadhaar, he said, “It doesn’t matter, because we can vote with the Aadhaar card now. I am sure of it. The voter card system has stopped now.”

Aakash Parmar at his father's sanitary ware godown in Thangadh. Photos credit: Aarefa Johari.

Not just any government job

The biggest concern for young Dalits in Thangadh is common to young people across Gujarat: the severe lack of desirable jobs.

Like many other manufacturing industries in Gujarat, the ceramic industry that supports most of Thangadh’s population has suffered a downturn in the past decade. While ceramic tiles factories in neighbouring Morbi district have seen a growth in exports over the years, several small sanitary ware factories in Thangadh shut down in recent years due to a lull in demand. The latest setback has been the Goods and Services Tax introduced in July. The central government had first put sanitary ware in the 28% GST bracket, but brought the tax down to 18% after mass protests.

“Even then, it is way more than the 7% sales tax that my father paid earlier,” said Aakash. “My father’s godown technically employs eight labourers, but ever since GST, he has had to ask most of the labourers to stay at home because there is hardly any work.”

The impact of GST has been less severe at the factory where Ravi and Anand Parghi work, but the duo still consider themselves “unemployed”. “Working in a ceramic factory is not anyone’s idea of a job,” said Ravi. “You have to breathe in dust all day and develop all kinds of lung problems. My father died at the age of 40 because of this work.”

Because factory work is contract-based, job security is a constant concern, says Anand. There are no provident funds, pensions or other benefits that make government jobs attractive, and labourers get fired for making small mistakes. “There is a lot of child labour too, and there are always people willing to work for cheaper,” said Anand. “These days we are seeing so many Bihari migrants take away our local jobs because they agree to work for Rs 100 a day, while we find even Rs 200 too little.”

Government jobs are, predictably, the goal for almost every young voter. Aakash aims to get into the police. Anand Parghi is doing a part-time Industrial Training Institute course in computer operations so that he can get a clerical job. And Swati Parmar, whose parents have government jobs, is determined to climb higher than them.

“Just any government job won’t do. My parents make mid-day meals at the local government school, but they earn just Rs 1,600 a month each. My father still has to work in a ceramic factory after school,” said Swati. “I am going to do a B.Ed so I can teach in a government school. Hopefully with a different government in power, getting jobs will be easier.”

Glazed wash basin stands at a Thangadh factory. Photos credit: Aarefa Johari.