On April 2, Dalits from across India took to the streets to protest the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act by the Supreme Court. In many places, they were fired on by police as well as upper caste men. Nine people were killed.

In Madhya Pradesh, the protestors faced violence in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena, which have significant populations of the Dalit Jatav community. Three Dalit men were killed in Gwalior, four in Bhind. The community was still mourning its dead when upper caste groups called a strike on April 10. Fearing more violence, Dalits in the three districts locked themselves in their homes. The strike passed off largely without incident but it has left Dalits fearful. That the police maintain the violence unleashed by upper castes on April 2 was merely retaliation for their property being vandalised by the Dalit protestors has only heightened the dread.

“If Dalits were the cause of the violence, why did only Dalit men end up dying?” asked Kailash Jatav, 30, a resident of Gwalior. A sociology graduate who works as a skilled labourer in the construction sector, Kailash Jatav said, “Dalits are being targeted both by the authorities and the upper caste now.”

Many Dalits in this region in northern Madhya Pradesh share his anger. Beyond their personal experiences of caste discrimination, they speak about violent attacks against members of their community across the country – the savage beating of tanners in Gujarat’s Una, the murder of a teenager apparently for riding a horse in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar, the struggle of a Dalit couple to take their wedding procession through an upper caste neighbourhood in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj.

Their anger is directed primarily at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “Until five years ago, people used to debate on subjects such as inflation, health of the economy, rising petrol prices, but today all debate has come down to cow, caste and communalism,” said Vijay Nigam, 21, a Dalit resident of Mustara village in Bhind.

Arjun Singh, 27, who teaches at a school in Mehgaon, Bhind, has a similar complaint. “Look at the way BJP has treated Dalits,” he said. “Their ministers talk about changing the Constitution and equate Dalits with animals. After the April 2 incident, local BJP leaders came to convince us that the 16-year-old boy who died here should be cremated the same night so that the law and order situation does not go out of hand. We refused.”

He was apparently referring to central minister Ananthkumar Hegde, who said last year that the BJP would change India’s Constitution and subsequently used the words “barking dogs” for Dalits who took exception to his threat.

'BJP leaders came to convince us that the boy who died here on April 2 should be cremated the same night so that the law and order situation does not go out of hand. We refused,' says Arjun Singh, a school teacher in Mehgaon. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Political disenchantment

The resentment among the Dalits could hurt the BJP’s prospects going into the Assembly election later this year. Gwalior and Morena have six constituencies each, Bhind five. In each district, one seat is reserved for the Dalits. The BJP currently holds 11 of these 17 seats, many of them Dalit-dominated.

The anger against the BJP could have worked to the advantage of the Bahujan Samaj Party, but the principal “Dalit party” in the region won itself no favours by initially asking its supporters to stay away from the Bharat Bandh of April 2, argued Dileep Bauddha, the party’s former district president in Bhind.

“Discouraging members from joining the protest could have earned the party an anti-Dalit tag, which had to be avoided at any cost,” Bauddha said. “Later, members were not discouraged from joining the April 2 protest but they were strictly asked to do so in their personal capacity, without the banner of the BSP.”

The Bahujan Samaj Party has considerable presence in northern Madhya Pradesh, especially in Morena where it won two seats and came second on three others in the 2013 Assembly election. It fared poorly in the other two districts, though. The reason, many local residents said, was the party choosing “wrong candidates”. “Dalits in these parts do not have an inclination towards any party as such, they vote primarily depending on the candidate,” said Arjun Singh.

Bauddha, however, is hopeful that the Dalit leaders who emerged from the April 2 movement could become “resources for the party” in the upcoming election.

According to the police’s records, around 5,000 people participated in the protests of April 2 in Gwalior, 6,000 in Bhind and 3,000 in Morena. Since then, the police have arrested 380 people, belonging to both Dalit and upper caste communities, in connection with 92 cases registered under a range of charges such as murder, rioting, damaging property, assaulting a public servant, causing disharmony and breaching peace through social media.

The young Dalits Scroll.in spoke to all claimed they did not participate in any protests that day.

Vicky Mandilya objected to a classmate using a casteist slur to address him and it led to a heated argument. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Rising insecurity

The anger among young Dalits, however, has deeper roots than grievances against political parties and the Supreme Court. “The dilution of the law meant to protect the Scheduled Castes acted as a vent for accumulated anger,” said Kailash Jatav. “It would be wrong to say the strike was exclusively in protest against the Supreme Court’s decision. There was more to it.”

A perception that Dalits are being increasingly targeted – a feeling fuelled by the vandalisation of BR Ambedkar’s statues and the Hindutva chorus against caste-based reservation – contributed to the anger as well.

More significantly perhaps, the social schisms are deepening at a time of rising economic insecurity. “A quick look at records pertaining to the number of Dalits in government jobs and in the organised sector will be sufficient to reflect the grim picture,” said Biren Singh Jatav, a sociology graduate who works with an ATM refilling agency in Gwalior. “It is thus absurd the way Dalits are being targeted by the authorities and the upper caste now.”

Vicky Mandilya, 23, a student at an Industrial Training Institute in Gwalior, said he became painfully aware of his community’s marginalisation when a classmate called after the April 2 violence to enquire about his whereabouts. The classmate addressed him by a casteist slur; Mandilya objected and it led to a heated argument. “I had to disconnect the call,” he said.

The fear of being targeted by upper caste groups has forced many Dalit to skip work. “Since April 2, most Dalit families have not opened their shops or let their children go to school and college, fearing attacks by upper caste persons,” said Brijesh Dirakar, another student in Gwalior. “Only daily wage labourers can be seen frequenting labour intersections amid such tension in the city.”