In Masidipura village, 35 km from Raichur city in Karnataka, Basava cannot enter the homes, even the compounds, of many of his neighbours. The daily wage labourer also draws water only from a tap designated for members of his community that is located on land clogged with sewage.

When he travels outside his village to look for agricultural work elsewhere in Devadurga taluk, he must drink tea from plastic cups at tea stalls and eateries. Until some years ago, he was expected to bring his own cup.

Basava is a Madiga – a term used for more than 50 Dalit sub-castes in Karnataka who have been treated as untouchables for centuries. Decades after the law proscribed such discrimination, members of the Madiga community, classified as Scheduled Castes, continue to face it.

Scheduled Castes form 16.2% of Karnataka’s population. Most are grouped under two rival and hierarchical factions – the right-hand and the left-hand castes. Madigas fall under the left-hand castes, while the right-hand castes include the Chalavadis or Holeyas, and smaller groups like the Lambanis and Bhovis. Madigas form one of the largest groups among the Scheduled Castes in the state. But when it comes to reservations in higher education and jobs, Madiga leaders say they are edged out by the right-hand castes and bag a fraction of reservation benefits as compared to their population. They also say that they are not represented adequately in politics, as a result of which they remain stuck at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Basava is denied access even to the village god in Masidipura village. He cannot enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Hanuman temple. He steals a glimpse of the idol of Anjaneya (Hanuman) once a year when it is taken out on a procession.

“This is how it is. I cannot pretend otherwise,” he said, ignoring neighbours who cautioned him against talking about the discrimination the community faces. Activists say that news reports on discrimination have triggered violence in the villages in the past. “Such boundaries and discrimination is considered normal when it comes to us,” Basava added. “And mind you, it is not shocking at all. When our community is discriminated against at the political level, what can we ordinary folk expect?”

Basava was referring to the dearth of Madiga ministers in the state’s Congress government. H Anjaneya, who holds the social welfare development and backward classes development portfolios, is the only Madiga in the council of 34 ministers. “When there are such few leaders from our community to represent us, how is anything going to change?” asked Basava.

Basava and other Madigas in Karnataka’s Masidipura village are allowed to fill water only from this tap, which is designated for them. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

‘Not enough tickets for Madigas’

Traditionally, both the left-hand and the right-hand Dalits were supporters of the Congress, but over the years, the Madigas grew resentful of the clout of Chalavadi leaders in the Congress. Both Lok Sabha MP Mallikarjun Kharge and state Congress chief G Parameshwara belong to that community. The Madigas say the political power of Chalavadi leaders enabled their community to corner most of the benefits of affirmative action, allowing them to rise up the social ladder.

Sensing an opportunity, the Bharatiya Janata Party began to woo Madigas in the early 2000s, by giving prominence to their leaders like Govind M Karjol and A Narayanaswamy. In 2012, when the BJP was in power in the state, a government commission recommended internal reservations within the Scheduled Caste quota. It recommended fixing 6% reservation for left-hand castes, 5% for the right-hand castes, 3% for what has been described as “touchables” and 1% to other Scheduled Castes. But a year later, the Congress came to power in the state, and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah referred the report to a cabinet sub-committee. Madigas, who saw this as a delaying tactic, waved black flags at him when he visited Raichur earlier this year.

With state elections scheduled for May 12, the resentment against the Congress has deepened. Of the 36 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes in the state, the Congress has given 18 tickets to Chalavadis and only eight to Madigas.

“What they are saying indirectly is that the community does not have the monetary capability or the political acumen required to stand in an election and win,” said Ambanna Arolikar, the state secretary of the Madiga Misalati Horata Samiti, an organisation formed to demand internal reservations for the left-hand castes within the larger quota for Scheduled Castes. “We may be among the largest communities in the state but we are undeserving of political power is what they have declared.”

While the BJP has picked more Madiga candidates than the Congress – 11 – Amrolikar says that is not enough either. “It is clear that across both parties, candidates have been chosen because of their money power and nothing else,” he said.

Amrolikar was referring to the Lambanis and Bhovis, who fall under the Scheduled Tribe category in other states but are counted among the Scheduled Castes in Karnataka. “Political parties seem to favour candidates from these communities more than us Madigas,” said Amrolikar, pointing out that both the BJP and Congress have nominated Lambani candidates to both the reserved constituencies in Bellary district. “Some of the Lambanis have a lot of money, perhaps that is why.”

A Lambani household near Yadgir city. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

In Lingsugur constituency near Raichur, tickets from both the Congress and BJP have gone to Bhovis. “There are 38,000 Madiga votes in Lingsugur alone and 8,000 Chalavadis, and not one ticket [has gone] to either community,” said Amrolikar. “At least 30 tickets out of 36 [reserved seats] should be divided equally between us and the Chalavadis alone.”

Amrolikar claimed that at least 10 Madiga leaders in the region who did not get tickets from their parties have decided to contest as independents.

One of them is Balaswamy Kodli. Ahead of the 2013 state election, he quit the Congress and joined the BJP because he was not given a ticket. “I have always been ideologically opposed to the BJP,” he said. “But I still joined it because the Congress never favoured Madigas.” This time, even the BJP has not nominated him.

“What these parties do not realise is that there is substantial anger brewing within the community for cheating us of political power,” said Kodli. “This anger will transform into votes against these political parties in this election.”

Diverse opinions

On the ground, however, the picture is more complex. Nine of the state’s 36 reserved constituencies fall in the region bordering Andhra Pradesh, which is known as Hyderabad-Karnataka. Here, Dalit voters have diverse opinions. And there is support for the Congress even among the Madigas.

Around 12 km from Raichur city, in the Dalit colony of Marchatahaal village, Ratnamma, a Madiga Christian, is not cued into the anger that Madiga leaders feel against the Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party. What she knows is that a man called Siddaramaiah made it possible for her to get rice free of cost under the Annabhagya scheme for families with Below Poverty Line cards. “My eldest son also has also a laptop thanks to Siddaramaiah,” she said, referring to the state government’s scheme that distributes free laptops to second-year Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe college students. “My son does not let any of us touch it though.”

If she had to pick someone to vote for, it would be Siddaramaiah, she said. “At least, he has done this much for my family,” she explained. But she also had a complaint. “Giving us rice alone is of little use when we have to buy everything else, including salt, and dal,” she said. She complained about the whole tur dal she received under the same scheme. “This is not dal we can boil directly,” she said. “How do we poor folk use it then?”

Ratnamma also received a gas cylinder after the state government launched the Anila Bhagya scheme last year. The Bharatiya Janata Party has criticised this welfare initiative, saying it is a rehashed version of the Union government’s Ujjwala Yojana, which offers free gas connections to the rural poor. Besides a gas cylinder, the Anila Bhagya scheme also provides beneficiaries with a gas stove and lighter. Ratnamma said she was happy to be cooking on a gas stove.

Ratnamma with the packet of whole tur dal she received under the state government's Annabhagya scheme. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

Outside Marchatahaal, Hanumanthi and her husband were gathering straw from a cotton field to burn. The crop had been harvested in March. Hanumanthi had covered her head to shield herself from the strong sun. The family belongs to a right-hand sub-caste. She said that the government, political parties or the upcoming election did not concern her. “What party, what election?” she asked. “We are doomed to work and die in this field under this scorching sun.”

Last month, Hanumanthi’s arms had turned red with a rash after she helped harvest the cotton crop. The culprit was the pink bollworm, a common pest in cotton farming, which had affected many fields in the region. “Now, exactly a month later, I’m back in the same field,” she said. “See our fate. Whatever we do, we cannot escape this cycle of pain and heat for the little money that we desperately need to survive.”

She is paid Rs 150 for a day’s work, while her husband gets Rs 350.

Hanumanthi, a Chalavadi labourer, in a cotton field on a scorching summer day. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

In the Dalit colony in Gabbur village in Devadurga taluk of Raichur district, Ashwini, a Madiga Christian, who has a post-graduate degree, seems more tuned into the anger within leaders of her community. She says she is considering voting for Mayawati. “At least she has done something for us Dalits,” she said. “The fact that there is a woman Dalit leader is really encouraging [too]. No one here cares for us otherwise.”

Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party has entered into an alliance with Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) for the polls.

“We are all frustrated with the kind of pakoda politics indulged by the two main political parties [Congress and BJP],” Ashwini said, referring to both Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments in January on how people selling pakodas can be said to be employed, as well as the Congress’s attempts to capitalise on it. “There should be an exam for political leaders to assess their capabilities…When we have exams for our jobs, why don’t they?”

Money, an incentive to vote

Like elsewhere in India, money plays an important part in the polls here.

The Madiga women in Dinni village, 16 km from Raichur city, acknowledge that they give their votes to whoever pays them. “Some of them come and put Rs 100 or 200 in our hands and ask us to vote,” said Mallamma. “They say the Election Commission will consider us dead if we do not vote. So we vote for whoever they ask us to vote for. We have to see who will come to pay us this time.”

Most of the men from this village have migrated to work in construction sites in Bengaluru, around 500 km away. “They [men] do not send any money back,” said 60-year-old Mariamma, who lives next to Mallamma. “We are forced to fend for ourselves without any basic facilities such as sanitation, water and provisions. Yes, we get free rice thanks to Siddaramaiah, but what do we do with just rice? We have to buy everything else. When we get work, we eat.”

Dinni’s proximity to Andhra Pradesh has also led to substantial migration there. Both men and women from the village find work in the state’s chilli farms.

Asked who she was likely vote for, Mariamma retorted: “Whoever they [political party representatives] ask me to vote for.”

Shankarappa, a Madiga, who acknowledges that money on election day decides who gets the vote. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

In Ratnaala, an Ambedkar colony off Surpur in Yadgir district, Shankarappa, who belongs to the Madiga community, has figured out his voting strategy. He says both the BJP and the Congress offer money to voters. “We are a family of 10,” he said. “So, five of us vote for one party and the rest of us for the other party. We have to be sincere towards the money we take. We cannot be ungrateful.”

Loyal Lambanis

In contrast, the Lambanis have clear allegiances. Both in Allipur Taanda and Mudnal Taanda, two villages on the outskirts of Yadgir city, they were clear about whom they were voting for.

The Lambanis are a nomadic community originally from Rajasthan, who are now found across the country. In Karnataka, they are traditional supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This support was further strengthened after BJP leader and former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa set up the Karnataka Taanda Development Corporation for the benefit of nomadic communities such as Lambanis and the Banjaras.

People still remember Yeddyurappa in Allipur Taanda. “Things were better when Yeddyurappa was chief minister,” said Tara Ramesh Chavan, a middle-aged woman. “He set up a corporation for communities like ours.” She claimed the Siddaramaiah government has neglected them.

Janardhan Rathod, a local BJP executive from the Lambani community, echoed her statement. “None of the programmes of the current government have reached the people,” said Rathod, sitting in the compound of his house, a shiny car parked nearby. “What good are all the welfare schemes if they do not reach the people.”

Chavan added: “The government promised to build houses for us Lambanis. It has been five years and our living conditions simply have not improved.”

She admitted that the Congress government has distributed rice free of cost but said that the biometric system introduced for people to avail of it meant that several members of the community could not take advantage of the scheme as most of them shuttled between Mumbai and Karnataka because of work. “Only those who are here can get rice in their name, which is not enough,” she said. “We will definitely vote for BJP. It is the Modi government that is making gas connections possible for people like us.”

Nehru B Chavan, also a resident of the Allipur Taanda, was named after Jawaharlal Nehru because his parents were ardent supporters of the Congress. But Chavan is not a fan of the party. “There is a huge difference in that Congress and this Congress,” he said. “I will vote for BJP because this government has not done much for us.”

Sitting next to Nehru Chavan, Hanumantha Rathod was not willing to reveal his cards just yet. “All politicians are the same once they sit on the coveted chair,” he declared. “We will sit together one day before the elections and see whom to vote for this time. Let us see whom we can trust.”

Hanumantha Rathod (left) and Nehru B Chavan. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).