It is the wheat harvesting season in Uttar Pradesh. Most men in Khirya village in Mainpuri parliamentary constituency leave for their fields early in the morning. As the day gets hotter, they return home for a short break at around 2 pm before going back to work until dusk.

Khirya is dominated by the Yadavs, an Other Backward Classes community, and there are a few Jatav households on the village’s periphery. A large community among the Dalits, the Jatavs are core supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has partnered with the Samajwadi Party for this election.

On the afternoon of April 12, several Jatav men gathered at community elder Amar Pal’s home to discuss the polls. They have always supported the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is asking them to vote for Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party patriarch who is contesting for the Opposition alliance. They are not so sure, however.

“We have never voted for the bicycle and won’t do so now,” said Lekh Pal, a farmer, referring to the Samajwadi Party’s election symbol. “It is wrong to assume that all Jatavs will vote for the alliance. The leaders of the two parties may have buried their differences but we cannot forget the atrocities that the Yadavs have committed on us.”

But they are resigned to Mulayam Singh Yadav winning. He has taken Mainpuri four times already, including in 2014. That time, though, he vacated it to retain Azamgarh, which he had won too. The ensuing bye-election was won easily by his grandnephew Tej Pratap Singh Yadav.

“If even a buffalo contests in Mainpuri with Mulayam’s support, it will win,” said Amar Pal. “The Yadavs outnumber all other castes in this constituency, Mulayam doesn’t even have to campaign to win.”

If not the Opposition alliance, whom do they support? Most of the men gathered spoke of “Narendra Modi’s schemes” that have benefited “not only the upper castes but the Dalits as well”. “We have been provided with toilets, houses and gas cylinders by this government,” claimed Ravi Pal. “Most of us have also received Rs 2,000 under the PM Kisan scheme.”

That is not all. “How can we betray someone who has given us what no previous government had?” Ravi Pal asked. “How can we forget how our women were harassed by the Yadavs? This government has ensured the safety of our women.”

Allegations of the Yadavs persecuting Dalits are common across Uttar Pradesh, with members of the lower castes claiming it gets worse whenever the Samajwadi Party is in power. The Samajwadi Party is seen as representing the interests of Yadavs. The last time the party held power was between 2012 and 2017, with Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister.

Under the Akhilesh Yadav government, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, offences against the Dalits shot up by 25% from 2015 to 2016. Uttar Pradesh accounted for 50% abductions of the Dalits during that period and 36% of Dalit murders.

Ravi Pal claimed that during the Samajwadi Party regime, Yadavs occupied most of the key police posts. They would not even file complaints of atrocities brought by the Dalits, he alleged.

Dalit villagers in Khirya, Mainpuri. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Because of this suspicion between Yadavs and Dalits, when the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party decided to join hands to fight the Lok Sabha election, doubts were raised about whether the alliance would work on the ground.

Across the Yadav heartland, covering Firozabad, Mainpuri, Etawah and Kannauj constituencies, found a visible divide. While Yadavs overwhelmingly back the alliance, many Dalits are circumspect. Some are even opposed to it.

Firozabad and Mainpuri go to the polls on April 23 and Etawah and Kannauj on April 29.

This story has been reported from four parliamentary constituencies.

‘We can’t antagonise them’

As the sun dipped low in the sky, Bedram Jatav, his wife and son continued to deweed their peanut crop in Dalupur village of Kannauj. The half a hectare field is their only source of income. They struggle to make ends meet, Bedram Jatav said, and accused the BJP of helping only those “who already have enough”.

“We did not get any house or toilet subsidy because our upper caste pradhan never sent our applications to the authorities concerned,” he claimed.

His wife claimed Dalupur’s three Dalit families have been denied all social welfare benefits by the upper-caste village elders. “We are poor but nobody cares about us. The only time we got some benefits was when Behenji was chief minister,” she said, referring to the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. “We have always voted for her but this year there is no BSP candidate in the fray and we do not know whom to support.”

Bedram Jatav, however, said they will vote as per the wishes of their upper caste neighbours. “If we vote for Dimple Yadav and they get to know, the entire village would boycott us,” he claimed, referring to the Samajwadi Party’s candidate in Kannauj. “It is better for us to vote for their candidate than to antagonise them.”

Bedram Jatav in Dalupur village, Kannauj. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

In Nangla Kharua village, the Jatavs are disappointed with Mayawati’s decision to ally with “the Yadavs”.

“We are all voting for the BJP since they have done a lot for poor people,” said Gangadhar, a villager. “Haathi and cycle can never be together.” The haathi, or elephant, is the Bahujan Samaj Party’s election symbol.

Nangla Kharua is dominated by the Thakurs and the Brahmins, with the Jatavs making up less than 7% of the population.

Another villager, Rishu Kumar, added, “Mayawati is our leader but allying with the Yadavs was a mistake. We voted for her in 2014 and in the 2017 Assembly polls but this time we will vote for Modi.”

There are only four Jatav families in Mainpuri’s Kharagpur village. Brijesh Kumar’s is one of them. He will not vote for Mulayam Singh Yadav and he is certain the other families will not either. “We do not want the return of Yadav rule in our village,” he explained. “We are not even sure that the Yadavs will continue with the alliance if they get more seats than Mayawati.

Many Jatavs in rural areas dominated by the upper castes will vote for the BJP or not at all, Brijesh Kumar predicted, while those in the urban areas will likely go with the alliance. “In urban areas, the Jatavs are more organised than those living in villages,” he explained. “They don’t have to face hostility from the upper castes and the Yadavs on an everyday basis.”

Babu Bhartendu Jatav in Kisni town. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘They will not abandon Mayawati’

In places where the Jatavs outnumber other caste groups, there is near unanimity about whom they will support. “We do not question decisions of Behenji,” said Babu Bhartendu Jatav, who lives in Mainpuri’s Kisni town, explaining why they will largely vote for the Opposition alliance. “BJP wants to divide the country on the basis of caste and religion. We want BR Ambedkar’s Constitution to be the only guiding principle. If we have to save the Constitution, we have to defeat the BJP.”

Kisni is home to over 100 Jatav families, concentrated in a single neighbourhood.

Dalit villagers in Kunwarpur Banwariya, Kannauj. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

In Kunwarpur Banwaria, Kannauj, dominated by the Jatavs, Man Singh and Ram Das are certain of Dimple Yadav’s victory since “over 50 Dalit families from the village are backing the Samajwadi Party”. “We follow whatever Behenji says,” said Man Singh. “We are looking at the national picture and not the local issues that are a factor in Assembly elections.”

Ram Das said the Jatavs cannot vote for the BJP because it is against the Dalits and wants to end the reservation system. Only Mayawati fights for the “Dalit cause”, he added.

It is a similar story in Bhim Nagar locality of Firozabad town where the Dalits have a substantial population and are openly supporting the alliance candidate Akshay Yadav, even organising meetings to shore up his support. “We are Behenji’s loyal soldiers who just follow her orders,” said Vinod Kumar Gautam. “If she says support Akshay, we will support him, because she must have thought about it.”

Vinod Kumar Gautam in Bhim Nagar, Firozabad. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Vijay Kumar, a Jatav labourer in Etawah town, claimed that despite what they might say, even the Jatavs in rural areas will back the Opposition alliance come polling day. “The Jatavs are Mayawati’s supporters but they never say so openly,” he said. “If you come to my village and there are upper caste men around, even I will say what they told you. After all, the BJP is in power in the state and we have to be very careful about what we say and to whom. It is not easy for poor Dalit villagers to trust an outsider.”

A Bahujan Samaj Party leader in Firozabad rejected the notion that a section of the Dalits may not support the alliance. The Dalits “did not abandon Mayawati” even at the peak of the Modi wave in 2014, he contended, so the chances of them doing so now are bleak.

The Jatavs still see the Yadavs as their rivals, the leader argued, but “they can sense that Mayawati has made the right decision” by allying with the Samajwadi Party. “It’s about survival,” he said. “Had this alliance not happened, the BSP would have been decimated in Uttar Pradesh. No one knows it better than the Jatavs. There are some disgruntled voters but we are reaching out to them. I am sure we will convince them before election day.”

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