Lesser citizens

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

At a polling booth in the Hajipur parliamentary constituency in Bihar during the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections, on April 23. Ram Vilas Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party claims to represent Dalit interests, contested and lost from here.-RANJEET KUMAR

At a polling booth in the Hajipur parliamentary constituency in Bihar during the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections, on April 23. Ram Vilas Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party claims to represent Dalit interests, contested and lost from here.-RANJEET KUMAR

AMID the great success story of the Indian elections are some unpalatable facts, which are quietly swept under the carpet. Although Dalit politics asserted itself in many parts of the country, allowing the oppressed to exercise their franchise, in many other places Dalits were intimidated and just not allowed to vote. A survey of 210 constituencies spread across 13 States Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh by the National Dalit Election Watch (NDEW), a front comprising social scientists and former bureaucrats, reveals how Dalits were either not allowed to vote or forced to vote for the prominent candidates of mainstream parties.

The survey says that in some places Dalits either voted or abstained from voting because of overt or covert forms of coercion. Or, the system itself, representing powerful economic and social interests, ensured that they were kept out of the political process. P.S. Krishnan, former Secretary to the Government of India and chief adviser to the NDEW, told Frontline that though Dalits, by and large, were able to vote across the country, the fact that in many places they were denied their rights was a cause of concern.

The NDEW assigned volunteers to find out the ways in which Dalits were kept out of the voting process in all the five phases of the elections. Of 478 instances of violation observed, 13 per cent pertained to the exclusion of Dalits from the voters list. As many as 11 per cent could not vote for reasons ranging from non-acceptance of the proof of identity to early closing of the polling process, and 28 per cent of the cases related to threat, intimidation and violence by members of dominant castes. A small but significant proportion (3 per cent) of voters were threatened by the police.

Reported attempts to influence Dalit voters by offering them money or liquor or by providing them means of transport formed 12 per cent of the cases. In 10 per cent of the cases some others cast the votes in the place of Dalit voters, and 22 per cent of the cases related to instances where elected representatives or members of political parties prevented Dalits from casting their votes or clashes between political parties held them back. More than half the number of cases the volunteers reported related to threat, intimidation and violence.

On May 12, an NDEW delegation led by Krishnan met Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla and the other two Election Commissioners to request an investigation into the complaints and suggested that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be invoked wherever applicable. Noting that the problem went beyond the process of elections, the delegation requested the Election Commission to direct the State governments to extend their vigil in order to protect Dalits from acts of reprisal. The delegation apparently prevailed upon the commission on the need for special polling booths in sensitive areas that have Dalit settlements and of having nodal officers of the commission to ensure that the right of franchise was protected.

The forms of intimidation detailed by the NDEW in parliamentary elections are prevalent in local body elections too. Here, apart from more direct forms of coercion, there are instances where Dalits are allowed to vote only after the dominant caste groups have voted. There are separate queues for Dalit and non-Dalit voters in some places. Hence, as the survey illustrates, while there have been an increasing awareness about constitutional rights among the hitherto oppressed groups and attempts by them to assert these, they have had to face the backlash from upper-caste groups.

For instance, in eastern Rajasthan, Dalits got caught in the crossfire between two dominant groups. In the aftermath of the Gujjar-Meena conflict, both communities harassed Dalits, each vying to use them as a potential vote bank. This phenomenon, said P.L. Mimroth, national convener of the NDEW, was visible at the time of the Assembly elections in 2008. It was repeated in the Lok Sabha elections. Talking to Frontline from Jaipur, he said that because of the undeclared caste war in areas coming under the constituencies of Dausa, Sawai Madhopur, Karauli-Dholpur and parts of Alwar, Dalits were unable to exercise their franchise in more than one way. He said the State Election Commissioner was asked to take precautionary measures in 1,187 sensitive areas in these places.

When the state machinery could deploy the Army and other paramilitary forces to bring order to these areas when the conflict was at its peak, why couldnt they provide security to voters in these places? he asked. He said tall claims were made about deploying paramilitary forces to ensure that there would be no harassment of voters. It was a total failure.

The control room set up by the NDEW in Jaipur received 73 complaints, which, Mimroth said, were forwarded to the authorities concerned. The then State government deliberately did not make any effort, he said.

A reason for the antagonism against Dalits was that they had made it clear that they would vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the Assembly elections. The BSP won six seats, but a month later all the six MLAs joined the Congress. Mimroth said that Dalits were targeted at the time of the parliamentary polls, too, though they had not made their voting intentions clear. It was much more virulent in the Lok Sabha elections. In some places, they were not allowed to come out of their homes, he said. The voting percentage in Rajasthan was rather low at 47 per cent.

The NDEW observed 3,325 highly sensitive polling stations in the country, the maximum number of them in Andhra Pradesh. The polling stations were selected on the basis of certain parameters, including booths that had a high probability of Dalits being intimidated, threatened or just prevented from voting. The 478 cases reported to the NDEW may appear small, given the scale of the elections. Many more cases would have come to light had there been a larger survey.

Uttar Pradesh, which has a BSP government, reported the largest number of violations involving the exclusion of Dalits from the voters list. Rajasthan reported the largest number of cases of threat, real violence and intimidation by upper castes, followed by Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh reported the largest number of cases of attempts to influence voters with money and liquor. Elected representatives here resorted to threats and intimidation, and clashes between political parties discouraged Dalits from coming out to vote. The largest number of cases of rigging and bogus voting were reported from Andhra Pradesh, closely followed by Bihar. About 570 polling stations were under NDEW watch in Andhra Pradesh and 500 in Bihar.

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