With just nine days left for the District Development Council (DDC) elections to commence in Jammu and Kashmir, dalit groups in Jammu seem to be divided over whether participation or boycott is the best way to go about in the upcoming polls.
DDC polls are the first major political activity about to take place in the erstwhile state after the abrogation of special status under Article 370 last year. While a few dalit groups are clear in their resolution to boycott the elections over last years’ August 5 decision, others have said that they can’t let the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to benefit by their non-participation.
But amid the oscillating views of these groups lies the local dalit population in the newly formed Union Territorywho stand disenchanted.
In Dabbar village, near Bishnoi, nearly 16 km from Jammu city, the residents are indifferent to the upcoming elections. On being asked the reason behind this, Harjeet Bhagat said he has no hopes from the government and its elected members. “There has been no development but only elections. People don’t have even basic necessities fulfilled,” he said, adding that there is no encouragement among the people for the elections.
A resident of Dholian area near Bari Brahmana, Rahul Kumar, said that he has been without job for the last four months, but no one ever cared to visit their area except for few non-political dalit organisations. “Who came to ask about us? No one. It doesn’t even matter to them even if we live or die,” he said, referring to the administrative neglect.
Anjali (name changed), hailing from Rehian village, 10 km from Samba district, said that a significant section of people in her village are not even aware that elections are taking place. Her views were echoed by Sunil Bhim who hails from Rakh Amb Tali, a dalit-majority village, in Samba district. “Half of the population of my village work at factories. They don’t know what DDC elections are. They leave early in the morning and come back late in the evening,” he said.
Pooja Devi who works at the walnut factory in Bari Barhamana said that she heard that elections are taking place but doesn’t care much about it. She questioned, “How does it matter? What have they done for us? Sab apni dukan chala rahey hai, peess hum rahey (Everyone is earning their share and we are caught between them).”
Kajal Dalpatia, a social worker with the Institute for Social Democracy, has been visiting dalit majority areas for the last one month to analyse the ground situation ahead of the elections.
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She told NewsClick that even when the election race is fraught and divided between the Peoples’ Alliance and BJP, the dalit residents remain apathetic to the polls. “They just don’t care who is contesting or who is winning as for them no elected politician has done anything,” she said.
Dalpatia added that it can be argued that the disillusionment regarding elections has exacerbated with the recent COVID-19 induced lockdown that cost the jobs of the marginalised, who hardly had any saving and have now been pushed into debt.
“The residents in these areas mostly belong to economically marginalised sections and they feel psychologically defeated because of the lockdown,” she added.
Not only that, there is also a strong resentment among them over the abrogation of Article 370 and has been expressed by the Ambedkarite groups. These Ambedkarite groups are meeting the local population and spreading awareness about “how they were robbed off their special rights”, she said.
One such group namely, Ambedkar Yuva Sanghthan, a non-political organisation, has given a call for election boycott. Satish Vidrohi, general secretary of the organisation, said that dalits in Jammu and Kashmir were in an economically better condition than in rest of the India because of the special status granted to them. “Dalits here are economically better because of the land to tiller law brought in by Sheikh Abdullah after which we were given land, however little, but our status was unlike rest of India. Now, when outsiders will come, our lands will be snatched from us,” he said, echoing the majority sentiment regarding the abrogation of special status.
To Vidrohi boycotting is a way to register his dissent, and he said, “This election is a gimmick, a sham. We feel participation would mean legitimising the August 5 decision. So, we wont participate or vote in elections unless our special rights are restored. We have given a call for boycott so that a strong message is sent to the outside world.”
Meanwhile, the Bhim Army (J&K) who have been terming the August 5 decision as “unconstitutional” said that they won’t boycott the elections. Vishal Kumar, advocate and Vice President of Bhim Army, said that atrocities against dalits have increased since last one year and now boycotting is not the option. “We can’t let them (upper caste men) rule, they will suppress us further. There is a feeling among upper castes that their government is at the Centre so they can do anything, hence boycotting is not an option,” Kumar said.
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“Jab takk ladenge nahi, tab takk kaise aage badhenge, yeh ladai hamare haq ki hai (If we won’t fight, how will we get our rights),” he added.
On the other hand, the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch (J&K) has been campaigning for the candidates of Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the upcoming elections. Rajeev Kumar, state president of DSMM, said that he swears by the Constitution of India. “Last year’s decision was unwarranted and we haven’t changed our stance regarding that. But Constitution is the greatest gift given to us by Baba Saheb. We believe in Baba Saheb and his ideology and elections is the way to go in a democratic country. We believe that we need to participate in this process and not let divisive forces encroach our democratic space,” he told NewsClick.
However, even as the dalit groups remain divided over the elections, they are all agreed on the fact that the “atrocity cases against dalits have increased in last one year” and that even after the extension of SC/ST Atrocities Act, these cases are not being registered.
“We are having a hard time in getting cases registered under SC/ST act. The police, politicians every one is acting complacent,” said Rajat Ramit, lawyer at JK High court and member of Ambedkarite Advocate Association.
He further added that the dalits are caught between the Kashmir politics and Dogra nationalism. “We need to create a space for ourselves. Our representation is zero. Hence, we need to participate in the elections,” he said, stressing on the need to support the elections in order to make their voices heard.