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MP: To woo Dalit Voters, BJP Offers Sant Ravidas Temple, Congress Promises University, Caste Census

To appeal to the 16% Dalit population of the state ahead of the Assembly polls, political parties are centring their narratives around Sant Ravidas.
MP Poll Battle: To woo Dalit Voters, BJP Offers Sant Ravidas Temple, Congress Promises University, Caste Census

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and leader Kamal Nath at 'Jan Akrosh rally' in Sagar on August 22. (Left) PM Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of Ravidas temple at Sagar on August 12. (Right)

Bhopal: On April 2, 2018, a pivotal event unfolded in Madhya Pradesh – the brutal Bharat Bandh conflict between Dalits and Thakurs. This conflict played a vital role in toppling the 15-year BJP government. Today, Dalit politics in the state has started revolving around the revered 15th-century poet-saint Ravidas.

The Gwalior-Chambal region was the focal point of Dalit politics due to its significant Scheduled Caste population, but it has now shifted to the Sagar district in the Bundelkhand region. This area in Bundelkhand also has a sizable Dalit population. This shift occurred after the BJP faced backlash from both communities in the 2018 Assembly polls. The region includes six Assembly seats reserved for SCs, with the BJP winning five of them in the 2018 state polls – Bina, Naryoli, Jatara, Chandala, and Hatta – while the Congress secured Gunnor.

Ravidas, a revered figure among Dalits, was associated with the 15th-century Bhakti movement and advocated for the elimination of caste and gender discrimination through his poetry. His teachings gained prominence among the Scheduled Caste population in northern Indian states over time.

According to the 2011 Census, SCs accounted for 16% (approximately 1.13 crore) of the population in Madhya Pradesh. 

The state has 35 reserved seats out of the total 230 in the Assembly, and in more than a dozen of these seats, SC votes play a decisive role. In the 2018 Assembly polls, the Congress secured victory in 17 of the 35 reserved seats, while the remaining 18 were bagged by the BJP.

Sagar, situated in the Bundelkhand region, comprises Chattarpur, Tikamgarh, Nimari, Damoh, and Panna districts, with a total of 26 Assembly seats. In the last state polls, the BJP won 15 seats, the Congress secured nine, and one each was won by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

To appeal to the 16% Dalit population of the state ahead of the Assembly polls, the BJP has announced the construction of the Sant Shiromani Gurudev Ravidas memorial in Badtuma village, with an estimated cost of Rs 100 crore, to showcase his teachings. In contrast, the Congress has announced plans to establish a university in Sagar in the name of Saint Ravidas and has pushed for a caste census if elected in the 2023 polls.

Nearly two months after the announcement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the memorial on August 12 at Badtuma village in Sagar. During the ceremony, he remarked, "The emergence of societal problems is a natural phenomenon. It is the strength of Indian society that figures like Saint Ravidas repeatedly emerge to combat such issues."

On the 10th day following the PM's visit, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge organised a 'Jan Akrosh rally' in Sagar. Kharge, a prominent Dalit leader within the Congress, announced the party's plan to establish a university in Sagar district in honour of Saint Ravidas and conduct a caste census in the state.

Congress’ caste census announcement and increasing OBC reservation to 27% is seen as an attempt to woo OBCs, SCs, and tribals to counter the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

Calling PM Modi’s recent visit an election gimmick, Kharge asked, “They laid the foundation of Saint Ravidas temple in Sagar but demolished his in Delhi.” He cited a newspaper report from August 14, 2019, about a Ravidas temple being razed in Delhi.

The announcement of the caste census in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh comes at a time when the caste survey is underway in Bihar under the Mahagathbandhan government led by CM Nitish Kumar and his ally Laly Prasad Yadav; both are part of its newly formed Opposition alliance called INDIA. In the run-up to Karnataka polls this year, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also demanded that the Centre make public findings of the socio-economic caste census carried out by the UPA in 2011.

“Only the caste census can reveal which community is poor, who are really backward, who are landless, and who are uneducated,” Kharge said in Sagar.

The leader also reiterated the five promises of MP Congress in the rally: farm loan waivers up to Rs 2 lakh, power waiver for farmers, Rs 1,500 to women a month, free electricity up to 100 units and LPG cylinders at Rs 500 apiece and and the restoration of the old pension scheme for government employees if voted to power in the state.

Referring to the equal representation of caste within the party, he underlined that the Congress has given representation to six backward-class people in the recently announced Congress Working Committee, the apex decision-making body of the party.

Squabble Over Report Card

On August 20, Union Home Minister Amit Shah launched the BJP’s report card to highlight the party’s success in Madhya Pradesh, which ruled between 2003 and 2023. 

The BJP, he said, successfully transformed MP from a ‘BIMARU’ state to an Atma Nirbhar Madhya Pradesh. Shah also sought an account of governance from Congress during the launch of the party’s report card.

Responding to Amit Shah’s question on what Congress had done in the past 53 years he said, “Shah has sought an account of 53 years of our rule. Let me recount some; Who built the Bhilai Steel Plant, Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited, Indira Sagar Dam, IIT Indore, IIM Indore, AIIMS Bhopal and MANIT? Who made the Chambal Valley Project? the list is long... We did our best in the limited resources and tried to usher in changes in the society.”

“The whole world knows what we [Congress] did from Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. On the contrary, you [PM Modi and Amit Shah] only mislead people with lies.”

Kharge pointed out, “We brought in the constitution and have been defending it so far. Yet, you ask what did Congress do? Instead of protecting the constitution, the PM’s advisor is advocating to change the constitution.” 

Kharge criticised the BJP for unfulfilled promises, highlighting claims like creating two crore jobs annually and depositing 15 lakhs in every citizen's pocket. He accused the PM of daily lies and warned that people won't trust the party anymore.

Kharge also said that the BJP could not protect a tribal person who was urinated on by a “BJP man” in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district. 

Anil Sirvaiya, a dalit activist, commented on the ongoing tussle over the dalit votes, saying, “Subjects related to dalits were buried after the 2018 caste violence in Gwalior. But it’s good to see that, for election’s sake, the debate over dalits has re-emerged in political discourse.”

He told NewsClick, “Dalits in Bundelkhand region are the most backward compared to other regions and cases of atrocities against SCs are highest in the region. Therefore, the temple and university will be important in uplifting their social and educational status.”

When asked about the unfulfilled promises of the government to the SC community, including reservations due for over a decade, Sirvaiya said, “The ruling government should present a white paper on the announcements it made to the SC/ST community in the last two decades and how many of them were fulfilled.”

(With PTI inputs)

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