Uttarakhand Assembly Elections 2022: What role will caste play in the hills

Why are Dalits not as assertive in Uttarakhand as in Uttar Pradesh despite forming 19% of the population

By Pampa Mukherjee
Published: Monday 14 February 2022
Dalits are known as 'Shilpkar' or artisans in Uttarakhand due to the influence of the Arya Samaj. Photo: Samrat Mukherjee / CSE
Dalits are known as 'Shilpkar' or artisans in Uttarakhand due to the influence of the Arya Samaj. Photo: Samrat Mukherjee / CSE Dalits are known as 'Shilpkar' or artisans in Uttarakhand due to the influence of the Arya Samaj. Photo: Samrat Mukherjee / CSE

State politics in India have always witnessed an interplay of primordial factors like caste and religion in elections. However, Uttarakhand, a small hill state in North India, is a bit distinct.

Why? Because despite people having fought for Jal, Jangal and Zameen (Water, forests and land) and advocated the creation of a state on the basis of development and regional identity, caste still matters, not only in access to resources but also in the overall electoral dynamic.

It comes out sharply in the formal political domain. As Uttarakhand has gone to the polls February 14 to elect 70 members of the Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly, it is important to reflect and see the extent to which the caste factor influences this election.

The social equilibrium in the state is tilted towards the upper caste groups — the Brahmins and Thakurs constitute the largest vote bank in Uttarakhand.

According to the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Thakurs constitute 35 per cent of the total population, followed by Brahmins (25 per cent) and together, they constitute over 60 per cent.

As far as leadership positions in the state are concerned, there exists a delicate caste balance between these two communities. This is reflected from the fact that in nearly 22 years of its existence, both Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have picked up only a Thakur or a Brahmin candidate as their chief minister.

Such a trend is also apparent in the choice of candidates released in the first list by the BJP for this Assembly election which indicate an effort towards balancing caste configuration in the region. Of the 59 seats, 22 are Thakurs, 15 are Brahmins, six from the Scheduled Castes (SC) and three from the Baniya community.

As far as the Dalit community in  Uttarakhand is concerned, it constitutes almost 19 per cent of the population and most Dalits are artisans, craftsmen or marginal farmers.

The Dalits, popularly referred to as shilpkars, an impact of Arya Samaj movement, are mainly divided into three sub-castes — Koltas, Doms  and  Bajgi or Lohars (blacksmiths).

Despite reservation, Dalits have not benefited in comparision to their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh or Punjab. The key factor behind this is the lack of education and socio-economic exclusion, along with political marginalisation, of Dalits in the state.

However, as voters, they cannot be overlooked as their numbers in the hill state are significant. SC/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes together constitute 23 per cent of the total population and they give 15 legislators after every Assembly elections.

In the 2022 Assembly elections too, it is predicted that in more than dozen seats in the two districts of Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar, their votes would matter. In fact, their votes have been instrumental in the victory of BJP in 2017.  

And it is for this reason that we find that in the last Assembly elections, the BJP had worked out a detailed campaign strategy to mobilise Dalits, farmers, tribals and minorities.

To expand its mass base, several conventions were organised in all the 70 assembly seats. In a Dalit  convention, the local BJP workers highlighted the role of the Central government in developing Panch Tirths or five pilgrimage centres associated with Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Political parties have been trying to mobile the community as a vote bank, something that has been also seen in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly elections.

Why not Dalits?

A more important question is why has there been an absence of a strong political discourse among lower castes in the region, given their strong electoral presence as voters?

Why has a collective Dalit voice failed to resonate in the hills of Uttarakhand? What is the reason behind the absence of a strong subaltern assertion in recent years?

According to a local Dalit leader, the reason for the lack of a consolidated Dalit voice is due to lack of education and resources and because the community is divided from within.

Moreover, due to the absence of a strong leadership from within the community, there is no unity and solidarity. The political parties also  tend to treat them as merely vote banks.

This is reflected from the fact that Dalit candidates failed to get political representation, either in the BJP or Congress governments and even in the last Lok Sabha elections.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which has been a third front in the state, too could not mark its electoral presence. Being contiguous to its parent state  of Uttar Pradesh, it was expected that  caste politics will play itself out in a similar vein in this region as well.

One of the reasons behind this stark absence of a Dalit narrative is thus due to the absence of a strong leadership. For instance, local leaders like Yashpal Arya failed to organise, unite and consolidate the votes of Dalits in the state. 

It may be mentioned that Arya was a transport minister in Pankaj Dhami’s government. With his return to the Congress fold ahead of the Uttarakhand election in 2022, the Congress is hoping to cash in on his Bajpur seat in Udham Singh Nagar district that has a sizeable Rai Sikh (workers in sugarcane fields) population.

However, as far as Dalits’ agency is concerned, we find that in the pre-independence period, there were numerous instances of Dalit assertion in the form of movements in the region.

The first organised movement by Dalits was the Tamta Sudhar Sabha in 1905. It later took the form of the Kumaon Shilpkar Sabha in 1913. Shilpkar or the artisan class, mostly belonging to the lower castes, were not allowed to enter temples and were also kept out of the Army and the police. 

They also started the Dola Palki Andolan or the palanquin movement in 1923, demanding the right to use horses and palanquins, a practice which was otherwise confined to upper castes.

It took them 18 years of long struggle to finally get this right. However in recent times, particularly after attaining a separate statehood, the region did not witness any social movement addressing the caste question.

The dominance of caste in the socio-political landscape of Uttarkahand cannot be overlooked. However, in terms of electoral politics, caste is not the sole deciding factor in Uttarakhand.

The caste factor in Uttarakhand has to be  understood along with Kumaoni-Garhwali, maidani-pahari (plain-hill) contestations, apart from  development issues, which are equally significant.

Caste is deeply embedded in the every day life of Uttarkhandi society and the state has been witness to several caste-based autrocities in the recent past. According to the National Crime Record Bureau, caste-based crimes have increased to 84 per cent in 2019, from 58 per cent in 2018, a whopping 45 per cent increase, which is higher than the national average of seven per cent.

Pampa Mukherjee is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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