Sanjay Kumar Parmar is a young and educated Dalit businessman from Heduva-Palavasna, a mixed rural-urban Dalit panchayat on the edge of Mehsana town in north Gujarat. He first became sarpanch in 2015, when his predecessor was forced to resign.
In 2017, when panchayat polls were announced, Mr. Parmar felt confident enough to contest, though it had become a general seat. He won, he says, largely because he received the votes of the urban half of the area.
But in the six months since he was elected, he has filed four cases under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against people who have been blocking his “development work”. In the past, he says, Dalit sarpanches were rubber stamps for upper caste residents. “As long as you do what you are told,” he said, “things are fine. But if you want to work in your own way, the upper castes will obstruct you. So I have filed these cases.”
Turning to the law
Mr. Parmar’s confidence in challenging well-entrenched caste groups springs as much from his involvement with the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikari Manch (RDAM), founded last year by Dalit lawyer and activist Jignesh Mewani, as from his own class background: his father was an Assistant Income Tax Commissioner.
Sitting in his living room in a middle class neighbourhood, he says: “Till I became a sarpanch, I didn’t feel like a Dalit. I have lived all my life in mixed neighbourhoods in cites where caste did not seem important. But now I do.”
But Mr. Parmar is not an exception in resorting to the use of the SC/ST Atrocity Act. Across north Gujarat, Ramnibhai, a RDAM activist, says: “Many Dalit sarpanches are using this Act to establish their authority.”
This is a problem for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat that had used both the Hindutva wave as well as the fear of being excluded from government benefits to entice Dalits into their fold.
Now, ahead of the Assembly elections, the impact of the stripping and flogging of four Dalits in Una in the Gir Somnath district in July 2016 is being felt. Una was the turning point for Dalits in the State. “Immediately after.. Una, .. I was able to mobilise Dalits across Gujarat,” Mr Mewani says, adding, “The contradictions have sharpened.”
Mr. Mewani says his role is “to ensure that the over 7% Dalits in Gujarat don’t vote for the BJP…The BJP tried hard to woo the Dalits but the Ram Nath Kovind card (making him President) did not work because of (the suicide of) Rohit Vemula, and (the attack on Dalits in) Saharanpur (in Uttar Pradesh) and Una.”
If the BJP top brass do not want to admit that Dalits are abandoning the party, at the village level, their activists are more candid: “The Una incident will damage the BJP in these elections,” says Yogendra Singh, ex-sarpanch of Tagadi village in Dhandhuka taluka of Ahmedabad district, who has been with the party since its Jan Sangh days.
Shandilya Goswami, son of the mahant of the Bhimnath Mahadev Temple located in the Surendranagar Lok Sabha constituency, is also a BJP member. He says, “Jignesh Mewani is a hardliner: he is encouraging Dalits to bring the SC Atrocity Act against upper castes.”
And it isn’t just Dalit sarpanches who are trying to exercise their powers as elected officials: Mr. Ramanibhai says, “In the last two years, atrocities on Dalits have grown, so support for us has grown… In the villages, Darbars (an upper caste) don’t allow us to have moustaches or wear good clothes. Before Una, Dalits didn’t speak out but post-Una, they got the strength from Jigneshbhai and started speaking out. The reaction grew..”