Caste and electoral politics are inextricable in Madhya Pradesh. The run-up to assembly elections in the state is therefore throwing up local variations of the opposition between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. In a state where incidents of atrocities against Dalits are double the national average, and where more than 7,000 Dalits of the Chambal region have applied for gun licenses, there is a thin line between wooing the Dalit vote and announcing programmes for their uplift. A favourite approach of the chief minister, Mr Digvijay Singh, is to impose fines as punishment for caste-related and sectarian violence. In March this year, he had revived a stillborn act intending to make communal offenders pay, over and above facing criminal charges, a cash amount of one and a half times the damages done to life and property. But the pitfalls of such attempts at social justice are showing up now in a different sphere.
Earlier this month, Mr Singh’s government had imposed a fine of over Rs 25 lakh on higher castes in five Madhya Pradesh villages, for destroying ready crops belonging to Dalits and tribals. Apart from being booked under the state’s Scheduled Caste and Tribes and the Citizen’s Protection Acts, each upper-caste family has been fined between Rs 2,000 and Rs 7,455. The villagers have now refused to pay the fine, especially those castes which do not see themselves as part of the original dispute between the other backward classes and the Dalits. But this fracas has now passed into the hands of the BJP, with Ms Uma Bharti taking up the OBC cause. The Congress and the BJP have long been vying in the state to attract the Dalit vote-bank. The Congress’s 21-point Dalit agenda, the “Bhopal Declaration”, had its counterpart in the BJP’s once touted but yet to materialize Mhow declaration. The BJP’s “social engineering” was going to be far more in touch with the grassroots than the Congress’s academic and bureaucratic social-welfare approach. Ms Bharti’s public stand against the fines is part of this rivalry over who looks after the Dalits better. The BJP convention at Mhow had ended up publicly burning the Bhopal declaration which had been adopted early last year. This was apparently in protest against the document mentioning, but not condemning enough, the Dalit tendency to embrace Buddhism. This entirely political conflict between the parties is therefore being fought over the lower castes and untouchables, with its own instigatory consequences within these communities. Empowerment seems to have very little to do with these strategies.