Monday, March 12, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Would a Dalit make it to the high chair in Uttarakhand?

Would a Dalit make it to the high chair in Uttarakhand?
Mahesh Chandra Donia | Mar 11, 2012, 10.06PM IST

As both the Congress Party and the BJP grappled with morning-after
blues in the wake of a fractured mandate the electorate in Uttarakhand
threw up and tried to cobble up a workable majority by winning over
the four independent and three BSP legislators elect, the political
circles were abuzz with a unique question: would a Dalit make it to
the high chair in Uttarakhand? Chances are, yes, Uttarakhand may have
its first Dalit chief minister if the Congress, now going to form the
government, shows courage and foresight to appoint a Dalit CM, and if
it does so it has a strong candidate, Pradesh Congress President and
former Assembly Speaker Yashpal Arya who has returned to the
legislature for the fifth time.

But what if a Dalit CM becomes a reality?

'It would be the most positive event in the history of Uttarakhand,'
says Shekhar Pathak, a retired professor of history at Kumaon
University, Nainital, who has conducted pioneering research on the
Dalit community of Uttarakhand hills, known as Shilpkar. The Dalits of
Uttarakhand constitute almost one-fourth, 23% to be precise, of the
population, and consist of largely the landless, the artisans, the
craftsmen, and the marginal farmers. Owing to untouchability, still
rampant barring a few urban centres where access to modern education
and employment opportunities has helped uplift the urban Dalits, the
community has borne the brunt of discrimination in every walk of life,
with few opportunities of economic and social mobility. While one can
still hear an upper-caste person telling them on their face, 'Hey,
what will you do by pursuing learning, this is not meant for you,' a
crumbling government educational structure has only added to their
educational and economic backwardness. There is no surprise then if
the school dropout rate is the highest among them and if they lag far
behind in their educational attainment compared wigh the upper castes.
As a natural corollary, they have not benefited from reservation to
the extent the Dalits of other states have.

Their exclusion is not confined to educational and socioeconomic
spheres, however. In the political sphere, too, the story is not so
encouraging. Although they return 15 legislators after every election
to the Uttarakhand Assembly, they have had no representation in the
political executive in any dispensation, Congress or BJP, and this
cannot be a coincidence, this is rather by design by which the
upper-caste political leadership excludes them from policymaking and
plan implementation. Here is a case in point.

The majority of the Uttarakhand Dalits have traditionally been
Congress supporters, and this fact was brought to the fore when
Congress registered a historic victory in the first Assembly election
of 2002. The then Pradesh Congress President Harish Rawat had admitted
before the media that a 'particular community' had helped the party to
secure the state, and this victory acted as a catalyst in the revival
of the party's fortunes across the country.

Still the Congress government led by ND Tiwari had no Dalit leader in
its Cabinet. The recent BJP government, with no Dalit leader in its
Cabinet either, allowed to lapse a corpus of Rs 5,000 crore under
Special Component Plan.

The Dalits have returned only five Congress legislators despite the
party having a Dalit leader as its state president which reflects the
community's increasing disillusionment with Congress, bereft as it is
of any political empowerment. If some highly placed sources in the
state Congress are to be believed it was high time the party
leadership thought of winning over the Dalits, and a beginning can be
made by appointing a Dalit chief minister in Uttarakhand. It will send
a right message to Dalits across the country, particularly those of
Uttar Pradesh wining which Rahul Gandhi has made a cause celebre, a
test case for his prime ministerial ambitions, and if the
disappointing results of Assembly elections are any indication it is
going to be a long haul for his party.

While appointing a Dalit chief minister in Uttarakhand may help the
party win over the Dalits in the long run, it will have far-reaching
consequences for the Dalits of Uttarakhand. On the one hand it will
symbolically hit at the very heart of the upper-caste domination of
the polity and social life of Uttarakhand, steeped as it is in the
Aryan culture of exclusion, and on the other hand it will give Dalits
a sense of political empowerment. Alluding to the example of Uttar
Pradesh, which has been witness to Dalit assertion thanks to a strong
Dalit movement and ascension of BSP to power in the state, with
Mayawati at the helm, avers Prof. Vivek Kumar of JNU, 'It has
definitely made the Dalits across the state conscious of their rights,
and today a poor Dalit boy shows the courage to stand up and speak of
his rights.' Political empowerment has certainly helped create a
ground for this kind of assertion.

'There is visible collateral tangent impact that runs across different
institutions of state - governance, education and production.' He
takes up the example of Ambedkar Gram Yojna run by the erstwhile BSP
government in Uttar Pradesh to elaborate further his point, under
which land has been distributed to Dalits, schools and houses have
been built for them and roads and link roads have been constructed for
their villages. 'A Dalit coming to power makes the administration more
responsive toward the downtrodden,' says Prof. Sudha Pai of JNU, 'it
is more symbolic, however. The reality for the Dalits changes little
on the ground.'

Prof. Pathak puts the issue in a different perspective. 'More than
anything else, it all depends on how sensitive the man at he helm is
to the sufferings of his community and how responsive the government
of the day is to that suffering in its policymaking and programme
implementation,' he says.

Whether appointment of a Dalit as chief minister would politically
empower and educationally and socioeconomically uplift the Dalits of
Uttarakhand or not is a moot point. The Dalits of Uttarakhand are
keenly watching the developments that would unfold as the Congress
leadership zeroes in on its choice in the days to come.

(The writer is an independent commentator and has been associated with
the Chipko movement)

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