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September 27, 1999


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Constituency/ Akbarpur

Where Behenji is the bane of the Brahmins

Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Ramsuhag, a Chamar by caste, had been contesting a case for his land at Akbarpur for 20 years. An upper caste Thakur had taken away his land by illegal means and was adamant on retaining it.

Ever since he lost his land, poverty had been Ramsuhag's constant companion. Even two meals a day was a luxury. He started doing all kind of odd jobs on farms so that his family would not just wither away due to hunger.

All along he never missed a chance to petition a minister, any minister, but in vain. Hope, however, refused to die within him.

Come 1985, he realised that it was possible for garibo ki sunwai or the voice of the poor to be heard. The newly formed Bahujan Samaj Party of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati seemed to promise a new beginning.

"Behenji (as Mayawati is popularly called) inspired all Dalits to unite under one banner and revolt against the upper class. For 10 years, we struggled to fight against upper class domination in our village," says Ramsuhag.

He was to discover that Mayawati meant business. The day she became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh on June 3, 1995, she ordered all the upper castes to give back the land of Dalits or face the consequences.

Ramsuhag finally got back his piece of land.

Mayawati did not stop with this. She imposed the Harijan Act which made offences, even relatively minor ones, against Harijans compulsorily and instantly punishable.

Akbarpur, Mayawati's constituency, is one of the most backward in eastern UP. Here neither Kargil, nor Sonia's foreign origin or the sugar scam hold any resonance. The only issue which bothers the voters of Akbarpur is jaati, caste.

Akbarpur was renamed Ambedkar Nagar by Mayawati during her tenure as CM. Interestingly, the legendary Socialist, Ram Manohar Lohia, was born here.

In this place you seldom see any consumer goods. The best accommodation an outsider can find is a room in a lodge -- priced at Rs 200 a day -- which boasts a bed and a ceiling fan.

Interestingly, when this reporter went to buy a bar of chocolate the shopkeeper was thrilled. He had most of the common brands, but had not sold anything for months.

There are electricity poles everywhere but no electricity. The people depend on generators. What takes the cake though is that the National Thermal Power Corporation plant is based in Akbarpur, it is supplied with power from Nepal!

This backwardness is now proving to be Mayawati's biggest bugbear. She for sure raised the question of freedom from the age-old exploitation of Dalits but what has she done to improve their living standards, is the clearly felt but unarticulated opinion even among her committed voters.

Yet, what Mayawati has done for them always takes precedence.

Says Draupadi Devi, a 65-year-old Pasi woman, "Our women wouldn't dare fill water from the wells used by the upper caste villagers. But thanks to behenji that is no longer the case. We today roam freely in brahmin villages and call them by their names."

The upper castes don't take kindly to all this. They detest Mayawati and are terrified at what she would do if she were to rule UP for five years uninterrupted.

The upper castes will narrate any number of instances of what they allege is the misuse of the Harijan Act. "It is good that Kalyan Singh has once again become the CM. At least, we no longer feel unsafe as we used to during Mayawati's regime,'' they say in chorus.

"We have to rely on the Dalits for certain things just as they rely on us for other matters. But today, they have become more assertive and are lazy in their work thanks to the BSP. They demand more money for less work. So, we prefer to do our own work and try to avoid using them as labourers," says Mahendra Tiwari, a brahmin villager.

In Kasidarpur, where Tiwari lives, half a mile from his home is the Harijan basti. The Harijans have always been involved in menial jobs in the farms of the brahmins. The Muslims are located two kilometres away and they too live in a group. They are of course much better off than the Harijans.

The Harijan houses are usually made of mud. But thanks to Mayawati who has introduced the Indra Yawas Yojna (a scheme where the Dalits get houses for free under the UP government) some of these houses are being rebuilt with bricks.

Even when the Ram Janambhoomi movement was active in the neighbouring constituency of Faizabad, (from where Bajrang Dal president Vinay Katiyar is contesting), the Dalits in this region were unaffected.

Says Tribhuvan Dutt, BSP president in Ambedkar Nagar, "We were never treated as Hindus by the upper castes. The Brahmins never used to come to our weddings. And if they ever came we had to pay a high price for it. So why should we call ourselves Hindus?"

Aasram Gautam, a Dalit and staunch supporter of Mayawati, has completed his graduation -- a rare thing in this context -- and has been trying unsuccessfully for a job for a long time. But he has no regrets. "So what if I am unemployed. The day behenji starts ruling again, I'll get some job,'' he says.

Last year, Mayawati won this seat by 25,000 votes. Her closest rival was Dr Lalta Prasad of the Samajwadi Party. There are five assembly segments in Akbarpur constituency: Akbarpur, Jahangirganj, Jalalpur, Katehri and Tanda. The BSP had won three out of the five assembly seats in the 1996 assembly election, while the BJP and SP won one each.

The current SP candidate Ram Pyare was a Congress MP in 1984. And he expects that with even a ten per cent Dalit vote swing in his favour, he will easily sail through.

On the other hand, the BJP, which stood third in the election last time and lagged 60,000 votes behind Mayawati, calculates that if there is a shift in Muslim votes from the SP to the Congress then its candidate Devchand Ram will certainly benefit from that.

The Congress appears to be far behind in the current campaign. Its candidate, former governor Mata Prasad is nowhere in the picture. In fact, not even one Congress vehicle is visible in the constituency.

"The Congress cannot revive its fortunes in Ambedkar Nagar because it never did anything for our community in the last 40 years. And that is the precise reason it is nowhere in this constituency," exclaims Dutt

"When Kanshi Ramji used to come here 15 years ago, a thousand people used to assemble. But today nearly a lakh people come to see him," Dutt adds. No better sign of the times.


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