Thursday, April 19, 2001

Voting rights still elude most Dalits

By Dipak Mishra

PATNA: The two rounds of panchayat polls in Bihar have seen large sections of Dalits being denied their voting rights. In Mahnar block of Vaishali district, a bomb explosion claimed the lives of four Dalits on Sunday.

Reports suggest that the weaker sections were denied access to polling booths in Hajipur, Phulwari, Barh and Darbhanga among other areas. The caste which was instrumental in depriving them of their voting rights varied from place to place -- Bhumihars, Rajputs, Brahmins, Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris.

Complaints of Dalits being intimidated were widespread. In Ulasnagar panchayat of Makdumpur block in Jehanabad district, a group of armed Bhumihars prevented Dalits from entering the polling booths. It was only after the arrival of the police force that they were able to vote. In Churamanchak panchayat of Gopalganj district, Dalits were threatened four days in advance by motorcycle-borne Yadav goons who asked them not even to look towards the polling booth on April 15.

Independent MLA from Hayaghat Umadhar Prasad Singh stressed that the weaker sections of society are being denied their voting rights despite the tall claims of the present regime regarding social justice. "In Chanpatti panchayat, Brahmins beat up Dalits forcing them to flee the area. This happened in the presence of the police force," he said. Similar incidents took place in Mahapara panchayat where 500 Dalit voters were terrorised by Rajput goons. "The Darbhanga district administration was informed about these incidents but nothing happened. History keeps on repeating itself when it comes to the voting rights of Dalits," Umadhar maintained.

"The first thing I am going to do is to ensure that my village gets a permanent boat," stated Surendra Sada, who was elected Udhamghari panchayat sabha member "unopposed" on a reserved seat by fluke as his opponent did not know how to fill up nomination papers. Udhamghari panchayat is located near the Bagmati river in the Alauli area of Khagaria district. The area, which remains surrounded by water six months a year, has a cluster of over 100 villages dominated by Dalits. Interestingly, most of the polling booths meant for the villages are set up across the Bagmati river in Koeri-dominated villages.

Savari Devi, another resident of Udhamghari village, said, "They (Koeri-dominated villages) are again threatening us as they did in the previous panchayat polls, and most of the voters, at least the women, will not venture out on the polling day if the administration does not make adequate arrangements for our safety."

A fierce electoral contest is going on between a share cropper and an ex-zamindar in Nariyar panchayat of Saharsa district. Amarnath Sardar, a Dalit who has dared to stand against ex-zamindar Mahadev Singh, recalled how Dalits were not allowed to vote in 1978. "If proper security arrangements are not made, history will repeat itself this time too," Sardar lamented.

Economist Saibal Gupta felt that though Dalits are being deprived of their voting rights by dominant castes, the homogeneous identity of Dalits in the ongoing panchayat polls is fading. "At many places we have found sub-sections of Dalits reaching an agreement with dominant castes with the latter promising to accommodate the former's representatives in the panchayat and gram sabhas," he remarked.

Source: The Times of India, April 19, 2001

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