Cast(e) Your Vote Wisely

India is gearing up for one of its most exciting general elections ever. With barely two months to go, analysts, politicians, the media, the twitterati are all neck deep in debate about who Indians will vote into power. On D-day, while millions will exercise their right to vote, there will be thousands whose right to franchise will be violated by those who are economically or socio-politically more powerful than them.

Community Correspondent Sunita Kasera’s report from Chenpur Village, Rajasthan details one such incident that took place during the recent state elections there in December 2013.

On the 1st of December 2013 people from all across Rajasthan braved the winter chill to come out and cast their votes. At the end of the day a record 77.49% turnout was announced. Yes, the efforts to get citizens to use their votes had worked. Mangilal, a Dalit, the village head of Chenpur was among the aspiring voters.

“They made me stop my bike and beat me up… they did their best to kill me. They wanted me to vote for their candidate and no one else,” he says from his hospital bed; the blood on his shirt is barely dry.

The ‘upper caste’ Meenas were fielding their candidate for the election and wanted to make sure that everyone in the village voted for him. Mangilal may not have been the only Dalit that day to face such violence. That his testimony is available for us all to see is also a rarity because usually, instead of a press conference the matter would have quickly been hushed up.

“As the elections were coming up, I had started making a video about the sort of issues Dalits faced in trying to vote, and then, Mangilal’s case happened. A few members of the Dalit community I had interviewed told me that they were not allowed to vote. On the day of the elections they asked fro police protection, none came. Fearing for their safety they chose not to exercise their right to vote. So it is clear that in many cases the administration, like police, themselves are so fraught with caste rivalries that people become and remain pawns in that game.” says CC, Sunita.

Asked about factors like awareness she says:

“Yes, there are cases when people just don’t know who they are voting for but there are many thousands of examples, like the ones I have documented, where people are well aware of their choices but can’t exercise them. Everyone has the right to vote, so why do some groups think it is OK to manipulate that?”

Speaking of manipulation… While on the one hand caste identities deny people basic rights, on the other they are open to manipulation to get benefits– votes, jobs, etc.  Politicians rarely miss a chance to tap into this depending on where the votes lie. Enter, ‘Vote bank politics’.

Political parties know that an electorate of a given area will vote according to certain group identities– religion, caste and linguistics– rather than based on the merit of a candidate, their actual ability to govern. This means that a political party will issue tickets to only those candidates in an area who will guarantee the maximum possible votes.

In Karauli the Meenas have all that it takes — caste status, money and muscle– to ensure votes not only from their community but others as well. To get everyone to vote for their candidate is another tactic to maintain a social status quo. For someone like Mangilal to vote independently  and disrupt that prescribed social order was tantamount to blasphemy. He had to be ‘taught a lesson’ and ‘put back in his place’.

Come May 2014, this situation will likely play itself out in different parts of the country. This is especially true of areas where there is a major presence of political parties stemming from ethnic identities. What is the Election Commission going to do to about this?

Can we hope that administrators are elected on the basis of their merits rather than loyalties to religion, caste and linguistic identities? Is that not what the great secular, developed vision of India was?

Call to Action: Please call the Election Commission officer of Karauli District on 01412227411 and ask him to ensure that Dalit communities don’t have to face mental and physical oppression while trying to vote.

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