Sagar (Madhya Pradesh): Against the backdrop of the setting sun, a team of labourers and engineers are at work shaping the foundation to build a massive temple and memorial complex dedicated to Sant Ravidas, the Bhakti-era poet revered by a large section of Dalits, especially in northern states. “This land is reserved for the temple of Sant Shiromani Ravidas ji,” reads a mutilated white board at the construction site in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh.
The Sant Shiromani Gurudev Shri Ravidas ji Memorial would be constructed in an area of more than 11.25 acres. The government says it is likely to cost more than Rs. 100 crores. In August, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the bhoomi pujan or foundation-laying rituals for the project, it was seen as yet another symbolic move by the Bharatiya Janata Party to reach out to the 16% Dalit voters in MP, a state which also has the worst crime rate against Dalits in the country.
Ravidas was a poet and philosopher who stood against initialised caste hierarchy, making him a significant spiritual symbol for Dalits today. However, in and around Makroniya town, where the memorial is being built, Dalit voters, though not opposed to a grand monument dedicated to Ravidas, said they had more pressing concerns such as basic civic amenities and employment opportunities. Many were suspicious of the timing of the project, a few months ahead of the state election, while others argued that building the job infrastructure in the backward Bundelkhand district would have been a better option.
Dev Kumar Ahirwar, a 27-year-old electrician, viewed the Ravidas Temple as an election gimmick. “What is the employment created for us by the mandir,” he asked. They could have spent Rs 1-2 crore on a temple and used the rest of the funds on generating employment by setting up a factory, he said. “That would have really transformed Sagar district and provided people livelihood opportunities.”
The Dalits in Ahirwar’s locality, a short distance away from where the project is being built in Badtuma village, complain about poor roads, lack of basic amenities and employment opportunities. For decades now, joblessness and drought conditions have forced lakhs of men and women to migrate from the region in search of better livelihood.
Ram Ahirwar, an elderly Dalit labourer, said he was fed up with the BJP and would vote to change the government this election. “Those building the temple will benefit. What will I get,” Ram asked.
Given Ravidas’ cultural significance for Dalits especially among the Raidasias and Jatavs, one might be cautious in dismissing the impact the memorial may have on the voters. For marginalised communities, symbolism is often an attractive political gesture. Even if we take that into consideration, livelihood issues seemed to dominate their concerns.
Raju Chaudhary, a labourer, was miffed that his family was yet to get a pucca house from the BJP government, which has been in power since 2003. His family has been living in the same house, today a semi-pucca thatched dwelling, for the past four decades. He says he sent several applications to the administration to get himself a land patta after he heard that the state was distributing them in his ward. But nothing happened, adding to his frustration.
“The Ravidas Mandir is being built. The way I see it, that’s a house of god. But where will humans like us go when we don’t have a house to stay in? Gods already occupy so much space,” said Chaudhary.
He feels the Congress government is more sympathetic towards the poor and marginalised communities while the BJP focuses on the dominant sections.
On August 12, when Modi laid the foundation stone for the memorial, he tried to pitch Ravidas against the Mughals. In plain terms, he was pitting a popular Dalit icon against Muslim rulers that the BJP and its fountainhead, the RSS, have for long demonised. Modi remembered Ravidas for his “courage” and “patriotism” in standing against subservience during the Mughal period when the Indian society grappled with ‘assaults on its faith’ and attempts to ‘erase its identity’.
“When there were assaults on our faith, when restrictions were being imposed on us to erase our identity, even in those days – during the Mughal-period – look at the courage and patriotism…Ravidas ji said, ‘Paradheenta paap hai, jaan lehu re meet. Raidas paradheen sau, kaun kare hain preet,” said Modi.
Roughly translated, it means: dependency is a big sin and those who accept it and do not take a stand against it are not loved by anybody.
Around 200 metres away from the construction site, exists a temple dedicated to Ravidas. The temple is quite popular among local Dalits who regularly visit its compound to attend bhandaras and wedding ceremonies. Bal Krishna Ahirwar has been the caretaker of the temple for the last three decades. He was unhappy that Modi didn’t visit the temple when he had come to lay the foundation for the Ravidas project. “He didn’t even put his feet here,” said Bal Krishna.
Under the BJP rule, Bal Krishna says, he did not get any major benefit from the government other than a pucca house.
More than a fifth of the population in Sagar district is Dalit. At 21% it is above the state average. Sagar is located in the backward and feudal Bundelkhand region, where the Dalit community’s vote is significant for both the Congress and the BJP. The other districts in Bundelkhand as well as the adjoining Gwalior-Chambal region also have a decent population of Dalits. In districts Chattarpur, Tikamgarh, Datia, Sagar, Panna, Morena, Bhind, Gwalior, Damoh, Ashoknagar and Shivpuri the SC vote ranges from 18.7% to 25.46 %, according to the 2011 Census. The Gwalior-Chambal and Bundelkhand regions have a total of 60 seats out of the 230 in MP. In 2018, the Congress overwhelmed the BJP here, winning 36 seats, while the saffron party could only manage 21. The BSP won two and the SP won one.
Data collated by political analyst Ashish Ranjan shows that since 2008, the BJP has performed well in the 35 seats reserved for the SC community in MP. The BJP has consistently maintained a vote share above 40% in these reserved constituencies. On the other hand, the Congress, though lagging behind the BJP by a long stretch, has consistently grown in the SC reserved seats in the last three assembly elections. It’s a different thing that in the last two Lok Sabha elections, 2014 and 2019, the BJP outperformed the Congress in reserved seats securing 31 and 34 out of the 35 assembly constituents with an overwhelming vote share of 53.92% and 59.01%. The Congress managed to lead in only four SC reserved constituencies in 2014 and just one in 2019.
However, in the assembly elections held in 2008, 2013 and 2018, the party recorded a consistent growth.
In 2008, the BJP won 25 SC seats while the Congress won just nine. In 2013, the BJP bettered its position, winning 28 seats along with a huge jump in vote percentage from 40.01% in 2008 to 47.31% in 2013. In the next election in 2018, however, the BJP’s seat tally reduced to 18 and its vote percentage dropped to 42.14%. On the other hand, the Congress which had won just four out of 35 SC reserved seats in 2013, performed reasonably well in 2018 when it won 17 seats and its vote percentage jumped from 36.45% to 42.44%, even bettering the saffron party’s popular support by a thin margin. The 2018 election was also one in which the Congress won more seats than the BJP in the state. While falling short of the majority mark by just two seats, the Congress formed the government with the support of four independents, two MLAs of the BSP and one of the SP. The government lasted only 15 months after the BJP toppled it through mass defections but observers say that the mandate in 2018 reflected the strong anti-incumbency against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.
Makroniya falls under the Naryawali reserved constituency. In 2018, the BJP had won it by a thin margin of 8,900 votes. In the 2013 election, the BJP had won seven out of the eight seats in Sagar district. In 2018, however, the Congress managed to win three out of eight seats in Sagar.
In neighbouring Khurai constituency, Dalits The Wire spoke to said overall livelihood issues were the most important factor while deciding whom to vote. Ramlal Ahirwar, who along with his wife makes bidis for a living, said that the BJP government had provided his family a tap, monetary assistance under the KISAN Samman Nidhi and Rs 1,000 per month under the Ladli Behna scheme. But there was no proper road to his house. “When it rains, our children are stranded,” said his wife, as she rolled bidis in her courtyard while her husband cut the Tendu leaves into uniform squares.
The family earns Rs 150 for every 1,000 bidis rolled. In Sagar, several politicians including elected representatives are linked to the bidi industry. In 2022, the World Health Organisation in a study of the health hazards of the bidi industry in India said exposure to tobacco, nicotine, dust and other particles absorbed through skin and nasopharyngeal route, endangered the health of bidi workers.
Ramlal, though fairly content with his life conditions, feels a change in government might do his family good. “The new government will do new things and might provide us with new facilities,” he said.
However, in the same neighbourhood, the family of Meera Bai, also a bidi worker, feels continuity is better, as she praises the government for providing the poor free ration and Rs. 1,000 monetary assistance to eligible adult women.
Her daughter, a first-time voter, also feels the Shivraj Chouhan government will be better for her future. “Our Mamaji (maternal uncle, as Shivraj is called) has done a lot for our education so far and will definitely do a lot more in the future. We want him to continue ruling,” she said.
Lakhs and crores
The girl also praised the government for providing laptops and scooters to meritorious girl students passing class 12. In its election manifesto, the BJP has promised to turn 15 lakh rural women into lakhpatis – owners of Rs 1 lakh – through skill training and provide beneficiaries of the Ladli Behna scheme with a pucca house.
Some voters also hoped that the petrochemical complex at Bina refinery of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited to be developed at a cost of about Rs 49,000 crore in the same district would fetch employment opportunities. Modi laid the foundation stone for the project in September.
Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, Ujjain, said there was “no extraordinary situation or factor” visible in favour of the Congress when it came to Dalit votes this season. “But there is a slight possibility,” he told The Wire, “That they might improve from their previous performance.”
The youth and educated class of Dalits are antagonized by atrocities and hierarchy in villages but the semi-literate and illiterate sections of beneficiaries may not be as triggered, said Sisodia.
He further said that the BJP may be trying to diffuse the negative sentiment against them among Dalits through moves like building a Ravidas Temple. “But the overwhelming majority don’t shift due to this gesture. It provides only a slight electoral benefit,” said Sisodia.
Ranjan too argues that there was an anti-incumbency among Dalits. “Though I cannot confirm the range, the Dalits appear to be tilting more in the favour of the Congress in this election,” he said.
Dharmendra Ahirwar, a Dalit activist, who is contesting from an Aazad Samaj Party ticket, says his community does not view the Ravidas Memorial move as an earnest attempt by the BJP to care for Dalit sentiments. “We want them to spend Rs 1 crore on the temple and the 99 crores on industries that will benefit all groups. What good are a handful of shops that will open near the memorial complex,” he said.
Dharmendra, though critical of both parties, feels that the BJP was more harmful for Dalit interests than the Congress. The BJP is purely anti-Dalit, he said, referring to the recent cases of atrocities against the community in Sagar district alone. In August, a Dalit boy was lynched and his mother was publicly disrobed after the family refused to withdraw a sexual harassment complaint the boy’s sister had lodged against a man allegedly linked to a BJP minister.
“There is no Dalit in Sagar district who is happy with the BJP,” Dharmendra said.
But individual cases of atrocities often don’t lead to a pan-state or pan-region impact while voting, said Dalit activists.
The Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies post-poll survey on MP election in 2018 found that only 1.4% of respondents picked caste discrimination as the single most important issue for voting. Less than 4% picked reservation, while the majority ticked livelihood issues; jobs (18.7%), inflation (16%) and development (8.8%).
The Ravidas memorial will include an art museum and a gallery to showcase the life and philosophy of Ravidas along with a library, cafeteria, gazebo, bhakt niwas and a kund. The manager at the construction site said the project would be completed by 2025.
A prominent Ravidasia priest, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the memorial would not have any great impact on the Dalit voters. The priest said the community members had demanded that an educational institute, hospital or a factory be built for the uplift of the society as well as to provide livelihood. Sagar district already has 400-500 big and small Ravidas temples, he said. Though Sagar has a central university, Dr. Hari Singh Gour University, the priest says local students from marginalized backgrounds are unable to compete with students who come from outside and are forced to pursue studies in Chhatarpur, a district where the famous Khajuraho Temple monuments are located.
A line similar to the Ravidasi priest was taken by the Opposition Congress when its national president Mallikarjun Kharge visited Sagar in August and promised to build a university dedicated to Sant Ravidas if they came to power.
A group of Ravidasia sect and Dalits had earlier even demanded that the memorial be built at an alternative site in Karrapur village instead of the present location Badtuma, as the latter had no connection with the social reformer.
The Raidas, Jatav, Chamar, Mochi, Ahirwar, Regar and other related sub-castes make up for more than 47% of the Dalit population in MP. Since the BJP, Congress, BSP and Aazad Samaj Party have all fielded candidates from the same Ahirwar Dalit sub-sect, their votes were likely to be divided, said the priest, when asked if the community could mobilize behind one party.
How the electoral battles play out in districts such as Sagar with significant Dalit population could eventually play a big role in determining who wins MP.