India's Untouchables Strive to Find Political Niche in Strict Caste System

FOUR months ago, her unexpected ascent to the leadership of India's largest and politically most important state was hailed as a victory for the country's ''untouchables,'' the 200 million people at the bottom of India's strict caste system.

But on Oct. 17, Chief Minister Mayawati was forced to resign, a victim, analysts say, of India's increasingly volatile caste politics.

Ms. Mayawati's ouster in Uttar Pradesh state represents a setback for the Dalits - as the former untouchables are now called - and their hopes of flexing their newfound political muscle. Speaking in an interview hours after she was forced to resign, Mayawati (a Dalit herself) blamed the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for orchestrating her downfall, and accused them of conducting a well-planned campaign of discrimination against the lower castes. ''The people of the upper castes who have ruled for so long won't give up power so easily,'' she said. ''They will create problems for us.''

Millennia-old system

India's caste system, more than 4,000 years old, originally classified people by profession. But it has evolved into a rigid social hierarchy that many lower-caste Indians find oppressive.

BJP officials deny Mayawati's claims. In any event, her abrupt rise and fall highlights how India's political landscape is increasingly being carved up along caste lines, analysts say.

''Caste is a harsh reality in Indian politics,'' says Ajay Singh, a correspondent here for the Calcutta-based Daily Telegraph. ''You have to accept that.''

Mayawati rose to power thanks to an unlikely alliance with the right-wing BJP, India's largest opposition party, which appeals mainly to upper-caste Hindus. Many analysts say it was a fragile alliance that was bound to collapse.

''Mayawati's party has failed to live up to its promise,'' says BJP leader Manohar Joshi. Corruption and lawlessness increased under Mayawati's brief rule, Mr. Joshi claims. With a population of 140 million, Uttar Pradesh is larger than all but a handful of countries. In the 48 years since independence, all but two of India's prime ministers have hailed from Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati's All People's Party was formed a decade ago, but it has only recently gained some measure of popularity. Dalits account for 20 percent of India's population, and lately the country's more established political parties have been trying to woo them.

''They have political clout with them,'' says Ashish Nandy, director of New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. ''After all, this is a democracy. Numbers count.''

Self-proclaimed champion

As a member of the national parliament, Mayawati has earned a reputation as an energetic - if sometimes vitriolic - orator. Today, she is the self-proclaimed champion of India's Dalits, a term which means downtrodden in Hindi.

Indeed, Mayawati, like many Indian politicians, seemed to relish her newfound power. Her picture is plastered on virtually every street corner in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

Discrimination against untouchables was outlawed in 1951 with the government gradually setting aside state jobs, university slots, and parliamentary seats for them and other lower-caste Indians. But Dalits complain that they are still treated unjustly.

In addition, newspapers regularly report atrocities committed against them, especially in rural areas. A five-year-old in southern India was recently blinded in one eye when her teacher lashed at her with a cane for drinking from a jug reserved for upper-caste students.

In her four months in office, Mayawati took many steps - some only symbolic - to ''uplift'' the former untouchables. She appointed them to important government positions, renamed universities after Dalit heroes, and even abolished the state lottery, which she said benefitted the wealthier upper-caste.

In the process, however, she alienated the state's powerful (and largely upper-caste) bureaucracy by transferring uncooperative officials and in some cases demoting those who did not share her zeal for reform. ''The bureaucracy, after being treated in such a shabby manner, is totally demoralized,'' complains Joshi, the BJP leader.

''She has not done anything at the ground level to improve the plights of the Dalits,'' agrees journalist Singh. ''Dalits need something more than rhetoric.''

In addition, her harsh criticism of India's founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, as ''an enemy of the untouchables'' offends many Indians. Her outspoken attacks against the upper castes have also alienated some voters who believe her tirades have managed to widen the caste divide instead of narrow it.

Others say that Mayawati was well intentioned but she simply tried to move too quickly. ''This [caste system] has been around for 2,000 years or more,'' says C.M. Narayan, an engineer here. ''It's not possible to wipe it out one day, or even 10 years.''

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