Clamour for reserved tickets overshadows core Dalit issues

Dalits are at the centre of much of Gujarat's politics but activists say their core issues have remained neglected over the years, whichever the party in power. In the run-up to the elections so far, the distribution of tickets and defection shave been dominating Dalit politics so far, at least in the Congress. On September 22, police fired on agitating Dalits in Thangadh town of Surendranagar, allegedly with AK-47s, killing three youths. On November 26, Congress leader Girish Parmar,a Dalit, linked the incident with the state government's alleged failure to take up Dalit issues and declared that the Congress, when in power,had looked after Dalits' welfare. Two days later, Parmar was filing his nomination as a BJP candidate from DaniLimda.He and three others resigned from the Congress after it had nominated Shailesh Parmar. Also, a group of Dalit Congress workers ransacked Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan in Ahmedabad following reports that retired IPS officer Rajan Priyadarshi would be fielded from the reserved Asarwa constituency. The ticket eventually went to another Dalit.

Thirteen seats are reserved for Dalits, who also account for between 15 and 24 per cent of the votes in 21 others. They makeup eight per cent of the state's population. Apart from Girish Parmar,Dalit leader Jayantilal Parmarhas left the Congress in the run up to the elections, while Gunvant Makwana and Khemchand Solanki have quit their party posts. The BJP has not been affected by bickering for tickets like the Congress has,but Dalit activists say both have ignored Dalit issues.Manjula Pradeep, a leading Dalit rights activist who heads a voluntary organisation, says it has had a study done on untouchability but the government did not accept it. She said the government does not even accept that the inhuman practice of manual scavenging persists. BJP minister Fakirbhai Vaghela, a Dalit, could not be contacted for comment. Jivraj Chauhan of the BJP's SC Morcha said, "Manual scavenging is not in practice in Gujarat." The Congress manifesto includes a promise to uproot the practice. Another Dalit activist, Valjibhai Patel, said elected Dalit leaders were simply toeing the line of their party leaders. He stressed a key issue:"Under the Constitution, every state as well as the Centre are required to enact the Roster Reservation Act with provisions for job reservation. Neither the Centre nor the Gujarat government have enacted it. " In fact, the Congress has included it in the current manifesto,Shailesh Parmar said. For the BJP, Jivraj Chauhan admitted his party has not enacted the Act but added it was "committed" to it. Patel said Gujarat, unlike other states,had no provisions to ensure self financed educational institutions follow a reservation policy. Chauhan said only if the Centre enacts a law can the state reserve jobs under such a policy. The Agricultural Land Ceiling Act is another core Dalit issue, with Patel saying Dalits hardly ever get possession under the act.Chauhan denied it. Shailesh Parmar and Chauhan both credited their governments with work done for Dalits."Many boards for Dalit welfare functioned during the Congress regime but were discontinued by BJP," Parmar said .And Chauhan said the BJP had done"solid work" for Dalits, citing courses, training,and aid. About the Thangadh killings, Chauhan said the government has compensated the victims and booked four police officers for murder. Shailesh Parmar questioned how the accused police officers can remain absconders.

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