By Shivam Vij for The Caravan, 1 August 2010
It’s early February in Matsura Gram Panchayat in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district. The Matsura Panchayat, a collection of 11 rural settlements, is holding a historic election. Its 2,700 voters are about to elect their sarpanch. Panchayat sarpanches, in a few states also called panchayat presidents, are the leaders of the smallest administrative units of the decentralised democracy.
This is not the first time a panchayat election is being held in Matsura, but it’s the first time the sarpanch’s seat in Matsura has been reserved for a member of the Scheduled Castes (SC)—the Dalits, the lowest of the low, the former Untouchables.
Dholpur district sits in eastern Rajasthan, just across the Uttar Pradesh state border from Agra. Once ruled by a Jat dynasty, Dholpur was never directly controlled by the British. The landscape is dominated by barren, brown sand ravines, and the district is famous for its red Dholpur stone. It’s even more famous for its Gurjar landlords, and their history of using violence to drive Dalits out.
Of Matsura’s 2,700 voters, the Dalits are only about 300 strong. The Gurjars, an Other Backward Class (OBC) community, long the dominant caste, account for over 1000, and the Kushwahas, another agricultural OBC group, number over 700. The Kushwahas, though a sizeable community, seem unable to mobilise on caste lines because they are, as they themselves admit, notoriously divided. The remaining people hail from over a dozen castes: Muslim Telis, Baghels, Brahmins, Meenas. Until 1985, all sarpanches had been Brahmin, and since then, all have been Gurjar. This year is the first time that has changed in Matsura.
Across the state border, Agra is full of Dholpur’s Dalits—driven out by Gurjars—where the ruling, Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party is strong and they are safer. In June 1990, Matsura’s Ram Bir, a Jatav (the largest Dalit community in this part of Rajasthan), took his baraat (wedding procession), to Panwari, a village in Agra, to marry a girl from there. The village Jats did not allow Ram Bir to ride a horse in front of their basti, as that would hurt their caste pride. Ram Bir defied the diktat and violence followed. Seven died and 210 were injured.
Ram Bir and and his wife, Mundhra, still live in Matsura. But even today, they aren’t interested in talking about their wedding day 20 years ago. The current threat of caste-based violence is all too real. In Nizampur, one of Matsura’s 11 villages, a Dalit girl had been raped the day before my arrival.
There is, of course, a bigger context here: the story of how Panchayati Raj—the legislative efforts to increase participation of the historically underprivileged sections of the population in decision-making—has influenced or not influenced the rural situation. Mohandas Gandhi was a famous advocate of panchayati raj, and panchayats as a local body have existed in Rajasthan since the 1950s. But it was only with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1992—
“establishing democracy at the grassroots level as it is at the state and national level”—that a structure and process was put in place for equitable participation in local bodies of governance.
Reservation was a major part of that amendment. Seats are now reserved variously for Dalits, Dalit women, OBCs, OBC women and the ‘general’ category— that is upper castes, and upper-caste women. In tribal areas, seats are set aside for tribals and tribal women. Which seat will be reserved in each election depends on a lottery system that is adapted in such a way that every village will eventually have had reservations for every class of people. As per the lottery system, by 2020, every panchayat in Rajasthan will have been run by a Dalit sarpanch at least once.
The efforts at democratic decentralisation have been taking place across the country at varying speeds. In early 2010, when I heard Rajasthan was holding its panchayat election, I decided to spend a few days in one of the villages. A rights activist, Satish Lahri, of the Centre for Dalit Rights, suggested I go to Matsura. Dalits in this region are known to be assertive, unlike in feudal western Rajasthan. I expected an eventful visit.
Today is 2 February. A crucial day. For individuals who are contesting, their nomination papers are accepted in the morning, one day before the election. By afternoon, the symbols are allotted; only then will the candidates be able to go around the 11 settlements and familiarise voters with themselves.
After the allotment of symbols, candidates have very little time to visit all voters, and campaigns often run all night. In the sleepless dark, men with the singular goal of power become very active. Hard cash is distributed by candidates as bribes, and most men are also given a plastic pouch of country liquor. This night in Rajasthan is called Katal ki Raat—the Night of the Long Knives. And this is why I am in Matsura.
“NOBODY’S ENTHUSED ABOUT THE ELECTION,” the first man I talk to tells me, “The seat is reserved for them and the rest of us don’t care.”
The man turns out to be Kaptaan Singh Karsana, that’s Kaptaan with a K, who stands outside the school building where candidates are filing their nominations. He is at the centre of a large crowd. Groups of people sit on their haunches or hang around, talking in hushed voices. But the Kaptaan’s bearing—the prominent potbelly, thick moustache rounded upwards and his self-arrogated quasi-military title—hints at his importance.
I am convinced that the Kaptaan, Gurjar by caste, is trying to mislead me about the lack of enthusiasm among the electorate. I ask him his views on reservations and he is blunt. While he defends the Gurjars’ ongoing agitation in Rajasthan to be recognised as a tribal community—thus getting them more reserved positions in jobs, colleges and elected bodies—he opposes reservations for Dalits in panchayat elections. Dalits, he says, don’t have the ability, the merit, to run a village council.
For most of his adult life, the Kaptaan, now 65, has not lived in Matsura. He was in the army, posted in various places throughout his career. In 1986, he took premature retirement from the army and returned to live in Matsura. At the time, his relative, the late Fatua Ram (“my brother’s daughter is married to Fatua Ram’s son”), was the sarpanch. Fatua Ram was the first Gurjar sarpanch of Matsura, and he mentored the Kaptaan. In 1990, the Kaptaan contested and won. He won again in 1995. But in the next election, in 2000, he lost. The winner that year was Jandel Singh, another Gurjar from Husainpura, a village in Matsura GP. In 2005, Jandel Singh won again—not only by a small margin, but also with a lie: his affidavit claimed he had two children but he had three. Those with more than two children are not allowed to contest. The Kaptaan went to court and Jandel Singh was forced to resign in 2007.
“Didn’t Jandel Singh get back at you?” I ask the Kaptaan.
“You think he can dare to even think of harming me?” he replies.
Gurjars account for about 40 percent of Matsura’s population, and power in the panchayat rotated between the two Gurjar camps for 25 years. But this time, the seat is reserved for a Dalit, who would otherwise never have access to power. Now it’s their turn. Jandel and the Kaptaan will have to halt their rivalry for five years. Or so it seems.
When these elections were announced, at least four Dalits wanted to contest from Matsura alone—all Jatavs. The Jatavs, formerly known as Chamars, are ordained by caste to remove and skin dead animals and have been traditionally associated with the leather trade. Today, however, they have left the perceivedly demeaning profession and are mostly agricultural labourers.
“The panches told them that if four of you contest, you will divide the votes amongst yourselves and the Husainpura candidates will win hands down,” says the Kaptaan, “so they agreed to have only one candidate.” I ask him who the panches are, and he replies, “Wise men of the village, including me.”
The Jatav residents of Matsura claimed it was the Jatav community which decided only one among them should contest: Amar Singh. The candidate from Husainpura was Babu Lal, also a Jatav. There was, however, a third candidate, a snake charmer from Sandpura, next to Matsura. “He didn’t listen to the panches,” the Kaptaan says.
THE SNAKE CHARMER AND THE ADVOCATE
“THERE HE IS.” The Kaptaan points to a bearded man in saffron robes sitting under a tree, looking dazed in the midst of a group of supporters. His name, Himmat Nath, is apt for his candidature. Himmat means courage and Nath is the surname of all the snake charmers in the village. The snake charmers, the Saperas, all have Chinese-style beards, but Nath baba, as everyone calls him, is the only one wearing saffron.
“Nath baba,” I ask him, “people are saying you live in Delhi and have come only to contest an election?”
“I don’t live in Delhi. I travel,” he answers. “My work demands that I travel a lot. Gujarat, Dilli, Himachal, Manali, Shimla, Lucknow, Guwahati, Bangal, Asansol, Burdwan, Tatanagar…”
“What do you do?”
“What a snake charmer does. I show the antics of snakes and scorpions, make medicines and potions out of them, sell medicinal herbs from forests.”
“How did you decide to contest the election?”
“The government decided it for me. They reserved the seat.”
“Yes, but how did you get the idea that you should contest?”
“The government gave me the idea, reserving the seat for halki jatis like ours.” Jati is caste, and halki is light. In Rajasthan, Dalits call upper castes ‘moto log,’ literally, fat people, and refer to themselves as halka, light. “Our seat came so I got the desire to contest,” he repeats.
As Nath baba looks askance, more Saperas reply on his behalf. One volunteers to explain that the Sapera community got together and decided that the oldest amongst them should contest. “He’s old but smart, keeps us together,” one of them remarks. “Will the wretched of the earth remain the wretched of the earth or will they rise up the ladder?”
Winning is clearly not on Nath baba’s agenda. In a way, he’s already won. To think that a mere snake charmer has the opportunity to even contest the seat of the village headman seems a victory in itself for Nath baba and the 100-odd Sapera voters.
Just when Nath baba begins to let down his guard, a man enters wearing a safari suit, one of those colonial era half-sleeve summer suits, popularised by the British, worn by Indian officials during the Raj. The suit has survived through time, and I find officers in Delhi and Jaipur wearing them even today, but was surprised to see such ‘VIP attire’ in Matsura.
The man in the safari suit draws the only chair and sits in it. Nath baba and his Saperas are hunched on the floor. I am sitting on the parapet under the tree. The man identifies himself as a voter in this gram panchayat.
“Snake charmers are intellectual people,” he says. “There is a special thing about this community that there’s never been a fight amongst them. They solve their issues amongst themselves. They don’t like police and courts. So voters think it will be the same for the entire village when Nath baba becomes sarpanch.”
He’s actively helping Nath baba’s campaign, but hasn’t contributed any money to it. “They are poor people and don’t have much money,” he continues. Nath baba’s face still looks as if he’d rather be summoning reptiles than hearing upper-caste men talking down about him and his fellow caste members. I ask the man in the safari suit his name. “Baijnath Singh ‘Advocate’ Gurjar,” he replies.
AMAR SINGH, the Jatav chosen to contest from Matsura, is known as the Dealer. The epithet refers to his ‘fair price’ ration shop that is Matsura’s link to the government’s PDS, or Public Distribution System.
The Dealer is giving me cryptic one-word replies in the presence of a large crowd, so I ask if we can go to his house. His Gurjar supporters stay behind, and the Jatavs follow us. It’s demeaning to a Gurjar’s status to enter a Jatav’s house.
Amar Singh is a diminutive man and it’s difficult to make him smile for the camera, let alone say anything substantive. The Dalit basti is visibly poor. I ask for a chair to be brought out on the street and request that Amar Singh sit for a portrait. He sits on the floor, presuming the chair is for me. With some reluctance he sits on the blue plastic chair. Singh does not have any specific campaign promises. “I will serve the people,” is all he can muster.
“Why are you contesting?” I ask.
“Nobody lets the poor contest on a normal seat,” he says, “our seat has come and people asked me to contest.”
“Why don’t they let you contest a general seat?”
He takes time to think up a reply. “They don’t really stop me, but it would cost a lot in kharcha paani.” By way of kharcha paani—appeasement of voters—all he can manage is tea and beedis.
“Will having a Jatav sarpanch be of any help to the people of the Jatav basti?” I ask.
Amar Singh is quiet. His neighbours reply for him. “Having our own man will definitely make a difference,” says one. “We might get a road, a ‘colony’—and drinking water.”
I feign confusion and ask, “So the previous Gurjar sarpanches didn’t provide you with these basics?”
Amar Singh now pretends to be deaf. “No,” the others reply, sheepishly. “They’ve filled their pockets and beautified their bastis but never did anything for us,” says an old man.
Next, I meet Babu Lal who doesn’t give me much time, as he is busy speaking to a group. I ask for his number and he gives me his aide’s. I can’t tell whether he is deliberately avoiding me or is genuinely busy. He is a marginal farmer, and like Nath baba and Amar Singh, he can’t bring himself to smile, even for the camera. Unlike them, however, he does not look despondent.
KATAL KI RAAT
IT IS 3:00 PM, everyone is at the school compound, and the wait for the election officials to vet the nomination forms and declare the candidates’ symbols for illiterate voters is causing anxiety. I’m talking to an indifferent Nath baba hunched in a corner. “Babaaa!” a stranger shouts, “For the first time these media people have found a snake charmer candidate! Your photo will be on the front page of Rajasthan Patrika tomorrow!” Nath baba replies as he thinks a political candidate should: “All with the people’s co-operation.” I ask him how he will visit all 11 settlements with his election symbol. “On bicycles,” he says, looking at other Saperas. Baijnath Gurjar, the advocate, butts in: “These are poor people and can’t afford to rent cars.” Then he addresses Nath baba, “Baba, you should stand at the school gate tomorrow telling people your symbol.”
Suddenly the crowded school compound empties. Every single person except the election officials runs out as though there has been a bomb scare. So do the advocate and Nath baba. The symbols have been granted. Amar Singh will be represented by a cricket bat, Babu Lal by a basket and Nath baba by a cupboard. I rush out too, and see Nath baba climbing into a car. Wasn’t he going to cycle?
It’s nearly 4:00 pm and the sun is still shining bright, but you can consider the Night of the Long Knives as having begun. There are only 16 hours left before polling begins and nearly 3,000 voters have to be informed about which symbol will represent which candidate. This is the moment I have been waiting for. More than the distribution of kharcha paani, I am interested in seeing how the candidates pitch themselves, how Dalits go to upper-caste houses and ask for votes. I want to trail them, but before I can even decide which one to follow, they have all taken off, each one in a Marshal Maxi Cab.
Babu Lal has gone to Husainpur and I rush to catch up to him. On the way, a young man hitches a lift. He is Pawan Kumar Sharma, a Brahmin. He has a Master’s degree and runs his own school in another village. Brahmins’ stakes in an election like this are low because they are few in number, and he lays out the election’s true purpose bluntly: Amar Singh is merely a proxy candidate for the Kaptaan, and Babu Lal a proxy for Jandel Singh.
And Nath baba? He’s been put up by Jandel Singh to take away the 100 or so Sapera votes which would otherwise go to Amar Singh. Nath baba is a proxy of a proxy. Baijnath Advocate has been tasked with ‘managing’ the Sapera, and thus, works for Jandel Singh. Nath baba, though, is unlikely to have taken money. “They beg,” says Sharma, “but never cheat.”
On reaching Husainpura I see Babu Lal standing right in front of us. But by the time I get out of the car and say goodbye to Pawan Sharma, Babu Lal disappears. I call his aide who says they are now in another village. I go to that village but Babu Lal is nowhere to be found. It is clear that we are being misled. I try going after other candidates and Gurjar hostility increases. “You are a journalist and we are co-operating with you and not causing any problems,” one of Amar Singh’s Gurjar handlers says.
The driver suggests we don’t travel any further. “I am not going to stay after dark,” he says, “It’s not safe during elections.” With the disappointment of missing Katal ki Raat I spend the night in a Bollywood set-like hotel at the tehsil headquarters in Bari, ten kilometres away. There will be no access to the Night of the Long Knives.
IT IS A NEW DAY AND MATSURA WILL DECIDE who will be their new sarpanch for the next five years. But there is no transport available from Bari to Matsura. All the cabs are booked for the election. Buses are not running. On election days things often come to a standstill; there is such a pervasive fear that there will be violence that it sometimes feels like an undeclared curfew.
I take a local train to a station near Matsura, from where I will walk two kilometres. Walking past wheat and mustard fields to reach Matsura, I meet voters going to the polling booth. I ask if they were offered money or alcohol the night before. They say they weren’t, but others must have been. Everyone I meet says the same thing. “How much money is usually distributed per voter,” I ask a group of locals. “A hundred rupees or two?” They laugh at me. “More like a thousand or two!”
People have been brought out in tractor trolleys to cast their votes, men and women in separate vehicles. The women are singing folk songs.
The police and election officers are turning away those without photographs in their identity documents. The house next to the school has two policemen keeping watch from its roof, and I notice how tall the house is—four floors. It belongs to Kaptaan Singh Karsana, who is standing outside. He calls me over for a ‘man-to-man talk.’ He wonders why I have been spending so much time in one village. Surely if I had to cover the panchayat elections I must see how it’s coming along in other gram panchayats too?
“There is truth in me,” says the Kaptaan, beginning a long homily to convince me that he’s a nice guy. “Mine is the only Gurjar house in Matsura,” he proclaims, “but I have good relations with all 16 castes of the village. I am with them in times good and bad. I run around government offices like a young lad to get things done for them.” We discuss how he lost by just 12 votes last time, how Jandel Singh does not have the guts to look him in the eye, how Amar Singh is a good choice because as a “dealer,” he knows the “system.”
At the polling station, Baijnath Advocate is looking quite pleased with himself, as if his role alone is the one that will decide the winner. As he comes out of the polling booth I ask him, “Is your snake charmer winning?”
“The result will speak for itself,” he says.
“Did you vote for him?”
“It’s a secret ballot.”
“For two days I’ve been seeing you support the snake charmer and you’re saying your vote is secret!”
“You can never tell these days,” he replies with a cunning smile. “Such are the times that blood brothers betray each other. Nath baba and I merely have friendly relations.” Baijnath Advocate was either cheating Nath baba, or had changed his loyalties overnight.
I begin to wonder if Pawan Kumar Sharma, the Brahmin who runs the school, was right. Is the election fixed? Are there really proxies for the two prominent Gurjar camps? And if there are, how aware are these Dalit candidates about the election processes? Are they exercising the rights that belong to them? I ask the three candidates for the names of their polling agents, the four representatives of every candidate who are allowed to sit inside the polling booth to watch votes being cast, raise questions about fake identity cards and spot ghost votes. Polling agents have immense power to ensure voting is free and fair. Yet, none of the three candidates knows what a polling agent is; the Gurjar aides around them give me the names of their agents. Not a single Dalit among them. One of Babu Lal’s agents, Atender Singh Gurjar, is honest: “We are the ones bringing the votes, what do these people know?”
The Gurjar handlers around Amar Singh did not like me asking the candidates about their polling agents. In a few minutes, I am ‘summoned’ to Kaptaan Singh Karsana’s court. “Sarpanch sahab is calling you,” says one of his aides. Even though the Kaptaan’s last term was a decade ago, in Matsura, he is always called Sarpanch. His car, which bears a sarpanch sticker, has just brought voters from Dabo ka Pura to the polling booth.
The Kaptaan is sitting on his sofa, his face wearing a pregnant look. His relative, Kishan Gurjar, addresses me without my asking any questions: “It will take them (Dalits) 50 years to know what the seat of the sarpanch means, what a sarpanch has to do and how.” He pauses to see if I disagree, and then continues, “This [reservation for Dalits] spreads disease, causes loss.” The pretence that the Gurjars have nothing to do with this election because it is a reserved seat is gone.
“The villages voting for us, I had 250 people guard them all night,” he says regarding Katal ki Raat. “There were motorcycles and jeeps trying to enter our villages with incentives of cash and alcohol!” he shouts at the top of his voice, expecting me to share his outrage. I ask him if Amar Singh distributed any ‘voter incentive.’ “No,” he says, and comes to the point. “Amar Singh is a dealer, is a little educated, knows how to write. As for the rest I am always there to help him.”
The Kaptaan’s aid, Kishan Gurjar, acknowledges that the Sapera have been propped up to cut Amar Singh’s votes, but says he doesn’t know how much money Nath baba has been given to contest. “I don’t think he will get more than 200 votes. We will still win. You will see.”
I ask about the increasing amount of money the state and central governments give to the panchayats these days, thanks to schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The Kaptaan surprises me by candidly discussing corruption. “Of the money the BDO [Block Development Officer] sanctions,” he says, “one has to give him 20 percent as a bribe in the first place. Out of the other 80 percent, it depends on the sarpanch whether the road is built or not, whether the NREGA work is commissioned or not, or how much.”
An associate decides to change the topic. “Not a single candidate is worthy of the office of sarpanch,” he laments. Another man walks in and sits not on one of the many empty sofa seats or the diwan but on the floor, next to the doorstep. “He’s an SC,” says Kishan Singh. “He’s a Mehtar,” explains the Kaptaan. ‘Mehtar’ is a derogatory caste term for Dalits of the sweeper caste; they are known in Rajasthan by the Gandhian name, Harijan.
“So you didn’t want to contest the election?” I ask him. “Someone from my family wanted to,” he says, “but he is our maalik (giver, but literally, ‘owner’), he asked us to withdraw and we did. He said there should be only one candidate from the Matsura side. He is our maalik, he is our maalik…” he says, folding his hands in supplication to the Kaptaan.
I ask the ‘Mehtar’ who he voted for. “I voted for our candidate,” he says, “but I think Babu Lal is winning.” He looks at the Kaptaan, folds his hands again and informs: “I got all the 28 Mehtars to cast their votes, all of them.”
An aide to the Kaptaan responds, “Kaptaan sahab will take good care of you.”
At this he suddenly changes his tone, “Kaptaan sahab won’t do anything!”
“He’s a drunkard,” says the Kaptaan, and his friends in the drawing room repeat the allegation.
“I have not had a single drop in three months,” he says, stinking of alcohol, “but, yes, I have to admit I had some this morning.”
“Who gave you alcohol?” I ask him.
“Amar Singh’s men,” he replies.
If the Kaptaan and his associates are embarrassed, they don’t show it. They start talking about how booze is responsible for his ruin. For the next few minutes, the Mehtar is trying hard to explain some dispute, some problem he had, in which he trusted the Kaptaan, who then betrayed him. He is too drunk to speak coherently. The servants are called and he is kicked out.
I ask him his name. “Rajju,” he slurs.
The Kaptaan’s Pomeranian enters the room and the ‘sarpanch’ starts patting the dog fondly. “I can read people’s faces,” says the Kaptaan. “When this Mehtar says Babu Lal is winning it means he voted for Babu Lal.” Another round of self-praise follows, and although I constantly nod in agreement, he is not convinced and threatens me. “If you write anything that shows me in poor light,” he says, “remember that my reach is up to Delhi,” at which he gets up, goes to a shelf and brings back a framed, dust-covered, yellowing certificate. “I got this letter from the President of India, Giani Zail Singh,” he says. Dated 1983, it said that he was being appointed a naik subedar in the army.
MATSURA, 3 FEBRUARY, 4:00 PM
AMAR SINGH AND THE KAPTAAN, Babu Lal and Jandel Singh, Himmat Nath and Baijnath Advocate are all waiting in the courtyard as the polling officials transport the ballot boxes into one room. 2,261 of 2,703 votes have been cast. The Kaptaan rues that many more would have been cast had people without photo IDs been allowed to vote. The election officers ask for the candidates’ representatives to enter the counting room. The Kaptaan, Jandel and Baijnath Advocate go in. Amar Singh, Babu Lal and Nath baba wait outside, wondering what they are supposed to do. The three candidates gather the courage to mumble something, and one of the policemen knocks on the door and asks what to do with the candidates. Okay, let them in too. It doesn’t matter who wins. All three have lost.
The moment comes at around 8:00 pm.
Everyone emerges from the counting room, but there is no public announcement of the winner. The candidates look neither triumphant nor sad. The Kaptaan wears his usual smug look, as if to say, ‘I told you so.’ The police want Amar Singh to come with them into their vehicle. As the gates part, someone hails the Gurjar god, “Shri Devnarayan Bhagwaan ki…!” And the crowd responds, “Jai!”
Jandel and others from the Husainpura camp disappear quickly as though they had never been there. Nor can I see the Sapera. A polling official gives the numbers: 1,058 for Amar Singh, 767 for Babu Lal and 436 for Nath baba—the Sapera received more votes than anyone thought he would.
The Kaptaan assures the police that nothing untoward will happen and the police let the crowd come close to Amar Singh, then the Kaptaan walks home, as if to permit Amar Singh his moment of glory. Two men hoist Amar Singh by his legs like a trophy, and the procession begins. The crowd first takes him inside the Kaptaan’s house where the Kaptaan offers Amar Singh jaggery. Someone leaves the Kaptaan’s house as the procession moves and starts distributing pieces of jaggery from a white sack. The crowd lifts Singh again, shouting and screaming; it headsfor the Durga temple and around the village before dropping him off at home.
MATSURA, 4 FEBRUARY, 9:30 AM
IT IS THE DAY OF ANOTHER ELECTION. Eleven ward panches will vote to appoint one of them vice-sarpanch. The Kaptaan tries hard to make sure that his man is the only one contesting so that he wins unopposed. The Kaptaan’s man for the post of vice-sarpanch is his own fellow caste member, Ram Baran Gurjar, to whom the Kaptaan is distantly related through marriage. Ram Baran Gurjar co-owns 70 bighas of land (roughly a quarter of a hectare on this part of the subcontinent) with his two brothers in his village, Sandpura. Since the vice-sarpanch position was not reserved for the Dalits, he could be elected from any of the ward members. A ward panch challenges the Kaptaan’s plans to unanimously elect Ram Baran Gurjar, but in the end, the Kaptaan’s man wins seven to five.
The election is a sideshow. The morning belongs to Amar Singh, who stands victorious on the verandah outside the Kaptaan’s house. He is the centre of attention, a crowd milling about on the ground below. Amar Singh is finally smiling. In his bright new clothes he looks like a new man. Someone remarks, “He is not coughing at all today! His TB is cured!”
“This victory has increased his life by at least ten years!” says the Kaptaan, who then disappears. Someone eventually points him out, busy on his mobile, standing in the courtyard of an imposing building that I earlier thought was a set of houses. Turns out it all belongs to him! I ask the Kaptaan about the chattri, the canopy outside the house, the first thing you see when you enter Matsura. He asks a nephew to take me there and explain. It was built in memory of the Kaptaan’s elder brother. I ask this nephew how much land the Kaptaan owns. “More than 100 bighas,” he says, “in three different places.” I ask him for details. “Well 100 bighas in Matsura alone, 30 bighas in Gajpura, another 20 bighas in Gajpura occupied by us, then 30 bighas in Kanchapur and 40 bighas occupied by us in Mahuchkheda.” ‘Occupied’ is an euphemism for ‘illegally grabbed.’
Before returning to Delhi, I visit Satish Lahri, the man who led me to Matsura, in Dholpur. He tells me that an aspect of the election I have missed is the contingent of Dalit voters who were paid to come all the way from Agra to cast their vote. Matsura’s Dalits and Gurjars alike had managed to hide this from me. Lahri also speaks of the farce of a reserved seat. He says there are villages all over Rajasthan where the Dalit sarpanch tries to become his/her own person midway through their term—rebelling against the master, but invariably paying a heavy price for it. Government officials often charge them with the corruption that is actually committed by their feudal masters and they end up in jail. Some are even killed.
As I leave, Lahri says, “I heard from the villagers that you were asking too many questions.”
FIVE MONTHS LATER I visit Matsura again. The aftershock of the election is still being felt. Today is 5 July, and two days ago, a few Jatavs in Husainpura village were beaten black and blue by relatives of Babu Lal. Even the women were not spared. I meet some of them. A ‘compromise’ had been reached at the police station, and no FIR was registered.
The reason behind the violence was that a family member of one of the victims had also wanted to contest. He was forced not to. Now, Babu Lal has been accusing them of not voting for him. And so the family is being harassed, and fights are brewing. Babu Lal wants them to pay him the money he lost in contesting the election. “500,000 rupees,” a villager says. “Three Meenas and two Gurjars were instigating them.” They made Babu Lal contest and had an eye on five bighas of his land as surety if he lost. Since his loss, Babu Lal was being made to pay interest on the loan. One of these days they will take over the land, I’m told. Babu Lal is now paying the price for having contested the election.
Not that the winning candidate is any happier. I ask Amar Singh what he has been able to do in five months. “Five hand pumps,” he says. He is the only one who doesn’t seem pleased to see me, and doesn’t like my taking notes. “What are you writing! Don’t write anything wrong!” People who have been paid amounts as low as 16 rupees through NREGA now refuse to do any more work. Not that any work is possible, because the government is not releasing any money, and has put in place a new tender system that makes work impossible. No construction means no NREGA work.
Earlier, the panchayat could just buy raw materials; now the government issues tenders on behalf of the panchayat. “These businessmen just dump substandard raw material and there’s nobody to take care of it,” the Kaptaan complains. “I have told Amar Singh to tell the secretary work cannot happen like this. We should have the money in our own hands to commission work.”
Every panchayat has a secretary, a government employee who reports to the BDO. The sarpanch can keep proposing plans, but can’t do much unless the secretary gets the BDO to disburse funds.
I can’t figure out how much of this is about corruption and how much is bureaucratic red tape. Amar Singh doesn’t even know what proposals his panchayat has passed, nor has he received his 3,000-rupee monthly salary. When meetings do take place, Vice-Sarpanch Ram Baran Gurjar does all the talking.
And the Kaptaan repeats what he told me five months ago: “I told you. What do these people know?”