As the journalists sought the views of Dalit families in the tiny village market, one boy rushed back into the row of homes, and emerged holding the hand of another.
"He is a Massi," Abu, 10, said of his 11-year-old friend Aji as they stood before a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) wall graffiti in Painthal village near Katra. He was referring to Masha, a lower caste in Jammu and Kashmir.
In a state where separatism and regional issues run deep, there is a new kid on the block in the upcoming elections in the state: caste politics. The assertion of caste identities is percolating down to many villages and Mayawati's BSP has added a new dimension to the elections.
Posters and wall writing by the BSP dot the mountain roads across the region here, even in remote areas. Inviting people to join it and vote for it, the party has painted even roadside rocks next to milestones on the dusty road stretch from Udhampur to Doda.
"The other parties have failed to eradicate poverty and unemployment in the state. It is because of this that the youth switched from the ballot to bullets," said Bhagwan Singh Chauhan, the state coordinator for BSP.
"We will raise the basic issues – bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water) – and, of
course, caste is a factor -- we shall be raising the issues of the downtrodden," Chauhan said. Mayawati held a huge public rally in Jammu last November.
For the first time, the BSP is contesting from all the 87 seats in the state in the upcoming elections, even in the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh. The party has handpicked candidates across castes and religions. Though the party contested from 33 seats the last time, it failed to win any.
Dalits have hubs across the Jammu province. There are four major sects of Dalits here -- Ram Dassi, Meg, Doom and Masha. Of them, Ram Dassis, who have joined Radha Swami sect, are economically better-off.
"They prospered because Ram Dassis gave up flesh and wine and focused on education," said Painthal resident S D Nirmohi, 72, a retired professor and author of several books on Jammu society. "They are doctors, engineers and senior administrative officers."
The BSP is drawing support in Painthal among upper caste people as well.
"She (Mayawati) is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and intends to rule the country," said shopkeeper Sunny Khajuria who has Mayawati's posters with local leaders on his shop façade. He is quick to add: "She doesn't have a huge vote base here."
Unlike Dalits living in other parts of the country, the community has not faced widespread discrimination in the Jammu province. Upper caste boys play with lower caste counterparts in Painthal on the same ground, study in the same school and share food.
"There is nothing like that. God is equal to all," said Jai Kishan, a Brahmin priest from a local temple.
"Mayawati treated everybody equally and taught us to treat all equally," said Kishan, sitting at a shop owned by a Dalit. "She taught us to treat Dalits as brothers."
6 months ago