Udit Raj, president of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, is a staunch supporter of reservations for Dalits from among Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the education sector and has hailed the move to introduce reservations for Dalits in promotions in government jobs in the country. His fight involves conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity for “mental liberation” from the Hindu caste system, reservations in government and private sector for the Dalits and a thrust towards education among them. His political outfit, the Indian Justice Party, is out to root out Mayawati and challenge her feudal politics which, he says, has only done harm to the Dalits in the country. While he is the only challenger to Mayawati from within the Dalit community in UP, his success has been limited to the intellectual space. Udit Raj, however, has been finding the ways of politics in India difficult and has often found himself on the wrong side of the fence in trying to push for his agendas. While his causes are termed both important and controversial, he seems to be alienating himself as he tries to learn the ways of politics and fund his party, which lost miserably in the assembly elections.

A group of about a hundred people are gathered in a single-room primary school in Khajuri Khas, north-east Delhi. The locality, Ram Nagar, is piled with garbage deposited daily from nearby areas by safai karamcharis of the “gorment” (government). The brick lanes have no street lights and the drains are clogged. Swarms of mosquitoes and flies greet anyone who enters the locality, which lies along the outer ring road. Not many “bade log” (influential people) have been to this area, comprised mostly of migrants from UP, Bihar, Haryana and residents of Khajuri Khas village; except, of course, during rallies for municipal or assembly elections.

But that is about to change. Ram Nagar is among the more than 930 illegally constructed localities now regularised by the Delhi government. This means they will finally have access to basic services provided by the government and the municipality—sanitation, roads, regular water supply and the like. It’s an important announcement for people in these colonies; most importantly, they will now officially be Delhiites, not illegal migrants/occupants.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has expectedly termed the regularisation a gimmick to get votes in the assembly elections, due in a few months. But the mood in Ram Nagar is upbeat and the ruling Congress party’s office adjacent to the school, where the crowd has gathered, sees a lot of activity. “This is nothing compared to the crowd that gathers during the meetings (at the Congress office),” a local points out. Congress workers are busy educating people about the facilities their government will now be providing.
“People don’t know every detail. So it’s important for them to listen and make sure they know the procedures to be followed to get the new facilities,” the local adds.

But the gathering at the school, owned by a rich gujjar who now lives in the “city” but runs many such schools in the area, has also been invited “to be educated about their rights”. The chief speaker is Dr Udit Raj, president of the Indian Justice Party. Workers from his party have organised this meeting to “inspire” the cadre in North East Delhi constituency, where the party had its only success in municipal elections this year. Three-time loser Dharmender Kumar, a gujjar who fought on a BJP ticket and then as an independent twice earlier, won ward number 271 of Karawal Nagar (rural) constituency. Most of the cadre thus are known personally to Udit Raj and are now referred to as “senior, experienced leaders”.

An ex-government servant, Udit Raj launched the Indian Justice Party (IJP) in 2003, to fight for Dalit rights. He says Dalits have largely been “mistreated” and “exploited” by Mayawati, the most powerful Dalit leader in the country with a mass base in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and considerable strength in Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and other northern states, including Delhi. 

Mayawati’s rise, he says, has only seen the benefits of power going to her own community, the Jatavs. Her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has been in power in UP four times, also has a strong Jatav cadre and a minuscule representation from other Dalit communitiess, including the Khatik community, to which he belongs.

“It is not just her, since Independence most Dalit leaders have emerged from among the Jatavs. They started asserting themselves much earlier, and so had exposure to political, social and educational benefits,” he says. 

Babu Jagjivan Ram ke time se (since the days of Babu Jagjivan Ram—the Congressman who rose to major leadership roles in the party and the Central Government during the 1960s and 1970s).”

The arguments are not off the mark. UP government statistics show that over the past decade the Jatav share in government jobs, be it police or civil services has consistently gone up. “They may be reaping the benefits of political representation, but it has not trickled down to other communities.”

Over the past decade, Jatavs, concentrated in western UP, have emerged as the “Thakurs among the Dalits”, with their land holdings going up significantly and prosperity accompanying social mobility as a result.

In many cases, Jatav police officers have been blamed for excesses and indiscriminate use of police machinery, as was the case in the firing on protesters at Tappal village in Aligarh district in 2010. That one instance, some workers of the IJP say, is a sign Jatavs are asserting their power in the state, since at least three of the seven people who died there were non-Jatav Dalits, while others were from the upper castes.

The issues in Delhi are different, however. While caste-based discrimination does exist in the rural areas and migrant colonies, there’s no real trend for politicians to follow. The demographics of migrant colonies keep changing dramatically due to large-scale migration every year and with regional affiliations and cultures thrown in, it’s hard for parties to craft a voter bank-based campaign. The voter base is almost impossible to separate into its original constituents. Thus the Congress has consistently managed to win in Delhi by focusing on basic facilities and on its ambition to make it a world-class city for citizens.

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Udit Raj addressing a meeting of party workers at a primary school in north-east Delhi

For Udit Raj too, the voter base is the poor and deprived. He aims to organise them with education and social assertion as his party’s agendas. But the crowd at the school seems uninterested in all this. The women are mostly there to welcome Udit Raj and his advisor Juthika Banerjee, whom someone mistakenly calls Mamata Banerjee during the welcome speech. Banerjee, an ex-civil servant who has worked in rural areas on many UN-sponsored projects, says she joined Udit Raj to work for his cause. She is a constant companion during most of his meetings and public rallies. But even in her presence, women are hardly part of the discussions. Subhash Bihari, who runs a group called Bharatiya Shoshit Sena (Army of the Oppressed), says those who have been humiliated and disrespected must unite against injustice. His solution: “As Mayawati and Kanshiram were garlanded with notes, showered with votes and made to sit on sky high positions, we must too (do the same for Udit Raj)”.

In his speech, Udit Raj tells the crowd to recognise that they’ve been fooled by the people in power over and over again. “And those who have been fooled must unite and work harder now,” he says, adding a cautionary note, “But do not try to fool me; do not indulge in flattery. I know who works and who does not.”

The audience is largely amused at the proceedings. Udit Raj is trying to distribute the responsibilities for generating awareness and creating a voter base in every ward of the North-east Delhi constituency. The names are called out without any consultation. His nephew Sanjay, a member of the party, suggests the names Udit Raj calls out, asking them, sometimes angrily, “Why don’t you come forward?”

Udit Raj rose to fame when, from 2002 on, he started organising mass rallies during which thousands of Dalits converted to Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, inviting the ire of Hindu nationalists, most prominently the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which saw his attempts as a challenge to its Ram Raj agenda.

Some people do so smiling, while others volunteer with a twinkle in the eye. Banerjee writes down all the names; along with the details. “From now on, I will communicate with only these people,” declares Udit Raj.

One of the participants whose name figures in the list asks someone sitting next to him, “Bhai, karna kya padega? (Brother, what will I have to do?)”. So another meeting is called for the next day at Udit Raj’s house; this is for explanations. Everyone is required to carry a notebook and pen to make notes.

After the evening snacks are distributed, some people start to leave, while Professor M P Singh, a party worker from Faridabad in Haryana, is speaking. He immediately directs the audience, much like a school teacher, to maintain silence and stay back. Everyone is called back and the door is shut. Singh says everyone should follow the example of Udit Raj, the only IRS officer who has emerged as a leader of the Dalits. It’s only Mayawati’s betrayal of the Dalits that has pushed the IJP to pick up the Dalit banner.

“Only her brothers and sisters and close ones have reaped the benefits,” he tells them.

But his arguments fall somewhat flat considering the substantial reduction in poverty, deprivation and exploitation of Dalits across sub-castes and communities in UP. While it still tops the list for caste-based discrimination and violence, UP has also seen the strongest action taken against offenders under Mayawati.

Undaunted by the facts, Udit Raj holds her responsible for Dalit backwardness in UP. She has only furthered a feudal agenda by making sure the fruits of power are distributed among her own community. She hijacked the work begun by Kanshiram, he says.
Udit Raj rejects her work completely. “Just one term (in power) and I could have turned things over (for the Dalits),” he says. “BJP, Congress, SP–she made alliances with everybody, putting the welfare of Dalits on the backburner.”

She spent most of her life in Delhi and hardly saw the harsh realities of caste identities in UP. And “Usne toh virasat samajh kar rakh liya hai BSP ko (she considers BSP her ancestral property),” an IJP worker says.

Another party worker, P P Koli, a member of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, of which Udit Raj is president, says, “Kanshiram ke baad toh satta inhe milni chahiye thhi; yeh usse kahin zyada qualified hain (he should have got power after Kanshiram; after all, he is much more qualified).”

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Udit Raj’s advisor Juthika Bannerjee addresses party workers.

Koli’s disappointment at the shape Dalit politics has taken under Mayawati is shared by a large section of his party’s workers and members of the SC/ST organisations. Udit Raj is, they say, the only bureaucrat who has consistently followed Kanshiram’s agenda, the only one who insisted on education as the means to eliminate inequality. “He has a better understanding of discrimination in government departments and in the education system,” says Koli, himself an ex-government servant in the Railways, till he took voluntary retirement in 1991.

Udit Raj was exposed to his caste identity early in life. He saw upper caste oppression first-hand in his home village, Ramnagar, in Allahabad district. With social boycott of Dalits predominant and awareness low, he hardly paid attention to studies till he passed his 12th grade exams while students from the upper castes studied hard; his parents too were uneducated. “It was only a little better during graduation,” he says. But admission to Allahabad University changed his life. He took a keen interest in philosophy, especially that of B R Ambedkar, and Buddhism, which Ambedkar endorsed a few years before his death.

His interests took him to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi at 22, where his ideology and commitment took shape. He was inspired by Kanshiram’s movement and grew to believe that education was the means to break the shackles of caste. At JNU he joined the communists in the Students Federation of India (SFI) and emerged as one of the leaders. He was a strong critic of the Congress and the “savarna” (upper caste) leadership of all other parties; and he was an ardent supporter of the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF).

But politics took backseat after a few years and he eventually joined as an officer with the Indian Revenue Services in 1988 at the age of 30. Along with his work as a public servant, he also continued to follow Dalit politics under BAMCEF and, later, BSP, keenly. A well-known figure among SC/ST leaders earlier, he fell out of the public eye in his initial years as a bureaucrat.

However, he continued to work closely with Dalit intellectuals, organisations and unions. He formed the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations in 1997 with the aim of promoting education and assertiveness among the Dalits of the country. This was also when he grew disillusioned with Mayawati. Alienation from political circles and “gross misuse of power” by Mayawati were the main reasons, his party workers say. Some also point out, though hesitantly, that he was not appreciated enough within the BSP; “they rejected him,” says a worker.

Udit Raj also opened the Lord Buddha Club, largely comprised of members of the Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, to promote Buddhism as a religion and as a means of equality and Dalit empowerment. He converted to Buddhism in 2001 and inspired many more to “liberate” themselves from the shackles of the caste system. But it hasn’t helped shake caste, he says.

“Caste-based discrimination does not end; there is hardly any change in upper caste attitudes, even among converts and towards their professions or lifestyle. But the mental liberation is crucial,” he says.

Udit Raj rose to fame when, from 2002 on, he started organising mass rallies during which thousands of Dalits converted to Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, inviting the ire of Hindu nationalists, most prominently the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which saw his attempts as a challenge to its Ram Raj agenda. But Udit Raj’s agenda was simple: to work towards a caste-less society. He worked closely with Indian Christian Council leaders like John Dayal and Ambrose Pinto and Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind leader Maulana Mahmood Madni.

This success and his growing popularity drove Udit Raj into launching the IJP in 2003. But there were shocks and surprises in store for him. 

Immediately after the IJP’s launch, Udit Raj took up causes that affected Dalits directly. Given upper caste cow worship and the threat of violence hanging over Dalits for allegedly killing them or not treating them with respect, he called upon the Dalits to worship the buffalo, an animal he thought was much more uselful than the cow. He also demanded that the government declare the buffalo the national animal.

During his various meetings and rallies buffalo-worship was organised even as he attacked the BJP and VHP for anti-Dalit violence. In his book, Dalit and Religious Freedom, he Raj has argued that since the buffalo gives more milk than a cow, it should be treated as a mother and not the cow, attacking the upper caste Hindu concept of Gau Mata (Mother Cow).

But the most important cause was on reservations in the private sector companies. First, he opposed the privatisation of public sector units (PSUs) in India because they are the only place where reservations allow Dalits to get secure government jobs. Selling stakes in the PSUs, he said, would deprive the Dalits of secure representation in the country.

He then staged protests demanding reservations for Dalits in the private sector. He says Indian companies want to follow American companies on business strategy, but shy away from social responsibility. The example he put forth was affirmative action taken by the US private sector to make sure that black people had fair representation.

“In 1982, the American media came to know that African-Americans made up only two per cent of (the) media (sector). They started searching for minority candidates. Finally, they trained them and employed them. One more survey was done after 7-8 years and it came out that their participation has reached 8-9 per cent. This is called patriotism,” he said. He called upon Indian corporate sector to emulate the Americans.

His strong stance on reservations in the private sector prompted the US invite Udit Raj, with another organisation called the Dalit Solidarity Network represented by Joseph D’Souza, Indira Athawale and Kancha Ilaiah, to give a presentation to Congress on the status of India’s Dalits.

The US under George W Bush had just signed an agreement to increase cooperation in economic, foreign investments and human rights fields. In his testimony before the US House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, Udit Raj tried to focus attention on job reservations in the private sector. It focused on the government’s failure to make sure Dalits were represented fairly.

But the US read his assertions differently. In a Wikileaks cable released last year, US Ambassador to India David Mulford cautioned the government to “tread cautiously”. The cable, dated October 25, 2005 concluded that status quo regarding US policy on reservations in India’s private sector be maintained claiming that Dalit groups had vested interests and threatened agitations against US companies by conniving with Maoists groups. Mulford also claimed that human rights abuses in the country were on the decline, restricted to rural areas. During a discussion unrelated to the cable, Udit Raj agreed that discrimination in urban areas is low and in government jobs almost invisible.

Udit Raj was preparing for the UP Assembly elections last year when media reports on the cable took him by surprise. He contested Mulford’s views and said that he “viewed caste from the prism of racism” and that the US has a “dwarfed understanding of the caste system in India”. He now blames the US’s “news collection system” for Mulford’s assessment.

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The cable claimed Udit Raj was unconvincing in his argument that “without American intervention to compel the GOI to take action, many within India’s lower castes would abandon conventional politics and embrace Maoist revolution.”

It also quoted Poor Christian Liberation Movement leader R L Francis’s claim that “Udit Raj does not distribute the funds he raises abroad to the larger Dalit community”. But he dismisses Francis as a “foolish” Dalit Christian whose only agenda is to “oppose Christian missions in India” when Christianity is one of the two fastest growing religions along with Buddhism.

Francis, on the other hand, says his fight against Christian Missionaries is genuine because the money that they receive from abroad never trickles down. “Not even one per cent of it is used for the welfare of the Dalit Christians and my fight is against them,” he says. “Many people from Europe and US come to meet me but I do not remember saying anything about Udit Raj specifically”.

“He painted me with the same brush,” Udit Raj says dismissively, adding, “neither am I communist nor am I corrupt”. On the charges of corruption, he says he retired as Income Tax Commissioner of Delhi and could have made a lot of money since “there one does not need to ask for bribes; people pay to make sure an officer does not take strict action against them”; “but I chose a different path”.

That path was political. Over the years he has been with the National Integration Council of the Government of India and has tried to unite non-BSP Dalit leaders under the National Dalit Front (NDF) with the support of Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan. But the NDF is almost defunct, with only Paswan and Udit Raj at the helm and hardly any ground structure. “We want to revive it; but who knows when we will be able to do so,” he says.

Having failed in his intellectual battles and being at odds with other intellectuals over his political commitments, Udit Raj tried to find his way through the UP elections.

Ahead of the elections, however, the Jan Lokpal movement burst with the force of a bomb. Udit Raj and the confederation termed it a movement supported by “fascist forces” of the BJP and other Hindutva organisations. Utilising the immense media attention over the issue, the party and the confederation also carried out protests in Delhi and across the country demanding a Bahujan Lokpal Bill which had equal representation for Dalits and minorities.

While the Jan Lokpal movement did not succeed, Udit Raj and other activists succeeded in forcing the government to include reservations for Dalits and minorities in the Lokpal Bill it presented in Parliament. This galvanised support for Udit Raj ahead of the elections.

He then focused on Mayawati and attacked her for misrule as cases of corruption in the government started to roll out one after the other. Blaming her for caste-based politics to benefit only her community, he also attacked her for announcing that her successor will be a “chamar”.

“Why only a chamar? Why not another Ambedkarite?” He decried her attempts to make the BSP a one-caste par ty devoid of democratic representation within the party ranks. He also pointed out that Mayawati had consistently attacked him and leaders from all other lower Dalit castes. “Mayawati called Ram Vilas Paswan a Dusadh, pointed out that Bangaru Laxman is a Valmiki, and called me a Khatik,” he said.

Meanwhile, his party was being organised along the same lines as the BSP, with Udit Raj having the final say over selection of candidates. Ahead of the assembly elections he declared that his party would contest 150 seats. Having toured the state, he had realised intellectual appeal and focus on equal education would not win votes.

“Ideology, development and even honesty do not play a very important role in Uttar Pradesh. Caste configurations and equations do,” he said. 

He made alliances with several regional parties that had sprung up ahead of the elections, representing various caste and religious groups, like the Peace Party, represented largely by Muslims. He tried to unite them to pose a challenge to the bigger players. He also formed the Upekshit (marginalised) Dalit Mahapanchayat to unite lower Dalit castes like Pasi, Dhobi, Kori and Khatik and secure their votes.

The IJP lost every seat it contested.

Its best performance was in Bijnor, where it managed 18,000 votes. In many  constituencies the candidates forfeited their security deposits.

The defeat in UP has left Udit Raj frustrated and bitter. “These people (his voters) are not aware of the riches that being part of the governance system can yield,” he says, looking at an evening crowd on a packed Delhi road filled with people returning from work or just passing by sitting inside his sedan. “Look at the number of people. Look at our population. (Winston) Churchill said that Indians breed like rats,” he says, almost holding the whole of India responsible for the fact that voters rejected him.

Paisa bahut chalta hai saab election mein (there is too much money that goes into the elections),” he says, adding that voters are bought over the night before voting takes place. His advisor Juthika Banerjee adds, “It’s like a mandi (market) out there; alcohol and biryani are distributed the night before (by workers of a party) and next day all those who receive it vote for that party.” But was that the only reason for the loss?

“Yes,” says Banerjee, “otherwise our candidate would have won in Bijnor”.

“No, it’s not just that. At every polling booth, every polling station and for every officer in charge there is money that has to be paid to make sure our voters can vote safely,” says Udit Raj.

While this might be an excuse to explain away the losses, Udit Raj is going through a severe financial crunch. “I would love to receive funds from foreign donors,” he says.

Having alienated himself, he is now trying to coerce his own workers to practise austerity, much like Mayawati is alleged to have done with the BSP. As a worker walks in with a stationery bill into his office, he points out an extra ₹50 expenditure on “phone recharge”, which the worker says was for his cellphone.

“Why?” he thunders, “Why can’t you use the landline (which is paid for by the government); do you have any idea how I manage to arrange resources?”

After the visit to the school, he points out, “Such is the lack of funds that three of the cars that I have in various cities (including one in Delhi) are stranded. There is no money to even buy fuel.” Meanwhile, a party worker, Omveer, has invited him and Banerjee for dinner at his house in Shahdara.

Within minutes of taking his seat, Udit Raj gets into a contemplative mood and says, “I once visited the house of a BSP worker with a BSP leader in Bulandshahar district (of UP).

Jaante hain, khana khaane se pehle bol diye voh ki 10,000 rupya ka donation do party fund ko abhi ke abhi, nahi toh ham khana nahi khaenge (You know, the leader told the host before taking the meal that you will have to donate at least ₹10,000 to the party fund right away or I won’t eat at your place.” He then turns to Juthika Banerjee and says, “I have seen this with even Babu Singh Kushwaha (senior Dalit leader).”

The host, in his humble way, presents a ₹500 note, to which Udit Raj says, “Yeh kya hai? Isse kya hoga? (What is this? What use will this be?)”.

The host replies, “Sir, shuruat kar rahe hain, paisa nahin bhaavna dekhiye (I have made a start, please pay heed to the emotion more than the amount)”. Udit Raj nods in acceptance and digs in the dinner. 

As he finishes his dinner and prepares to leave, the host is left wondering if this is the man who was to eventually lead Dalits towards equal education and ultimate equality in a truly casteless world, or if he’s just another opportunist who carries his own self before the cause; who came, inspired, demanded sacrifice and contribution, and went off on his own path.