In the late 1960s, a little girl and her family set out from a Delhi shanty town to visit her grandparents in a distant village. It was a long journey, and her parents began to chat to other passengers on the bus. When they revealed their destination was the chamar mohalla – the area usually found on the outskirts of a village and inhabited by those at the lowest level of the Indian caste hierarchy – the bus fell silent. The little girl’s mother had to explain to her that other Indians considered the caste to which her family belonged to be unclean.
More than 40 years later, that little girl, known simply as Mayawati, is a political hero for lower-caste Indians throughout the north of the country. She is a Dalit, a member of the caste known historically as “untouchables”. And Dalits in the state of Uttar Pradesh hurry in their thousands to her rallies, where she tells them how proud she is to have been born into a Dalit family. “I am the daughter of a Chamar [a Dalit]. I am a Chamar. I am yours.” In May 2007, she became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the fourth time. On taking the oath of office, she declared that “nobody can stop me from becoming prime minister”. We shall find out soon enough if she is right: India goes to the polls in a general election in April and May this year.
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