All day, from every alley in this poor but industrious village in north central India, comes the steady chink, chink of mallets pounding leather washers that are used to seal water pumps. It is a sound that has defined Alipur's economic survival, cohesion and identity for half a century.
But until recently, no matter how hard they worked, the washer makers of Alipur were trapped at the bottom of India's caste system. They are dalits, or untouchables. When they boarded a bus, people from other castes moved away. When they sought jobs outside their traditional occupations--such as leather crafts--they were brushed off.
Over the past several years, however, a transformation has taken place among the dalits of Alipur. An awakening of pride and purpose among the lowest castes is changing the equation of rural politics across regions of India where dalits are a growing electoral bloc, perhaps no more visibly than in Uttar Pradesh state, which goes to the polls Sunday in the fourth phase of India's parliamentary election. Uttar Pradesh commands 85 of the 543 seats in Parliament, the most of any state.
When Alipur votes, virtually every dalit voter in the village of about 1,000 families will mark the blue elephant. It is the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), founded by and for dalits. Many voters cannot sign their name, but a leather-stained thumb print will suffice.
"This is a country where people vote for their caste. Now we have a party we can vote for too," said Krishan Pal, a village council member and washer workshop owner who belongs to the BSP. "It has given us a sense of respect and strength. Today I am no longer ashamed to say I am an untouchable. I can say it with pride."
The BSP, founded in 1984, came to prominence in the early 1990s with the rise of a feisty woman from Uttar Pradesh who uses the single name Mayawati. Today, the party is far from dominating the state, where dalits comprise 21 percent of the population. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a pro-Hindu party led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is expected to carry the state with about 45 seats and win a majority in Parliament as well.
But the emerging phenomenon of dalit power is having a major impact on village life. In Alipur, where dalits make up half the populace, the village council head is an illiterate dalit woman named Satyavati, 47. In the past, such a step would have been unthinkable, since most dalit women marry as adolescents, rarely leave their homes and are subordinate to their husbands.
Moreover, regional dalit leaders have begun reaching out to potential allies among other castes and minorities, such as Muslims. They seem unfazed by their slow electoral progress and astute about the importance of establishing a solid political base, even if it takes time.
"The dalits realize they can't win alone, so they have to build bridges. They are willing to make a little bigger dent each time," said Pran Chopra, a political analyst in New Delhi.
In many ways, the dalits of Alipur are still struggling to overcome problems that have always plagued their community of small but sturdy houses and narrow paved alleys, surrounded by sugar cane fields and grazing water buffalo. Some washer makers spend their wages getting drunk on country liquor. Many women are confined to lives of domestic servitude.
Among educated local dalits, there is a deep sense of frustration. Although the government has established job quotas for lower castes, private business remains largely inaccessible. Several men who attended urban universities have returned home to run the family washer business, unable to establish a foothold in professions dominated by upper caste Hindus such as Brahmans.
"I studied so much and got so many degrees. A lot of us have educations now, but we still don't have opportunities, and the Brahmans still don't want to share power," said Vinod Kumar, a teacher in an elementary school. Its courtyard is dominated by a statue of B.R. Ambedkar, the pioneering dalit leader who died in 1956. "The day our people have a real share in power," he added, "the whole face of India will change."
Within Alipur, caste relations seem cordial, and most residents say there are few serious tensions among dalits, Brahmans, Muslims and jats, a farmer caste. But most neighborhoods are divided by caste, and the demarcation is clear with elections approaching: Dalit sections are full of blue elephant flags, Brahman areas with orange and green flags for the BJP.
The Congress party, a vast secular organization that once commanded support among villagers of all stripes, now has virtually none. Brahmans complained that the party was ruined by corruption. Dalits have switched their loyalty en masse to the BSP.
Satyavati said she was discouraged by the slow pace of change in the dalit community. Despite the pervasive problem of men drinking and becoming abusive, she said no dalit wife had ever dared complain to her. And although there are two elementary schools, some dalit children are so poor and neglected that they do not attend.
"It doesn't really matter who becomes prime minister," she said. "We villagers must change our habits, improve our own lives. Even if we elect someone who has good policies and programs, it will make no difference if we don't do more to help ourselves."