At least 12 Dalits were seriously injured and up to 55 houses were burnt after clashes with the Thakur community – but the authorities are deflecting attention by comparing the Bhim Army to Naxals.
Shabbirpur, Uttar Pradesh: Shabbirpur village lies about 25 km away from Saharanpur city in western Uttar Pradesh. Not too far off from Shabbirpur are Maheshpur and Simlana villages. If you enter Shabbirpur village now, you can smell the smoke coming from the houses of Chamar residents, one of the largest Scheduled Caste communities in UP.
As you enter the bylanes of the area where the Dalits live, the smell of smoke will mix with visions of burnt homes and destroyed property (bikes, utensils, livestock). On the faces of the residents, there is deep sorrow and angst. The National Confederation of Dalit Adivasi Organisations (NACDAOR) met around five Chamar families from the village, who talked about what led to the horrific incident on May 5 – the day when Dalits became the target of Rajputana revenge, despite the Chamars and Thakurs sharing a cordial past.
On April 14, Ambedkar Diwas, Shabbirpur’s villagers wanted to install a statue of Ambedkar in their local Ravi Das mandir. But the Thakurs in the village protested and complained to the village administration. The administration forbid the Chamar community from installing the statue, stating that they could do so only after receiving due permission. The families we met said they never received this permission.
On May 5, in the neighbouring Simlana village, Thakurs had planned a jayanti for Maharana Pratap. Thousands of Thakurs were apparently at the celebration, including some from Shabbirpur as well. They were wearing Rajasthani safas and carrying swords and metal rods, some even had petrol in bottles. At around 10:30 am, some Thakur youths apparently tried to enter the Dalit basti, while playing loud music as part of the procession. The Dalits protested this, saying the Thakurs had no prior permission from the administration to play loud music. But when Rajputs did not relent, the Dalit pradhan of Shabbirpur reported the matter to the local station officer (SO), M.P. Singh. The SO immediately arrived at the spot and began disbursing the Thakur crowd. The Chamars said that after that, the Thakurs took a few rounds of the area on their bikes, shouting provocative slogans like,”Rajputana zindabad, Ambedkar murdabad” and “Maharana Pratap zindabad”, before they moved towards the Ravi Das mandir. After all of this, the Dalits said, their pradhan started throwing stones at the Thakurs. By 11 am, there was chaos in and around the Ravi Das mandir. A Thakur youth, Sumit Singh, entered the temple, broke the idol of Ravi Das, allegedly urinated on it and set the broken idol on fire. After that, when he came out of the mandir, he suddenly collapsed and died on the way to the hospital.
We met advocate Jai Singh, who, along with four other lawyers, is fighting the cases filed against Dalits. Jai said that in the FIRs filed against the Dalits, the pradhan has been accused of Sumit’s murder under Section 307 of the IPC. The postmortem report, a copy of which is with NACDAOR, shows that the youth died from ‘asphyxiation’. When we asked the Dalit families about this, they said that since it is harvest time, sacks of grain could be found across the village, including in the Ravi Das mandir. When Sumit set the idol on fire, they said, the sack too must have caught fire and the smoke caused his death.
Meanwhile on May 5, as news of Sumit’s death spread like wildfire, thousands of Thakur youth began to make their way to Shabbirpur, apparently to “avenge” his death. The Dalits say they were beaten with swords and rods in the hours that followed, and their houses were set on fire (about 55 houses were burned that day). Around 12 Dalits have been badly injured and admitted to Saharanpur’s Civil Hospital. One of them (the pradhan’s son) is in critical condition even now and has been admitted to Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Hospital.
NACDAOR spoke to some of the victims admitted to Civil Hospital.
Anil Singh, 35, says, “I am a labourer in the nearby brick kiln. On May 5 as I returned home after work, around 11 am, some 50-60 people from the Thakur clan barged into my home. They attacked me with rifles, swords and hit me from the back. They tried to molest my wife. Our house was set on fire. My four-year-old son was thrown into the fire. The right side of his body has burn injuries.”
Forty-one year old Agni Bhaskar had his own ordeal to share. “Some 300-400 people barged into our homes and burned our house and many other houses in the village. Police was there right in front of us and they were heard telling the Thakurs, ‘Tumhaare paas ek-der ghanta hai, jo karna hai kar lo (You have about one to one-and-a-half hours, do whatever you want)’. They raised slogans made popular by the Sangh parivar: ‘UP mein rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hoga aur Bharat mein rehna hai to Modi Modi kehna hoga. Ambedkar aur Jai Bhim kehna bandh karo (If you want to stay in UP, you have to chant Yogi’s name and if you want to stay in India, you have to chant Modi’s name. Stop invoking Ambedkar and chanting Jai Bhim)’. They stripped themselves in front of our women, looted my wife’s jewellery and five mobile phones, took our cows and buffaloes. We have lost property worth about three lakhs and our house has been reduced to ashes.”
“They tried to slam their swords into my breast and when I tried to protect myself, they rammed them into my hands,” his wife Reena added.
Shyam Singh’s nephew was getting married on May 5. “I was returning home after leaving our guests in the nearby village. I hadn’t reached home when a Thakur youth from our village attacked me. Others joined. My shoulder and head are injured.” Shyam’s family is one of the worst affected in the village.
The primary allegation of all victims is that the attitude of the SSP and the district magistrate in such caste atrocity cases is always anti-Dalit. According to them, in the Shabbirpur case, while compensation of Rs 15 lakh has been promised to the family of the Rajput youth who died, no compensation amount has been fixed yet for the Dalit victims. Neither the chief minister of UP nor the prime minister have taken a stand on the issue.
Intervention of the Bhim Army and the role of the police and administration
Demanding adequate compensation for the Dalit families affected by the violence and the immediate arrest of the Thakurs involved in the May 5 incident, the Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission called for a panchayat in Sant Ravidas Chhatravas. “Every organisation working for the rights and causes of Dalits and the marginalised were part of the panchayat. This programme was in our chhatravas. The police and administration first tried to stop this meeting from taking place by imposing Section 144 of the IPC (which prohibits an assembly of more than four people in an area). But by then, most organisations had already reached Saharanpur city for the panchayat. So we decided to shift the meeting to Gandhi Park on May 9. The district magistrate had already been intimated that this meeting is going to take place in a peaceful, democratic manner. But at around 10:30 pm, police arrived at the spot and without any reason or warning began to lathi charge the people present. I was on my way to Saharanpur when police stopped our car and I was arrested because our organisation had arranged the meeting. The police cracked down on other areas too, in Ramnagar the mahadalit panchayat which was being led by Kamal Walia of Bhim Army [was disrupted],” Rahul Bharti, president of the Sant Shromani Guru Ravidas Samiti, told us.
District magistrate N.P. Singh, however, said that no prior information had been given to him about the May 9 mahapanchayat. In an All India Dalit Adivasi organisations’ meeting with the district magistrate and SSP of Saharanpur on May 15, the district magistrate said that the arrest of Bharti was completely justified because Chandrasekhar, the founder of the Bhim Army, had told him on phone that their organisations may be different but Bharti and Chandrasekhar share the same mission – Babasaheb’s mission.
“Was forming an army the mission of Babasaheb? He had propagated unity among all communities through peace, not an armed rebellion. Chandrasekhar is nothing but a Naxalite and Naxalism is what he is teaching in the Bhim Army. These people are a real threat to the nation and our aim is to apprehend all those who share his ideas,” said the district magistrate. SSP Subhash Chandra Dubey, in a similar vein, said, “Members of the Bhim Army have been inciting Naxal-like violence on social media. They are circulating posts like, ‘Cheh foot ke aadmi ko paanch inch kar denge, Saharanpur ko jala dalenge (We will make a six-foot tall man five inches tall, we will burn Saharanpur)’.” Despite repeated requests, the SSP has not shared any of these images with us. While the police and state administration have charged the Dalits accused in the May 9 incident under the National Security Act, no chargesheet has been prepared yet against the ten Thakurs accused in the violence. The authorities seem to be trying to deviate the focus from what happened in Shabbirpur to the Bhim Army. Fifty Dalits have been arrested after May 9.
Takeaways from the Shabbirpur violence
The Chamars of Shabbirpur village are not a wretched community – economically, socio-politically or otherwise. Thakurs possess a major portion of the land, but numerous Dalit families are also land owners. The Dalit pradhan, Shiv Kumar, who has five brothers, owns about 60 acres of land. There are almost 2,400 voters in this village, of which 1,200 are Thakurs, 600 Chamar and the rest belonging to Kashyap, Taili, Dhobi, Valmiki and Yogi communities. Despite there being double the number of Thakur voters than Chamar, a Dalit was elected village pradhan. Villagers say that in the latest election, while Chamars, Tailis, Dhobis and Valmikis formed a consolidation, there was no unity among the upper castes. Also, until 2016, Shabbirpur was a reserved seat. Last year, despite being declared a general seat, a Dalit was elected. There is a primary school in the village where only a few Thakur children study while a majority belong to the Chamar caste. A quick demographic study of Shabbirpur village shows that there is a consistent effort among Chamars to inch up the social ladder. The recent caste clash in the village is being seen as an attempt to block the upward mobility of Dalits.
This, of course, is not the first incident of inter-caste violence in UP. Latest National Crime Records Bureau data show that out of a total of 38,564 cases of atrocities against SCs registered in 2015, the highest number of such cases have been reported from UP (about 8,357 cases). After Adityanath’s appointment as chief minister of the state on March 26, in just two months, three cases of caste atrocities have caught nation-wide attention. Before the Shabbirpur violence took place, two other caste clashes were reported from Mundet village on April 14 and Sadak Dudhli village on April 20. In Sadak Dudhli village, BJP/RSS workers got into a tussle with Muslims and Dalits as they had raised slogans of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ instead of ‘Jai Bhim’ during their procession on Ambedkar Jayanti. On May 4, a chargesheet was prepared against some of the BJP/RSS workers but none of the accused have been arrested so far. In Mundet, which lies along the border of UP and Uttarakhand, Babasaheb’s poster was burnt by BJP/RSS workers. And when Dalits protested in front of the police there, they were lathi charged. Some of them were also arrested. These instances, and the one in Shabbirpur, should not come as a surprise.
Ask any local and she will tell you that no Maharana Pratap Jayanti celebrations used to take place. There have been popular local narratives like that of Aalha Udal (Chandela Rajputs) of Bundelkhand but never Maharana Pratap. The latter shares no history with Uttar Pradesh. But Adityanath, in his speeches, has talked about the need to have Maharana Pratap as a role model, an icon who serves as the perfect example of being an adversary to the Mughal empire, a facilitator of Hindu Raj.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, which has always had a strong presence in Saharanpur, lost this stronghold in the 2017 assembly elections. The general sentiment behind this was that Mayawati’s fight for Dalits has remained restricted only to elections and raising debates inside parliament. “Zameen ka jo roz ka jhagra hai uske liye BSP kabhi humaara saath nahi detein (BSP never stands with us in our daily tussle over land),” said a youth from Shabbirpur. It is to fill this vacuum on the ground that the Bhim Army was formed; to address the everyday social grievances of Dalits. However, this is not the first time that Mayawati has paid lip-service to cases of caste atrocities. Even after the Una lynching episode, it was only when thousands of Dalits took to the streets that Mayawati addressed a press conference condemning the incident.
Understanding the Shabbirpur violence and many other caste atrocity cases happening on a daily basis will be incomplete if not read within the context of the existing penal provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes ( Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The deep entrenchment of caste discrimination had prompted the government to promulgate the SC/ST Act in August 1989, which came into force on January 30, 1990. This was an important piece of legislation because for the very first time, the word ‘atrocity’ was clearly defined under the Act. The Act, which was amended last year, is a deterrent. The fault lies in its implementation. Take the Shabbirpur case, for instance. The new Act has provisions of admissible relief in cash, kind or both within seven days to victims, their family members and dependents – but none of this has happened yet. The district magistrate on May 15 announced a compensation amount of Rs 25,000-50,000 depending on the nature of loss for each family, while the new Act has raised the quantum of relief to Rs 7,50,000-8,50,000. And while there is an SC/ST Protection Cell in Saharanpur (according to the SSP), there is no special officer to look exclusively into caste atrocity cases or a monitoring committee at the district level for effective implementation of the SC/ST Act.
Srija Naskar and Sumedha Bodh are working as part of the research and investigative wing of the Delhi-based National Confederation of Dalit-Adivasi Organisations.