Saharanpur Protests Herald a New Phase in Dalit Politics

The BJP is making inroads among Dalits but at the same time, Dalits come together when they are attacked by upper castes

Saharanpur, a district known for its woodcraft products in western UP, is in the news for two caste and communal incidents, involving clashes with Dalits. The ongoing Dalit protest in the district, which has now reached the capital New Delhi, suggests a new phase in Dalit politics in UP, closely related to the declining fortunes of the BSP, and efforts by the BJP to bring the Dalits into the ambit of its more socially inclusive Hindutva strategy.

Dalit politics has been through a number of phases in UP related to the strategies pursued by the BSP and rapid social change in the state in recent decades. In the 1990s the construction of Dalit identity by BSP leaders Kanshiram and Mayawati, promoted a radical, anti-upper caste politics, demanding self-respect and dignity. The BSP was still a movement-party, a democratizing force moving downwards to mobilize the smaller and marginal Dalit sub-castes in the poorer regions of UP. By the end of the decade two developments introduced significant change: class divisions within the community with rise in literacy and attainment of non-agricultural employment among a small better off section of the Dalits, which coincided with the weakening of identity politics and the return of a desire for development in the state. For the better-off, upwardly mobile, section of Dalits, the improvement of economic status became as important as identity and self-respect and they tended to move away from the BSP, becoming more open to parties that promised economic betterment. This shift has been more marked among the non-Jatav Dalits rather than the Jatavs who form the core constituency of the party.

The second significant change was the attempt in the 2000s by the leadership of a resurgent BJP to widen its social base and incorporate the OBCs and Dalits. While this strategy had begun in the 1990s, under Amit Shah the party began a second round of more strident experimentation with non-Brahmin Hindutva to create a ‘Maha Hindu’ identity which would enable them to both win elections and create a united Hindu force against the Muslim ‘other’. These changes have contributed to fragmentation within the Dalit community, which are visible in Saharanpur.

Growing divisions among Dalits

Saharanpur has a large community of Dalits mostly leather workers, some of whom are Buddhists. The Dalits are divided into two groups both in Jatav Nagar, a hub of Dalits in the city and also in the villages where the clashes took place: BJP-affiliated and pro-BSP Dalits. The former largely consist of the younger group attracted in recent years by the promises of development by the BJP, while the latter are largely older groups who continue to support the BSP. The emergence of many Dalit organizations in Saharanpur city such as the Pragatisheel Yuva Manch of the pro-BSP Jatavs formed in 1982 by Ravi Prakash Baudh, and the more recent Ravidasya Dharm consisting of BJP-affiliated Dalits, have deepened the divide in the community. It has also led to competing cultural politics: while the pro-BJP Dalits support the legacy of Saint Ravidas, a Bhakti era religious figure considered a part of the Hindu family, the pro-BSP Dalits portray Ambedkar as the inheritor of the legacy of Buddha whose mantle was carried forward by Kanshiram. Yet both sides celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti, though since 2013 have held separate functions. In the celebrations by the former, many local BJP leaders are present on the stage; this year 5 sitting BJP MLAs attended the program.

Dalit discourse in the city illustrates these divides. Nepal Singh, a relatively prosperous Jatav Dalit who heads the BJP in Jatav Nagar, criticized the BSP as practicing “selective outrage” only when Mayawati is personally abused as by Dayashankar in July 2016 when there were angry protests leading to the accused leader being jailed. Also, it is only after the BJP won in the city, that roads, water taps, drainage and other public facilities reached Jatav Nagar, and the number of Dalits joining the BJP has been steadily rising. In contrast, Dharma Kumar, the BSP’s Saharanpur Mandal coordinator describing the pro-BJP Dalits as “New Harijans” held that the Sadak Dudhli incident was a ploy by BJP to pit Dalits against Muslims. He pointed out that the BJP took no action when the statue of Ambedkar was desecrated twice, on April 5 and April 19, at village Talheri Khurd, in Deoband Tehsil, Saharanpur as the village has Hindu groups such as Gujjars and Prajaparti besides Chamar-Dalits, but no Muslims. But he conceded that the Hindutva discourse had made significant inroads among Dalits in Jatav Nagar and also that the BSP is now facing problems getting Muslims on the same platform as Dalits.

These divides are not new, having developed over time, evident in an earlier Dalit-Muslim clash in 2006 when Dalits of the village were prevented by the Muslims from taking out a procession of Saint Ravidas, which triggered a huge protest across Saharanpur city. The Dalit protest was then led by BSP leaders, while the Muslims were supported by popular Congress leader, Imran Masood. Dalit protest and hunger-strike in front of the District Magistrate’s house ended with their being lathi-charged, leading to anger against the SP government of Mulayam Singh for siding with the Muslims. This tension did not completely die down; local BJP leaders are aware of this, and in April 2017 realized that the village and the city were amenable to caste and communal polarization.

It is against this backdrop that the recent incidents of Dalit protest in Saharanpur district need to be understood. Two violent clashes have taken place recently: between Dalits and Muslims on April 20 due to an Ambedkar Shobha Yatra taken out by a Dalit group; and second, between Rajput Thakurs and Dalits on May 5, arising out of a Maharana Pratap Shobha Yatra by Rajputs. In UP in recent years holding processions of iconic political and religious figures have become sites of politico-cultural contestations for both upper castes as well as subaltern Hindus. Discussions with villagers during a field trip revealed that on the one hand local BJP leaders and organizations are active at the grassroots mobilizing Dalits as part of the strategy of non-Brahmin Hindutva, and on the other hand, there is assertion by the upper castes against the rising lower castes to subdue and control them. Equally important, in both these incidents, the commonality of interests between the socio-cultural agenda of various Hindutva organizations politically active in the district, and the aspirations of a section of the Dalits came together to clash with and make the Muslim the common ‘other’.

Dalit-Muslim clash 

Sadak Dudhali a village barely 5 kilometers from Saharanpur city, in fact now a part of the city municipality, consists of roughly 80 percent Muslims, mainly from the Gada (lower) caste, who claim to be converts from Hindu Rajputs, and 20 percent Chamar-Dalits. In the village the Dalits traditionally shared the social space with the Muslims, resulting in both, everyday cooperation and confrontation. With the advent of Subaltern Hindutva, confrontation over petty, mundane issues among them has become communalized. On April 12, Ashok Bharti belonging to the pro-BJP group and head of ‘Ravidasiya Dharm’ visited Sadak Dudhali and with few Dalit youths planned to organize an Ambedkar Shobha Yatra on April twentieth, to celebrate the birthday of B R Ambedkar in the village. The local administration denied permission as it apprehended trouble due to the pre-existing tension between the Dalits and the Muslims. Also on April 14, Dalits collectively had already celebrated Ambedkar’s birthday in the Ambedkar-Bhavan located in the village, peacefully.

However, a section of the younger Dalits affiliated to the BJP, angry with both the Muslims and the administration, with the help of local BJP workers mobilized the younger Dalits and held the procession. The procession was led by the sitting BJP MP, Raghav Lakhan Pal, an OBC himself whose mother is a Valmiki Dalit, as informed by Dharma Kumar. The MP threatened that they would take the Shobha Yatra through the city and Sadak Dudhli and “he would not allow Saharanpur to become Kashmir.” However, newspaper reports show that when the procession was about to enter into the Muslim area of the village it was attacked with stones and stopped. In retaliation, a mob of BJP supporters went on a rampage, attacked the house of the Senior Superintendent of Police, allegedly broke CCTV cameras and furniture and set public properties on fire. The police ordered an FIR against Lakhan Pal and over 500 others for the violence, vandalism and attack on the house of the Senior Superintendent of Police and the District Magistrate’s office; order was restored only after the city of Saharanpur was turned into a fortress.

Dalit-Rajput clash

The second incident involving conflict between Dalits and Rajputs took place on May 5 over the Shobha Yatra of Maharana Pratap by Rajput caste members, at two neighbouring villages of Shabbirpur and Simlana in Saharanpur district. In striking similarity, the occasion involved the Shobha Yatra of an icon taking place without the required permission. However, the participants were Rajputs and the community which protested against the Yatra was Chamar Dalits. Rajputs traditionally have formed the dominant community in Saharanpur district, but their socio-political pride and authority has been challenged more recently by politically mobile castes like Jats and Gujjars and the advent of non-Brahmin Hindutva; also economic anxieties due to a deepening agrarian crisis ardepriving them of their occupational identity as prosperous farmers. In this situation, the Dalits provide a soft target particularly during a non-BSP regime.

Violence broke out when the Maharana Pratap procession was passing through the predominantly Dalit village of Shabbirpur; residents objected to the allegedly loud music and raucous celebration, triggering an exchange of heated words. The altercation led to a violent clash with both groups throwing stones and bricks at each other. A stone hit a 25-year-old Thakur man fatally. His death further enraged the community and more Thakurs from neighbouring villages gathered at Shabbirpur and set at least 25 Dalit houses on fire. They allegedly attacked police and fire brigade personnel who had rushed to the village. A fire engine was damaged and several people, including a police inspector, were wounded in the attack. While Dalits in the village are divided as elsewhere, into pro-BJP and pro-BSP groups, angry at their property destroyed, united and attacked the Thakurs and had skirmishes with the police. Caught between loyalty to party and community, the BJP-affiliated senior Dalit leaders in the district, while showing solidarity with the Dalits of Shabbirpur, tried to keep out of the incident.

These two incidents particularly the one at Shabbirpur has united the Chamar Dalits of the district leading to the upsurge in the popularity of the Bhim Army — which was formed some time ago, with the resounding slogan of “Jai Bhim”. The violent retaliation by the Dalits in Shabbirpur has exposed the existing fault lines within the Hindu community and disrupted the political strategy of non-Brahmin Hindutva. According to media reports, on May 20, 180 Dalit families have converted to Buddhism in protest against what they call unfair targeting of their community in Shabirpur village, particularly the burning of their houses. They also allege that the police did not allow them to hold a Dalit Mahapanchayat.

In sum, a more complex and challenging phase of Dalit politics has emerged in UP. On the one hand the divide between the ‘Ambedkarite’ and ‘Hindutva’ Dalits has been widening. The advent of subaltern Hindutva politics has created fissures, leading to competing political and cultural politics within the Dalit community. Also, there is growing antagonism among Dalits against Muslims with whom they have shared space within the BSP. On the other hand, when attacked by the upper castes jealous of their growing importance, as in Shabbirpur, Dalits have shown unity and closed ranks. The Dalits of Shabbirpur have received tremendous support from their brethren across UP and many other states; at least 50 thousand gathered at Jantar Mantar on May 21 to protest atrocities by upper castes. The BSP leadership has not reacted or supported the protesting Dalits, which will further alienate a section from the party. These momentous changes explain the declining importance, poor electoral performance and internal divisions within the BSP. It remains to be seen if the BSP under Mayawati will be able to find new strategies to bring Dalits back into its fold in the face of an aggressive Hinduising force like the BJP.

Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar are co-authors of Everyday Communalism and Riots: Uttar Pradesh in the 2000s, to be published by Oxford University Press later this year.

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