New Delhi: Images of arson and destroyed property flooded social media in the aftermath of communal clashes in Saharanpur last week. The riots triggered by BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma’s ill-timed call for a “shobha yatra” (a procession) in memory of social justice icon B.R.Ambedkar, and Hindutva groups’ insistence to take it through communally-sensitive areas of Saharanpur – known for its exquisite furniture designs and the only wholesale cloth market in the region – left major parts of the town blighted for the second time in the last few years.
Saharanpur also witnessed a Muslim-Sikh riot in 2014 over a land dispute. The Muslim leadership of the town had stoked the fears of the community, which was already demoralised by the rise of the BJP. In the days following the clash, the BJP further polarised the city along communal lines and exacerbated the already tense environment of the city.
This time around, however, the riots in this volatile town broke out quite tactically, just a month ahead of the civic body polls, which will take place for the first time in May 2017. Saharanpur was declared a municipal corporation around ten years ago but elections for it kept getting stalled for one reason or another. Despite an unprecedented victory for the party in the recent assembly election, the BJP failed to make a mark in the city. It lost both the assembly seats – Saharanpur and Saharanpur Nagar – to the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance by a thin margin.
This means that Sharma, the MP, remained the only electoral representative for the party in the politically and economically-significant town. The civic body polls, therefore, have become the only chance for the saffron party to register its electoral presence in the city.
A communally polarised environment, which may result in the consolidation of Hindus, Jains and Sikhs who together form more than 53% of the city’s population as opposed to around 45% Muslims, may go on to help only the BJP.
A look at the sequence of events – put together from various newspaper reports and conversations with some residents of Saharanpur – which led to the riots shows that it may well have been pre-planned.
Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated as usual by the Dalit groups of the area on April 14. Despite this, Sharma’s associates announced their plans to hold a shobha yatra” on April 20, which would start from the city’s premises and end in Sadak Dhudhli village on the outskirts of the city.
A report published in The Hindu clearly says that the Dalits of the village had objected to some Hindutva groups trying to organise a separate rally. A letter written by the Ambedkar Sewa Samiti to various administrative officials said that Dalits had already held a “vichar goshti” (seminar) on April 14, the day celebrated as Ambedkar Jayanti, and that it did not intend to organise any other programme.
Muslims constitute almost 80% of the population in Sadak Dhudhli, with only a handful of Dalits living there. The BJP’s decision to end the procession in this Muslim-majority village, the Dalit residents suspected, may trigger animosity between the two communities.
All these factors, however, did not stop the Hindutva groups from calling for the procession. After initial objections, the Dalit residents of Sadak Dhudhli agreed to the BJP’s demand of organising the rally in their village, only on the condition that it would get all the required permissions from the administration. The BJP’s local leadership assured them that since the party is ruling currently, it would get the permission.
As it turned out, the BJP could not manage the required administrative go-aheads. But it decided to take out the rally in defiance of the law. Most Dalit residents of Sadak Dhudhli did not participate in the rally, a few reporters of the area said.
“Most of the participants were from outside. We did not recognise anyone,” said a Dalit journalist from Saharanpur’s, who declined to be named.
Getting permission to hold rallies in Saharanpur has been extremely difficult. Even the previous governments declined permission to political parties, given the communally volatile nature of the city.
Not only did the BJP mobilise for the illegal rally but, according to The Hindu’s report, its leaders insisted that the rally be taken through the Muslim-dominated regions of the city before it ended in Sadak Dhudhli.
Amidst the rising communal tension triggered by the procession, the Muslims of Saharanpur had prepared themselves for a fight. The procession was attacked with stones when it tried to enter the Muslim colonies. As the procession was stopped following the clash, the Hindutva mob went berserk and attacked the senior superintendent of police Love Kumar’s house. At the same time, they set shops ablaze and indulged in looting in different places.
Fuelling the hostility, Sharma immediately declared that he would take out the procession on April 23 and that “he would not allow Saharanpur become Kashmir” even as the SP formed a five-member probe team and sought to bring the situation under control.
In the days following the riot, many Dalit residents of the city have complained about the BJP’s efforts to communalise the political environment in the name of Ambedkar, who was one of the most vocal advocates of communal harmony.
“Normally shobha yatra is brought out during Ravidas Jayanti which mostly falls in the month of February. If the BJP was so serious in paying tribute to Ambedkar, why didn’t it take the procession through upper caste Hindu areas of Saharanpur; why only through Muslim-dominated regions? All of us know that the upper caste Hindus hate Dalits the most. They are the ones who have complained against shobha yatra in the past,” Inderpal, a Dalit activist in Saharanpur said.
In a similar vein, Balbir Singh Gautam, a member of the Ambedkar Samaj Party, was quoted in The Hindu, “I am sure the situation would have been different had they held a discussion with the administration and the Muslim community which had no objection to Shobha Yatra if it is done with permission.”
He added that even the Dalit-friendly BSP’s government had not given them permission to hold a shobha yatra during Ravidas Jayanti and because of this there was no procession in the last seven years.
A few journalists from Saharanpur The Wire spoke to said that Sharma had lobbied within his party to get an election ticket for his brother Rahul Lakhanpal Sharma.
“When he failed in his first attempt, he now wants his brother to become the mayor of Saharanpur. The social upheavals we see are the result of one person’s political ambitions,” said a senior journalist working for a Hindi daily in Saharanpur.
The BJP ran a campaign against deteriorating law and order in UP in the run-up to the assembly polls. However, it remains to be seen whether chief minister Adityanath will reign in his own cadres – who have flouted the law with confidence in the last one month under the BJP regime.