Agnibhaskar’s head was slashed with a sword as he ran up the stairs of his house to escape a murderous mob of nearly 40 men. His wife was surrounded by an equal number of men who tried to chop off her breasts. A one-year-old baby was flung into the flames before being rescued with great difficulty. Bikes and a handpump in the courtyard were damaged beyond repair and the entire house, which stood at the corner of the Dalit basti (colony) in Shabbirpur village in western Uttar Pradesh, was reduced to ashes.
In the neighbouring house belonging to his brother, his relative, Soumati, 70, lay on a cot, immovable in her grief as she recalled the hours of savagery on May 5 that destroyed everything the family owned. She pointed to the bike on which her pregnant daughter-in-law Meenakshi fell as men attacked her belly with a sword. Soumati's daughter threw herself on Meenakshi to save the child, and sustained grievous injuries. All of them have left the village for treatment or out of fear, leaving Soumati behind as the sole guardian of whatever is left. In one of the biggest caste attacks by Rajputs on Dalits in recent times in western Uttar Pradesh, Shabbirpur’s social fabric, which had held together for several decades with both Ravidas Jayanti and Shivratri being celebrated, was shredded to pieces.
Shabbirpur in Saharanpur district is dominated by Rajputs. The Dalits here belong to the Chamar community. It was a little-known village until the May 5 violence catapulted it into infamy. More than 55 Dalit houses were torched while several others were looted and damaged by thousands of caste Hindu men from nearby villages. Sporting saffron headgear and scarves, they attacked the Dalits, including women and children, with swords and sticks, vandalised whatever assets the Dalits had—handpumps, bikes, cattlefeed—and even attacked their livestock—cows and buffaloes.
The violence started as the Dalits were returning home from the fields for lunch. It went on all afternoon for five hours. There are two police stations within two kilometres of the village, but the police allegedly did nothing to stop the violence, though they were alerted. According to one eyewitness, a policeman watching the violence told the attackers: “You have one and a half hours, do what you want.” Village residents said that the police watched the violence and participated in it.
“They were shouting Jai Maharana and asking me to say the same. I am not a Hindu, and they know that. What if I said Jai Rajputana? Will that change anything? Will they let me marry a girl from their caste?” asked an angry Agnibhaskar from his hospital bed in Saharanpur. The family of Agnibhaskar, an articulate and proud Chamar, was specifically targeted in the violence. Unlike other Dalits in the village, he did not work on the Rajputs’ fields. “People who attack with the police standing alongside them are cowards. They tried to kill me, but I survived and will continue to stand by my principles,” he said, showing injury marks on his back where the police had beaten him.
Accounts of how it all started vary to a certain degree. But at the heart of it all was the Sant Ravidas temple, set up nearly four decades ago on land owned by Dalits. The Rajputs have been opposing Dalit plans to instal an Ambedkar statue within the temple compound. They demanded that Dalits obtain permission from the local administration for it. Such permission is not really required as the land belongs to Dalits. The issue came to a head in the days before the flare-up. A resident of the village said: “They want to replace Ambedkar with Maharana Pratap. We have no problem if they worship their leader, but why should it necessitate displacement of our leaders?”
As the trouble started in Shabbirpur, a few thousand Rajputs were called in from nearby Simlana, where a panchayat was being held. A few men from Shabbirpur, some belonging to the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal and other Hindu organisations, played loud music in the Dalit basti, hurled caste slurs and tried to create trouble outside the Ravidas temple. The Dalits, who had not been allowed to take out a march (shobha yatra) on Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14, objected. The Panchayat Pradhan, Shivkumar, a Dalit who had won from a general seat, led the protests, according to the Rajputs. (Earlier, the Rajput brothers Om Singh and Shyam Singh had held sway as Panchayat Pradhans for over 30 years.) Shivkumar called the police when the situation went out of control. The Rajputs from Simlana arrived in four batches, and at last count, there were nearly 3,000 of them in the village. Most of the Dalits hid or ran away. Those who could not were attacked viciously. The pradhan’s son, Santkumar, tried to record the attacks on his mobile phone camera but got beaten up so badly that he was hospitalised in Dehradun in a critical condition.
The Ravidas temple was attacked. A young man from Rasoolpur village allegedly broke the Ravidas statue in the temple and desecrated it. As the houses in the temple’s vicinity were set on fire, the area was engulfed in smoke. As he came out of the temple, he fell chest down and died. The Rajputs alleged that he was killed by Dalits, but the post-mortem report confirmed that he died of suffocation, according to Superintendent of Police (Rural) Vidyasagar Misra. His family was paid a compensation of Rs.10 lakh, though the Dalit victims of the day’s violence received nothing from the State government. Nine first information reports (FIRs)—four from each of the contesting sides and one by the police—were registered under sections of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to unlawful assembly, rioting and death; 17 people were arrested.
Most houses in the village were empty as people fled in fear of further violence. Though policemen were stationed there, the Rajputs continued to taunt and threaten the Dalits, said a group of teary-eyed women to Frontline . “They said they would not spare our girls, so we have sent all of them away to relatives in other villages. But for how long can we keep them away?"
In the years since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power at the Centre, there have been concerted efforts to establish the importance of Hindu leaders as the rightful leaders of the country. It was sought to be done by attacking Dalit leaders like Ambedkar (see Frontline , May 29, 2015, “Idolatry vs Ideology”). In the past few months, of the 125 big and small incidents of caste violence against Dalits, the majority involved instances of statues of Ambedkar being desecrated or demolished in various places, according to Professor Satish Prakash of Meerut College. The recent revival of Maharana Pratap as a hero in the Hindu consciousness was part of the same trend. His birth anniversary on May 9 was celebrated by Thakurs earlier, too, but never with the kind of fanfare that was on display this year. From Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and V.K. Singh, several BJP leaders mentioned him in their speeches and commemorated his memory. Incidentally, since Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Thakur men have routinely flaunted guns and swords in public and chanted slogans like “ UP mein rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hai ” (must chant Yogi Yogi if you want to stay in UP] along with “ Har Har Mahadev ”.Dalit fightback
In response to the violence in Shabbirpur, the Dalits called for a “mahapanchayat” in Saharanpur’s Gandhi Maidan on May 9. The police refused permission for it, and protesters clashed with the police when they were baton-charged. A police outpost in Ramnagar was burnt and several vehicles were damaged. Several members of the Bhim Army, which joined the gathering, were arrested; others, including Chandrashekhar Azad, its founder, went into hiding as attempts were made to link them to naxalites and their arrest became imminent. The Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Mahasabha and other Hindu organisations demanded that the Bhim Army be banned under the National Security Act (NSA) and Azad be charged under the same Act.
Subhashini Ali, former Member of Parliament and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “There are also indications that the State government is planning to use the NSA against Dalit activists, including Chandrashekhar. This would be extremely unfortunate and vindictive. I would appeal to the government not to resort to such unjust measures but to try and restore peace by seeing that justice is done and all those guilty of hate-mongering, violence and arson are punished. Compensation must be paid to those who have suffered losses and injuries.”
A group of retired judges, intellectuals, writers and activists released a statement condemning the State government’s attempts to villainise Dalit leaders. Among them were former Supreme Court judge Justice P.B. Sawant, former Bombay High Court judges Justices Hosbet Suresh and Kolse Patil, the author and activist Ram Punyani, the activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, the academic and activist Muniza Khan and the leader of the Pasmanda Democratic Forum Khalid Anis Ansari.
Dalit leaders, however, were divided over the Bhim Army’s role in the framework of Ambedkarite politics. The former Pradhan of Chandpur, Mahender Singh of the Ambedkar Samaj Party, said that if the group did indulge in violence then it was condemnable and it should work within the system. But he added that every time the BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh, Dalit self-respect and religious places came under attack. “That is the importance of a leader. When Mayawati is in power, we feel safe, even though there is no direct contact with her. But our people do not go around harming other communities like the Thakurs are doing now.”
The Bhim Army signifies a new form of Ambedkarite politics and has been instrumental in safeguarding the rights and dignity of Dalits on several occasions in the past two years. Its range of interventions included ensuring Dalit students were not beaten up by upper-caste boys in schools and stepping in when a Dalit groom was ordered off his horse by Thakurs. All this has made it extremely popular across villages in Uttar Pradesh. When Thakurs objected to a board on private land in Ghadkauli village in Saharanpur which read “The Great Chamar, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Gram, Jai Bhim Jai Bharat”, the Bhim Army was called in, and it prevailed upon the Thakurs to let the board stay.Chandrashekhar’s message
In a message from hiding, Chandrashekhar Azad announced a dharna in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on May 21 and appealed to all Dalits to attend it. He reiterated that the Bhim Army worked for the marginalised within the constitutional framework. “We are not against any community, but we work for justice for our community,” he said. He added that had the police put in as much effort in controlling the violence against Dalits in Shabbirpur as they had in framing him under false charges, there would be no need for anguish from the Dalits’ side.
Jignesh Mevani, the Dalit leader from Gujarat, visited Saharanpur and expressed solidarity with the victims. In a video message through the Chalchitra Abhiyaan, he said that ever since Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP cadre had been empowered to do whatever they pleased. “The incident in Shabbirpur is the result of their desperation to break the Constitution and replace it with the Manusmriti and to convert a secular society into Hindu Rashtra.”
Residents of Shabbirpur were appreciative of the Bhim Army’s efforts to support them. Elsewhere in the State, Muslims and Dalits expressed similar sentiments. “Finally somebody gave a befitting reply to the saffron rogues,” many of them told Frontline . Asif Rahi of Paigham-e-Insaniyat, an organisation working for Hindu-Muslim unity in Muzaffarnagar, said that Muslims were too scared to do anything about the several instances of violence against them by organisations close to the BJP. “For the first time, in Saharanpur, Dalits gave a reply. When Dhudali happened, Yogi Adityanath had an opportunity to show that his government was firm on law and order. But he did nothing,” he said.
On April 20, in Sadak Dhudali village in Saharanpur district, BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal tried to take out a march to mark Ambedkar Jayanti. Rallies on the occasion have been banned for several years in the area because it is communally sensitive. Senior S.P. Luv Kumar and Lakhanpal were injured in the stone-pelting that ensued between the two communities. Later, BJP workers threw stones outside Luv Kumar’s residence, destroyed a CCTV camera and removed the name plate on the gate. Two FIRs were lodged against Lakhanpal and 300 others for the two incidents. No action was taken on the FIRs, and Luv Kumar was transferred out. “This clearly shows which side law and order tilts in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh,” said an observer.
Just before the violence in Shabbirpur, Yogi Adityanath visited Meerut. The Dalits there were offended that Ambedkar’s statue was not among the statues that he garlanded. Slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” were countered with those of “Jai Bhim”. Later, protests turned violent and the police had to be deployed to bring the situation under control.
“This attitude will severely impact Modi’s attempts to woo Dalits and they will move away from the BJP,” said Professor Satish Prakash. “Ever since Yogi Adityanath came to power, Thakurs, Gujjars, Jats and OBCs [Other Backward Classes] have become aggressive and think that it’s their khandani sarkar [familial government]. They want to teach Dalits a lesson. Chances of communal riots are low as Muslims are scared. Dalits are facing a political defeat and there is a leadership vacuum, but Dalits will stand up against upper-caste aggression.”