Saharanpur’s Ground Zero

Published: June 15, 2017 - 14:16 Updated: July 31, 2017 - 14:47

A month after violence erupted between Dalits and Thakurs in Shabbirpur village, tension still simmers below the surface. As the government transfers senior police officers and moves to contain the damage, will the Dalits be appeased ahead of the crucial municipal elections?


It is the kind of room that evokes anxiety and a sense of urgency the moment you step on the threshold. A lot of things are strewn on the floor: potatoes, firewood, brick from the walls, burnt clothes, baby slippers and a pair of leather chappals lie as if someone was trying to put them on while attempting to leave in a hurry and then decided to let them be. Soot covers what remains of the walls, a tin trunk and the utensils that have been left behind. All of this is on display for anyone who visits Shabbirpur village in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), for the doors are broken down. Most houses in the Dalit neighbourhood of the village are this way—a relic of the violence that gripped the village on May 5. Most of the Dalit inhabitants have either fled, are lodged in jail or receiving treatment for the injuries they suffered during the riots. Those who stayed behind include mostly old women and men, and cattle.

The caste blow-out in Saharanpur has confirmed the worst fears of old fault lines resurfacing between upper-caste Thakurs and Dalits after Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, took over as chief minister of UP. What aggravated the problem was the lethargy and, worse, the complicity displayed by the police in controlling the riots even when there were ample opportunities to douse the problem before it spun out of control.

A few days on, the situation seemed normal on the surface but one could feel the heat of glowing embers of hate.

A small team of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) posted at one of the hotspots of the May 5 episode—the Ravidas temple which is a sacred place of worship for Dalits—assures me that the situation is under control and the village has been calm. However, in the Dalit neighbourhood, villagers say that the calm is eerie. Most of these families work on the farms owned by Thakurs and ever since the riots broke out, they have not had the courage to go back to work. They are also scared to step out to get groceries from shops owned by Thakurs. They have not been able to sleep without getting startled at the slightest noise. The properties owned by Thakurs have suffered some damage too, but the extent is limited and far less in comparison to what has been endured by the Dalits. In a village that had never seen any instance of caste-based violence in the past 60 years that its elders can recall, the clash between Thakurs and Dalits on May 5 has eroded the trust built painstakingly over the years.

The eye of the storm

In the Dalit neighbourhood, Sonu Kumar is the only man available to entertain curious reporters. He is lean and between 25 and 30 years, but is on the verge of going bald. Sonu speaks in a tone more resolute than his lean frame would suggest. Leading us to Pradhan Shiv Kumar’s house (he too is a Dalit), Sonu introduces us to a group of women who are busy with their daily chores and proceeds to narrate what happened on that day. He thinks that trouble started when Dalit villagers approached the authorities in April to ask for permission to instal a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar within the premises of the Ravidas temple. The idea was unpalatable to the Thakur community because the temple is situated right at the entrance of the village. “Ambedkar ko achcha nahin mante na, ye log (They don’t hold Ambedkar in regard),” says Sonu. The Rajput community said that they had a problem with the plan because they would see the statue every time they entered or left the village. Sensing trouble, the district authorities refused to grant the permission and the Dalit community complied with the order.

Before May 5, the Rajputs held a meeting which was attended by important community leaders from Punjab and Haryana, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from UP’s Deoband constituency, Kunwar Brijesh Singh. The meeting was not a covert mission. It took place on a tiraha (a point where three roads converge) that leads to Shabbirpur village. “Bola tha unlogon ne ki murti nahin rakhne deni hai (They said that they will not allow the statue to be installed),” Sonu says. On May 5, the Thakur community decided to take out a procession to honour Maharana Pratap, despite the fact that the revered ruler’s birth anniversary is celebrated on May 9. The sequence of the rest of the events varies greatly, depending on which community you are speaking to.

The lower caste community asserts that the Thakurs did not have the requisite permission for the procession, while the latter says that they had obtained it. According to Sonu, around 10-11 am, Rajput boys started a procession to honour Maharana Pratap with loud “DJ music” blaring from gigantic speakers. What peeved the Dalit community was that they also raised slogans like “Jai Shri Ram” and “Ambedkar Murdabad” while passing by the neighbourhood. “That was completely uncalled for,” says Sonu. The meeting that took place at the tiraha had already put the community on alert. Sensing trouble, Pradhan Shiv Kumar asked them to stop. “When we were denied permission by the authorities to put an Ambedkar statue in the mandir, we complied. Then why did the Thakurs take out the procession when they were denied permission for it?” asks Sompali Devi as she takes a break from shredding firewood to join the conversation. Sonu says that the Rajput men started abusing them and that led to a fight. The crowd dispersed after a while.

Within an hour, the men returned with a huge sword-wielding crowd, comprising at least 2,000 people from nearby areas. Sushila, who is perched on the floor alongside the charpoy where we are seated, intervenes to say that there were more people, carrying swords, daggers, guns, chemicals, iron rods, you name it. “All of them were masked. But we could recognise that some of them were our neighbours. They had a chemical which they were spilling over our properties and everything caught fire,” she says. “We knew something was up and it could lead to tension between the two communities but we had never expected that the matter would escalate to this level,” Sonu says. “Gadar wala scene tha bilkul (The scene resembled the one seen in the movie Gadar),” notes Sushila. The mob broke down doors, ransacked shops owned by Dalits, beat up both men and women, attacked them with swords and daggers, damaged the statue of Saint Ravidas kept in the temple and pissed on it. Sompali Devi recalls how they mocked those fleeing the violence, saying “Hamara shasan hai, hum to yehi karenge. Dalit samaj ke saath pehle jo hota tha, ab waisa hi hoga (The state is being ruled by our community, we will do as we please. Dalits will get the same treatment as they used to get years ago).” While several Dalits were critically injured, a Rajput man was killed in the violence. It was alleged that he was killed by the lower caste in retaliation, but his autopsy report said that he died of asphyxiation.

Sonu insists that all this happened under the watch of the sub-divisional magistrate (who has now been transferred) and six-seven policmen. Sushila adds that she herself heard the police tell the mob that they had two hours to do whatever they wanted to do. While pointing out the ruling BJP’s devotion towards gau raksha, Sonu narrates how members of the Thakur community attacked their cattle too—both buffaloes and cows.

Somti Devi, a woman so old that she cannot even remember her age, has been left with a home that has no roof and a seven-month-old grandson to take care of. Both her sons and a daughter-in-law are in hospital for treatment for the injuries sustained on May 5. The house owned by her is the one that has suffered the most damage—two burnt bikes that are beyond repair, a TV set shattered to pieces, walls razed. These days she does what she thinks is the best thing to do in the aftermath of the violence—she stands on mounds of ruins and poses for photojournalists to remind the world of all that has been lost.

The precursors 

The people of the lower caste community believe that the May 5 episode was rooted in the fact that Shiv Kumar had won the post of pradhan on a general category seat. “Mujhe lagta hai ye baat jami nahin Rajputon ko (I think the Rajputs could not make peace with it),” remarks Sonu. On the day the mob attacked the community, they were looking for Pradhanji, recalls Sompali. Both of them felt that the intention was to kill Shiv but they could not because the pradhan managed to escape. They instead beat and stabbed his son, Inder. He is critically injured and receiving treatment in Chandigarh. “This is the first time a Dalit has been elected pradhan on a general category seat,” notes Sonu.

Another incident of note that took place a few weeks before the May 5 episode was a procession by Saharanpur MLA Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma in Sadak Dudhli village which has a large Muslim and Dalit population. Sharma, along with Dalits, took out a Shobha Yatra to honour Dr Ambedkar six days after the leader’s birth anniversary. It was alleged that slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Mandir yahin banayenge (We will build the Ram temple here)” were raised during the yatra which peeved the Muslim community. They, in turn, started pelting stones and violence ensued. The police stalled the yatra midway, which infuriated the mob and they vandalised the home of then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Love Kumar. After the incident, Kumar was transferred.

The aftermath

Amarpal Singh’s home is not difficult to locate in the village that has about 1,200-1,300 Rajput houses. He is one of the tallest leaders of the community, with a snow-white handlebar moustache. His hair has aged faster than him, but he comes across as a strong man and speaks with the eloquence of a politician. According to the Dalits, he was one of the people leading the procession that turned violent on May 5. “Whoever told you that we did not have the permission to hold the procession that day must come and say so before me. People are saying many things these days but a lot of them are just rumours. Our boys did not play any music either. It was Dalits who refused to let the procession pass through the neighbourhood,” asserts Amarpal. Since, in order to enter Shabbirpur, one has to pass by the Dalit neighbourhood, the people of the community had no right to stop the procession, the Rajput patriarch remarks. However, he is not too interested in narrating what happened on that day but more eager to tell how Dalit youths burnt the properties owned by Thakurs on May 23, the day Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati visited the village. “Some Dalit youths set fire to our property that day. Our women were alone at the time and had to defend themselves. What kind of men attack women in the absence of men?” he asks.

Mayawati’s visit to the village had raised hopes in the Dalit neighbourhood where there was a general feeling of being alienated by the new state government. However, the visit did not fare well according to expectations. Sompali says that Behenji requested everyone to maintain law and order and resolve the differences with the other community peacefully but that was it. The expectation was that she would take the side of the Dalits and demand compensation from the government for those injured. None of that happened. She was booed by Bhim Army, a Dalit organisation that gained prominence in the aftermath of the May 5 clashes. Since the ruling BJP government at the time had accused the BSP of playing a role in stoking violence in Shabbirpur, Mayawati chose not to take sides. It was the Bhim Army’s moment in the sun, a group that no one had heard of before the May 5 incident. In stark contrast to the BSP, the Bhim Army stuck its neck out for the Dalit community. They had previously braved a lathicharge by the police while trying to organise a mahapanchayat in Saharanpur to demand justice for the victims of the Shabbirpur violence and they had taken the fight for justice to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, grabbing the attention of the national media. Its leader, Chandrashekhar, became the Dabangg-like face of Dalit assertion with his handlebar moustache and aviators. The UP police also announced a bounty of Rs 12,000 for any information that would lead to his arrest. After being on the run for about a month, he was finally arrested in Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh.

The timing

Seated in a restaurant in a busy bazaar in Saharanpur city, journalist M Riyaz Hashmi, a former bureau chief of Dainik Jagran in western UP, says that the timing of the incident is significant, for the municipal corporation election in the city is just around the corner. Although the Nagar Nigam was formed eight years ago, no elections have been held since then. It also must be noted that although the BJP won the UP Assembly elections with a clear majority, they lost Saharanpur and Saharanpur Nagar assembly constituency to the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. That makes Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma the only electoral representative of the BJP from the district. Through the local body elections, the BJP is looking to score more electoral posts and Sharma is eyeing a seat for his brother, Rahul.

Hashmi terms the violence an “over-reaction” to the return of the BJP to power after 10-14 years. He notes that Saharanpur is witnessing incidents that had never happened before, for instance, a yatra was taken out by BJP sympathisers sporting saffron headgear and wielding swords on Holi. This “over-excitement” is either manifesting itself in the form of clashes between Hindus and Muslims or between the upper caste and lower caste, says Hashmi.

What the May 5 incident has also demonstrated is the reluctance of the state government to rein in those fomenting trouble and the complicity of the administration in letting things slip out of control. The Shabbirpur incident was a localised one which could have been contained easily, had the police intervened. The authorities have dubbed the incident as one that was born out of impulse. However, if one trusts their version, several questions are left unanswered. How did the Thakur community manage to gather a 2,000-strong crowd that was masked and armed with all kinds of lethal weapons in the span of an hour? The violence broke out around 11 in the morning and the fire tenders and ambulances came only around 4 or 5 o'clock in the evening. Sonu alleges that as the village burnt and people were attacked, the Thakurs stopped fire tenders, ambulances and police from reaching the site of the violence.

According to the senior journalist, the assertion of Dalit identity that is slowly taking the form of a movement can be understood if we look at the voting pattern of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly elections in UP. Hashmi believes that Dalits played a decisive role in according the BJP a mandate in the two elections. However, the Shabbirpur incident has made the Dalits realise that despite voting for the BJP as Hindus, they will continue to be the community that is oppressed by upper castes. “Whoever orchestrated the Shabbirpur clashes wanted to obviously polarise voters. The forces involved in the matter are those who would have borne the brunt of Dalits siding with the BJP and those who would benefit from the movement of Dalits towards their fold,” he says.

The delimitation for the Nagar Nigam elections has been done in such a way that apart from Saharanpur Nagar, 32 villages have been added to Saharanpur dehat. Most of these villages are either dominated by Muslims or Dalits. “In order to secure a victory in the bypolls, the BJP needs to woo Dalit voters,” remarks Hashmi. Whether the balance tips in the BJP’s favour or not will be seen in the next few months.

Meanwhile, in Shabbirpur village, bhaichara meetings have become an everyday affair. The transfer of two top cops—Superintendent of Police (City) Sanjay Singh and SP (Rural) Rafeeq Ahmed—in the aftermath of the May 5 incident has kept the police on their toes. The meetings are organised in the primary school inside the village by officers of Badgaon Police Station which exercises jurisdiction over the village. During one such meeting, I find station officer Mahinder P Singh addressing a crowd consisting mostly of Thakurs and a few people of the lower castes under a huge tree. The villagers are seated on a dari, while Singh is plonked on a chair. He begins by urging the audience to move past the things that were said and done in a fit of anger. He goes on for a while before the new SP, Saharanpur (rural), Vidyasagar Mishra who has taken over the post after Ahmed, arrives on the scene. He begins by cracking a joke on why the officers are being made to sit on chairs when they could have sat on the ground with the villagers. Over the course of the next two hours, he offers advice which can only be described as well-meaning, ranging from urging people to take lessons of compassion from the life of Maharana Pratap to asking them to do exercise to get rid of excessive negative energy and give up alcohol and work towards creating an atmosphere of trust. However, all the wisdom being offered comes from the realisation that the one offering the advice and one of the two sides involved in the clash are placed on pedestals that are over and above the Dalits. At one point, Mishra urges the Rajputs to forgive the Dalits for whatever went wrong, quoting a couplet: “Chhama badan ko chahiye, chhotan ko utpaat, Ka Rahim Hari ka ghatyo, jo Bhrigu mari laat (The one who is greater always forgives, while the one who chooses to retaliate or destroy is a lesser human being. Lord Vishnu got a formidable position among gods only because he forgave Rishi Bhrigu after the latter disrespected him).” The lower caste community sits mostly silently, with one or two people pitching in with requests to restore trust. No fears or problems are discussed, nothing at all of what I heard Sonu talk about a few hours earlier. The general feeling among the Dalits was that the May 5 episode was a way for Rajputs to assert their stature and show the lower caste its place. The meeting that aims at building bridges between the two castes is rehearsing the same script in a non-violent way. Will the Dalits speak up?

Shalini Sharma is a graduate from Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai, with over three years of journalistic experience. She reports on politics, agriculture, foreign policy, human rights and other issues.

Read more stories by Shalini Sharma

This story is from print issue of HardNews