Politics of Saharanpur riots

When Caste Killed Community in Saharanpur

A community pushed to the wall is hitting back with unanticipated resolve, and the lead players of this macabre theatre suddenly seem clueless where it all is headed. News18 delves deep.

A calendar of the conflict

Uday Singh RanaUday Singh Rana | News18.com @UdaySRana

Published: May 25, 2017
(Saharanpur/Shabbirpur/New Delhi)

FIVE HOURS by road from the national capital is all it takes to hit the new conflict zone in the Hindi heartland. At night fall, there are more cops on the streets than residents in Ground Zero Shabbirpur. A curfew is on - and everyone is on edge - the district administration has been reshuffled overnight, and internet services remain suspended.

Saharanpur location map

It all started 40 days ago as a 'Shobha Yatra' on Ambedkar Jayanti that a pushy Lok Sabha MP insisted should pass through communally sensitive areas. The fire is today burning in the households and haystacks of Thakurs and Dalits. For Yogi Adityanath who ascended to the high seat in Lucknow with the promise of setting right the law and order situation in the state, Saharanpur poses the first major crisis.

It all started 40 days ago as a 'Shobha Yatra' on Ambedkar Jayanti that a pushy Lok Sabha MP insisted should pass through communally sensitive areas.

So just how did things come to this? Has the famed Hindu unity that delivered BJP a historic mandate just two months ago unravelled so fast? Is Mayawati losing her claim as the sole custodian of Dalit votes with the new outfit Bhim Army and its charismatic new leader Chandrashekhar Azad dictating the terms of engagement? Is Dalit politics as we know it undergoing a generational shift?

News18's Uday Singh Rana spent weeks in Saharanpur to piece together this conflict calendar for you. Read on.

April 14 - Mandir wahin banaenge slogans on Ambedkar anniversary

THE ARSON of Dalit households on May 5 and clashes between police and supporters of Bhim Army, a Dalit outfit known for its radical views, were not the first instances of violence involving Dalits. On April 14, a 'Shobha Yatra' was carried out across the district on the 126th anniversary of Dalit icon and architect of Indian Constitution Dr BR Ambedkar. Local BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal, accompanied by Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organisation founded by Yogi Adityanath, led the procession at Dudhli village.

What I found odd was that instead of 'Jai Bheem', they were raising slogans of 'Jai Shri Ram' and 'Mandir wahin banaenge'

— Radheshyam

Radheshyam, the district president of Rashtriya Dalit Mahasabha, said the procession to remember Ambedkar was "communalised" by Yuva Vahini members. "Baba Saheb's Shobha Yatra was being carried out in Dudhli and most of it was completed peacefully. The problem started towards the end. The local Dalits wanted to carry out the procession from a different route, but BJP and Hindu Yuva Vahini workers insisted on taking it from the Muslim neighbourhood. Once they set upon that path, they could have done so quietly. What I found odd was that instead of Jai Bhim, they were raising slogans of Jai Shri Ram and Mandir wahin banaenge (We will build a temple there)."

He added, "This made the Muslim residents angry and they pelted stones at Raghav Lakhanpal, who was with Yuva Vahini members. Make no mistake; the Muslims were not attacking the Dalits. They were angry at those who tried using Dalits for their own agenda."

According to Radheshyam, Dalit organizations managed to convince locals not to retaliate against "their Muslim brothers". Members of Hindu Yuva Vahini, he alleged, were eager for violence.

The state assembly elections were concluded two months ago, but the electoral battles in UP are far from over. Later this year, the state will have civic polls. Radeshyam and many like him believe that the Dudhli incident was "manufactured" to polarize voters across the five Nagar Palikas (municipalities) of Saharanpur district.

Why would Dalits have a problem with the Ram Temple in Ayodhya?

— Nagendra Pratap Singh

Nagendra Pratap Singh, state secretary of Hindu Yuva Vahini and in-charge of its western UP division, denied any wrongdoing on their part. "First of all, no such slogans were raised by our workers. But even if they were, why would Dalits have a problem with the Ram temple in Ayodhya? These are falsehoods being perpetrated by workers of the Bahujan Samaj Party because they can't tolerate that Scheduled Castes have trusted Yogi Adityanath's message of development."

Lakhanpal, despite repeated attempts, could not be reached for a comment.

May 5 - The Shabbirpur arson

SOMTI DEVI, 60, points to the charred walls of her house and recalls the carnage that ensued on May 5. Her family's belongings, from the television to the motorcycle, have all been destroyed. A one-lane road leads from Saharanpur's Jain College to Shabbirpur village. The approach to Shabbirpur is heavily forested. The village is around 11 km from Shimlana where a crowd of Thakurs from adjoining villages was headed for an event celebrating Rajput King Maharana Pratap's birth anniversary.

A procession of Maharana Pratap's followers was passing through the village when the village head objected to the blaring music. "They were passing through the village with a DJ," said Neeraj Kumar, a 26-year-old Dalit resident. "We had heard that they were honoring Sher Singh Rana, the murderer of Phoolan Devi, at the event. We still did nothing, assuming that they would just pass by. Some of us objected to the DJ as they did not have permission for it. This offended them. Hundreds of them attacked us".

"Only recently, we were not allowed to install a statue of Baba Saheb in the village, which is just unfair," added Kumar.

Mamta Shiva, a 25-year-old activist, is the president of the Saharanpur-based Dalit Chetna Vikas Samiti. For Shiva, a visit to Shabbirpur village was shocking. "The first thing the Thakur mob did was to attack the Ravidas temple. They desecrated the idol. They then proceeded to burn houses," she said.

Somti Devi, a Dalit, said, "They even urinated on the idol of Ravidas. They went inside houses and looted money. My son and daughter-in-law are both recuperating in the hospital since that day."

Saharanput riots timeline

According to police, however, it was the locals who started stone pelting. Nagendra Singh Rana, circle officer (Deoband) said, "There was a disagreement between locals and the crowd and things went out of control. Some local women pelted stones at the crowd, which led to the crowd turning violent. It ultimately resulted in the arson. One Rajput boy died in the violence."

Saharanput riots timeline

According to Shabbirpur residents and Dalit activists, they have been living in a state of fear ever since the events of May 5. Amrish Chotala, district president of the Bahujan Mukti Party, said, "The attack took place in full view of police. Cops are biased. They started picking up Dalit youths in the middle of the night. However, the senior superintendent of police (SSP) has assured us that he will conduct a fair investigation. We are urging everyone to be patient."

Neeraj Kumar added, "Around 2 am, one person got a phone call from a Dalit constable saying that police were going to pick up some Dalit youths at night. Dalit youths thought they would be sent to jail for no fault of their own. They ran and hid in the forest and some others fled to their relatives' places in other villages. Many were arrested. The sentiment is that the police are trying to frame Dalits and protect Thakurs."

Meanwhile, cops denied any such bias. "People from both sides have been arrested. The police do not discriminate on the basis of caste. Criminals do not have any religion or caste," said Rana.

May 9 - Mysterious outsiders and the role of social media

ACCORDING TO Thakur residents of Shabbirpur, the "mob" comprised of outsiders. "We have lived peacefully with all castes in the village for generations. We respect each other's icons. That day, the crowd was huge. We don't even have that many Thakurs in the village. The people who attacked the villagers were outsiders," said Virender Singh, a Thakur resident of Shabbirpur.

The Dalit movement has acquired a new, more belligerent face in 30-year-old lawyer Chandashekhar, the founder of the controversial Bhim Army.

The Hindu Yuva Vahini maintains that none of their workers were in the crowd. "Ours is an outfit that works to break the walls of caste, not build them. The event was organized by an outfit called the Kshatriya Mahasabha. We do not ascribe to any caste identity. We have been trying to find out who the people behind this outfit are."

The police, however, have not booked the Kshatriya Mahasabha, Rana said.

In Saharanpur, where over 21% of the population belongs to Scheduled Castes, the Dalit movement has acquired a new, more belligerent face in 30-year-old lawyer Chandashekhar, the founder of the controversial Bhim Army. Unknown until a few years ago, the Bhim Army has risen to prominence quickly for its passionate appeals to Dalits to "defend themselves".

The Bhim Army, in protest against alleged atrocities on Dalits, called for a Mahapanchayat in the city. While the police denied permission for the public meeting, invitations had already gone out on social media. Hundreds had started making their way to the venue of the meeting when things turned sour.

Messages asking for a "blood sacrifice" had begun circulating.

— An activist

An activist who was part of the crowd that day said, "The role of social media was key to the violence on May 9. WhatsApp messages, which falsely claimed that Chandrashekhar had been arrested, started doing rounds. Before that, messages asking for a "blood sacrifice" had begun circulating. The mood was tense in general and then the crowd turned aggressive. Police tried to control the situation with lathi charge. That was the last straw. After that, all hell broke loose."

Rana said social media had a role to play in the violence. "Since the Shabbirpur incident, divisive messages have been doing rounds on social media. We have been trying to contain this and the SSP has said in strict terms that those spreading hate messages will not be spared. On May 13, we arrested one person for spreading such messages."

Police began its crackdown on the Bhim Army shortly afterwards. Rana said, "The Bhim Army is an unregistered outfit that has been brewing trouble in the district. We will act against anyone who tries to disturb communal peace."

May 21 - Bhim Army in Delhi

MERE SAATH kaho - Hum is desh ke shasak hain! (Repeat after me, 'we are the rulers of this country'!)," roared Bhim Army's Chandrashekhar Azad at Delhi's Jantar Mantar on Sunday morning as a crowd of thousands joined the chants.

The 30-year-old lawyer, whom UP Police had been searching for 12 days, was standing in the heart of New Delhi, thumping his chest and twirling his mustache, just the way a stereotypical Thakur would do.

A supporter holds a poster of Chandrashekhar Azad at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

Azad, the hitherto unknown Dalit activist who likes being referred to as 'Raavan', emerged as a national phenomenon at the rally, which saw activists from as far as Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh participate.

Mere saath kaho - Hum is desh ke shasak hain! (Repeat after me, we are the rulers of this country!)

— Chandrashekhar Azad

On May 21, thousands of blue caps dotted the designated protest area near Jantar Mantar. Along with images of Ambedkar were posters of Chandrashekhar. Some referred to him as 'Ravaan', since the name of the 'Demon King' in Ramayana is his preferred epithet. Others call him 'The Great Chamar'. A group of men outside Jantar Mantar, most of them wearing Chadrashekhar masks, argued, "When a board came up in Gharkoli village, that had the words 'Great Chamar', the Thakurs objected. They did not want the word 'Great' before the name of a so-called lower caste. Bhim Army hit the ground and the board stayed. Does any caste have monopoly over the word 'great'? Are they saying we cannot be great? Bhim Army is fearless and so are we."

For 12 days, Chandrashekhar was an absconder from the law. The charge against the lawyer-activist was that he was inciting violence. He finally surfaced at Jantar Mantar and announced that he would surrender. "I was not hiding because I was scared. I was evading police because I had to come here to meet you," he told supporters at Jantar Mantar.

"Humein humara neta mil gaya (We have found our leader)," said Ravi Jatav as Chandrashekhar called to remove 'Bhagwa anatankwaad (saffron terror)' from the stage at Jantar Mantar. Jatav, a supporter of Bhim Army, or 'Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission' - as it is formally named, hails from Saharanpur's Usand village. Last year, when reports of police atrocities against Dalits surfaced in Usand, Bhim Army took to the streets. "Koi nahi aaya humare liye awaaz uthane. Sirf Bhim Army aayi (Nobody came to raise their voice for us. Only Bhim Army came)," Jatav said.

What makes the lawyer-turned-activist so popular in Saharanpur? Ravi Kumar Gautam, 26-year-old president of the Bhim Army's Youth Wing, said it is his ability to hit the ground immediately. "Anybody who works on the ground will be popular. In Bhai Chandrashekhar, we see a projection of power. Moustaches have traditionally been a symbol of Thakur dominance. We want to tell the world that we, too, are powerful. We will not take injustice lying down. People project their strength onto Bhaiyya."

Thousands of youths who participated in the rally were shouting 'Bhim Army Zindabad', apart from many other traditional Dalit pride slogans, including 'Jai Bhim' and 'Jai Kanshi Ram'. However BSP chief Mayawati didn't find a single mention in the half-day long event that took Delhi by surprise.

May 23 - Mayawati in Saharanpur

AT 9:00 AM on May 23, BSP Chief Mayawati came out of her house in Delhi to address the media. "I could have gone there earlier, but thought I should not do so till the situation becomes normal," she said, explaining why she hadn't visited Shabbirpur for nearly three weeks after the arson on May 5.

Once a force to be reckoned with in Dalit politics, Mayawati appeared to be on the back foot. After a seven-hour road journey to Saharanpur, which had many stops along the way where she stopped to meet supporters and party workers, she reached Shabbirpur village amidst chants from supporters. After visiting Dalit resident Dal Singh, whose house was gutted on May 5, she addressed supporters at the Ravidas Temple which became a flash point during the clashes.

"Dalit often form smaller outfits to celebrate their icons and that makes it easier for the BJP to oppress them. I appeal to you to celebrate Baba Saheb's anniversary and Ravidas Jayanti on the BSP's platform. If you join the party, the BJP will never dare to raise a finger against you," she said, betraying her nervousness at the rise of the Bhim Army.

Once a force to be reckoned with in Dalit politics, Mayawati appeared to be on the back foot.

Mayawati struck a conciliatory note, which was in sharp contrast with Chandrashekhar's belligerence. "My message to upper-caste and Dalit brothers is the same. Politicians will come and go but you have to live here. It is up to you to maintain peace in the village," she said.

For older Dalits, Mayawati's 'message of peace' was just what was needed. Dal Singh, 50, whose house the former CM visited, said, "I have been a Mayawati supporter since 1988, when she first came to Saharanpur. Today, she has gained more respect in my eyes. She came to our house and spoke to us very humbly. Behenji said that she may not be CM anymore, but she will help us rebuild our house from party funds. I liked that she asked us to stay calm."

But for 30-year-old Rampal, Mayawati's speech was not enough. "We are angry and she did not address the cause. In fact, she would not have even come to the village had it not been for Bhim Army."

During Maya's visit, fresh violence breaks out

SHABBIRPUR HAS been on the edge since the events of May 5. On May 23, before Mayawati arrived, clashes broke out in Shabbirpur in full view of the police and Rapid Action Force (RAF), put in place to ensure BSP chief's safety.

One person was killed and 11 injured after a Rajput mob allegedly attacked Dalits returning from Mayawati's rally.

Anita Rani, a Rajput resident said, "Bhim Army operatives came in droves and chanted offensive slogans against Rajputs. They came when the men were out in the fields and women were alone. They entered Thakur houses and set fire to haystacks and dry wood. My house was burnt in all this." After arson in Rajput houses, the village was simmering with tension again.

Mayawati's 30-minute speech on 'peace and reconciliation' took place amidst this tension and heavy police presence.

Just when it seemed like the police was able to contain the situation, a blood-soaked Dalit man emerged from the Rajput area and the cops rushed him to hospital. "I had no idea what was happening in the village. I was on my way back to the village on my bicycle when they caught hold of me and started beating me up," said 50-year-old Inderpal, who was injured in the violence.

50-year-old Inderpal, who was injured in the violence

One person was killed and 11 injured after a Rajput mob allegedly attacked Dalits returning from Mayawati's rally. The incident came as a major embarrassment for the police as the violence broke out amidst heavy deployment. Saharanpur SSP Subhash Chandra Dubey told News18, "All this violence is taking place because of a lot of rumor mongering. Our first priority is to stop the violence. We have made fresh arrests in this case."

On Wednesday, Saharanpur DIG Jitendra Kumar Shahi said 24 people were arrested in connection with Tuesday's violence.

Bhim Army - New face of Dalit politics?

CHANDRASHEKHAR'S JANTAR Mantar speech was bold and angry. He spoke of stitching together an alliance of Dalits, Muslims and OBCs. He also said, "Bhim Army will not stop till the original inhabitants of the land (Dalits) become the rulers of the country." Was that a hint at a plunge into active, electoral politics?

Gautam said the outfit has no such plans. "We are not a political outfit. We are a social organisation. If politics could solve our problems, then Congress and BJP would have done so. We regard Baba Saheb and Manyavar Kanshi Ram as our idols, but we will work on the ground, not in politics. We have no such plans."

Bhim Army will not stop till the original inhabitants of the land (Dalits) become the rulers of the country.

— Chandrashekhar Azad

"The next step is to get Bhai Chandrashekhar out on bail. Many of our activists have false cases against them and we will fight them. The Thakurs responsible for the Shabbirpur arson have still not been brought to justice. We will fight tooth and nail to get compensation for the victims. The fight has just begun," he added.

Bhim Army volunteers

But a broad social coalition, he said, was important for the outfit. "We are not the only ones who suffer. Brahmin tyranny has made victims out of Muslims and OBCs as well. Our appeal to them is to join hands with their Dalit brothers and sisters. Only when we all come together will Kanshi Ram Ji's Bahujan revolution be truly successful."

What makes Saharanpur Dalits different?

MAMTA SHIVA and Amrish Chotala, two young Dalit activists in Saharanpur, sit at a tea shop on the city's Court Road and discuss one of Dr. BR Ambedkar's famous treatises Annihilation of Caste - a literature they have read at least four times each. For them, the works of "Baba Saheb" form the lynchpin on which they base their lives.

"I am a Dalit and a follower of Baba Saheb. I read and understood why Baba Saheb had to leave the Hindu fold and embrace Buddhism. All Dalit icons after him - Manyavar Kanshi Ram, Behen Mayawati, Radhika Vemula - left Hinduism. That is why I follow the path shown by Buddha," said Shiva.

Chotala nodded in agreement and said, "Right-wing forces try to tell us that Muslims are our enemies. But we do not think so. Muslims never deny us entry into mosques but Brahmins stop us from entering temples. So who is our real enemy?"

Saharanpur profile

This outspoken nature is not limited to these two activists. In Saharanpur, the Dalit is angry but unafraid. "Baba Saheb said that he who suffers injustice is a bigger sinner than he who inflicts it. In Saharanpur, that is the difference between the 21st Century Dalit and his 19th Century ancestor. We are enlightened, educated, unafraid and angry," said Shiva, pointing a finger to herself.

After more than a month of on-again-off-again violence, the anger among young activists is palpable. According to Chetan Kumar Chanyane, 53-year-old state vice-president of Rashtriya Dalit Mahasabha, there is a pattern to nearly every communal riot in Western UP. "The upper-caste will start the riot, but back off once the fighting begins. Valmikis are always made to clash with Muslims and do the upper-castes' dirty work. There is a reason why Saharanpur has seen caste clashes. Here, Valmikis refuse to become cannon fodder for the upper-castes. Muslims are not our enemies. Why should we die fighting them?"

"Right-wing forces try to tell us that Muslims are our enemies. But we do not think so. Muslims never deny us entry into mosques but Brahmins stop us from entering temples. So who is our real enemy?"

— Chetan Kumar Chanyane

Saharanpur district is nestled in the north-most corner of Uttar Pradesh, with Uttarakhand to its North and Haryana to its West. Over 21% of Saharanpur's population falls in the Scheduled Caste (SC) category. According to academic and SP leader Sudhir Panwar, Dalits in Saharanpur realized the power of the ballot early on. "Saharanpur has given more Dalit MLAs and MPs than almost any other district in Western UP. They were not content with the old-style patron-client relationship. Dalits of Saharanpur have gone on to represent their constituents in the Assembly, Lok Sabha and even in the state Cabinet. This made them realize that they were equals and they shouldn't settle for less. Mayawati, when in power, promoted many leaders from Saharanpur and gave the district priority in terms of electricity and other basic services."

Saharanpur has given more Dalit MLAs and MPs than almost any other district in western UP.

Chanyane added that Dalits in Saharanpur district take pride in sending their children to schools and colleges. "Most Dalits in the villages have finished school and most in the city have university degrees. With that comes a higher degree of enlightenment." Shiva and Chotala, both with their MA degrees, are living illustrations of Chanyane's point. Even when it comes to activism, the Dalits of Saharanpur refuse to be meek. Last year, a group of Dalit residents in Malipur village were concerned about a flourishing liquor mafia in their vicinity. Eventually, 200 Dalit villagers, 80 of them women, raided liquor vends in the forest. They claim to have recovered 50 litres of illicit liquor.

Usand village in the district was on the edge after two residents had died in alleged police atrocities. Refusing to back down, Dalits took to streets invoking the Una floggings. They raised the slogan, "Yeh UP hai, Gujarat Nahi" (This is UP, not Gujarat). The strength of their protest forced the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) to take note of this incident.

UP Dalits staring at a post-Maya era

THE DALIT locality of Shabbirpur village is easily distinguishable from the Thakur section. Even today, rooftops have the blue flag with the elephant symbol fluttering in the hot wind of May. In 2007, the BSP won five out of seven seats in the district. In 2012, amidst the Akhilesh wave, it won four. Saharanpur has always had a special connect with Mayawati. While older residents still see Mayawati as the savior or the elder sister as they call her, the younger lot sees Mayawati and her party as ineffective and a thing of the past. Many such youngsters find themselves attracted to the Bhim Army.

Mayawati has failed to recognise the aspirations of the 'New Dalit'.

— Badri Narayan

According to Badri Narayan, social scientist and author Kanshi Ram: The leader of Dalits, Mayawati has failed to recognise the aspirations of the 'New Dalit'. He said, "She was obviously very successful in captivating the imagination of the Dalit voter a decade ago, which is why she rose to power. But recently, the belief is that she has lost touch with the young Dalit. She has failed to grasp the aspirations of the New Dalit. As a result, they are either gravitating towards the RSS or towards radical Ambedkarite movements. But I think these movements won't develop into mass movements. For that, you need the political strength of a Mayawati."