By Battini Rao*
Fifty five Dalit houses were burnt down during the afternoon of May 5 in Shabbirpur village of Saharanpur in northern UP. Attackers belonged to the dominant Rajput community of the area. They were armed with swords, spears, and lathis, and numbered about three thousand. Several other houses were looted, and fifteen motorcycles were burnt. Twelve Dalits received serious injuries. One young Rajput man died of asphyxiation according to post mortem. The attack continued for five hours.
Shabbirpur is 26 km from the Saharanpur city, the district head quarter. Police was in the village even before the attack. They were called by the village pradhan, a Dalit himself, earlier in the day to intervene in an altercation between the two communities. Rajuts that day were celeberating the jayanti of Maharana Pratap, a medieval king of Mewar principality of Rajasthan, well known for his opposition to Mughals. Arguments started when Dalits objected to the loud DJ music of the Rajput procession near their Ravidas temple. They also argued that Rajputs did not have the permission from district administration to take out a public procession. The argument was in continuation of a previous alterncation on 14 April, when the Rajputs of the village did not allow a procession of Dalits on Ambdekar Jayanti.
Later on 24 April, Dalits were again prevented from putting a bust of Ambedkar in their Ravidas temple. Clearly, in all these events Rajputs were asserting their domination over village affairs, while Dalits were trying to show their autonomy from this very domination. After the police intervention the Rajput procession with music reportedly left for a public function at Shimlana village five km away. The news of altercation spread fast via social media, and in no time the armed crowd of Rajputs attacked Dalits. Reportedly, while the crowd was attacking Dalits and destroying their property, the district SSP, the highest police official of the area, was close by with three companies of policemen. Yet, the police did not intervene.
Dalits called for a mass gathering on 9 May in Saharanpur city. District administration denied them permission, and police baton charged gathered people. In retaliation a police post and some buses were burnt down by the crowd. Police arrested many functionaries of Bhim Sena, a dalit outfit. Arrest warrants were issued against its founder president Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan, who went underground. Nevertheless, the Bhim Sena managed to organise a massive rally of Dalits of UP at Jantar Mantar in the national capital on 21 May, where its president also spoke. On 23 May a dalit youth returning from a public meeting of Ms Mayawati, the former Dalit CM of UP, was killed in gun shots, reportedly fired by Rajputs. Many others were injured.
Dalits of India have been facing violence from the Hindu caste society for thousands of years, which has continued after independence despite the constitution and protections under special legislations like the prevention of atrocities act. Perhaps the most infamous atrocity took place in Kilvenmani in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in 1968, in which 44 dalit women and children were killed. More recently, Dalit houses were burnt down in Gohana and Mirchpur in Haryana.
It is clear that the social domination of landed castes persists in rural India. Violence against dalits is an important part of this domination. It becomes particularly virulent when Dalits challenge this domination, as happened in Shabbirput. It is significant, that while there are speculations about the nature of Bhim Sena in the media, by the political class, and state bureaucracy, little is heard about the Rajput mobilisation. Even if the assembly of 3,000 armed Rajput men on 5 May was spontaneous, the fact remains that the threat and use of violence by dominant castes is the normal state of affairs in rural India. Hindutva mobilisations are building upon this ‘normal’ state, and by integrating dominant castes into an anti-minority nationalism, it is providing them with new avenues to assert their domination. That is how celebrations of the Rana Pratap’s jayanti in the area became a big affair. A cabinet minister of the state BJP government and two MLAs were present during the 5 May programme at Shimlana village, from where, by many accounts, some of the attackers came.
The use of violence by dominant castes is not a feudal remnant. It is closely integrated with the character of state power in India. The inaction of police on 5 May is not incidental. Even though many Dalits have claimed attackers used caste abuses, no case has been registered under the prevention of atrocities act. State has taken no action to confiscate licensed weapons, which are mainly with Rajputs, to ensure that there is no further violence. According to a 19 May report in Wire, the district magistrate and SSP of Saharanpur compared Bhim Sena to Naxals, with little evidence. The Akhil Bhartiya Kshatriya Mahasabha has demanded that the Bhim Sena be banned under NSA. Accusing Dalit activists of supporting, or sympathising with Naxals is not new. In 2011, singer-activists of Kabir Kala Manch were arrested under similar charges by the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra. It has become characteristic of the Indian state that any opposition to its policies by non-Muslims, whether against displacement, human rights violations, or caste atrocities, is branded Naxalite. The favourite tag for Muslims opposing government policies is Islamic terrorism.
There is a general feeling that this time around Dalits of Saharanpur have not taken the attack on them lying down. Activism of Bhim Sena is specifically noted in this regard. It is also claimed that its rise is a sign of change in the nature of Dalit mobilisations in UP. It is significant that Ms Mayawati of BSP has termed it as a BJP conspiracy to weaken her party’s influence. The politics in UP is passing through a critical phase, in which the BJP has successfully shaken earlier political alignments. This situation requires utmost political wisdom by all progressive, secular, and anti-BJP forces. The RSS has cultivated economically and socially weaker castes among Dalits for many decades by organising religious functions for their specific caste deities, and popularising their separate caste histories. This has weakened solidarity among dalit castes. The same strategy has been successfully applied among OBCs too. The corruption, opportunism and misdemeanours of Dalit and OBC politicians have further helped the BJP. All this has opened the way for the reassertion of the hegemony of the so called upper castes under Hindutva ideology. The RSS and BJP have manged to get a degree of consent for their virulent programmes from wide sections of the Hindu caste society. This is leading UP towards authoritarian use of state power, a permanent state of anti-minority violence and open attacks on citizenship rights. The BJP government in UP is also trying to brow beat administration to toe its line. The official residence of the then SSP in Saharanpur was attacked by BJP MP and his followers in April, after he had stopped their procession in a Muslim locality. To save the state from catastrophe it is essential that anti-BJP forces fashion out a counter hegemony, which unites all oppressed and working people, and enlightened strata of all castes and classes. Assertion of democratic rights, and demands for state policies against unemployment, agrarian crisis, and for availability of universal health and education are essential to this counter hegemony.
By all accounts Saharanpur is going to simmer in caste violence for some time now. As it did during the Muzaffarnagar violence four years ago, the BJP strategy is to vilify Dalit mobilisation with full use of its state power, and consolidate its hold on local dominant and non-dalit castes. Anti BJP forces need to show principled opposition to its machinations, and help Dalits gain their civil rights. Local administration needs to be fair and assert its constitutional and legal mandate. People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism demands that
- Dalits of Shabbirpur and neighbouring villages are immediately provided protection and adequate compensation.
- Where there is evidence, cases should be immediately filed under appropriate sections of the prevention of atrocities act.
- The state must assert its authority against the threat and use of violence by dominant castes in the area. All licensed weapons in the area should be seized.
*Convenor, People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism