Saharanpur violence: Year after caste clashes in Shabbirpur village, atmosphere of fear, resentment prevails among residents

A year after caste clashes in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Dalits and Thakurs want to peacefully co-exist, but they find it harder to trust each other.

Vivek Anand May 05, 2018 19:52:34 IST
Saharanpur violence: Year after caste clashes in Shabbirpur village, atmosphere of fear, resentment prevails among residents

Editor's note: The BJP, its ideological lodestar RSS, and even the BSP, a party with moorings in Dalit identity, have, in recent months, outdone themselves to court the Dalit constituency. The community itself has found new ways to assert its leverage over Indian political parties and reinforce its place in society. Firstpost will travel across UP, the test bed of India's Dalit politics, to record how these changes have altered life in its villages, towns and cities. 

As I drove 30 kilometres from Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh towards a village named Shabbirpur, I initially saw some people standing on the fringes of the village near the main road. They stared at me with suspicion. But as soon as I expressed my interest in what transpired on the streets of the Shabbirpur on 5 May 2017, a 60-something man who later identified himself as Dharampal appeared in front of me and started narrating the year-old incident. On that day, at least 12 Dalits were seriously injured and up to 55 houses were burnt after clashes with the Thakur community. Dharampal recalled the events from last year with practiced ease, and he appeared to have narrated them often. In the meantime, policemen seated in two jeeps on patrolling duty gave us a serious stare.

Shabbirpur looked still and silent but far from calm. There was an air of anxiety over the possibility that something can go awfully wrong yet again.

What triggered the incident in May 2017 was the death of one Thakur boy, as a reaction to which members from the dominant Thakur community from nearly ten neighbouring villages attacked Dalit homes in Shabbirpur. The Dalits then attacked Thakur homes. This is the chronology of events that the Dalits of Shabbirpur remember.

Protests were staged on the streets of Delhi and the media did its bit to draw the attention of the nation towards Shabbirpur. But after Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati toured the area on 23 May, 2017, the incident acquired a political flavour. Leaders of the Bhim Army were arrested. This organisation which works for the emancipation of the lower castes was founded in 2014 by Chandrashekhar Azad and national president of the Bhim Army Vinay Ratan Arya.

Saharanpur violence Year after caste clashes in Shabbirpur village atmosphere of fear resentment prevails among residents

File image of Saharanpur violence. News18

The incident took place when the central government was already facing the heat amid rising incidents of violence against Dalits. As a result, it had to re-strategise to come up with a way of keeping the Dalit voters on its side.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had instructed BJP MPs, ministers and MLAs to spend at least one night in the Dalit settlements in their parliamentary constituencies, to have a meal with them, to listen to their problems, and to re-establish their faith in the government. To understand the ground reality and the impact of this exercise, there couldn’t be a village better than Shabbirpur.

On entering Shabbirpur, I found that the first cluster of homes belonged to the Dalit community. Rajveer, a labourer, lives in this cluster in Shabbirpur with his wife. He recalled how those who burnt down all his belongings didn’t even know the difference between a Dalit and a backward caste, and were blinded by fury. He then revealed that the government had compensated for his loss with Rs 40,000. The houses may have been repaired, but many burnt portions are reminders of the past.

Some distance away lives Shivraj, who is a Dalit. When I met him, he was holding a spade and had just returned from a field. On being asked about how the incident affected his life, he said that the police is only on the side of those in power and that those in power cannot stomach the idea of Dalits getting hold of the proverbial ‘kursi’. He said times have changed and those who believe Dalits cannot rise up to power are wrong. His version of the way the 5 May, 2017 incident unfolded is that Thakurs were rejoicing in a procession on the Maharana Pratap Jayanti and a DJ was playing loud music. The police ordered that the music be stopped and that enraged them. Dalits became the target of their rage, according to Shivraj.

On moving a little further from the Dalit settlement of Shabbirpur, the settlement of Thakurs, consisting of bigger and brighter houses, came into view. In front of a house with a large gate, inside which some people were lying down on folding cots, I ran into a young man named Mohar Singh who works in a liquor shop in a neighbouring area. When asked about the violence, he said that nobody looks at the 'general category' with empathy and such responses are only given with respect to Dalits. He said that his house was burnt down too and alleged that nobody would talk about his predicament. Mohar Singh said that when Mayawati came to tour the area, she was accompanied by 3,000-4,000 members of the Bhim Army. According to him, on that day, people from the Thakur community had decided to remain indoors. On that day, Mohar Singh recalled, the members of the Bhim Army shouted slogans and set fire to some of the Thakur areas.

After the events of May 2017, the police took nine people each from the two castes in custody, some of whom were juveniles. They had to stay in custody for close to two-and-a-half months. Two Dalits and four Thakurs are still locked up in jail. The Dalits blame the police for framing them. On the other hand, the Thakurs allege that after the incident, politicians showed up to inquire about the safety and well-being of the Dalits, but not the Thakurs. Mohar Singh said that Yogi Adityanath’s secretary had come to speak to the Thakurs, but his visit didn’t restore or inspire any hope.

Today, the two communities want to peacefully co-exist but they find it harder to trust each other. In Shabbirpur, I am left with the realisation that the divide has been sharpened by politics.

This article was translated from Hindi. You can read the original piece here.

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