Spurred on by Bheem Army, Dalits in western UP put up united face after Saharanpur violence

An uneasy calm prevails in western Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur, after several incidents of caste-based violence were reported from the region. Caste assertions and subsequent face-offs are not unheard of in the area, and the upper-caste Thakurs have sparred with Dalits in the past too. But the Dalits' increasing assertiveness wasn't taken very well by the upper castes, who were used to their traditional superiority in society. This has resulted in frequent clashes.

However, a new phenomenon has emerged of late, where Dalit leaders have regrouped, the community reorganised, and lone one-off incidents of clashes transformed into organised resistance movements, where Dalits don't shy away from standing up to authorities from the upper castes.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This new phenomenon is being credited to the rise of the Bheem Army, which had been staging a sit-in in protest ever since clashes broke out last week between Dalits and Thakurs, leaving one person dead and over two dozen injured.

They demand equal rights and compensation for those who incurred losses, after 15-20 Dalit houses were burnt. The message in these unified movements is loud and clear: They want justice for the wrongs done to them, and discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated.

And this message has bound together an army of 40,000 Dalit youth across seven states in northern India, according to Chandrashekhar, who founded the Bhim Army merely two years ago.

The 30-something lawyer is well-built, often dons a blue scarf and talks of ideas of equality and annihilation of caste. According to a report in The Indian Express, Chandrasheskhar would have gone on to study abroad, but had to scrap his plan because of his ailing father. Staying at his village in Chhutmalpur while looking after his father, he decided that something needed to be done about the upliftment of "his people", as he thought the political entities touted as Dalit parties are too deeply entrenched in politics to afford to upset the upper castes.

Another report in The Quint quotes him as saying, "We need a BSP, but we also need a Bhim Army... political parties must appease all communities: Those lathicharged for a signboard with their own name on their own land, and those who ordered the lathicharge."

Chandrashekhar was referring here to another incident from last year in Gadkauli village, when a major controversy had broken out when some Dalit boys erected a board on their property proclaiming "the great Chamaar" Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Village Gadkauli. According to The Quint, the local Thakurs expressed displeasure over the word "great" and involved the police to work out a compromise. This compromise included blackening of the board. A few days later, a statue of Bhimrao Ambedkar was blackened in the village, and the Dalits already disgruntled by the compromise formula forced on them, roped in Chandrashekhar's Bhim Sena. Policemen were thrashed, stones were pelted, and the board was re-erected.

This incident brought the Bhim Sena into prominence. The mere idea of Dalits standing up to the police was enthralling for many, and since then, Chandrashekhar's popularity has only swelled.

Even in last week's incident, a police chowki was burnt and over 20 vehicles were torched while several instances of stone pelting and clashes were reported from Saharanpur as a result of a incident emanating from a small village called Shabbirpur. Protests here started after 20-25 youth of the upper caste Thakur community were taking out a procession to garland the statue of Rajput warrior-king Maharana Pratap, when the Dalit locals objected to the loud music being played. It soon snowballed into a full-blown clash, with both groups throwing stones and bricks at each other.

The incident led to more violence and there was also arson, while 15-20 Dalit houses were torched and many vehicles, including those of the police, torched. As many as 16 persons, including a police officer, were injured in the resulting clashes. Of them, Sumit Rajput (35) later succumbed to his injuries. As the situation spiralled out of control, senior police officials ran and sought shelter in a residential colony to escape the wrath of the mob.

Around 600 Dalits and over 900 Thakurs reside in the village, about 35 km from where the violence erupted on 9 May.

According to the district authorities, it was the Bheem Sena that actively used social media to rally protestors and allegedly orchestrated Tuesday's violence. His organisation circulated messages on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, appealing to members of the Dalit community to attend a 'mahapanchayat' on 9 May in Gandhi Park to demand compensation and relief for those affected in last week’s inter-caste clashes.

Senior Superintendent of Police Subhash Chandra Dubey said the rioters opened fire on officers using country-made pistols. The police said protesters also vandalised Maharana Pratap Bhavan in Ramnagar area on Malhipur road.

They said a Rajput group filed a complaint alleging that Chandrashekhar provoked Dalit men and indulged in violence at Maharana Pratap Bhavan.

However, Chandrashekhar told The Indian Express that he condemns the violence. He claims that not all people who participated in the protests were members of the Ambedkar Army, and that he was called by the authorities to pacify the protesters. "We follow Ambedkar and we believe in the law of the land. But what will our people do when there is a difference in the treatment meted out to them?" the article quotes him as asking.

After the Saharanpur incident, the police arrested 30 people, mostly Dalits, in connection with the violence. Chandrashekhar sees a clear case of discrimination. "In Shabbirpur, when the Thakurs started a procession, there was no lathicharge on them. Why this treatment for us alone?" he asked.

He insists that he takes pride in his "apolitical" organisation and that he will fight only for the rights of his people. However, he added that this is only a part of the struggle, and the only way forward is education of the people.

With inputs from PTI

Updated Date: May 11, 2017 14:28 PM

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