Saharanpur caste violence: Eye on local polls, BJP walks the tightrope between Dalits and Thakurs
Chunks of Dalit votes buoyed the BJP during its recent Uttar Pradesh assembly election sweep. But now, the caste clashes have jeopardised the community’s support for the saffron party.india Updated: Jun 13, 2017 09:45 IST
Three deaths, more than a dozen injured and 71 arrests later, a tenuous calm has fallen across Shabbirpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district
After caste violence rocks the area for over 20 days, the local BJP MLA from Deoband, Kunwar Brijesh Singh. is on his first visit to the locality on Thursday. Clad in an orange hued kurta, Singh sits surrounded by the Thakurs of the village.
He is quick to blame Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati’s visit on the latest round of violence on May 23. One Dalit man was killed and 13 injured in attacks on those returning from Mayawati’s public meeting.
Dismissing it, he fuels the conspiracy theory mentioned by upper caste villagers of masked men (not Thakurs) having attacked the Dalits.
His sympathies become clearer when questioned about the Dalit houses torched by the Thakurs. Several people loudly say the Dalits burnt their own houses to blame the Thakurs. Singh nods in agreement, “A reporter trying to shoot this was manhandled as well.” He is quickly checked by a man sitting next to him who says, “I am saying this, not the MLA ji.”
Singh retracts, “I wasn’t here that day. People are saying that, I cannot say authentically.”
That does not stop him from pinning the blame on his political rivals. “This is a fight between Bhim Army and BSP. Both worry the other will take over and that’s why this happened,” he says. We asked if he would visit the affected Dalits in the village as well, but he leaves soon after despite telling us he would.
The caste faultlines exposed by the Shabbirpur incident may not be new but have now been bared as politics takes centrestage.
Locals point to the municipal elections to be held in Saharanpur this year as one of the causes of the unrest. This is the first time that elections for the local body will be held. While such local polls never resonated nationally, the BJP’s aggressive campaign in the Delhi municipal elections have brought such contests into sharp focus.
The BJP holds the Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat but it lost 3 of the 5 assembly seats even though it swept most of the Western UP region in the 2017 state elections. It lost the Saharanpur city and rural seats which are due to vote in the municipal polls but managed to pull in a chunk of Dalit votes.
Saharanpur has traditionally been a BSP bastion but the party failed to win even a single assembly seat this year. With a 40 percent Muslim population in the district, the Dalits which constitute 21 percent are key to the fortunes of both parties.
The two parties have taken to accusing each other for instigating the violence for political gain.
Caught in this political vortex are the constituents and a fledgling Dalit youth organisation, the Bhim Army.
15 days before the Shabbirpur incident, Saharanpur BJP MP, Raghav Lakhanpal’s Ambedkar Shobha Yatra, in Sadak Dudhli village through a Muslim area, without police permission had triggered a round of violence. The unrest fueled as the MP openly issued a threat to the then SSP Luv Kumar while BJP workers attacked the officer’s house. The SSP was transferred out of the district soon after. Lakhanpal’s actions were seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between the Dalits and Muslims.
While there maybe no ostensible connection to Sadak Dudhli and Shabbirpur incidents, a video of Chandrashekhar, the firebrand leader of the Bhim Army had surfaced online in its wake, addressing Dalits and Muslims. He warns them against the BJP saying, “it only wants to incite communal violence for electoral gains.”
Lakhanpal is quick to dismiss this. “Let’s not make this a Dalit-BJP issue. This issue is about a handful of people who are trying to mislead the community, trying to show a different picture.”
The BJP has been caught in a bind in trying to assuage their core Thakur base without alienating the Dalits. Lakhanpal’s doublespeak doesn’t last long as a group of incensed Thakurs from Ambetta village arrive. Their children have been arrested for attacking Dalits after Mayawati’s public meeting on May 23. Lakhanpal assures them, “anyay nahi hone denge.” (We won’t let injustice happen.)
We meet more Thakur families outside the district jail. Saroj Pundhir, is waiting with a plastic bag of clothes and a box of puri-sabzi for her son, Rohit, one of those arrested. She says that their village is 10 km away from Shabbirpur and none of the boys were involved in the attacks on Dalits. The anger against the administration soon turns into anger against the BJP government. “Vote toh BJP ko kiya tha par agar hamare begunah bacchon ko pakdenge toh inko dobara kyun vote denge.” (We voted for the BJP but if they jail our innocent kids, we won’t vote for them again).
Not too far away, in the Civil Hospital trauma centre are another set of BJP voters – the Dalits who were attacked by the Thakurs. A frail Inderpal, 50, has his head and both hands bandaged. “When I was crossing the Rajput houses, about 10-15 men with swords and axes attacked me. I pleaded saying, “what’s my mistake” but they called me “gittal” (a local castiest slur) and kept beating me,” he says.
Another man cuts in, “This is the result of having voted for the BJP. They don’t care for chamars, only the cow.” A third says, “Caste oppression is not new but now it’s their (upper caste) government so they can do what they want. The only difference is that this time we will raise our voice.”
This wave of Dalit assertion has been fired by the Bhim Army, a two-year-old organisation founded in nearby Chutmalpur, in response to caste oppression of Dalit children at school. The national convenor of the organisation, Vinay Ratan Singh, a strapping young man with a handlebar moustache says it is easy for parties to pin the blame on them.
“Our only clash was with the administration on May 9, nothing else. Every little accident is now being blamed on us. We are being called so many names but they can go see our work on ground,” he says referring to the after school program run by them for Dalit students.
Targeting them has also led to a surge of mass support for them. At a protest called by them on May 21, thousands descended onto Delhi. Chandrashekhar made a quick appearance despite the looming threat of arrest. Local police sources say that arresting more Bhim Army members at this point could further worsen the situation.
“Jab bhi SC ke sath anyay hoga Bhim Army puri takat ke saath khadi hogi, pure disesh or videsh mein bhi.” (The Bhim Army will stand in full strength every time there will be injustice with Scheduled Castes, nationally and even internationally). Vinay says while they will continue their fight they have told their cadre to not break the law.
But the simmering anger of the cadre is clear when we met a few of the young men of Bhim Army checking on the injured Dalits being treated at the Civil Hospital. Pointing to Inderpal one says, “Inhi ke bache andar hain, aur yahi aspatal mein. Ladai toh ab dikhayenge kaisi hoti hai. Kaise sadkon pe aate hain log.” (His sons have been arrested and he is the one injured too. We’ll show how to fight by taking to the streets).
Another young man from Chhutmalpur village, the birthplace of Bhim Army loudly says, “Abhi to ek Chandrashekhar hai, jab 100 Chandrashekhar ho jayenge na, phir dekhiyega.” (Right now, there is one Chandrashekhar, when there will be 100, you will see).