Simmering rage among the Dalits hit another boiling point in Saharanpur, two days after thousands of people from the underprivileged community gathered in the heart of the national capital. The massive May 21 show at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, 200 km east of the Uttar Pradesh city, was led by a young lawyer: Chandrashekhar Azad, the founder of a hitherto little-known outfit.
Dalits in Saharanpur are angry, particularly at the state’s BJP regime, which they allege is ‘rigged’ by forward-caste Rajputs, or Thakurs as they are known in the Hindi belt. Will the anger gently fizzle out into a passing phenomenon like the one that began from Una in Gujarat last year? Will it be coopted into BSP leader Mayawati’s political machine or will it unfold as a new movement?
The fury was evident in Saharanpur’s district hospital. There, Dalits thronged in hundreds, especially after a youth from their community died on May 23 from stab wounds. Locals say it’s Thakurs who ended the life of 24-year-old Ashish Meghraj and assaulted 14 fellow Dalits, locals say. “Around 10 of us were returning from a rally by Behenji (Mayawati) in Shabbirpur village in a car,” says teenager Mukesh, at the hospital’s emergency ward, with a bandaged arm. “A little ahead, around 15 men, with faces covered, stopped our vehicle. They attacked us with knives. A police vehicle I flagged down refused to take us to the hospital.”
Trouble appears to have begun when Dalits in Shabbirpur village, 30 km from Saharanpur, were denied permission to erect a statue of their icon, B.R. Ambedkar, within the premises of a temple of Ravidas (considered a spiritual leader of Dalits). On May 5, Thakurs from a neighbouring village led a procession to a statue of their hero Maharana Pratap, and were stopped by Dalits for going past the same shrine. This led to a violent clash, claiming the life of a Thakur youth and injuring members of both communities.
At this, Chandrashekhar and his two-year-old Bheem Army Ekta Mission mobilised the Dalits in Saharanpur. The administration disbanded a call for a May 9 mahapanchayat, further fuelling the Dalit anger. The Thakurs unleashed a slew of hate videos on social media. Within days, the UP administration filed 40-plus cases under the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes Act.
“But instead of the Thakur youth, they have arrested Shubham Karnwal, who posted on Facebook about the atrocities on Dalits,” alleges Vivek Bharti of a Saharanpur-based Dalit social group. “It is because they are being briefed and led by the Rajput-dominated administration.” It isn’t the first such instance, he claims. “Recently, ink was smeared on an Ambedkar poster. Following the May 5 incident, Thakurs were given compensation, while 52 houses of Dalits were burnt down in Shabbirpur. The village now has police barricades and even rations were not allowed to go through.”
Other local Dalit leaders such as Rahul Bharti, a youth leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Chamar Mahasabha, feel the sudden exercise of Thakur domination has to do with the high number of UP’s MPs and legislators from that community. The CM, Yogi, is himself a Rajput. “They want Dalit youth, who are used to chanting ‘Jai Bheem’, to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’,” says Rahul Bharti. “This is not the inclusive model that was sold before the (recent) UP election.”
Local BSP leader Chanderjeet Singh Nikku, a lawyer, says Saharanpur has been made a “political laboratory” for an experiment that will be scaled further up before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “Before the (last) assembly election, Adityanath delivered some speeches. They are becoming a ground reality now,” he says. “The administration has taken cue from the political leadership. Senior police officials don’t turn up to control crowds.”
Dalits at the May 21 Bheem Sena rally on Jantar Mantar
On May 21, Chandrashekhar and his blue-capped members of the two-year-old Bheem Army, converged at Jantar Mantar in thousands. Dalits from other districts of UP also joined in. Today, the agitation’s leaders, including Chandrasekhar, are on the run. The ostensible reason is that the agitation’s leadership did not seek permissions to arrive in Delhi. Also, there are charges filed by the Saharanpur administration.
The failure or success of Chandrasekhar’s agitation is but a small question within the larger issue of Dalit social and political identity—in UP and beyond. “If a Yadav becomes UP chief minister, it often seems as if all the Yadavs of that state are empowered,” says Vivek Kumar, who teaches political science at JNU, Delhi. “If it’s a Rajput who has become the CM, it seems to the Dalit that every Rajput has become a CM. For, the state, after so many years, cannot give the Dalits protection.”
According to him, Chandrasekhar’s arrival on the scene is in fact a reflection of the tremendous anger of the Dalits and even stronger sense of alienation, which have built up over the last decade of political exclusion combined with atrocities and violation of their rights. “Because these are young people who have tasted democracy under several years of BSP rule, they are conscious of their rights as citizens. That is why they protested, louder than ever,” says Kumar.
It’s also a fact that the young Dalits’ agitation has been able to force ex-CM Mayawati out into Saharanpur. Until the Jantar Mantar event, she had sent a BSP delegation and issued a statement, but had not cared to personally survey the events even as two lives were lost in the rioting. Will this agitation unfold independently or meld within the larger BSP framework? The questions have relevance to the BJP as well, for the party ruling the state had lately crowed about having weaned the Dalits from the 1984- founded BSP.
Says Kumar: Of the 151 MPs north India sends, of the state and central SC/ST commissions, of the police, bureaucracy, leaders in power, there is not one institution or individual whom the Dalit community can rely on. “Even the fourth estate is letting them down, while Mayawati is unable to speak to the youth in their new vocabulary of empowerment. That is why they came out in numbers to agitate without any leadership to speak of.”
Mayawati’s latest poll defeat has added to the anger among her constituents. They are seeking out fresher avenues for justice, feeling the party that was the mainstay of Dalit politics since the late 1980s can no longer provide a new generation of educated, social media-savvy Dalits. “What happened in Delhi is like a trial balloon,” says Meerut-based Dalit ideologue Satish Prakash. “Chandrasekhar mobilised thousands. However, the significance of the gathering is that it is an attempt to gauge the actual potential and intensity of a Dalit movement in the region and in the country.”
And yet, Chandrasekhar is only a new star on the otherwise vacant horizon for the Dalits. The young have chosen to step out and demand justice, but the larger political current is not entirely in their favour. However, a movement has to have interests that are more durable—beyond elections, says Satish Deshpande, who teaches sociology at Delhi University. “Most parties try to inculcate a movement while movements strive for a share in the state. This is the tension we are witnessing in events like Saharanpur. This has spread across the country, not just in UP,” he adds.
By Ushinor Majumdar in Saharanpur and Pragya Singh in Delhi