Naya Gaon Akbarpur Kaidri is a small, nondescript village in Kanth tehsil, 27 kilometres from Moradabad. The Kanwariya season – which ends today – has seen an interesting surge in the village this year, with more than 36 men participating in the Kanwar yatra as opposed to just 15 last year.
The sudden interest in the Yatra has surprised many, with villagers tracing its roots back to a ‘riot’ that erupted in the village last year. Naya Gaon reportedly comprises 25% dalits, mainly chamaars (cleaners) and 75% Muslims, mainly bunkars (weavers) and lohaars (ironsmiths). No upper-castes live in the village.
Early last year, the two communities had a disagreement over the placement of a loudspeaker at a local Ravi Dass temple where the dalits prayed.
Anees, a villager, told The Quint that members of the Muslim community complained about the matter to the Tehsildar’s office. The authorities intervened and the loudspeaker was taken off. However, that led to clashes between the dalits and the local police, with a curfew being clamped down on the village, dalits being lathi-charged and several incidents of stone pelting, during which, the District Magistrate was injured in the eye.
Bano and her husband Mohammad Shafiq, who live opposite the temple, said most ‘rioters’ had come from outside the village and many sported orange headbands.
Peace was eventually brokered by the Kanth MP, BJP’s Sarvesh Kumar Singh and Peace Party MLA Anis-ur-Rehman.
Since then, villagers claimed, there has been a marked shift in the Dalit politics – with members of the community gravitating towards the BJP. The Ravi Dass temple, which is still known by the same name in local police records, has been renamed as “Shiv Mandir” by locals and a shivalaya has been installed inside. However, the priest at the temple remains a dalit.
Before elections, Sarvesh Singh promised Dalits that if he won, he would get the loudspeaker permanently installed. He did eventually win and got the thing fixed here, but local administration found it to be flouting of rules. So, they got the loudspeaker removed. What we cannot understand is – why have so many dalit men started undertaking this yatra? They make noise all night and police is stationed here to control their rowdiness. Also, why have dalits suddenly changed the name of their temple?
— Anees, Village Resident
Vijay Singh (47), a labourer and representative of the Dalit community, said that they had arrived in the village 62 years ago after floods ravaged the area where they lived. The temple is more than 40 years old and was always a Shiva temple, he claimed. When asked why the temple was listed as Ravi Dass temple in police and administrative records, pat came the reply: “It’s a conspiracy of the Samajwadi Party government.”
Singh explained that the loudspeakers were always a permanent feature at the temple.
Some were getting old so we got new ones before Shivratri. We thought that our boys are going for the kanwar yatra and the womenfolk would sing bhajans so let’s have new loudspeakers. These people (Muslims) filed an application against us in the Tehlisdaar’s office and the authorities removed it. They entered the temple with their shoes. We protested but were beaten up and charges were filed against 22 of us in the police station.
— Vijay Singh, Dalit Representative
Moradabad’s then-DM, Chandrakant who was injured in the incident and is now posted as the DM in Aligarh along with the then-Senior Superintendent of Police, Dharamvir Yadav, now posted in Bareilly, declined to comment on the matter, stating it “pertained to another district now”.
A senior police officer at the Kanth police station, however, said on condition of anonymity:
Loudspeaker lagane pe vivaad tha. Avaid mana gaya. Dalits ne jhagda kar diya. But it happens everywhere. Azaans blaze from loudspeakers at mosques day and night across UP. Nobody opposes them.
— Senior Police Official
A 19-year old BA student who went for the yatra this time said,
We took two vehicles and went. The Hindutva feeling is rising among people. But I don’t think I went for the Hindu cause. I just wanted to enjoy with my friends.
— Navneet Kumar, Student
Singh quickly interrupted.
Of course this is about Hindu Ekta. The SP government just favours Muslims. BSP fields Muslim candidates each time who do not work for us at all. We want BJP in the state. Sangh members, VHP volunteers keep coming to the village. We are in regular touch with them and they are concerned for our needs.
— Vijay Singh, Dalit Representative
Pavan Jain, RSS Moradabad Prachar Pramukh, confirmed that “upliftment of dalit brothers” was high on the organisation’s agenda.
We call them ‘Sewa Vasti’ – those who need our sewa. We try to provide them education, medical and other facilities.
— Pavan Jain, RSS Prachar Pramukh, Moradabad
The move is increasingly being viewed by many political experts as an attempt by the saffron brigade to “Hindu-ise” the dalit community for political gains.
Writer and social activist Kancha Ilaiah explained how BJP, VHP and RSS are mobilizing huge financial resources to vulnerable areas of dalits.
If they are converting a Ravi Dass temple into Shiv Mandir with a Dalit priest, then it is serious. If there had been any upper castes in the village, dalits would be treated as untouchables or abused daily, and their main opposition then would have been the upper castes and not Muslims. I don’t think one can generalise. But in this village, BJP and RSS have carefully used the binary existence of Dalits and Muslims to their advantage. RSS has tried to organise dalits into a homogenous group vis-à-vis muslims.
— Kancha Ilaiah, Social Activist