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Parli laments, “The rioters entered my house and damaged our vehicles”. (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

In Photos: Caught Amidst the Caste Wars of UP’s Saharanpur

Take a look at the impact, and the human cost, of the violence between Dalits and Thakurs in riot-hit Saharanpur.

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5 min read
On the 5th, we witnessed the Thakurs swarming ominously into Shabbirpur, armed with swords and guns and raising slogans of “Ambedkar Murdabad”. They stormed our homes and burned them down. They torched our vehicles and desecrated the Ravidas mandir we pray at.
Parli, Dalit Woman, Shabbirpur

It was a Thakur rally passing through Shabbirpur that sparked off the violence between the two communities last Friday.

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Over the past one month, the district of Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh has witnessed multiple incidents of caste-based violence. The result? Houses burned, vehicles torched, several injured, and one youngster dead.

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As a heavy deployment of security forces keep watch over the uneasy peace in Saharanpur’s villages, both Dalits and Thakurs are angry. At each other, and at the state.

In the village of Rasoolpur, Biram Singh mourns the loss of his 27-year-old son, Sumit, to caste violence. It was only a week ago that he had got the call, informing him that Sumit was no more. The cause – a clash between members of his Thakur community and the local Dalits of Shabbirpur.

Over 50 Dalit houses in Shabbirpur were torched in the clashes.

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With mutual cooperation, their Shivratris and our Ravidas Jayantis always passed off peacefully. But recently, people coming in from outside have been fostering unrest between the Thakurs and us Dalits.
Munish Devi, Dalit woman in Shabbirpur
Razed to the ground and charred beyond recognition, this house is entirely deserted. Neighbours tell us that the residents are still in hospital, being tended to for the injuries suffered during the clashes. As and when they do return, there is not much left to call home.
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Enter Ambedkar’s Army

Following the clashes in Shabbirpur on 5 May, Dalits across Saharanpur called for a mahapanchayat on 9 May. At the helm of the efforts to unite the community was advocate Chandrashekhar Azad and his Bhim Army.

The 29-year-old leads a cohort of young volunteers with a mission to fight against oppression of Dalits. Though the organisation is less than two years old, it has already made quite a name for itself. Its latest claim to fame though are allegations of arson and violence against police personnel.

Chandrashekhar’s defence sounds like one a seasoned politician would make. “The Bhim Army does not believe in violence as a method of protest. All our activities are in accordance with Babaseheb’s Constitution. It was the police who lathicharged the Dalits who had gathered there. Some of them may have retaliated in response to the police’s unnecessary violence.”

Dalit protesters burned a memorial site that was being built to commemorate Maharana Pratap in Ramnagar, Saharanpur.

A police chowki in Ramnagar was also gutted in the violence between Dalits and police personnel on 9 May. The station was deserted when we visited it on Thursday, save for two painters who were busy getting the chowki back in shape for work to recommence there.

Outside the chowki, burnt police documents and vehicles lay next to each other – each as good as worthless rubble.

The violence on 9 May has resulted in heavy police deployment across Saharanpur. Along with several companies of the UP Police moving to the district from elsewhere in the state, the Rapid Response Force has also been brought in from Meerut.

Among the locals, there are those who haven’t taken kindly to the damage to public and private property caused by Dalit protesters on Tuesday.

Vinish Kumar is a Kshatriya shopkeeper in Ramnagar. He claims that the gates of the residential complex he stays in was attacked by a Dalit mob on 9 May.

With these acts of aggression, the Bhim Army is deepening the caste divide instead of reducing it. Their methods are wrong, violence cannot be the answer.

Jitender Kumar Chopra, 72, works as a security guard at the Sun City residential complex where Vinish stays. “The mob pelted stones, shattered the windows of my post and broke this door too. They were hurling stones at a few of the houses that were close to the road as well. Why damage private property? What have the people here done to them?”

We questioned the locals in Shabbirpur about the allegations of violence surfacing against members of the Bhim Army.

Anita Devi, from the Dalit community, retorts vociferously.

The administration is accusing the Bhim Army after the violence on the 9th. But where are the accusations against the Thakurs for coming into our houses with swords and burning our homes down? Where are the accusations against the police for standing by and watching while the Thakur mob rampaged through our village?  

Munish Devi adds, “The Bhim Army is on our side. They are not wrong. Hold the state government responsible if you have to. What is Yogi ji doing to solve the issue? Nothing.”

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And as the handful of Dalit women gathered there raged against the inequalities they faced for being born Dalits – Anita Devi’s nine-year-old daughter, who had stood by, quietly listening to every word, let teardrops roll onto her cheeks.

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