(The Yogi government has revoked the charges under the National Security Act against Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad Raavan, effecting his release from jail. The Quint is republishing this ground report on the 2017 Thakur-Dalit clashes that led to his arrest. This article was first published on 14 May 2017.)
On 5 May 2017, it was a Thakur rally passing through a Dalit neighbourhood in UP’s Saharanpur that sparked off clashes between the two communities.
The rally was being held in honour of Maharana Pratap. But the Dalit residents of Shabbirpur, the village where the violence occurred, allege that the Thakurs had a different agenda in mind.
They raised slogans of Ambedkar Murdabad and Ravidas Murdabad. And shouted that the Dalits deserved to stay trodden upon. That our place was under their feet.Parli, a Dalit woman in Shabbirpur
27-year-old Sumit Singh died in the clashes. Fifteen others were injured. Dozens of homes were burned down. Vehicles were torched.
Sumit Singh’s uncle Ved Lal Singh claims it was a conspiracy against the Thakurs. “The Dalits burned their own houses down after realising that they had killed a young Thakur in the clashes. The arson was to cover up the murder,” he said.
Another Round of Violence
The Thakurs did not have permission for the yatra on 5 May. Why were they allowed to proceed then? The police was clearly complicit. They desecrated the Ravidas temple, set Dalit homes ablaze. Demanding a serious probe, we gave the administration a deadline of two days. We asked them to tell us by the third day how far the probe had come. If not, we would agitate – for as long as it takes.Advocate Chandrashekhar Azad, Founder of the Bhim Army
Based out of his village of Chhutmalpur in Saharanpur, 29-year-old Chandrashekhar Azad helms a group of young Dalit volunteers. They call themselves the Bhim Army. It is an organisation that has come to play a key role in the region’s caste conflict since the clashes in Shabbirpur.
On 9 May, when the police denied permission for a Dalit mahapanchayat in the district, clashes erupted between the cops and Dalit protesters in ten different localities of Saharanpur.
The protesters went on to burn down a police chowki, numerous vehicles and a memorial for Maharana Pratap that was being built by upper caste Thakurs. At least 11 police personnel and a sub-divisional magistrate were injured in stone-pelting.
If the police says that we reacted with violence, tell me, what did we do wrong? You beat us with your lathis and shoot us with your guns. Even animals act in self-defence. We are but human.Vinay Ratan Singh, co-founder of the Bhim Army
Despite his army of Ambedkarites being blamed for the arson and violence on 9 May, Vinay Ratan Singh is unapologetic and even defensive about the actions of the mob.
Founded in July 2015, the Bhim Army is yet to complete even two years of its existence. But it’s already caught the eye, and ire, of many in Uttar Pradesh.
Ved Lal Singh, a Thakur from Rasoolpur, doesn’t hide his contempt for the bandwagon of Dalit volunteers.
They are a bunch of terrorists who are prepared to set the entire village ablaze if their demands aren’t met.
Rural Saharanpur’s new Superintendent of Police, Vidya Sagar Mishra, admits that the Bhim Army is on his radar too.
We have learnt that the Bhim Army was involved in the procession on 9 May. Their role in the unrest is being investigated. The information so far suggests that the group indulged in violence.
With massive security deployment in Saharanpur following the widespread violence on 9 May, the district is in a state of uneasy calm. The tension between the Dalits and the Thakurs is palpable. And even as those on the ground suspect a political design behind the repeated incidents of violence, is there any end in sight for the caste wars of Uttar Pradesh?
Cameraperson: Abhay Sharma
Video Editors: Mohd Irshad Alam and Purnendu Pritam