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Dalit Assertion in Uttar Pradesh

The emergence of the Bheem Army in Saharanpur suggests a new aggression amongst UP Dalits.

The recent clashes between Thakurs and Dalits in Saharanpur district, Uttar Pradesh (UP) point towards simmering social relations and clashing cultural assertions following a change in political guard. For 15 years, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) had effected a gradual process of democratisation of the social and political spheres in UP, championing at the very minimum social dignity for Dalits and the Backward Castes, their internal contradictions notwithstanding. The recent electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, as chief minister mark a return of the forward castes to the helm of political power in the state. Emboldened by this, the Thakurs and other such dominant castes are seeking to leverage this political moment to reassert their dominance.

The first confrontation occurred on 20 April 2017, when the Jatav-Dalits of Shabirpur village, Saharanpur were poised to erect a statue of Ambedkar to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. These plans were forestalled by the Thakurs who objected to the lack of administrative permissions for the celebrations, and the statue itself whose outstretched index finger pointed towards the upper caste locality. A second skirmish took place on 5 May 2017 when the Thakurs took out a strident procession to commemorate the birth anniversary of the medieval Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap. The Dalits stalled the procession as it entered their segregated colony, also citing lack of permissions. This time around the confrontation escalated from stone-pelting by both sides to a rampage by the Thakurs during which they burned down a significant number of Dalit houses and shops, and desecrated Dalit iconography and shrines. A Thakur youth died, many members of both communities were injured, and the Dalits fled en masse from the village fearing further violence.

Saharanpur is known to be a socially volatile district, with frequent tensions and collisions between Hindus and Muslims, as also Thakurs and Dalits. These tensions are reflected in the political realm too, where the parliamentary seat is held by the BJP, assembly seats by the Congress–SP alliance, and a fraught municipal poll is due next month. Saharanpur’s demography is dominated by the lower castes with 26% Dalits and 10% Thakurs, but Shabirpur village has 60% Thakurs and 15% Dalits. The rise of the BSP and SP had consolidated the Backward Caste voter base, expanding the possibilities of social mobility. While these parties face declining fortunes, the consistent political mobilisation seems to have generated an autonomous, ideologically-driven assertiveness among the marginalised communities. There is a decisive Ambedkarite turn among the Jatavs, who are traditionally adherents of Sant Ravidas, a Dalit Bhakti saint. This is easily perceptible from the proliferation of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations, Ambedkar statues and posters, and conversions out of Hinduism.

Most notable is the rise of the Bheem Army, which has been leading Dalit action and protest on caste-based violence in general and Shabirpur clashes in particular, to counter state apathy and media under-representation. Founded by Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan,” a young lawyer from Saharanpur, the Bheem Army is popular with Dalit youth for its quick intervention in atrocity cases and militant confrontation with perpetrators and police. Politically astute, articulate, media-savvy and intolerant of caste discrimination, the Bheem Army reminds one of the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra in the 1970s. While acknowledging the heritage as well as strengths and limitations of the BSP, the Bheem Army wants to coexist alongside the party rather than edge it out. Although the UP police is labelling it an anti-social, even anti-state outfit, the rise of the Bheem Army must be understood in the context of everyday violence and ostracisation experienced by Dalits, and criminalisation of the public sphere in UP, both sanctioned by the caste–class–state nexus in the region.

As for the forward castes in UP, their moment has finally come. With an audacious leader at the helm of affairs, dominant castes such as the Thakurs have finally found the political impetus to reclaim lost ground and reassert their ritual and material supremacy. The celebration of Maharana Pratap as a local, cultural icon to unify and mobilise the community was spurred by the BJP. This is in line with its overall political strategy of leveraging the countrywide politicisation of dominant castes that have been disgruntled by the unfolding agrarian crisis and advances of lower castes. The incidents at Shabirpur illustrate this as the attacks were carried out against material assets and cultural symbols—markers of Jatav identity and mobility. What could have passed as yet another routine exercise of keeping the Dalits in place changed because of the Bheem Army and the refusal of the Dalits of Shabirpur to return to the village until justice is meted out.

Communal tensions in the aftermath of the BJP victory in UP were expected given Adityanath’s anti-Muslim record. But caste polarisation surfacing this early into his term is alarming and worrying, not just for the people of UP but also for the BJP. While the long-term political fallout of these developments are not yet clear, a more aggressive response from disgruntled Dalits as reflected in Chandrashekhar’s statement that “for elections, we are Hindu; after that we are Dalits,” hints at the possibility of these fault lines unravelling into a counter-wave against the BJP.

Updated On : 19th May, 2017

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