On 8 September, Sonu Kumar, a 25-year-old Dalit singer, posted on Facebook that he would contest the next elections in Kushmaul—a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district—for the post of pradhan. Kumar told me that Vivek Shahi, the incumbent pradhan—village head—who is a member of the dominant Thakur community, commented casteist slurs on the post and harassed him later. A first-information report was lodged against Shahi, but he was not immediately arrested. On 14 September, Dhirendra Pratap Bharti, the president of Purvanchal Sena—an anti-caste political group in Gorakhpur—held a protest outside the district magistrate’s office, demanding Shahi’s arrest. Four days later, the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested Dhirendra and his younger brother Yogendra Pratap Bharti.
Dhirendra is a 34-year-old from the Dalit community and a vocal critic of the ruling dispensation. While the first-information report lodged against the brothers claimed that they had accompanied a criminal near Hanuman Mandir in Gorakhpur that night, the family said that the allegations are false. Satender Pratap Bharti, the youngest of the Bharti brothers, told me, “Had my brother been arrested directly for protesting for Sonu, the government’s casteist face would be exposed. This is why they found a different way of arresting my brother.” He added that the arrests are a way “to stop the Dalits of Gorakhpur from standing united.”
Siddharth, an independent journalist who hails from Gorakhpur, spoke to me about the history of Dalits participating in politics in the state. “In the 1990s, there was a rise of Dalits in politics, and it remained in Uttar Pradesh for a long time,” Siddharth said. “Upper castes began thinking that ‘we can only work if we work with them—our supremacy cannot continue.’ They had to accept the political standing of Dalits.” But then, Siddharth said, Ajay Singh Bisht became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 “as a Hindu representative, and that of upper-caste Hindus.” Bisht, more commonly known as Yogi Adityanath, is a Thakur from the Rajput community. Gorakhpur is considered Adityanath’s home turf. According to Siddharth, with his ascent to power, the Rajputs thought, “After a long time, our rule has been established.”
Kumar made a similar remark pointing to a rise of Thakur dominance. “Yeh Thakuro ki manmaani chal rahi hai”—Thakurs are doing whatever they want—he said. By Kumar’s estimate, “there are around two thousand voters in our village most of whom are Dalits and about thirty houses belong to Thakurs.” Kumar is a Bhojpuri singer who often refers to BR Ambedkar, commonly called Babasaheb within Dalit communities, in his music. He told me that Shahi commented on his 8 September post with a threat: “Stay within your limits. You are a Chamar, stay like one. Do not try to be a king. Your bad phase begins.” Chamar is the name of a Dalit community, often used as a casteist slur by upper castes. Kumar sent a screenshot of this comment to me as well.
According to Kumar, Shahi called him at 10 pm and made more such remarks, including, “you are a Chamar, how can you stand against me in elections?” and that “reservation has only ruined the country.” Shahi also “abused Baba Saheb, Mayawati and great men of our community,” Kumar recounted. He pointed out that the Constitution gives everyone the right to contest elections. “The whole country is governed by the Constitution, but this Thakur pradhan does not follow it,” he said. “If we are given a chance to participate, only then will we be able to progress.”
The next morning, Kumar said he went to the nearby Belipar Police Station with a group of villagers to get an FIR registered against Shahi. When he was at the station, he told me Shahi called him again and said, “Get out, or I will break your leg at an intersection.” Kumar said the police then deployed two officials in his locality for safety purposes, but around 9 pm that night, Shahi came home and started hurling profanities in front of the policemen. “He threatened me, ‘I will kill your whole family.’ The policemen dragged him out of there,” Kumar told me.
Siddharth referred to this incident in his conversation with me about the Thakur community in Uttar Pradesh. “Sonu’s FIR was registered—now, see, a Thakur still abused him in front of the police.” He added, “The Dalit is not willing to live without equality, and the upper caste is refusing to accept this.” He said that the Kushmaul incident and another recent case, of a Thakur allegedly murdering Satyamev Jayate, a Dalit village head, in Azamgarh district demonstrated this. In August this year, I reported on four attacks against Dalits—in each of the cases, the perpetrators were Thakurs. On 29 September, a 19-year-old Dalit woman died after being raped and brutalised by four Thakur men in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district.
According to Siddharth, Dalit-Bahujan movements and parties, such as the Purvanchal Sena, are the biggest challengers to the present dispensation’s ideology. The Purvanchal Sena was established in 2006, with the aim to fight for the rights of Dalits and backward castes. The party’s student wing is called Ambedkar Students Union for Rights, or ASUR, and its main base is in the Gorakhpur University. “This is alternative politics—the Hindu thinking would never accept the name ASUR,” he said. In Hindu mythology, asuras are a class of powerful beings reviled for their opposition to heavenly beings called devas. Several tribal groups are called Asurs, and Bahujan communities have reclaimed this word as an assertion against Brahminism. “The people who challenge the Hindu ideology, like Dhirendra Pratap, are in the government’s hitlist,” he said.
Dhirendra’s family lives in Gorakhpur’s Betiahata area. His father, Ram Ghulam Bharti, earlier worked as a plumber and is now a contractor. Dhirendra and Yogendra—a 29-year-old—are champions of judo and karate, and run the Purvanchal Niyuddha Academy, which provides training in martial arts in Gorakhpur. Their sister, Pinki, is a 31-year-old national-level boxing player. Satender is a 25-year-old final year masters’ student at the Lucknow-based Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University. He told me that Dhirendra had always raised issues of Dalits and Bahujans. During the 14 September protest, Satender said Dhirender had issued a warning, “If there is no arrest, there will be an agitation.”
Ram recounted the events of the night intervening 17 September and 18 September. He said that his three eldest children went to bed to their respective rooms around midnight, while the couple slept in the verandah. “The door to our house was locked from inside,” he said. According to him, one man sneaked inside the house and opened the door for other men, almost twenty five in strength, to come inside.
The couple woke up. “At first, we could not understand anything,” Ram said. “And it seemed as if many of them were drunk.” Ram told me that the men identified themselves as policemen, but only about a handful of men who were standing outside the house were wearing uniforms. “They first went to Yogendra’s room, he woke up in panic,” he said. “My daughter also woke up and came out of her room. She started making videos with her phone, but four or five policemen snatched it away.” The men entered Dhirendra’s room next, and inquired about his name and his occupation. According to Ram, the policemen began using “maa-behen ki gaali”—abuse directed at mothers and sisters—against Dhirendra. His wife tried to deter them and said, “Please mind your language. How can you say this in front of grown up children?” But by Ram’s account, the policemen did not relent.
Yogendra also attempted to video record the scene with his phone, but the police confiscated both his and Dhirendra’s phones, Ram said. According to him, Dhirendra said to the policemen, “Tell me if you have a warrant, information, summon? You are doing hooliganism in the name of the police. Since only four or five of you are wearing uniforms, I think you are goons.” Ram said one of the policemen replied, “Tum netagiri karte ho. Ab tumhaari puri netagiri nikaal denge.”—You engage in politics. We will quash all political spirit in you.
The policemen began forcing Dhirendra and Yogendra out of the house, Ram told me. “When I tried to stop them, a policeman tried to charge at me with a lathi. It missed me, but they beat both my sons, slapped them and forcibly took them away,” he said.
Ram told me that till the policemen bundled his sons in a car, they did not give any hint about the reason behind the raid. “Then, they asked, ‘Where is David?’” he said. “I asked, ‘Who David? We do not know anyone named David.’ They replied, ‘Rohit David.’ We told them that we know someone called Rohit, he is a distant relative, but we do not have any contact with him.” According to Ram, the policemen did not elaborate on this, and took the brothers away.
David finds a mention in the FIR registered against the brothers, which describes a completely different set of events. The FIR claims that a little after midnight a bunch of policemen were standing near an intersection when an informant came in and said that a “shaatir apradhi”—cunning criminal—named Vikki Harijan aka David was standing near the Hanuman Mandir, a temple, with two men. The policemen went to the spot and found three men who identified themselves as Vikki, Dhirendra and Yogendra. According to the police, Vikki was carrying a tamancha—a country-made gun—and fired shots at the policemen. Dhirendra and Yogendra ran from the scene. The FIR booked the three men under three Sections 353, 307 and 332 of the IPC, which deal with assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty, attempt to murder and voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty. Dhirendra’s family termed this as a false case.
At around 9 am, Ram said the family visited their area’s police station, located in Gorakhpur cantonment. “We were told that there is no one called Yogendra or Dhirendra there. The ground vanished from under my feet,” he said. “I was afraid if something wrong had being done to my sons.” Ram told me they tried to meet the superintendentof police, but he was busy. Then, he said, the family met Vijender Pandiya, the district magistrate, who made a call and found that the crime branch had picked up the brothers and that they were safe. Surender Valmiki, the district head of the Purvanchal Sena, told me Dhirendra and Yogendra were lodged in a coronavirus quarantine centre for 14 days, after which they will be shifted to the Gorakhpur district jail.
Shahi, the incumbent pradhan, was finally arrested on 26 September, Kumar told me. I called the commanding officer of the Bansgaon police station, Nitish Kumar, who has jurisdiction over Sonu’s case. He refused to comment on the case and asked me to come to Gorakhpur if I wanted to talk about it. Nitish had given the same response when I asked him for a comment for my August report on Thakurs unleashing anti-Dalit violence in the state. Manoj Rai, the officer in change of the police station in Gorakhpur cantonment, asked me to speak to Dhirendra’s father’s instead, and hung up. I called back repeatedly, but he did not pick up my calls again.