Five feet and a few centimeters tall, Raja Singh Chauhan looked diminutive compared to the men in his service, three or four of who surround him at all times. Clad in a saffron kurta and pajama, Chauhan sat on a seat in a small green patch outside a government-funded skilling centre that he runs in Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh. Over the one and a half hours that we talked, he had a steady stream of visitors—all local residents, all men. Some came merely to greet him, others to exchange a few words. One visitor came to request Chauhan’s presence at his birthday party. Each time, Chauhan’s personal secretary would announce their presence, leading with their caste. “Ye Sharma ji hain, Pandit”—this is Sharma ji, he’s a Pandit—the secretary would say, or “ye apne Tomaron ka ladka hai” (he’s the son of Tomars). Each visitor would bend down to touch Chauhan’s feet, before waiting for his sanction to speak or sit.
Raja is an influential member of the Chauhan community—of the Rajput caste—and over the past few months, he has become a local hero of sorts. He featured prominently in the national coverage of the Bharat Bandh on 2 April this year, when thousands of Dalits across the nation marched in protest against a Supreme Court order passed in late March. The order diluted the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by removing immediate arrest upon complaint as a mandatory provision, and triggered the unusually massive protest from Dalits across the country, without a call from any political party. Protestors clashed with police at many places. At others, the protestors faced counter protests from armed upper-caste men—the mobs attacked protestors with sticks, stones, or opened fire at them. At least nine Dalit protestors died after the police and upper-caste mobs opened fire at rallies at different places in the country. Of them, three alone were murdered in Gwalior, while four were killed in Bhind, also in Madhya Pradesh.