Tensions Escalate in Saharanpur as Anti-Dalit Violence After A Mayawati Rally Kills One and Injures Over 20 Dalits

On 23 May 2017, Mayawati held a rally in Shabbirpur village in Uttar Pradesh to meet Dalit residents of the village whose houses had been set on fire during the attack on 5 May. Later that day, several Dalit villagers were attacked as they returned from the rally, resulting in the death of one person and injuring over 20 others. Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
25 May, 2017

On 21 May 2017, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Delhi, answering a call for a  rally by Chandrasekhar, an advocate who is the leader of the Bhim Army—a two-year old grassroots-level organisation comprising members of the Dalit community in Uttar Pradesh. The Bhim Army had organised the rally to protest an attack by dominant-caste Thakurs on a Dalit neighbourhood, on 5 May, in Shabbirpur village of Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh. The attacking mob had set over 25 houses on fire, and severely injured over ten Dalit villagers.

Two days after the rally in Delhi, members of the Thakur community allegedly attacked Dalit residents again, near the same village. Over 20 Dalits were injured during the violence, and Ashish Meghraj, a 25-year-old Dalit resident of Saraswa village, was subsequently declared brought dead to Saharanpur district hospital. BS Sodhi, the chief medical officer at the hospital, told me that Meghraj had been shot and inflicted with a deep knife wound. By 7 pm that evening, a large number of Dalit residents from villages near Saharanpur city had gathered outside the hospital to protest the attack. Several ambulances began arriving, bringing young, injured Dalit men to the hospital.

Earlier that day, on 23 May, Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo, visited the Dalit neighbourhood in Shabbirpur village and met the residents whose houses had been set on fire during the attack on 5 May. Mayawati also held a rally in the village, which members of the Dalit community from several villages in Saharanpur went to Shabbirpur that day to attend. While returning from the event, several attendees told me, they were attacked at various places between Shabbirpur and Saharanpur city.

At the hospital, I entered two emergency wards, diagonally opposite each other. According to Shivam Khewadia, a member of the Bhim Army from Ladwa village, both wards had at least eight Dalit residents of the district who had been attacked. In the first ward I visited, I met Tinku Kumar, a 26-year-old resident of Halalpur village in Saharanpur district. Tinku sustained multiple minor flesh wounds and a severe head wound for which he said he received stitches. “I had gone to attend Mayawati’s speech and I did not even get to see most of it,” he told me, adding that he reached Shabbirpur late for the rally, at around 4 pm. He said that he had gone there on his motorcycle with two friends. While they were returning to Halalpur, he said, the three of them were attacked by a mob of Thakurs. Tinku told me that the attackers stopped them near Ambheta Chand, a village in Saharanpur, and began to hit them violently with lathis and with their bare hands. The attackers “kept chanting ‘Maharana Pratap Ki Jai!’ and ‘Vande Mataram!’” he told me.

Across the bed from Tinku Kumar, was his friend Narsingh who had sustained minor head wounds and had dark bruises on his face. “I was punched in the face repeatedly by one of them,” he told me. His father, Rajkumar, who was not present at the rally, had come to the hospital and was seated beside his son. Rajkumar told me that he had warned his son not to go there, fearing that something terrible would happen at the rally. I asked him why he had not attended. “Her [Mayawati’s] presence was needed the day after the attacks in Shabbirpur, but she came only after a big group went to Delhi, I was disappointed by that,” he said.

Balesh Kumar, a resident of Sarsawa, a town in Saharanpur district on the border of Haryana, who was in the same ward told me that he was attacked near Chandpur. “I was on the way back from the rally when I was attacked by a group of people,” he said in a muffled voice. “They bit me and tried to attack me with a knife and they spat me on me and kept saying that I am not even worth their spit.”

Inderpal, a 50-year-old resident of Shabbirpur, was undergoing treatment in the second emergency ward I entered. He told me he was attacked by a group of ten men, five of whom were residents of his village. Inderpal said he went to attend the speech because of the extent of losses he suffered during the attack on 5 May. “Friends and family members of mine have lost everything there, and now, when we want to see if our leader”—referring to Mayawati—“could help put pressure on the administration for compensation, we get attacked.”

Outside the hospital, anger and disdain for the police filled the air. The protestors began to chant, “UP Police Hai Hai,” (Down with the UP police) and “Yogi Sarkar Nahi Chalegi” (The Yogi Adityanath government will not be tolerated). The protestors grew steadily in number. At about 7.30 pm, members of the district police formed a blockade and prevented the protestors and friends of the injured from entering the emergency ward. As the police forced him out of the emergency ward, an angry Dalit man from Shabbirpur shouted, “Tum sale bhagwa police ne Thakuron ka madad kiya isme”—You saffron police assisted the Thakurs in this. Other protestors, some of whom said they were part of the Bhim Army, made repeated unsuccessful attempts to enter the ward, and then gathered in circles around people who were addressing the crowd. A member of the crowd, addressing one such circle, shouted: “Agar koi video banate hue dekh liya, toh phone tod do uska”—if anyone sees someone making a video, break their phone. Jaggi, a Dalit belonging to the Jatav caste (also known as Chamar) and a member of the Bhim Army who was part of the crowd, requested me to put my phone aside and explained:o “Please understand, because of you media people’s videos of us, we are viewed as Naxals.”

Khewadia, the member of the Bhim Army, said the media's portrayal of the events that have been transpiring in Saharanpur district since early May has been biased and leaning heavily on information provided by the police. “You can see what is happening in front of you,” he told me outside the emergency ward of the hospital. “The police were present throughout behenji’s”—a moniker many use to refer to Mayawati—“speech, and nothing was done to stop this.”

A police official at the hospital told me on the condition of anonymity that the violence was sparked because some Dalits who had gone to attend the rally threw stones on the houses of some dominant-caste families. When news of this spread to the Thakurs in the village, the police official said, “Thakur mobs gathered in large numbers and attacked people who were returning from the rally.” He added, “They took their revenge.” Deepak Kumar, a BSP worker in Saharanpur, overheard this exchange. According to Kumar, the police is consistently spreading false information about the attacks. “There are several members of the [Dalit] community who are angered by the injustice in Saharanpur, but none of them are stupid enough to pelt stones on an occasion where Behenji has come to visit their brothers and sisters who were attacked,” he said.

Deepak added that the situation has become such that even members of a political party cannot trust any police officials for help. He said that when Mayawati was the state’s chief minister, “police itne manuvaad nahin the”—the police were not such adherents of the Manusmriti. But under the current government, he said, “We have no reason anymore to believe that there is much hope for change right now.” Speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, another BSP party worker said that he was starting to feel like he would have to join the Bhim Army. “Aaj ke baad, mujhe lag raha hai ki khali pichde jatiyon ko ikhata karne se iss stithi mein badlav ho sakta hai”—After today, it is seems to me that we cannot change anything unless we bring the oppressed communities together. “Dalit-Bahujan koikhata bannane ka kaam khali Bhim Army kar rahi hai”—Only the Bhim Army is doing the work of bringing Dalit-Bahujans together, he added.

Sukhvinder, a member of the Bhim Army from Kalal Hati village in Saharanpur, told me that this incident was going to bring about severe unrest in the district. “How long will we keep taking this?” he asked. “Any time we tell the truth about casteism here and stand up for our rights, these Thakurs attack us again.” He said that the members of the Bhim Army went to Delhi to appeal to the central government to stop the violence in Saharanpur. “If this is the response to our appeal, what choice do we have but to fight back?” he said angrily.

At the hospital, I spoke to BS Sodhi, the chief medical officer of the hospital. Sodhi told me that most of the attacked persons had sustained minor injuries, but that there were three persons—Phool Singh, Akbar and Mavasi—who were seriously injured and were likely to be transferred.  “One person sustained a bullet injury, while two others have sustained deep knife cuts. They will be sent to Meerut,” Sodhi told me. Later that night, Sushil, a student of the Chaudhry Charan Singh College in Meerut, who is also a member of the Bhim Army, confirmed to me that the three had already been transferred to the Meerut medical college.

On 24 May, the state government suspended the Saharanpur senior superintendent of police Subhash Chandra Dubey and district magistrate NP Singh. Several reports also stated that the deputy inspector general (DIG) of the district and the divisional commissioner were also transferred. I spoke to JP Sahi, the DIG of Saharanpur, who confirmed all these suspensions and the transfers to me. However, he claimed that his transfer had nothing to do with the violence. “I was due a transfer already,” he said.

Sahi also told me that 25 men belonging to the Thakur community were arrested in connection to the violence, but refused to give me any further details about the arrests. Khewadia, the Bhim Army member, told me he believed the media would portray the incident in a light that attributed some responsibility upon the Bhim Army. “I am sure that tomorrow, papers are again going to suggest that we had a role to play in this.” “But look at the people coming into the ward, are they Thakurs?” he asked.