In Saharanpur, the Mass Mobilisation of Thakurs and the One-Sided Nature of Violence Suggests an Organised Attack Against Dalits

Each Dalit house I visited had a photo of Ambedkar, while some also had one of Ravidas; each of them had been either damaged, burnt or looted in the violence; and in each of them, an occupant of the house was beaten up or attacked with a weapon. Gajendra Yadav/Indian Express Archive
17 May, 2017

On the morning of 8 May 2017, when I entered the Dalit neighbourhood in Shabbirpur village in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, it appeared almost deserted. I could barely hear signs of life or movement among its residents, of whom, I could see mostly women and few men. A fire engine stood on the single-lane kaccha road that leads into the village. A thick water pipe unspooled from it, carrying water into mounds of smouldering hay that lay in a nearby ground. Across the road from the ground stood a temple of Ravidas, a fifteenth-century Dalit poet who is revered in the community. Close to seven armed police officers stood guard around the temple. Another police officer sat on a charpoy near the hay, under the shade of a tree. When the fire grew, he would get up, pick up the pipe and spray the water directly onto the hay, and then sit back down.

My visit was on the third day after an incident of severe violence took place in the village. On 5 May, members of the dominant-caste Thakur community of Shabbirpur village, along with those of nearly ten neighbouring villages, attacked the Dalit neighbourhood. They beat up the occupants, destroyed the grains, utensils and furniture, and then set many of the structures on fire. Media reports on the violence widely suggested that the incident was a clash between the two communities—Thakurs and Dalits—after the village sarpanch, a Dalit, objected to the loud music during a procession by members of the Thakur community. The accounts in the media reports—which suggested that the violence was spontaneous, or involved members of both communities—were similar to the ones I would hear later from members of the Thakur community. The Indian Express described the incident as a “Thakurs Vs Dalits” clash, while the news website Scroll termed it “caste-related violence.” The newspapers The Hindu, and Hindustan Times, as well as the news website, The Quint, were among the others who reported the violence as a “Thakur-dalit clash.” The popular Hindi TV channel ABP News did not name the Thakur community at all, and only referred to the attackers as “dabangon”—hooligans. However, the accounts of the Dalit villagers differed significantly.

During my day-long visit to Shabbirpur, I went to the Dalit and Thakur neighbourhoods in the village, the Bargaon police station that has jurisdiction over Shabbirpur, and the Saharanpur district hospital where those injured in the violence were being treated. The houses in the Thakur neighbourhood were all double-storied, spread over a large area, guarded by high walls—they did not appear to have been even remotely damaged in the violence. All the houses that showed signs of having been damaged—severely at that—were situated in the Dalit neighbourhood. At the district hospital, I met at least ten persons who were injured in the violence and admitted there for treatment—all of them were Dalits. They included five women, two senior citizens, and two children below the age of seven.

According to Vindhyachal Tiwari, a police inspector, and his subordinate officers I met in the village, between 500 and 800 men belonging to the Thakur community had mobilised at the Dalit neighbourhood within a period of 15-20 minutes. The prompt mobilisation, the one-sided nature and scale of the violence, and the stark contrast between the Dalit and Thakur neighbourhoods suggested to me that the violence was not a spontaneous riot, but an organised attack.

After a three-hour car journey from Delhi, during which I passed through the city of Deoband, I reached Shabbirpur village. It is located amid  fields and dense woods. Rajesh—a Dalit resident whose brother is the sarpanch—and a group of elders who I met in the Thakur neighbourhood, told me that Shabbirpur is comprised primarily of three communities: Thakurs, who belong to the Rajput caste and constitute 60 percent of the village population; Dalits, who belong to the Chamar scheduled caste and constitute around 30 percent; and Kashyaps, who constitute 5 percent. (Chamars are also known as Jatavs, but those from the community I spoke to asked to be identified by the former term.)

Each community lives in distinct neighbourhoods, reflective of the dominant role and presence of caste norms in the village. The Dalit neighbourhood marks the entrance to Shabbirpur—the road leading into the village is flanked on both sides by rows of small, single-storied houses where the Dalit villagers reside. Less than a kilometre into the village, the Dalit neighbourhood ends, and the Thakur neighbourhood begins. The Thakurs’ houses are multi-storied and spacious, with a separate building for their cattle and food grains. Tiwari, however, told me he believed that “muqabala takkar ka hai yahan”—it is a fight between equals here.

On the premises of the Ravidas temple, the police officers were sitting on charpoys with their guns down when I approached them to introduce myself. A sub-inspector among them told me they were not authorised to speak about the incident but said, “If you want, you can see the situation for yourself.”

The first house I entered stood next to the smouldering hay. It was deserted. The front door led to a passage, which opened to small space that had two adjacent locked rooms, a hay-cutting machine and an upended stove. The ashes of the burnt hay were spread on the floor and the utensils were scattered. As I came out of the door, I saw a short, middle-aged woman standing next to the temple, beckoning at me quietly from across the road.

The woman introduced herself to me as Urmila, a resident of the neighbourhood, and took me to a nearby house where five women, who appeared to be grieving, were sitting in a circle. Phalli, who owned the house and was one of the five women, told me that the group of women “jumped off the roof of the house to save our lives that day.” (Most Dalit villagers I met asked to be identified by their first names.) They had jumped out of the roofs of their house and onto the fields to make their escape. Phalli said that on 5 May, around 50 men wearing yellow and saffron scarves around their neck and head stormed her house. She took me to the backyard where she said that the Rajput attackers had burnt her hay to the ground. A burnt tempo with a broken windshield stood in the house compound. Phalli said her husband used to carry food grains from their field to the town in the tempo. “They shouted ‘Ambedkar Murdabad’ [death to Ambedkar] and ‘Jai Shree Rama’ [Hail Rama] while they burnt the bundles of hay and damaged the tempo,” Phalli said.

From Phalli’s house, Urmila took me back to the open ground with the hay, where the sub-inspector was still sitting on the charpoy. She told me that the open ground, the burning hay, and the house next to it—across the ground from the deserted house I visited earlier—belonged to her. Her house, too, had been set on fire. When we entered the small, one-room house, I could only see the charred remains of her belongings and utensils scattered across the floor.

Phalli and Urmila were only two among over two dozen people whose houses were burnt and belongings destroyed on 5 May. The Dalit residents told me that on 5 May, members of the Rajput caste from nearby villages had gathered in Shimlana, a neighbouring village, to celebrate the birth anniversary of Pratap Singh, a sixteenth-century Rajput king. Several of the Dalit residents in Shabbirpur told me that the Thakurs in the village began a procession during the day to join the Rajputs in Shimlana. During the procession, the Thakurs were playing loud recorded music that the villagers described as "DJ music" to me.

Rajesh told me that his brother Shiv Kumar, the sarpanch, had received complaints from the Dalit residents about the music. Acting on these complaints, Rajesh told me, the sarpanch called Manoj Singh, the local sub-divisional magistrate, and requested him to direct the Thakurs to stop the loud music. Rajesh added that when the sarpanch called the SDM, he also referred to an incident in April when the Thakur residents had not allowed the Dalit villagers to put up a statute of BR Ambedkar in the premises of the Ravidas temple on the day of the former’s birth anniversary. Singh, in an interview to ABP News, stated that he received a call from the sarpanch at 10.30 am that day, objecting to the loud music. Singh said he directed the Bargaon station officer Mahendra Pal Singh (he was transferred after the incident) to stop the music. Soon after, he said, the station officer called him back and told him that the music had been stopped, and the situation resolved.

According to the Dalit residents in the village and those I met at the hospital, the police action offended the Thakurs. Mimo, one of the Dalit residents, told me that around 30 men belonging to the Thakur community immediately took out a bike procession through the Dalit neighbourhood, shouting abusive slogans against Ambedkar and Ravidas—“dhi-choda  Ravidas, yahin bajega DJ.” Phalli and other Dalit women told me that the Thakurs damaged the gate of the Ravidas temple, broke the fingers of Ravidas’ statue and then urinated on it.

The group of women at Phalli’s house told me that this enraged the Dalit youth in the village. “Humare kuch bacchon ko gussa aa gaya aur kisi ne patthar chaladi”—Some of our children got angry and someone threw a stone, the women told me. The stone-pelting triggered a clash between the two communities with both groups charging at each other, several Dalit residents said. The residents of the Thakur neighbourhood told me that the ensuing violence resulted in the death of Sumit Kumar, a member of the Thakur community who belonged to another village. None of the Dalit residents I spoke to said they knew who threw the first stone or how Sumit died. Later, I met Narendra Singh Rana, the deputy superintendent of police at Bargaon police station, who said that Sumit died of “natural” causes and that his postmortem report notes the cause of death as “suffocation.”

Many Dalit residents in the village and the hospital told me that within 15–20 minutes of Sumit’s death, around 1,000 Thakurs from the neighbouring villages arrived in the Dalit neighbourhood of Shabbirpur. They said the Thakurs surrounded the Dalit houses, armed with swords and other weapons, and wearing yellow turbans with a tikka on their head, or yellow scarves around their necks. The mob shouted slogans of “Ambedkar Murdabad,” “Maharana Pratap Zindabad,” “Jai Rajputana,” and “Jai Shree Ram” as they stormed the Dalit neighbourhood with swords, rods, and lathis in hand.

According to the Dalit villagers, the police accompanied the Thakurs as they broke into Dalit houses and started attacking the occupants with weapons. All the injured Dalit residents I met in the hospital told me that they were attacked in the presence of the police—some also said that the police attacked them. Every Dalit resident I spoke to in the village told me they received no help from the police, but to the contrary, the police raided their homes alongside the Rajputs. “The police were with them,” Urmila told me. She said she heard the police guiding the Thakurs: “Teen ghante ka time de rakha tha unko. Kaha jo karna hai teen ghante mein kar lo’”—They [Thakurs] were given three-hours time. They [the police] said, ‘do what you want within three hours.’ Taravati, a woman in her sixties who lives in the house adjacent to Urmila’s, said she heard the police officers telling the Thakurs the same thing—“Do whatever you want for three hours.”

Taravati was sitting alone in her single-storey home when I stepped out of Urmila’s house. I walked over to her house to speak to her. At the entrance to the compound of her house was an open space where a buffalo was tied and an earthen stove lay broken. Damaged utensils, burnt food grains and her satellite TV antenna lay scattered on the floor. Beyond the open space were the two rooms in her house, both of which were protected by an iron-grill.

Taravati broke down at several points while recounting the incident. She said the mob beat up her pregnant buffalo while ransacking her house and burnt all the grains in her house.“There were 20-25 people hiding here,” she said, pointing to the rooms and the grill. “Ye kata nahi, varna sab ko kaat dete”—the grill did not get cut, otherwise they would have cut all of us, she said.

The scenes of devastation continued in each house I visited. The village consisted of more than 60 Dalit houses, of which I visited at least 25. Each of them had a photo of Ambedkar, while some also had one of Ravidas; each of them had been either damaged, burnt or looted in the violence; and in each of them, an occupant of the house was beaten up or attacked with a weapon.

I saw two houses that had been burnt to the ground, and everything inside had been charred to ashes. Among the rest, parts of the house—rooms, walls, barns, bundles of hay—were burnt. In all the houses, the contents—including the almirahs, utensils, gas stoves, hay-cutting machines, bikes, ceiling fans, bicycles, hand pumps, sacks of wheat, and food grains—were either plundered, burnt, or damaged.

In one of the houses, the woman who lived there showed me the burnt sacks of wheat in her home and asked, “Tell me, what will we eat?” As I stepped out of one house onto the road, an old woman took my hand and walked me towards her home. “Come with me, I will show you,” she said.

The old woman took me to the room where, she said, her 30-year-old son Anil was attacked with sword. She showed me stains of splattered blood on the floor, where she said her son was attacked.“The ambulance didn’t come for at least three hours,” she said.“My son suffered in pain without any help.”

After visiting the Dalit neighbourhood, I went to speak to the Thakurs. The contrasts between the two areas of the village were stark and telling. The streets were not deserted but felt full of life. The small grocery shop had many customers and there were children on the street playing cricket. I saw no children in the Dalit homes, but children wearing school uniforms were returning to the Thakur homes. The men among the Thakur community were openly walking on the streets without fear, unlike Dalit men, several of whom had fled the village in fear of further attacks by the Thakurs and arrests by the police.

Several Dalit villagers, including Rajesh, the sarpanch’s brother, had alleged that a man named Amarpal Thakur planned and orchestrated the attack. As a result, his was the first house I visited in the Thakur neighbourhood. I was examining his barn when Amarpal saw me and invited me to his house, the adjacent building, and spread out two charpoys. Amarpal’s home had a separate barn that sheltered six buffaloes, a water tank, two tractors, a bike, piles of fodder and sacks of grains. It was a two-storied building.

Amarpal, a man in his fifties, kept a handlebar moustache, and had a loud, authoritative voice. As he recounted the incident to me, three other men from neighouring houses joined us: Kiranpal Thakur, Ved Pal and SanjuRana.

During our conversation, Amarpal presented a narrative that implicated the Dalits for the violence and losses they had suffered on 5 May. He said,“Aurton ne rassi kaat kar apne apne gharon mein aag laga di, jise dekh kar Rajput ladke dar gaye”—The women cut the ropes and set their own houses on fire, a sight that scared the Rajput boys. Satish Thakur, another resident of the neighbourhood, later repeated this account to me.

When I asked Amarpal about the injuries inflicted upon Dalit men and women, he responded: “Such things happen in a fight. One of ours died.” Pal intervened and said, “Agar hamare mann mein badle ki bhwana hoti na, toh ek nahi, kam se kam 20–30 marte Chamar”—If we had revenge on our minds, then not one, but at least 20–30 Chamars would have died.

As the conversation progressed, it became evident that the Thakurs harboured a hatred for Dalits, and considered themselves superior. “They [Dalits] still lack intellect. Our caste is supreme. Our children are never involved in wrong doings,”Amarpal said. I pointed out instances of assaults on Dalit women, and Amarpal responded: “Ye behenchod! Inhe ijjat ka kuch nahi hai”—These sister-fuckers have no concept of dignity.

Amarpal continued, “However big they become in their lives, they would still be called Dalits.” As I proceeded with my questions regarding their accounts of the violence, the Thakurs continued to blame the Dalit villagers for the suffering and injuries the latter experienced.

When I asked them about the food grains being burnt, Rana snapped back in response, “Whose food grains are they? Ours only, right?” Amarpal and Rana claimed that Thakurs had proprietary rights over the yields of the farms in the village, and made remarks that sounded suggestive of bonded labour. They said the Dalit villagers worked as labourers in their farms and they give the workers wheat in return of their hard work. “Hum khush ho ke unko detey hain”—We give it to them happily, Amarpal said. He then added that the Thakurs had not given any food grains to the Dalit labourers this year, and argued that therefore, the Dalits’ claim that their grains were burnt could not be true.

The group’s responses hinted at a possible explanation for the burning of food grains. Pal expressed his frustration with the younger generation of Dalit villagers who had opted against working in the agricultural fields belonging to the Thakurs—as a result of this, he said, the Thakurs did not have access to cheap labour. “Now many of the [Dalit] youths work in Noida and nearby city as labourers, due to which our farming has suffered,” Rana added.

While walking back from Thakur neighbourhood, I met Tiwari, the inspector, who was lying down on a charpoy spread at the startof the neighbourhood. A sub-inspector and two other constables were also lying down on two other charpoys.

Tiwari, a Brahmin by caste, denied police complicity in the attack and said that the Dalits I spoke to were lying. When I spoke to Tiwari about the disproportionate damage to the Dalit neighbourhood, his response reflected a troubling attitude to the violence. “Ye socho kya bacha hai, ye mat socho kya chala gaya”—Think about what is left, not about what was destroyed.

I pressed Tiwari to tell me why the police failed to save the Dalit houses. He asked, “If someone killed one of your family members, won’t you be aggressive?” He added, “Toh yeh toh reaction hua”—Then this is the reaction.

Tiwari and the other officers believed that the incident was blown out of proportion by the media. They said the Dalit residents were trying to win the sympathy of the government and the media by lying about the houses. “Media ke liye masala hai Dalit”—Dalits are spicy news for the media, Tiwari said. He continued: “Ek south mein mara tha RohithVemula. Suicide kar liya tha, pata nahi kya dimag mein aaya (There was a person, Rohith Vemula, who died in South India. He committed suicide; I don’t know what got into his mind.)” “Aur kitna drama machayaIt caused so much drama, he added.

At the Bargaon police station, around five kilometres from the village, I met Narendra Singh Rana, the deputy superintendent of police (DSP) and the station officer Muvendra Singh. The senior police officers also defended the Thakurs’ actions and blamed the Dalit villagers for the violence. The DSP told me that the police arrested 17 men after the incident, of which nine are Thakurs and eight Dalits. He said they were all charged with the offences of committing arson, dacoity, murder, riot, unlawful assembly and assault. Among those arrested is also the Shabbirpur sarpanch, Shiv Kumar, who, according to the DSP, “fomented” the riot.

The last stop in my visit to Shabbirpur was the Saharanpur district hospital, located nearly 30 kilometres away from the village, to meet those injured during the violence. During my conversations in the Dalit neighbourhood, most of the residents had referred to a friend or relative who was injured and admitted to the hospital. In contrast, the Thakurs I spoke with did not refer to anyone except Sumit Kumar. At the hospital, the staff directed me to a large hall where all the patients from Shabbirpur were admitted.

Pradipto, one of the patients, had a broken hand, and had suffered injuries to her head and waist. She told me that the Thakurs broke into her house and beat her up with a brick in front of her one-year-old child, and that the police had accompanied the mob. “Everything happened with the assistance of the police,” she said. Pradipto was concerned about her daughter’s wedding, which is scheduled to be held on 26 May. After the rampage, she said she did not know how she would organise the wedding. “Saara samaan jala diya, paise loot liye, pata nahi kaise hoga”—They burnt all my belongings, stole all my money, I don’t know how it will happen, she said.

Rina and Agnivastav, a Dalit couple, told me that they returned home after harvesting wheat in the farm when the Thakurs attacked them with swords. Both of them had severe injuries across their body. They told me that the Thakurs directed them to chant slogans in favour of the Rajput caste while simultaneously assaulting them with swords. Rina recounted them instructing the couple, “Bole jai bolo Rajputanaki,”—say hail Rajputana.

The two echoed the accounts of the other Dalit villagers. “The police were with them,” Rina and Agnivastav both told me. “The police themselves beat us.” Rina told me that the Thakurs tried to cut her breasts with their swords. “When I tried to protect my breasts with my hands, they started hitting my hands,” she said. She added, “I cannot even show you where they attacked me with the swords.”

Saawan, a six-year-old child whose mother was also admitted in the hospital, told me that the Thakurs kicked him and broke his teeth. “Mujhe laat se maar rahe the”—They were hitting me with their feet, he said.

I also met Anil, a brick-kiln laborer and the son of the old woman who met me in the village. He told me he was beaten with a sariya—an iron rod. “Mera pura sharir tod diya”—They broke my entire body, he said. Anil was unable to sit up straight on the bed.

Most of the injured persons and their family members had not returned to their homes after the incident and did not know the conditions their homes were in. Several young men told me that they had learnt from their relatives that they had been named in different first information reports and might soon be arrested.

The patients and their family members appeared hopeless, helpless, and unsure of their future. They appeared to still be in shock. None of them had approached the police to register their complaints yet—many said they feared the police, whom they could now only see as part of the mob that attacked them.

My conversations with the DSP and the station officer at Bargaon police station reflected that this fear among the Dalits was not misplaced. “Harijano ko kya jarurat thi unke [Thakurs] julus ko rokne ki?”—What was the need for the Dalits to object to the procession, the DSP said. He continued, “Understood hai, agar aap unko bhadkaoge nahi toh kuch nahi hoga”—It is understood, that if you don’t provoke someone, then nothing will happen. The station officer chipped in, “Main bataun, action ka reaction hota hai”—Let me tell you, every action has a reaction.