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.