LUCKNOW: Not very long ago Saharanpur was known for Darul Uloom Deoband, the world-renowned centre for Islamic learning. Or Shakumbri Devi, the seat of goddess Durga. These identities have now been nudged to the background.
What the world knows of Saharanpur in the past two months, through TV channels and social media, is rampaging mobs, burning vehicles, houses in flames and marching security forces. Just two months after coming to power, the BJP government is facing an arduous task to douse the flames of caste conflict in its gateway to Uttarakhand and Haryana, which, ironically, is also its Lok Sabha constituency number 1.
With nearly 42% Muslim population, Saharanpur was always considered communally sensitive, but any violent manifestation was not witnessed until the entire western Uttar Pradesh became a laboratory of communal politics after 2010.
In 2014, the district was under curfew for quite some time after interfaith violent clashes between Sikhs and Muslims over a piece of religious land.
According to local intelligence sources, the following year saw over 150 cases of communal flare-ups which, though didn’t make it to the mainstream media, kept the administration on toes.
The present caste conflicts between Thakurs and Dalits, however, has its origin in the demographic nature of the district and blatant caste-based electoral politics. Saharanpur has Dalit population of over 22% which gave BSP founder Kanshi Ram the confidence to contest from there in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.
Although Kanshi Ram lost, Saharanpur has always been a happy hunting ground for the BSP.
In 2007, BSP swept five out of six seats of the district and in 2012, despite a Samaj Wadi (SP) wave, managed to win four, thus giving adequate representation to Dalits in governance, even if it was largely symbolic. But this time, BSP was wiped out in the district and failed to open even the account.
The sole dalit MLA from the district belongs to the BJP. “A total lack of representation has made Dalits of the district restless. Due to high literacy rate among Dalits of Saharanpur, as compared to the rest of the state, their aspirations are soaring. They are not ready to accept traditional caste injustices,” says a political analyst.
“Besides, their quest to recover the lost ground in the urban bodies elections, to be held in October, has made them more aggressive,” he adds.
Chandra Shekhar ‘Azad’, the convener of the Bhim Army that is taking on the upper caste Thakurs and challenging the administration through its violent protests and road show, is giving voice to Dalit aspirations, he says. It is now famously recounted everywhere how, in 2009, he protested against two taps - one for Dalits and the other for upper castes - in an inter college and prevailed upon the administration to end this discrimination. Since then, he has been working relentlessly for the Dalit cause and cultivated a considerable following, mainly among the youth.
It is believed that the Bhim Army has no reservations about ways and means to promote the Dalit cause and fight for their rights.
Thakurs, on the other hand, are emboldened after Yogi Adityanath, also a Thakur became the chief minister. “Although this is symbolic, it always happens like an automated phenomenon. A CM from one’s own caste doesn’t give direct benefit, but boosts sections psychologically,” says Sudhir Panwar, an activist, and professor at Lucknow University.
“Dalits of Saharanpur were not happy with the way local BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal tried to give a communal colour to the Ambedkar Jayanti procession on April 20. They allege that not only did the MP insist on taking the procession through a Dalit locality, but also that the upper caste participants were shouting the slogan ‘Jai Shriram’ instead of ‘Jai Bhim’,” says Neeraj, a Dalit activist from Saharanpur.
Twenty days later when Thakurs were taking out a procession on the occasion of Maharana Pratap Jayanti in Shabbirpur village, Dalits objected to the blaring sound of the accompanying DJ, claiming that it was not permitted. What followed was incidents of caste violence.
Further, the appointment of a Thakur district magistrate, CO and other senior officers enraged the Dalit community.
So far the conflagration has witnessed two killings, dozens of injuries, destruction of property and over 50 arrests for indulging in mindless violence and arson. Above all, four senior administrative officers including the DM, SSP, SP (city) and SP (Rural) have faced suspension.
Huge contingents of police, PAC and RAF have been deployed for intense patrolling and a high level special team of senior officials, sent from Lucknow, is still camping in the city.
•April 20: BJP supporters and Muslims clash over a Dalit rally: BJP activists led by local MP Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma organised a march in Sadak Dudhali, a Muslim dominated village to mark Ambedkar’s Jayanti, without the administration’s permission. Muslims reportedly objected to the march. The dispute turned violent and injured 15 people, before the police stepped in and stopped the procession for being organised without permission. Hours later, members of the BJP - including MP Raghav Lakhanpal, his MLA brother Rahul Lakhanpal - barged into the SSP’s house and allegedly vandalised the premises.
• May 5: Dalits objected to the procession being taken out by upper caste Thakurs in Shabbirpur village of the district for Maharana Pratap’s rally. Violence erupted and Sumit Rajput (35) from the Thakur community of a nearby village was killed. In retaliation, Thakurs vandalised Dalit properties, leaving over a dozen injured.
•May 9: Dalits and the police clash over a Dalit mahapanchayat. Dalits organised a mahapanchayat in Gandhi Park against the administration’s inaction against Thakurs for perpetrating atrocities on May 5. Police believably thrashed protestors and fired rubber bullets and also arrested 6 persons.
•May 21: Massive protest at Delhi’s Jantar-Mantar with student wings of Left parties joining in against the Uttar Pradesh government's alleged inaction on the Saharanpur caste-based riots.
•May 23: Fresh bout of violence after Mayawati's visit to Shabbirpur village leaving a person dead and half a dozen injured. As per reports, a group of Dalits allegedly threw stones at a few Rajpur houses in Shabbirpur which led to a clash-like situation. In retaliation, Thakurs ambushed a vehicle of BSP supporters while they were returning from Mayawati’s meeting, leading to 24 arrests.
•May 24: Another bout of violence occurred in village near Shabbirpur in which a person was killed but police denied it to be related with caste violence.
Subsequently, Saharanpur DM NP Singh, SSP SC Dubey were suspended and transferred.
•May 25: The situation remained volatile and Section 144 of the CrPC was invoked to control law and order. Internet, mobile and SMS service suspended. Political visits restricted.