When Will Babasaheb Emerge from the Storeroom?

Raul Irani
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The complexities of Dalit identity politics in Uttar Pradesh under BJP rule

WHEN SWADESH KUMAR was a boy, a Brahmin family from his village decided to build a Shiva temple next to his school. The year was 1975, or it could have been 1976, says Kumar; he was in fifth class in the government primary school in Shabbirpur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. “Many Dalit boys like me did nothing for days except ferry bricks to the construction site,” recalls Kumar. The mason who built the temple was a Dalit as well, who, like Kumar, lived in the southern part of the village. The temple was to its north, a zone inhabited by upper-caste families, mostly Rajput Thakurs.

A few months later, when the temple was inaugurated, the Dalits of Shabbirpur realised that they would not be allowed entry. Swadesh Kumar left school the same year; working on family land was more important than education.

In 1978, the Dalit families of the village constructed a small temple dedicated to Guru Ravidas, a 15th century social reformer revered by them, on a piece of land owned by the community. It is this temple they go to even today.

“We kept facing indignities all our lives, but it did not disrupt our life too much,” says Sham Singh, another Dalit from Shabbirpur.

The village dynamics began to change in 2016, when one of Swadesh Kumar’s brothers, Shiv Kumar, was elected the village pradhan. In Shabbirpur, Rajputs have about 1,100 votes, while Dalits have over 650. Till that year, Shabbirpur was a reserved seat. After it became general, other backward caste voters along with Dalits elected Shiv Kumar. This, says Swadesh Kumar, did not go well with the Rajputs.

Around the same time, an organisation of Dalit youths, Bhim Army, began to flex its muscles in Saharanpur. This outfit had started as a group on WhatsApp. Some of its members, including its founder, Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’, would often help senior Dalit activists in campaigns for the community. “In 2016, I spoke at an event in Delhi in which Chandrashekhar was among the audience,” says Rakesh Gautam, a Dalit government employee from Saharanpur. But soon afterwards, the organisation was in the news for its aggressive posturing in villages across the district. In April 2016, the Bhim Party got involved in clashes between Rajputs and Dalits in Gharkoli village, where a Dalit youth had, in an act of defiance, put up a board that read: ‘The great Chamar’. Rajputs had objected to it, and violence erupted after an Ambedkar statue was found blackened in the village.

In the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Sangh Parivar was trying hard to woo Dalit voters, hoping to consolidate the Hindu vote. This bore results when the BJP came to power in Lucknow after a spectacular victory. “After Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister, it emboldened the Rajputs,” says Swadesh Kumar. As a result, hostilities increased in villages like Shabbirpur.

In April 2017, Dalits decided to install a statue of BR Ambedkar on the piece of land owned by them to commemorate the leader’s birth anniversary. As they began work on a brick platform, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s newly elected MLA (from the Deoband Assembly constituency), Brijesh Singh, called some of them to his house. The village pradhan, Shiv Kumar, was one of them. When he returned, he was aghast, recalls Swadesh Kumar. “He said that the MLA had asked them to install the statue on the ground and not on a platform so that it is not visible from the roadside and does not end up offending Thakurs,” he says. Since they chose not to do so, work on the platform was blocked immediately.

Trouble had begun a little earlier after Rajputs objected, for the first time, to an annual Dalit procession in honour of Ravi Das Jayanti every January 31st. Dalits had to get a court order in their favour for it to go ahead.

On May 5th, Rajputs gathered in Simlana village, 8 km from Shabbirpur, to celebrate the birth anniversary of the Rajput king, Maharana Pratap. The chief guest at the function was Sher Singh Rana, who was convicted of the murder of ‘Bandit queen’ and later Member of Parliament Phoolan Devi (out on parole). The Dalits of Shabbirpur came to know that Rajputs of their village and several others around were planning to join this event in a huge procession while passing through the streets where they lived. “They were carrying swords and spears and were accompanied by music system and a DJ,” says Swadesh Kumar. Fearing trouble, his brother called up the authorities right away.

When the crowd in Simlana learnt of this, they decided to seek revenge.

“You see these fields,” Swadesh Kumar points from the Ravi Das temple. “The attackers came from there in dozens. They were shouting ‘Maharana Pratap ki jai’ and ran amok.” One of the first houses they attacked was of Dal Singh, the mason who had built the Shiva temple 40 years ago. “They came and began hitting me with lathis. They kept asking me to shout ‘Maharana Pratap ki jai’. But I refused,” says Dal Singh. A few minutes later, he collapsed on his side under the assault. Another attacker struck his wife with a sword, leaving a deep gash under her right eye. She would later lose vision in that eye.

“What happens after Chandrashekhar is out of jail? Do they have a plan? I don't think so. Right now, Bhim Army is a crowd, not an organisation” - Sanjay Tegwal, Dalit rights activist

The mob set 58 Dalit houses afire, including Dal Singh’s. “Everything I ever owned was destroyed in that fire,” he says. His two sons now work as labourers in a private company in Haridwar. “I heard the policeman tell them, ‘You have two hours, do whatever you want’.” The attackers severed a cow’s leg in Pahal Singh’s house, an injury to which it succumbed. They also damaged the Ravi Das idol, hitting it with swords and lathis.

While eight Rajput men are still in jail, most of those who attacked Dalits are free, say Dalits. Meanwhile, Shiv Kumar and another Dalit from Shabbirpur, Sonu Kumar, are still under arrest with the National Security Act (NSA) slapped against them.

Even today, the brick platform in the temple ground awaits the statue that has remained locked up in a storeroom ever since. In the dust-laden room, a mike has been placed in front of it. “This way, we feel as if he is addressing us, urging us to break open our shackles, even as he himself remains locked up in this room,” says Manveer, a Dalit labourer.

It is one of India’s better looking statues of Ambedkar. The countryside is dotted with statues of the leader, but most lack artistic merit. But the Ambedkar in Shabbirpur almost looks alive, in a blue suit and a patterned tie, holding a copy of the Indian Constitution in his left hand. “We get requests every week from Dalit communities elsewhere to give it to them. But we want it to be installed here only,” says Rohtas, another Dalit labourer.

While the Ambedkar statue remains locked, Rajputs are apparently allowed a free run. In the neighbouring Maheshpur village, they are building a cement replica of Maharana Pratap’s horse. In Badgaon, next to it, the renovation of another Ravi Das temple has also been on hold since last year.

In the temple complex now, the Bhim Army runs a school, among several others in the district. Chandrashekhar is in jail as well, under the NSA, after he was accused of beating up officials during a protest in Saharanpur on May 9th, four days after the violence in Shabbirpur. The authorities have said that the Bhim Army resorted to violence under Naxal influence, a charge its members vehemently deny. “I don’t know what I am more sad about,” says Swadesh Kumar. “My brother’s continued incarceration or the fact that in our own country, we cannot put up the statue of a man who wrote our samvidhaan (constitution).”

MOST DALITS IN Uttar Pradesh had expected their luck to turn around for good in 1993 after the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati formed government in the state with the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. Tens of thousands of Dalit youth across the country had dedicated their lives to the movement started by Mayawati’s mentor and BSP’s founder, Kanshi Ram.

Sanjay Tegwal, born in Saharanpur to a family of labourers, was one of them. “There were very few avenues for us to do anything. But we were very conscious of our plight,” he says. Tegwal wanted to qualify for state civil services, but was unable to do so. Party work took most of his time; there were too many rallies, too much work. But despite this, Tegwal completed three Master’s degrees and became a schoolteacher.

“I don’t know what I am more sad about: My brother's continued incarceration or the fact that we cannot put up the statue of a man who wrote our Constitution” - Swadesh Kumar, victim of Shabbirpur violence

Tegwal never got to meet Kanshi Ram personally, but remembers sitting close to him a few times in public meetings. In one, held in 1995, after Mayawati became UP’s Chief Minister, Kanshi Ram spoke to a group of BSP workers who were jubilant at the prospect of enjoying power. Kanshi Ram sarcastically paraphrased an old BSP slogan to caution them against greed and misuse of political authority:

Baba tera mission adhoora,
humara to ho gaya poora,
tera karenge Kanshi Ram poora

(Baba Ambedkar, your mission is incomplete, but ours is over, yours will be completed by Kanshi Ram).

“In a movement, it is more important to know what not to do than to know what to do,” says Tegwal, “Kanshi Ram knew exactly that.” For old-timers like him, the joy was short lived, though. Mayawati would increasingly isolate old supporters and, according to Dalit activists, became greedy for money and turned a blind eye to the plight of Dalits. “She became very cosy with the idea that her own sub-community of Chamars would elect her to power each time,” says Rakesh Gautam. But soon, she lost significant Dalit support and faced humiliating defeats, especially in the 2014 General Election when the BSP could not win even a single Lok Sabha seat.

Tegwal and his fellow activists give one example of Kanshi Ram’s commitment to the cause. In the 90s, during a tour, the leader was feeling cold and decided to buy a coat. In a shop, a coat was offered to him for Rs 150. He told the shopkeeper that this amount was too much; the shopkeeper turned back and asked him to quote a price. Rs 5, said Kanshi Ram. Angered, the shopkeeper asked Kanshi Ram to go to a cremation ground and ask a corpse burner there to give him the coat of some dead man. Instead of taking offence, Kanshi Ram is believed to have thanked him. He went to the cremation ground and got himself two coats for Rs 5.

It is that attitude and sense of commitment that Dalit old-timers feel is missing from narratives such as the Bhim Army’s. “It is easy to gather a crowd. The crowd comes in reaction to something, after which anybody can become its leader since that individual fills the gap. The real test comes later,” says Tegwal.

The Bhim Army filled the gap left by the BSP’s decline. Dalit activists in Saharanpur speak of a time when Chandrashekhar spoke at a local Dalit hostel. “He said that along with tann, mann, dhan, there was a need to include gun,” says an activist who asks not to be named.

Dalit activists in Saharanpur say they are with the Bhim Army, but they fear that the young men have no vision and have no blueprint of what to do. “I spoke once at one of their events and cautioned them against turning into unguided missiles. But Chandrashekhar rushed towards me and impatiently said that I had spoken enough already,” says Tegwal.

There are others who feel that Bhim Army’s aggression comes in the way of samarsta (harmony) with upper castes. “Ultimately, we have to live with them. We cannot be in a state of continual war with them,” says Mahendra Pradhan, the former head of Chandpur village. “What happens after Chandrashekhar is out of jail? Do they have a plan? I don’t think so,” he says. “Right now, they are a crowd, not an organisation,” says Tegwal.

In Rampur village, Kamal Singh Walia, district president of Bhim Army, lies on a cot. He suffers from a slip disc. He is out after spending over seven months in jail. Earlier, he had a job with ITC, a private company, which is gone now after his jail term. “Bhai [Chandrashekhar] will come out and he will tell us what to do. We will fight for the rights of our people,” he says.

CHANDRASHEKHAR DOES not expect to be freed anytime soon. For a man who used to fast on Navratras, as his old friends remember, Chandrashekhar began to use the suffix ‘Ravan’ with his name as an affront to Hindu sensibilities for whom the demon king remains a villainous figure. “I am no longer afraid of jail or death. In jail, I have been reading Manyawar [Kanshi Ram], Mandela, Marx. We will not suffer any injustice,” he says.

Chandrashekhar says that they had to resort to extremist methods because the government would not have otherwise listened to them. “What was our fault? We just refused to suffer injustice and they beat us up and put us in jail on imaginary charges,” he says.

He laughs at allegations of the Bhim Army coming in the way of reconciliation and harmony. “I was not here 70 years ago. Did they get samarsta? How will they get samarsta? By removing their shoes in front of Rajputs? Or by removing their turbans?” he asks, “We are not allowed to enter temples and our grooms are not allowed on horsebacks. I tell you why this has happened. This has happened because our leaders set up their shops and forgot about our welfare.” He has no interest in entering politics, he says. “If I wanted that, I could have done it in 2017 itself. The BSP entered the political arena. What happened? We have lost more since Mayawati became Chief Minister.”

Refuting charges that he believes in mukka (fist) rather than the law, Chandrashekhar says he has a firm belief in India’s Constitution. “If you and I both follow the Constitution, then everyone gets empowered,” he says. “Then you don’t require me.”

Villagers in Shabbirpur, however, are still wary of the Bhim Army. “They said, ‘We would support you.’ But we said ‘no’ to them; we said, ‘Just let us be’,” says Shrikant, a Dalit carpenter. Many question the outfit’s stance in rallies where its activists only ask for the release of Chandrashekhar. “Why cannot they also demand the release of our two boys?” asks another villager.

As Shabbirpur Dalits wait for two of their own to be set free, their relationship with their neighbours remains tense. On February 20th, a 15-year-old Dalit boy, Ankush, who was returning from his exam centre in Simlana, was beaten up by three Rajput boys. “They thrashed me twice and abused me,” he says.

This was around the same time that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was touring UP and Bihar as a part of the Sangh’s outreach to Dalits. On February 25th, Bhagwat addressed a huge rally in Meerut where he laid emphasis on the unity of Hindus and called caste divisions the biggest hurdle in achieving it. Perhaps he should have gone to Shabbirpur and seen that empty brick platform. Dalits there would have told him that they no longer celebrate any Hindu festival. “We just don’t have the heart to celebrate,” says Swadesh Kumar, “We just want dignity for ourselves and for Babasaheb’s statue.”