The eight day of Karwan e Mohabbat was at Kandla town in Shamli district in Uttar Pradesh. This is a Muslim majority town, where a few thousand people displaced by the Muzaffarnagar carnage of 2013, who were not allowed to return to their homes, resettled. The BJP MP Hukam Singh had stirred national headlines alleging that the rise in Muslim population in the town threatened the peace-loving Hindu residents of the town, resulting in a large exodus. It was established that his claims of a Hindu exodus were mischievous and entirely false, but the stigma persisted. It is remarkable that even the NHRC intervened on the basis of this clearly communally motivated compliant, but did nothing to support the rights of nearly one lakh Muslim people who were displaced because of the 2013 carnage. We felt that given this communal stereotyping to a town that gave refuge to internally displaced persons, Kandla would be a fitting place for the Karwan to spend the night. We were given hospitality in a madrassa.
In the morning, we visited a village that briefly hit the headlines a few months back, and then faded away, Shabirpur in district Saharanpur, in the Deoband constituency, a 150 kilometres from Delhi. The dispute started because Dalits of the village decided to erect a statue of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar within the campus of a Ravidas temple. They pooled money for the statue and ordered it in Saharanpur. They then began to erect a tall platform. Everything was ready to install the statue on Ambedkar’s anniversary on April 14 2017.
Meanwhile the BJP was swept to power in Uttar Pradesh. An ugly rumbling started in the upper caste Rajput enclave of the village. They objected to the tall platform and even more to the statue of Ambedkar pointing to the village road which they too use. ‘It is our government now’, they are reported to have said. They felt the Chamars needed to be reminded of their position. The Dalits protested hotly, that they had legal title to the land of the temple, and it was for them to decide whose statue they wished to install within it. The administration intervened, and asked them to apply for permission, and the anniversary passed without mounting the statue.
On May 5, the Rajputs decided to celebrate Maharana Pratap Jayanti, the anniversary of the Rajput icon, with unprecedented pomp. The procession began with a loudspeaker blaring loud music, what they call in the village a DJ. The sullen Dalits went to the police station, and complained about the ‘DJ’. If we need permission to install a statue on our own land, they need permission to play a DJ on a public road’. The police concurred and ordered the DJ to be disconnected.
The Rajputs took this to be an insult, and erupted in rage. They made a call to their caste men to gather from many surrounding villages. They converged on motor cycles and cars on the Dalit basti with daggers and swords. Shouting insulting slogans, they attacked women and men, and set fire to more than 30 homes, vandalising their utensils, furniture and television sets. The police stood by for five hours doing nothing to restrain the attackers. Rajput men blocked the fire engine from entering the village with their tractors and cars.
Four months later, we found the Dalits enraged, in grave economic distress, but unbending in their rage and resistance. Most of them were landless, and earlier found work in the fields and brick kilns owned by the upper castes. But they were now unemployed because the Rajputs had imposed a strict economic boycott on employing anyone from their village. The government released a small grant of 25,000 rupees to each household, but withheld further releases claiming there was no budget. Few of the men they named were arrested. But the police charged the Dalits, especially their vocal leaders, with even graver crimes, and many Dalits were in jail.
Dalits have for centuries been suppressed, rare moments of resistance firmly and cruelly crushed. But the Dalits of Shabirpur we found unbent. They decided to renounce the Hindu faith, and immersed in water all their Hindu idols. They converted en masse to Buddhism. Jai Bhim was their call to battle. Even children wore Jai Bhim lockets and fought with their classmates and teachers. In our meeting the women were most vocal in their resolute defiance, not hesitating to speak publicly of the assaults on their bodies, crimes the police continued to ignore.
A few Karwan members went to speak to the Rajputs. They remained contemptuous of the Dalits, claiming that they had set their own houses on fire for the compensation! When asked if they had injured themselves as well, they did not answer. But there was no remorse.
We left Shabirpur inspired but intensely troubled. Many of the Karwan members had never witnessed first-hand the atrocities that are routinely deployed to tame Dalits and Adivasis into submission. The Dalits of Shabirpur have resolved to fight for dignity and equality at great cost to themselves.
They fight not just for themselves but for all if us.