The great historical wrongs behind Saharanpur clashes must not be airbrushed

While 'Dalit assertion' is about removing caste barriers, 'Thakur assertion' is a trope to resurrect old hierarchies.

 |  Angiography  |  6-minute read |   26-05-2017
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A congregation of youths - the Bhim Army - has become the last resort of Dalit self-respect in India, and it has a central role to play in what's being termed the "Saharanpur clashes", taking place the western UP district.

The Dalit-Thakur cycle of violence that sparked off last month but took a sinister and bloody turn in May, must be read in this context of Dalit resistance, indeed the pan-India Dalit uprising, in the face of caste-driven lynchings and other atrocities gripping the country at present.

While the timeline of the Saharanpur clashes, centred in a village called Shabirpur, has been reported, the origin of this episodic drama lies in a clash of two statues. As the Thakurs wanted to put up one of Maharana Pratap, the Rajput warrior king who's now a symbol of Kshatriya pride, the Dalits, naturally, wanted to erect one of Bhimrao Ambedkar. 

Neither had state government/district administration's permission to do that, but the Thakurs, ever since the crowning of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP, have decided that "their time has come". Hence, the big procession taken out on May 5 to mark Maharana Pratap's birth anniversary didn't wait for a puny permission from the authorities. Their caste, it was obvious, was authority enough.

That they were met with a strong enough Dalit resistance, premised on law, and "muscled up" by the Bhim Army, and its blue aviator shades sporting, moustachioed leader Chandrashekhar Azad "Raavan", a lawyer-advocate himself, took the Thakurs by surprise. In retaliation, they burned down Dalit houses and lost one of themselves - a young Thakur called Sumit.

bhimbd_052617045202.jpgA congregation of youths - the Bhim Army - has become the last resort of Dalit self-respect in India.

Since May 9, when Dalits led by Azad's Bhim Army demanded a probe into the May 5 incidents, and disgusted by police non-cooperation, attacked a police station and beat up cops, the clashes became national headlines.

Yet, these weren't merely an example of the typical lawlessness under "Yogi-Modi rule", where caste Hindus flogged and lynched Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, etc under the pretext of "cow love". This was about Thakurs trying to replay the centuries of historical oppression after being freshly emboldened.

With Yogi as the mascot of a newly re-energised Thakur pride - the pride about re-erecting the caste hierarchies in which they come "above" the Dalits, and are able to amply display it by chanting "Maharana Pratap zindabad, Ambedkar murdabad, Ravidass murdabad", the public spectacle of the oppressive machismo assumes paramount importance. Hence, the smearing of an Ambedkar statue with black paint, and the slogans, evidently to show Dalits their "place" in the Yogi-fied scheme of things.

In stark contrast, the Bhim Army's slogan and tagline - "The Great Chamar" - is about wearing a historically degraded identity with a politically reworked pride. As this documentary on Bhim Army shows, the Great Chamar isn't about being a "Harijan", the sobriquet conferred by Mahatma Gandhi on Dalits, particularly the "untouchables", as the people of Hari, or Hindu god Vishnu, but about not needing to be so.

The rejection is also of Hari, the Brahminical god, and the systems of knowledge and religious rituals that uphold the supremacy of the Haris and the fellow gods to classify human beings into hierarchised categories. As Ambedkar said, caste system isn't a division of labour, but of labourers.

Saharanpur clashes are the vortex of an identity politics that wants to undo the three decades of affirmative action, mostly under Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, carried out to give Dalits a political currency and a place in the national conversation. Not just a vote bank, but also this was the time when the SC/ST Act was more thoroughly implemented, when police filed more FIRs in the cases pertaining to violation of the SC/ST Act, when it wasn't cool, at least in theory, to thrash a Dalit or rape a Dalit woman, particularly in Mayawati's UP. There could have been consequences.

As Arundhati Roy points out in The Doctor and the Saint, her introduction to the 2014 edition of BR Ambedkar's The Annihilation of Caste:

"Ambedkar’s followers have kept his legacy alive in creative ways. One of those ways is to turn him into a million mass-produced statues. The Ambedkar statue is a radical and animate object. It has been sent forth into the world to claim the space — both physical and virtual, public and private — that is the Dalit’s due. Dalits have used Ambedkar’s statue to assert their civil rights — to claim land that is owed them, water that is theirs, commons they are denied access to. The Ambedkar statue that is planted on the commons and rallied around always holds a book in its hand. Significantly, that book is not Annihilation of Caste with its liberating, revolutionary rage. It is a copy of the Indian Constitution that Ambedkar played a vital role in conceptualising — the document that now, for better or for worse, governs the life of every single Indian citizen."

Much like Kanshi Ram, who the Bhim Army considers an ideological mentor and a fellow Ambedkarite, Chandrashekhar Azad, Vinay Ratan Singh and Shiv Kumar, the dramatis personae of this theatre of Dalit resurgence, stick to the constitutional patriotism of Ambedkar.

They cite the law, they adhere to secular politics and they add the dash of glamour to being a Dalit with their signature moustache. 

chandr_052617045136.jpgBhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad.

At once a rival masculine alternative and a machismo espousing the Constitution, solidarity, togetherness, standing up for Dalit/Muslim/women's rights, the Bhim Army is about weaponising solidarity.

Its equivalents can be found in the Occupy movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women's March and scientists' match to protest Donald Trump presidency and its attendant white nationalist xenophobia.  

Similarly, along with Gujarati Dalit leader and lawyer Jignesh Mevani, JNU student leaders, civil rights activists, the Bhim Army's central role in a muscular resistance to the Thakurs' attempt to wrest western UP, particularly Saharanpur from a Dalit stronghold - and by stronghold, we mean a place where the chances of being flogged for being a Dalit are considerably less - is both a source of hope and pain.

Hope because civil disobedience under law when faced with monumental failure on the part of authorities to uphold the constitutional principles, rights and liberties of fellow citizens becomes a legitimate tool of political resistance, the true patriotism. Pain because even after 70 years of Independence, we are still fighting to ensure citizens have basic dignity, are treated equally under the eyes of law, aren't subjected to discrimination owing to their birth.

To see the Saharanpur clashes as primarily a law and order issue is to make a grave mistake, though it's precisely law and order - the constitutional one - that's at stake. Historical wrongs cannot be allowed to repeat themselves and be normalised, mainstreamed once again at the expense of true secular principles.

Also read: Saharanpur riots have exposed the fragility of BJP's inclusive development politics


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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