Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar free, village still trapped in caste tensionhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/bhim-army-chief-chandrashekhar-free-shabbirpur-village-still-trapped-in-caste-tension-5359552/

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar free, village still trapped in caste tension

Sudhir Pundir, another Rajput, says all efforts by the administration to reach a peaceful settlement with the Dalits have failed.

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar free, village still trapped in caste tension
Paramal Singh’s house was among those set on fire during the violence in Shabbirpur village in May 2017. (Gajendra Yadav Photo)

ON MAY 5, 2017, a mob of Thakurs allegedly broke into the two-room house of Paramal Singh, an 85-year-old Dalit, assaulted him and his son, and then set everything on fire. The mob targeted the houses of Dalits in the village after a Thakur youth was killed, allegedly during stone-pelting by Dalits over a rally to commemorate Maharana Pratap.

Over 16 months later, Singh sits quietly on a charpoy in his courtyard. His house is empty, except for a change of clothes. With the Rs 7,000 that he got as compensation from the government, he is planning to first fix the doors, which are currently covered by plastic sheets.

The family once supplemented its income with the work it got from Thakurs in the village. Singh’s son, who was injured in the attack, is a daily wage labourer who used to work in the farms owned by the Thakurs. “He now goes out of the village to work. We don’t work for Thakurs anymore. We are used to living with less. But dignity is important,” says Singh, with a smile.

The incidents of arson and violence in Shabbirpur seem to have caused a lasting social chasm in the village, despite the interdependency of communities. The number of Dalit labourers working for Thakurs has reduced considerably. Thakurs are now forced to work on their fields themselves, or hire labour from outside the village.

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It was the May 2017 violence that snowballed into an agitation in Saharanpur, and led to the birth of Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar as the new leader of Dalits in Western Uttar Pradesh. Jailed for his alleged role in the violence that followed in Saharanpur, Chandrashekhar was released on Friday, after over a year.

While Dalits blame a “Thakur” chief minister for the new-found aggression of the Rajputs, Thakurs feel the rise of the Bhim Army has emboldened them, to the extent that they are provoking them.

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar free, village still trapped in caste tension
Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar (centre) with supporters at Chhutmalpur village after his release from Saharanpur jail after more than a year. (Express photo/Gajendra Yadav)

“Though there have been no fights in the village after last year, there is constant tension between the two communities. After Chandrashekhar’s rise, Dalits are needlessly trying to provoke us. If we are going by our bike or car, they stand in the middle of the village road, and pretend as if they can’t hear our honking,” says Avresh Pundir, a Rajput from the village.

Rajputs live in a part of the village from where they have to cross the Dalit settlements to reach the main road.

Sudhir Pundir, another Rajput, says all efforts by the administration to reach a peaceful settlement with the Dalits have failed. “It was never like this. Very few Dalits come to our fields now. Some interested parties have played politics and everyone is suffering,” he says.

Dal Singh (62) — his house was gutted and his wife injured in one eye with a sword — now has a new house. Built with assistance from BSP supremo Mayawati and local Congress politician Imran Masood, the house is yet to get doors, for which he is awaiting assistance from the government.

“How will there be any settlement if Thakurs keep saying that they have to exact revenge. No Thakur ever came to ask me what I had lost or to apologise for what they did to my house. Earlier, quarrels of the morning would be settled by the evening. Now, nobody is budging,” says Dal Singh.

He alleges that the government has been openly partisan, and that is why Thakurs are emboldened. “The local BJP MLA, who is a Thakur, has never come and met a single Dalit villager. It shows where the BJP stands,” he says.

Shyam Singh, another Dalit from the village who also suffered losses in the violence, argues that there would be no resolution or settlement until justice is done. “Those who attacked us are roaming free. Random people have been arrested by police. How will there be any settlement,” he says.

Ironically, despite a simmering animosity, both Thakurs and Dalits agree that those from the other community picked up by the police following the May 5, 2017 violence are all innocent. “Police just descended on the village in the night and picked up whoever they found. Both Thakurs and Dalits who were picked up that night were innocent,” says Om Prakash Chauhan, who spent close to a year in jail.

With elections just eight months away, social tensions are reflecting in political opinion. Shyam Singh hints that the real culprits will eventually go to jail. “It will happen in 2019. And then there will be resolution,” he says.

In almost all conversations, the denial of permission to install a Babasaheb Ambedkar statue in the village looms large. It was this that first triggered tension in Shabbirpur over a year ago. The government is blamed.

“Modiji is sweeping Ambedkar parks, but he does not ensure punishment to those who desecrate Ambedkar statues. His government is not giving us permission to build our icon’s statue on our own land,” says Shyam Singh.

Many Dalits argue that there would be no point in any settlement, since it would not guarantee that such things won’t happen with them again.

“After Chandrashekhar and two of our fellow Dalit villagers were released from prison, Thakurs went to the local thana to protest. No one wants to let bygones be bygones. We all want peace. But it won’t come just by our doing,” says Vijaypal, 30, a Dalit.

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“Now, we are also not the one deciding what’s going on. There are many others outside of this village who are involved with the cases,” he adds.

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