Editor's note: The BJP, its ideological lodestar RSS, and even the BSP, a party with moorings in Dalit identity, have, in recent months, outdone themselves to court the Dalit constituency. The community itself has found new ways to assert its leverage over Indian political parties and reinforce its place in society. Firstpost will travel across Uttar Pradesh, the test bed of India's Dalit politics, to record how these changes have altered life in its villages, towns and cities.
A local news reporter from Muzaffarnagar narrated an incident that occurred about two years ago. As the story goes, an elderly person from the Dalit community who made a living by shining shoes had lost his mobile phone. Like anyone else, he went to the police station to lodge a complaint. The clerk asked him what he did for a living, to which the old man replied that he repaired and polished shoes. The clerk then ordered him to polish the shoes of all the constables at that police station, something the old man had to comply with, because it was only after this that his complaint was lodged.
The incident was captured on camera by a person who was present at the police station. The video went viral on social media and caused enormous embarrassment to the police administration. However, if the police clerk had asked for vegetables from a vegetable vendor, or asked a tailor to stitch some clothes, or sought food ration from a shopkeeper who tried to get a complaint registered, it may not have spiralled into such a major controversy.
But the sensitivity with which Dalit issues are tackled is missing from the depths of the system. Muzaffarnagar's Dalits say that instead of ensuring such situations do not recur in the future, politicians seek to draw maximum mileage from them.
Bhupkhedi is a village located at a distance of around 30 kilometers from Muzaffarnagar. Located in the Khatauli tehsil, the population of the village is a mix of Dalits, other backward castes and upper castes, although Thakurs are the majority community. Villagers talk about similar Thakur domination in 24 such villages on the border between Meerut and Muzaffarnagar districts, and this conglomeration of villages, locally referred to as the 'Thakur Chaubisi', lies in an area of influence of Sardhana BJP MP Sangeet Som.
Two of these villages, Bhupkhedi and Mujahidpur, are adjacent to each other, with Thakurs and Dalits cohabiting both villages. About a year ago, the Thakurs of Bhupkhedi had placed an embargo on Dalits getting haircuts and shaves. A tense situation arose, with the village barber under pressure from the Thakurs, refusing to attend on the Dalits, forcing them to go to a barber in the neighbouring village.
A Dalit youth from the village, Sanjiv Kumar, spoke of how that the Thakurs of the village evicted the barber who used to provide haircut services, forcing the Dalits to go to the neighbouring village for a haircut. It was then that they resolved to prevent any barber from operating in the village unless he also attended to them. The Dalits also trained a youth from their community in hair-cutting, shaving etc., and it was only after that that the issue was resolved.
There's now a new saloon in the village which is run by a Muslim youth who caters to all castes and communities. Such are the fights that take place between Thakurs and Dalits. The atmosphere in the village is vitiated due to such politics and is so tense that such incidents occur at a frequency of once every six months or a year.
Subodh Som, who hails from the Thakur community, admits that the barber incident was politically motivated and had been raised intentionally, though there wasn't any problem of any significance.
There are people of other castes residing here as well, but the issues are mainly between the Thakurs and the Dalits. There is a statue of Bhimrao Ambedkar in the Dalit basti, which had been installed by Anita Som, a Thakur herself, and the prospective gram pradhan (village head), though it has her husband's name endorsed on it.
Villagers say that about seven months ago, a person from the Thakur community had thrown a stone at the statue after which a fight ensued between the Thakurs and Dalits in which the Dalits were badly beaten up. Stretching out his battered hand, Santosh, who has a deep scar from a a wound that required 22 stitches to heal, said he and his son were both thrashed badly and that he wasn't able to work with that hand. The Dalits added that every time such an incident takes place, they are compelled to reconcile with the Thakurs, against whom no action is ever taken against.
On 14 April, Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated in the the Dalit basti. But Dalits were required to obtain prior permission from the administration to hold the function, during which there was police presence. For fear of tensions arising in the village, Dalits chose not to take out a tableau procession.
Subodh Kumar, another Dalit youngster from the area, said there is discrimination against them at every stage. The village has a school with classes upto Class VIII. On walls of the school classroom hang paintings of Independence leaders, except Ambedkar's. He alleged that Thakurs didn't give them the permission to hang Ambedkar's painting on the wall.
The Dalits' grievances are not heard or redressed by any leader on the grounds that they cast their votes to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But they say that even BSP leaders neither ask about their welfare nor respond to their phone calls. The one question they ask is if these leaders will only show up on their doors before the elections. The Dalits know the answer to their question, and understand the inevitability of what goes on in their world.