It was recently reported that a group of Dalits had threatened to convert to Islam after being allegedly denied entry into a temple in Meerut.
In a twist, Dalits performed puja and havan in the same temple less than a week later. As usual, their story wasn’t portrayed correctly in the media.
A number of media outlets recently reported an incident from a village in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut district where a group of Dalits were allegedly denied entry into a temple due to their caste. The next day, the group, along with Dalits from surrounding villages, staged a protest outside the local police station, threatening to leave Hinduism if they are not allowed to enter the temple.
The case was widely cited in the mainstream media and on social media as an example of social discrimination plaguing the Hindu society that is leaving the oppressed "lower castes" no option but to turn to other religions for liberation.
But after the initial media frenzy, there have been no follow-ups, as is often the case.
So we bring you the twist in the tale: days after the alleged incident, the Dalits of the village, along with all caste groups, entered the same temple, did puja (worship) and performed a havan. In a dramatic moment, the youth who led the protests outside the police station, raised slogans for Hindu unity after the rituals.
So how did this come about? Well, here's the story:
Pachgaon Patti - incidentally just a kilometre away from the now famous Sinauli village where archaeologists have just discovered that a warrior class possibly lived here 5,000 years ago - has a majority population of Rajputs and Thakurs. The Jaatavs and Valmikis – both considered Scheduled Castes (SCs) – together account for 500 votes out of the total 5,000. Nearly 15 per cent of the village population comprise Muslims, as informed by the village pradhan (head) Bhopal Singh, a Rajput.
The temple in question is a one-room samadhi (place of death or salvation) of one 'andhe baba' (blind sage) near the village entry. It houses no deity but a stone slab under which devotees light a diya (lamp). The baba, incidentally a Dalit himself, was a devotee of Lord Shiva and so visitors routinely offer liquor and bhaang (a preparation of cannabis), especially in the ongoing month of Shravan. While all caste groups offer prayers here, most visitors are Dalits as the 'andhe baba' was a Dalit himself and the samadhi happens to be closest to Jaatav and Valmiki colonies.
According to the villagers, the samadhi did not have a caretaker for months. Two weeks ago, a baba from a nearby village came and began to live in a small room adjacent to the samadhi. In villages, it's not uncommon for wandering sadhus to make such vacant sites their abode. Initially, no villager bothered. But soon, a tiff started between the baba and a groups of youths – most of them Dalits – after the former started objecting to their habit of sitting outside the temple and drinking (the liquor offerings), villagers told Swarajya.
The baba began to prohibit the entry of Dalits into the temple and began to turn away the offerings of liquor. Bhanvar Singh, a Jaatav, told Swarajya that the baba stopped him from offering prasad, telling him that he was from a lower caste and must go elsewhere. "I was shocked because I have a greater claim on the sacred place than he does. My father Gainda Ram was a disciple of ‘andhe baba’ and was a caretaker of the samadhi till his death," said Singh.
"I returned home. Who wants to pick a fight after all."
The tiff took a violent turn on 30 July when the baba and the youths came to blows. The next day, the youths, along with Dalits from nearby villages, staged a protest outside the local Bhawanpur police station demanding action against the baba. The youths gave a letter to the police that the baba turned them away saying they were not Hindus and that action should be taken against him.
But for reasons we will come to later in the copy, the protesters also held placards that read, "Hum Hindu nahi to aur kya hain (“If we are not Hindus, who are we?”) and "Agar hamein nyay nahi mila to hum dharm parivartan karenge (if we don't get justice, we will convert to other religion").
The protest was prominently covered by the media given the sensational threat to convert.
When Swarajya visited the village on Saturday (4 August), a totally different picture emerged. Instead of caste discrimination, the temple looked like a perfect symbol of caste unity.
Members of all castes, including the village pradhan, performed a havan and took a pledge to end all kinds of discrimination. Chants of 'Har Har Mahadev' filled the air. What's more, the youth at the forefront of the protests outside the police station, dramatically raised slogans of 'Hindu Ekta Zindabad'. On his own, without any coercion.
For a village that seemed to provide the haters yet another stick to bash the Hindu society with, such scenes of bonhomie were surprising.
We learnt that a group that works for Hindu rights was on a visit to the village after reading reports of discrimination in the media, and had mobilised villagers to perform a collective havan.
Satish Vaid, a volunteer with the group named Agniveer, told Swarajya that they had come from New Delhi with the aim of helping Dalits enter the temple. “Whenever we come across such cases in the media, we make sure the Dalits enter the temple and members of all castes perform a symbolic havan to end the animosity,” he said.
However, the team did not need to put much effort in convincing the villagers unlike other cases they have dealt with in the state, he said. “While caste barriers exist, the situation here is much better than other villages we have done similar work in. Things weren’t exactly how they was portrayed in the media,” he said.
Amit Tiwari, another volunteer with Agniveer, said, "We found out that after the baba was ousted, Dalits began to offer prayers at the samadhi like they always had."
Conversations with villagers and the police further revealed that the village was perhaps wrongly demonised in the first place.
No temple in the village discriminated on the basis of caste, villagers said. Suresh Kumar, a Jaatav and a member of gram panchayat, told Swarajya that the village has more than 15 big and small temples and all of them allow entry to all caste groups including Dalits. (Swarajya later visited two temples and found this to be true.)
"The problem happened only at this samadhi and for the first time. It was a case of personal enmity between two groups," he said.
District senior superintendent of police (SSP) Rajesh Kumar told Swarajya that the matter was "political" and that a mountain was made out of a molehill. He said that in the scuffle on the night of 30 July, the baba sustained injuries. The next morning, he gave a written complaint at the Bhawanpur police station against the youths. Fearing action, the youths staged a counter protest over caste discrimination.
"Four-five boys from Pachgaon Patti were joined by student political leaders from other villages. The threat of conversion was a drama. It was just politics," Rajesh Kumar said. He further said that the protesting group did not file any written complaint or FIR (first information report). "They gave bytes to the media and returned to their homes," said Kumar. "Ye koi maamla hi nahi tha” (“it was a non-issue to begin with”)," he said.
So if it was merely a tactic to save themselves from police action, what led the youths to make startling claims of religious conversion to Islam?
In reply, Bhanwar Singh calls his nephew Vinay Raj and slaps on the back of his head. "Isse neta banna hai na” (“He wants to become a leader”)," he says. Raj, who is just 19, is an officer-bearer of a Dalit organisation named Rashtriya Jaatav Samaaj Sangathan. Posters bearing his photograph and name are pasted on the walls of several houses.
He was part of the group that had a scuffle with the baba. At the protest, he was at the forefront, dressed in a white kurta-pajama, telling television reporters that "Manuwadi people sit in the temple and use religion" and that "some 50 families have decided to change their religion".
Bhanwar Singh hits him again. "Dharam badlega? Kya banega? Musalman banega” (“Will you change your religion? To What? Islam?”) Singh asks. Raj replies that the protesting group never specified any religion and Islam was an imagination of the media.
The boy is now the butt of jokes. Elderly villagers, along with the pradhan, confront him and jokingly ask what religion he was going to convert to. Raj neither looks up nor answers.
Pradhan Bhopal Singh now addresses the group. He says that the youths came to his house on the morning of 31 July and requested him to sign a letter. "The letter said that there should be action against the baba for caste comments. I signed on it. I also wanted this baba out," he says. "But I had no idea the youths are going to make announcements about conversion."
Villagers nod their heads.
Sundar, a Jaatav, says he doesn't want to convert. Others raise their hands and say, "We don’t want to convert either."
Just then, it starts to get ugly. One Mukesh Tomar, who we learn is a property dealer from adjoining village, tells Vinay, "Aukaat mein reh. Ye zameen wapas le lenge (“learn to be in your limits. We will take the land back," he says. Tomar, a Rajput, is referring to the samadhi land that was gifted by a member of Rajput community to Dalits 60 years ago. Tomar was not part of the havan but had stopped his motorcycle when he saw the commotion a few minutes ago.
"You saw with your own eyes? This is how they treat us," a seething Vinay says.
Tomar goes on, "Why do you let these people speak so much?" Tomar is asking "upper-caste" villagers why they are allowing "lower-caste" people to speak so much. The villagers protest.
Vinay is now frothing at the mouth. Agniveer volunteers intervene. Bhopal Singh tells Tomar to go away. "Don't spoil our village," he appeals. Other villagers nod in agreement.
Tomar leaves. Singh tells villagers, "We don't agree with him. Our village has no caste discrimination and it will remain so."
"Other villagers may still practise it, but there is no untouchability here. The last two pradhans before me were Dalits," he says.
Tension has subsided. Villagers start leaving.
We are about to leave the village as well when someone points us to Vinay's mother, who is walking past with her daughter. Poonam tells us she is very worried as her son's employer has kicked him out of the job after seeing him on television. "He (the employer) says he doesn't want any netagiri at his workplace. I am going to Meerut (city) to request him to reinstate my son."
We offer her a lift till Meerut and she agrees. "What’s the matter? Has he done anything wrong? All our neighbours are against him. He is a good boy," she says.
The return journey begins, and we cannot help but think that as usual, the caste realities on the ground were found to be more nuanced than were portrayed in a section of the media.