More than 70 Dalit rights activists have been detained by the Uttar Pradesh police in Jhansi and Lucknow to prevent them from presenting a 125 kg bar of soap to Chief Minister Adityanath. The Lucknow police also detained eight Dalit activists outside the city’s Press Club on Monday where they were scheduled to address a press conference about their soap protest.

The crackdown began on Sunday when the Jhansi police forced 43 Dalit, Adivasi and other backward class protesters from Gujarat to get off the Sabarmati Express, and detained them in a guest house. The protesters, from the Dr Ambedkar Vechan Pratibandh Samiti, had left Gujarat on Saturday night and were heading to Lucknow with the intention of handing over the 125-kg soap to Adityanath.

This was meant as a symbolic protest against the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision in May to distribute soap and shampoo among Musahar Dalit families of a village in Kushinagar district, so that they could “clean themselves” before Chief Minister Adityanath was to visit the village. The protest plan included organising a press conference on Monday, a rally featuring Dalit groups from across Uttar Pradesh and a visit to Adityanath’s office to hand over the giant bar of soap. Permissions for all the events had already been obtained.

However, as soon as the activists from Gujarat crossed the Uttar Pradesh border, the railway police entered their train, herded all the 43 activists into one compartment and made them get off at Jhansi, said Martin Macwan, a Dalit rights leader from Gujarat who helped organise the protest.

“The police took our activists to a guest house and claimed they had made arrangements for them because they were worried about their security,” said Macwan. “But then the police forcibly detained them in the guest house, didn’t let anyone in or out, and on Monday early morning, put them back on a train to Gujarat.”

Macwan claims that the police also took away the activists’ cell phones, and returned them later, after they protested the move.

According to a police officer at the Jhansi circle office, the activists were detained on orders from higher officials to prevent a law and order problem. “We heard from the railway police that they felt the protesters were fighting amongst themselves,” said the officer. He added that they were detained because the authorities feared the recurrance of a “Saharanpur-like incident”, referring inter-caste riots that occurred in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur town in May.

Lucknow detentions

While the protesters from Gujarat were dealt with in Jhansi, activists claim that the Lucknow police detained 22 Dalit protesters from Bundelkhand and other parts of Uttar Pradesh when they arrived in the state capital to participate in the rally scheduled for Monday.

The activists had reached Lucknow on Sunday evening and the protest organisers had made arrangements for them to stay at a hostel in Nehru Yuva Kendra. “But by Sunday night, the police had gheraoed [surrounded] the hostel and kept them forcibly detained,” said Ram Kumar, a Dalit leader from the Dynamic Action Group, one of the organisations that had planned the rally and press conference.

The activists were released at around 4 pm on Monday, two hours after the scheduled time of the press conference.

However, the Lucknow police also detained nine activists who attempted to host the press conference at another venue. Ram Kumar, who spoke to an hour before the scheduled press conference, was among the eight who were detained at Police Lines police station.

“Since the Press Club was surrounded by hundreds of police personnel, they tried to have the press conference at another venue,” said Pradeep More, the deputy director of Dalit Foundation and one of the organisers of the protest. “Some lawyers who met the police from our side were told that the nine activists were detained for trying to protest against the CM and for creating a law and order situation.”

The Uttar Pradesh Police put out a statement saying the activists did not have permission to hold the event. “On July 3, retired IPS officer S R Darapuri and his supporters were about to hold a meeting at the Press Club in Kaisarbagh area, for which they did not have permission, and they had planned to go to the residence of the Chief Minister to give him a memorandum,” the notice said. “While Mr Darapuri and eight supporters were detained in Kaisharbagh, 23 others were detained in Chowk area and all of them were then taken to the police lines, where they were asked to sign personal bonds before being released. “