From Saharanpur to Delhi, Dalit Affirmation Takes Centre-Stage

The Bhim Army and its leader, Chandrasekhar, say their fight is against caste oppression and the 'saffron terror' of the Hindutva forces.

New Delhi: Jantar Mantar, the iconic venue for protests in New Delhi, has witnessed many ephemeral gatherings in recent years but the young Dalit men who streamed in on Sunday morning in their thousands wearing blue caps had all the trappings of a political movement that is here to stay. The men were mostly from Uttar Pradesh, where the mobilisation of Dalits three decades ago saw the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party, but where the electoral decimation of that party and the recent orchestration of violence against the community in Saharanpur was a reminder of the continuing stranglehold of upper caste domination.

As slogans of “Bhim Army zindabad” echoed all around, Jantar Mantar was slowly transformed into a sea of  blue – the colour of the Ambedkarite movement.

With the organisers claiming the participation of as many as 20,000 people, the rally was undoubtedly one of the largest ones in recent times in the national capital. The mobilisation surprised many as the Bhim Army, till recently, was a little-known Dalit group operating out of the Saharanpur region of UP. The group shot to limelight after upper caste Thakur landlords burnt down and looted Dalit houses, killed one and injured many in Shabbirpur village of Saharanpur. The Thakurs were incensed by the fact that the Dalits did not support their campaign of celebrating Maharana Pratap, the medieval Rajput king in Rajasthan, in the region.

In the event’s aftermath, the Bhim Army led the Dalit resistance to the violence by upper caste Thakurs – the community to which the recently-appointed UP chief minister and Hindutva hardliner Adityanath belongs.

Led by a young advocate, Chadrasekhar Azad Raavan, who models himself after the eponymously-named Indian freedom fighter, the Bhim Army was founded a few years ago. The group mobilised educated Dalit youth and started to run free coaching classes for Dalits and help them in various household activities around Saharanpur. With time, its popularity rose to other parts of western UP as more and more Dalit youth – both men and women – started to associate themselves with the group.

After a young Thakur man died during the disturbances – the police say he was killed while the Dalits allege he was asphyxiated by smoke from a fire that he may have himself lit – the police cracked down on the Bhim Army’s leadership, forcing many underground, including Chandrasekhar. In the days that followed, the group was portrayed by local politicians as having links with the Maoists and was widely presented by a section of the media as anarchists.

The massive protest in Delhi on Sunday was the direct product of a dramatic call Chandrasekhar made to his supporters in a widely-shared audio message to reach Jantar Mantar on 21 May.

The crowd reflected that spirit. Many participants in the rally celebrated the Dalit voice that the Bhim Army was trying to represent in the political mainstream. And the voice is a militant one – declaring that Dalits, who have been historically marginalised and exploited by the ‘Manuvadi vyavashta’, are not going to buckle down under feudal pressure.

“Adhikar maangne se nahin milte, adhikaar chheenne se milte hai (If we ask for our rights we will not get them; we have to snatch them,” Chadrasekhar declared while calling his supporters for the rally. His political messaging is quite clear. But he adds that the Dalits’ struggle would be within a “constitutional framework,” as the Dalit icon B.R Ambedkar had imagined it would.

This new consciousness within Ambedkarite activism is gaining ground nationally with an increased vigour under the Modi government. Last year, Jignesh Mevani had led a similar struggle in Gujarat. Mevani spearheaded a movement after gau rakshaks brutally beat up a few Dalits cattle rearers in Una. His and now Chandrasekhar’s leadership is crucial in the sense that they broke away from the accomodative approach followed by the existing Amebdkarite parties.

While parties like Bahujan Samaj Party or Republican Party of India – two of the biggest Ambedkarite political forces – have had a history of aligning with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party to gain power, this new stream of Ambedkarite politics, mostly dominated by young educated Dalit youth, distinguishes itself from its predecessors in many respects.

“One of the first aspects that I noticed among Bhim Army cadres was that they consider the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as representing the core of the “Manuvaadi Vyayastha” against which they intend to fight. Saffron forces are their enemies. They are clear about that,” said Nakul Singh Sawhney, who has been documenting the Bhim Army’s growth since its inception.

Secondly, the group has chalked out strategies to expand. Its cadres are not only required to teach underprivileged children, whom the Bhim Army believes are greatly discriminated against in UP’s government schools, but are also responsible to resist the exploitation meted out to Dalits by upper caste landlords on a daily basis.

The group has made it a point to incubate ideas of equality, especially that of gender, among Dalits and other underprivileged sections.

“The RSS encourages a Brahmincal system. We won’t stop before we root this system out. Our men, women, and children are here to fight,” said a Bhim Army cadre who had come to protest all the way from Saharanpur.

“We have arrived. We are better educated than the upper castes. They (upper castes) envy us because of this. Ever since Adityanath’s government has come, the Thakurs have started to believe that they can push us to back  to the historical roles that they had given us. Not anymore. We will fight for an equal space,” said another participant who is a Delhi university graduate but belongs to Deoband, UP.

Similarly, another member of the group, Mohanlal, told The Wire that their fight is not only for Dalits and other underprivileged sections but to drive home the point among upper castes that India is a democracy and not a medieval, feudal place.

“Why should we tolerate it when the Brahmins and Thakurs do not allow us to wear new clothes, or sit on a chair, or for that matter ride a horse in our marriages. Who scripted these rules? Babasaheb (Ambedkar) has told us that only the Indian constitution governs us and not any upper caste-dominated government,” Mohanlal asserted.

He explained how disciplined their cadres have been in the last two weeks to organise this rally. “Each of us took it upon ourselves to make this rally a success. We flooded the social media and our WhatsApp groups with our appeal. Each member was given as task to bring as many people as he could.”

Chandrasekhar speaking at the Bhim Army rally in New Delhi on May 21.

Asked why Dalit women did not participate in the rally, Mohanlal admitted the gender disparity as one of the biggest challenges ahead for the movement. “Chandrasekhar bhaiya has told us that women are our equal partners in the movement. We understand their importance and are working towards bringing more women into the fold. Right now, many of them who are educated are teaching in our schools but a lot remains to be done to break the clutches of  the Brahminical system, which has pushed women to the most inferior role.”

“Some of our cadres – both men and women – deliberately stayed back as they feared an upper caste backlash against the rally,” added Mohanlal.

Amidst these conversations, the crowd suddenly erupted in cheer, shouting “Bhaiya zindabaad” when Chandrasekhar, who had been on the run since May 10 after the Thakur-Dalit clash, appeared on stage.

Equating the caste system to modern day slavery, he asked people to get united. “We are inferior to none. We will now be the bosses,” he declared.

He called upon Yadavs and other sections of the Other Backward Classes to join hands with Dalit groups to fight against what he called “bhagwa aatankvaad (saffron terrorism)”

“I had come to believe that my community is in slumber. But after looking at the crowd here, I know that it has woken up and will rise to fight. I will not sit before these saffron forces are driven out,” said the 29-year-old Chandrasekhar.

Calling on his supporters to take an oath not to send anyone to parliament who has “betrayed” the community and remained quiet even as atrocities against Dalits have increased manifold times in the past three years, he said the faces of those leaders should be blackened.

“I am a follower of Kanshi Ram and Udham Singh (the revolutionary who assassinated British official Michael O’Dwyer, who was governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919). I will never betray you. Let them call me a Naxalite or a terrorist. If the police brands you as a Naxalite for defending the rights of your brethren, then surely I am one,” he shouted from the stage.

None of the Ambedkarite parties have officially supported the Bhim Army until now. Yet for many in the Dalit community – many also from the BSP who were present and cheering at the rally – the Bhim Army resembled a hope. They showed a desperation to be a part of a movement that intends to unlock Dalits of UP from the exploitative system, which they believe has intensified under Adityanath’s tenure.

In the 1980s, the BSP represented this hope. But the cadres of the Bhim Army believe that somewhere down the line, the party as lost steam, trying to cope with the pulls and pressures of realpolitik.

The Bhim Army, despite the success of the rally, still operates primarily in a small stretch of western UP and has a long way to go before it reaches a broader swathe of UP’s population. While it may be too early to say how well it does in challenging the political establishment, the group is clearly off to a flying start.