Rise of Bhim Army shows Dalit anger is spilling over under Modi-Yogi rule

Jantar Mantar was bathed in blue on Sunday signifying a new phase of Ambedkarite assertion to fight saffronisation of politics.

 |  6-minute read |   22-05-2017
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As the sea of blue rose like a mighty ocean of counter-politics, Jantar Mantar in the heart of New Delhi became the site of an alternative politics, this time led from the front by the Bhim Army.

A relatively new entrant in national politics, the Bhim Army is a two-year-old outfit run by young, educated Dalit youths to reclaim BR Ambedkar and fight the saffronisation of politics. And, reclaiming is exactly what they are good at, with some added “muscle” thrown into the potentate.

The national curiosity about the Bhim Army reached a fever pitch as the leader of the group, the 29-year-old lawyer and activist, Chandrashekhar, with the nom de plume “Raavan”, electrified the air with his strong speech to assert pride in being a Dalit.

After the clashes in Saharanpur, western Uttar Pradesh, where Thakurs and Dalits clashed over respective icons – Maharana Pratap and Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar – Chandrashekhar had been missing, only to resurface in Delhi and address a crowd of thousands of Dalit youths, academics, students and rights activists.

bhimbd_052217043655.jpgIt was a moment of civil disobedience attaining great political significance in the heart of the national capital. (Photo: Bhim Army/Facebook)

It was a moment of civil disobedience attaining great political significance in the heart of the national capital. And it was engineered, popularised and indeed spearheaded by the Bhim Army, the new force in Dalit identity politics.

Who are the Bhim Army

Founded by Chandrashekhar “Raavan” and Vinay Ratan Singh, the Bhim Army started as a group running a school for Dalit children, and providing them with a sound education which the government-run schools were failing to impart. In July 2015, the first school was set up, and within two years, the number of schools run by the Bhim Army has shot up to over 300, run by Dalits for fellow Dalits and other children from underprivileged backgrounds.

During the Una procession of Dalits against the lynching of four dead cow-skinners in Gujarat, the Bhim Army extended its support to the cause that was led by Jignesh Mevani. Chandrashekhar saw the need to fuse the ideological opposition to saffron terror, perpetrated by the motley gangs of Thakurs, cow vigilantes, assorted Hindutva goons among others, with strong displays of civil disobedience and what he calls “muscle”.

The Bhim Army became a one-stop destination for Dalit complaints and grievances – big and small – as the youth wing flaunted its distance from the powerless “Dalit elite”, such as BSP chief Mayawati and BJP MP Udit Raj. However, after Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur himself, was ensconced as the UP chief minister, things took a nastier turn.

The Saharanpur incidents

The clashes between Yogi-emboldened Thakurs and Ambedkar-asserting Dalits in Saharanpur, western Uttar Pradesh, which saw a number of Dalit homes being burned down, several injured and one death, had their inception in a war of iconography.

Thakurs had objected to a statue of Ambedkar, saying that a statue that pointed its fingers (classic Ambedkar pose with Constitution in one hand and raised finger on the other) couldn’t be allowed to be put up, as Thakur women used the streets. They didn’t allow a procession to celebrate Ambedkar because apparently the Dalits didn’t get permission to conduct the same.

On April 20, almost a week after Ambedkar Jayanti, the Thakurs, under the garb of celebrating the birthday of the Dalit icon, took out a procession in order to chant slogans such as “UP mein rehna hoga, to Yogi-Yogi kehna hoga”, and “Jai Shri Ram”, and especially went through areas with Jatav and Muslim population.

chandr_052217043850.jpgChandrashekhar, leader of the Bhim Army.

On May 5, the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, the Thakurs wanted to take out a procession to mark Rajput/Hindu/Kshatriya pride. This was the day when Adityanath called the Mughal emperor Akbar an “invader” and lauded Rana Pratap as a son of the soil.

When challenged by the Dalits, because the Thakurs too lacked an official permission, clashes broke out.

The Thakurs, flummoxed by the direct assertion by Dalits, were taken aback, and resorted to arson. In the ensuing violence, as many ground reports suggest, several youths from both communities were injured, and were subsequently hospitalised. One Thakur man, Sumit Singh, died – some say because he suffocated himself accidentally, while others cry conspiracy to murder Thakurs.

FIRs have been filed against youths of both communities, but on May 9, Dalits organised a protest meet in Saharanpur city to demand justice for the injuries and arson committed on May 5 by Thakurs. This May 9 “mahapanchayat” was called by the Bhim Army, and messages from its leader Chandrashekhar were circulated on social media to mobilise the district’s Dalit youth.

As clashes between Dalit youths and uncooperating police under the ruling BJP broke out, the Saharanpur violence became a national headline. Protesters attacked a Maharana Pratap memorial and cops being beaten up by angry Dalit youths went viral on social media.

From Saharanpur to Jantar Mantar

After this Chandrashekhar went underground, only to surface at the Jantar Mantar rally, which saw Delhi turning into a tide of blue. An articulate lawyer steeped in the ideologies of Dalit leader Kanshi Ram and the architect of Indian Constitution, BR Ambedkar, Chandrashekhar’s “Bhim Army” derives its name from the word that symbolises Dalit pride and identity – Bhim, from Ambedkar’s first name Bhimrao.

rssbd1_052217044352.jpgPhoto courtesy: Dalit Camera/Facebook.

Slogans such as “Jai Bhim”, “RSS jiski Mummy Hai, Who Sarkar Nikammi Hai”, “The Great Chamar”, among others were seen and heard at Jantar Mantar. Socia media portals such as Dalit Camera, among others, livestreamed the procession and the speech, even as mainstream TV media maintained a deafening silence on the politics of blue.

Print media paid its due, however. Newspapers such as The Telegraph, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and others, covered the rally, and wrote extensive reports on the “Rise of the Dalit Bhaiya”.

A new beginning?

Is the Bhim Army a new, ideologically charged phase of the Dalit, anti-caste, anti-saffron, anti-communal politics? Chandrashekhar made a rousing speech in which he fronted his Raavan to counter the saffron brigade’s Ram, and he was joined in by thousands of students, particularly the JNU student leaders, as also academics, human rights activists, writers, journalists, and many others.

While UP police has tried branding Chandrashekhar into a Naxal, the leader is not swayed. He says: “If protesting against the RSS is becoming a Naxalite, then I am one.”

Is the Bhim Army a receptacle of the hurt and oppressed youth of India, including but not limited to the Dalits?

As Chandrashekhar asked Muslims, OBCs, women and everyone else fed of the saffron terror to join in, we need to see if this is indeed part of a larger coalition of forces against the Sangh-led Hindutva fascism, the politics of lynching.

Also read: 'New India' of Hindutva needs Dalit anger and student protests

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