Is there a Dalit uprising stirring in Saharanpur?
The Bhim Army has been working tirelessly on the ground for the past three years and can be safely called the emerging voice of Dalits.
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On February 18, one of the biggest rallies in western Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur for the immediate release of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan was held without the fanfare that a grassroots political and social movement deserves.
The massive rally - opposing Ravan's continued incarceration since May 10 last year on cooked up charges - was not covered by a single English-language news organisation. There were no "live" Facebook or Twitter updates either. Or, for that matter, a media critique for the lack of it.
Interestingly, what did capture the attention of the media was a rally that was organised in Meerut, a few days prior to the Bhim Army rally, by Dalit activist and independent MLA from Vadgam, Jignesh Mevani, JNU student Pradeep Narwal and filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney (founder of Chalchitra Abhiyan). Team Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM) left no stone unturned to ensure that Mevani gets the spotlight, even though he expressed solidarity, but skipped the Bhim Army rally, and made no apparent effort to spread the word during its run-up.
From the live videos that Chalchitra Abhiyan has been posting on its Facebook page, it is clear that youth formed the bulk of the Meerut rally. Many of them, who had come from Delhi, had their first political parenting during the "Yuva Hunkar Rally" organised earlier this year in the national capital by young leaders such as Mevani, Umar Khalid and Akhil Gogoi.
On being asked by Sahwney as to why are Dalits angry and protesting, a young man from Delhi, Apoorv Singh, said, "It is not about a particular caste. This fight is between the haves and the have-nots. All those who are being marginalised in society must join this movement." Here, I am hoping that the irony in the last line will not be lost on the readers.
As far as the posters, social media mobilisation, and the ground zero speeches of Bhim Army members go, there has been enough clarity. The clarion call to unite in their fight against the Modi-Yogi government has been spelled out in exact words: "Your son, who speaks vociferously against the atrocities on Dalits and Muslims, who sacrificed everything for his community; this son of yours has been languishing in the Saharanpur district jail since May 10. This government does not want anyone who speaks for the welfare of this country, who speaks for the socially marginalised."
In a letter written by Chandrashekhar that was read out during the rally, he took a pledge to fight for social justice until his last breath. He challenged the “56-inch government to fight face-to-face instead of making it a state policy to leave political prisoners to rot in jail”.
Saharanpur has a Chamar population within the Dalit community of about nine lakh. Chandrasekhar, a Chamar leader, had grown up witnessing entrenched discrimination against Dalit students in a Thakur-run college in Chhutmalpur. It pushed him to set up an organisation that would train interested Dalit youth from all legislative Assemblies to take up issues of advocacy and social change. The Bhim Army's primary mission has always been education as an essential means to empower Dalits to build self-confidence, defence skills and negotiating powers with administrative bodies.
There are about 400 Bhim Army schools in Saharanpur district which provides free-of-cost primary education to children irrespective of caste and gender backgrounds. Besides, riding bikes as a symbolic gesture of social assertion in an oppressive paradigm, youngsters organise rallies, whereby they conduct village-to-village campaigns and raise awareness among Dalit children, women and young adults. They help the community to file FIR cases and have a network of advocates fighting for the victims of atrocities. They also financially aid inter-caste marriages.
The Bhim Army has been working tirelessly on the ground for the past three years and can be safely called the emerging voice of Dalits in Saharanpur, after the community began losing faith in the leadership of BSP supremo Mayawati. However, it is one thing to question "Behenji's" leadership and another to raise fingers at the organisation. The BSP's struggle to provide a nationwide political platform for the Bahujan Samaj cannot be erased.
Chandrashekhar has clearly set himself in the footsteps of BSP’s founder leader and great grassroots organiser, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati’s mentor. In one of NACDAOR's (National Confederation of Dalit Adivasi Organisations) visits to the Saharanpur district jail, in an hour long discussion with Chandrashekhar, we came to know what a devout Kanshi Ram follower he is. The Chamcha Age had a deep influence on his vision for the Bhim Army, as was Dr BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste on Kanshi Ram during the formative years of BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, one of the first union-like federation that Kanshi Ram founded before forming the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti - DS4 - which later was rechristened as Bahujan Samaj Party). Kanshi Ram wanted BAMCEF to be the "think-bank", "talent bank" and "financial bank" of the Bahujan Samaj.
This is exactly how Chandrashekhar has shaped his Bhim Army. One of the well-known tactics of political mobilisation of the BSP used to be cycle processions to educate the SCs, STs and OBCs that they need to build up their own organisation and independent movement. Kanshi Ram's ideology of the "bahujan samaj first", of popularising social reformer Jyotiba Phule's theory of ethnicising of the identity of lower castes through the motif of the Aryan invader versus the oppressed Bahujan Samaj, rings loud and clear among Saharanpur's Dalits even today.
This collective angst witnessed in the Bhim Army rally against the lack of "constitutional morality" holds a mirror not only for a repressive government, but also for the likes of Jignesh Mevani who pose as vanguards of democracy and appropriate Bahujan Samaj leaders like Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram while maligning them at the same time. Someone who believes in taking potshots at the current regime by integrating the "samajwadis" of Gandhian politics, Marxism, Leninism and Lohiaism (all at the same time) can only be a hypocritical Dalit leader.
And this method has a pattern in history. Take the case of thwarting of land reform policies in the 1930s United Provinces (erstwhile Uttar Pradesh) with Charan Singh passing the Land Utilisation Bill, which sought to transfer propriety rights over agricultural holdings to tenants who would deposit 10 times the annual rental in government treasury to the account of the landlord.
Charan Singh, from the dominant, landed Jat community in Western UP, who legitimised himself as a peasant leader, believed in the Gandhian theory of trusteeship. In his manifesto on Abolition of Zamindari published in 1947, he had proposed a family-based economy in which peasant proprietorship was to be ensured through a "moral revolution" - by transforming "the conscience of the landlords themselves". This was because Singh, like Gandhians, romanticised the village administration or rural society as "casteless" and "conflict-free".
The communists too have failed to give hope to the low castes in the cow belt given that in their strongholds in Kerala and West Bengal, the policies on land reforms and education system were devoid of caste as a criteria for identifying backwardness. In the book India's Unequal Citizens: A Study of Other Backward Classes by Kripal Chandra Yadav and Rajbir Singh, the skeptical reception to the Mandal Commission report in 1990 by the top brass of CPI(M) has been well documented. The then chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, while appearing before the Mandal Commission, had pointed out that "caste was a legacy of the feudal system and viewing the social scene from the casteist angle was no longer relevant for Bengal".
In the context of UP, when Kanshi Ram's DS4 was gaining ground, one of its biggest opposer was the All India Workers' Union led by the communists which tried to dismiss the Dalit movement as a disruptive and divisive force among agricultural labourers in UP.
At this point, the massive rally in Saharanpur protesting the continued detention of Chandrashekhar is not only political and social assertion by Dalits and other oppressed communities in the Hindi heartland, it is also a sign of a new formidable political force emerging in the margins.
The big media might ignore it, as they ignored Kanshi Ram’s early mobilisation, but the answer is blowin’ in the wind.