On Sunday, 21 May, an army of several thousand people congregated at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. They held aloft blue flags and images of BR Ambedkar and it was clear that they were crusaders. They called themselves the Bhim Army and it seemed clear they could not be ignored. But where exactly did they come from and what was their mission?
A brief background
It was in the early 1970s that Dalit activism, also known as the Ambedkarite movement, gathered impetus under the leadership of Kanshi Ram. The aim was to unite the marginalised Dalit community and help them to transform themselves from slaves to rulers of this country. He coined an interesting term around this time—"satta ki master chabi" (master key for political power). And indeed, it turned out to be a prophecy of sorts when a year after his death, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) formed a full majority government in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, with 206 seats under its belt.
The Bhim Army's evolution cannot be seen in isolation from the recent vacuum created in the Dalits' social movement [due to the electoral decimation of the BSP].
A lot has changed since Kashi Ram's first call to action for Dalits. Now they are a politically united block and, most importantly, a new generation of Dalits has evolved that is more educated and aware than any of their predecessors. This new Dalit generation has seen the struggle of their parents and forebearers and has also had access to the writings of their leaders. The digital revolution has given this new set unprecedented accessibility and connectivity. They are able to use these tools to disseminate information and ideas, and also mobilise others. They are willing to do what it takes to reclaim their rightful place in society.
Until a few years ago, the BSP stood tall as the political representatives of this section of society. However, 2014 came with a blow—despite being the third largest party in India the BSP could not win even a single seat in the general elections. It was a disappointing performance for a party that had been born of a social movement and which continued to hold the promise of bettering a lot of Dalits. Nonetheless, despite not winning seats, the BSP did manage to get the third highest vote-share in the Lok Sabha polls, affirming that its core support base of Dalits still believed in the party and its leadership.
In 2017, when Uttar Pradesh went to polls, the community rallied behind the BSP, with many among the new generation of Dalit youth actively campaigning for the party across different platforms. But the results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls were just as disastrous, with the party winning only 19 out of 403 seats. This has led to tremendous distress in the community—and it is not just about political power and votes.
As I mentioned earlier, the BSP is as much a social movement as it is a political party. In the 2017 Assembly elections, it not only lost its chance to get "satta ki master chabi", but also found itself pitted against a BJP government led by Yogi Adityanath who is a Thakur by caste. Thus, after 1991 the political power has returned to Savarna (with full majority), putting into threat the whole social movement around the Bahujan concept.
These recent situations have created a social and political vacuum among this new generation, exerting more pressure than ever on the leadership of the Bahujan Samaj Party to step up to the plate.
"The Great Chamar"
Chhutmalpur is a small village in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, with a Dalit and Muslim population of around 10,000. In 2013 a prodigal son of Chhutmalpur, a young Dalit man named Chandrashekhar, returned to his village after his father died of cancer. He had never forgotten how his father, a headmaster, was humiliated due to his caste. Chandrashekhar was determined to be an advocate for the Dalit community and the best way he thought he could do this was by forming an organisation of local Dalit youth. This organisation came to be known as the Bhim Army.
Thus far, the word "Chamar" was seen as a slur on the Dalit community, but Chandrashekhar converted it into a proud badge of Dalit identity...
The Bhim Army's first run-in with authority was in August 2015 when the Dalit students of a Rajput-run inter-college complained that they were being discriminated against.
The Thakur boys had allegedly forced the Dalit students to sweep the classrooms. In addition, they claimed that after games period, the Thakurs would always drink water first, and the Dalits would last.
One day, the Bhim Army showed up and—to use Chandrashekhar's euphemism—"straightened things out," The message was, "If they hit two of our boys, we hit four of theirs and the matter was resolved."
Chandrashekhar later installed a board in front of the village of Gharkoli, proclaiming in large letters: "The Great Chamar." Thus far, the word "Chamar" was seen as a slur on the Dalit community, but Chandrashekhar converted it into a proud badge of Dalit identity with the slogan, "Agar jaati se picha nhi chuda skte to usper garv karna sikh lo (If you are not able to get rid of your caste identity start taking pride in it)."
Chandrashekhar is not the only person in the community to adopt such a stance.
This same idea shone through when a Dalit singer from Punjab, Ginni Mahi, came out with a popular song called 'Danger Chamar."
With this new approach, the Dalit community is taking the kind of pride in its identity that was earlier evident only among the Savarna castes such as the Rajputs and Jats.
It must be noted that not everyone in the Dalit community appreciated the Bhim Army's confrontational style, but Gharkoli found universal support because it was thrilling just to see a Dalit group standing up for the community.
It reminded people of the early days of the BSP when Mayawati went from village to village on a rickety cycle and no issue was too small or insignificant for her to take a personal interest in.
Soon, the Bhim Army started looking into matters of Dalit atrocities, fighting for causes and promoting the upliftment of the community by taking constructive steps such as voluntarily giving classes in government schools.
All these steps made the Bhim Army very popular in Saharanpur.
Then on 5 May matters came to a head in Shabbirpur village, when tensions between Thakurs and Dalits resulted in a conflagration. An armed mob of Thakurs attacked the Dalit village, torching several houses and terrorising residents.
[O]n 21st May, slavery was abolished in Colombia,... we declare today that we end slavery in India today. We are not "neech", neither are we "achut"... we are everyone's father. –Chandrashekhar
To protest against the Thakurs' brutality in Shabbirpur, the Bhim Army called for a protest in Saharanpur district. Thousands of supporters congregated for a peaceful protest but were lathi-charged by the police and matters quickly spiralled out of control. The police allegedly filed FIRs against 40 Bhim Army members, including Chandrashekhar, and many were booked.
This incident generated more anger among the Dalit community, and the Bhim Army got more supporters than ever to rally behind it.
From a small movement to a Dalit uprising
As mentioned above, the Bhim Army's evolution cannot be seen in isolation from the recent vacuum created in the Dalits' social movement.
In the digital era, thanks to smartphones and cheap data services even the farthest area is connected. Social media plays an important role too.
Matters of Dalit atrocities are very sensitive and emotional for the whole community. Whenever news of such an incident breaks, the whole community is united and feels the need to take action. The same happened in the case of the Bhim Army when the Saharanpur violence broke out. Dalits across the country were outraged by the injustice of the situation and the media's apparent indifference to it. Soon, an audio recording was released, calling for the community to take action in favour of Chandrashekhar. It went viral across the country.
Various Dalit organisations lent their support and youths in large numbers reached Jantar Mantar. Thousands of people were present at the protest and most of them seemed to be below the age of 30.
The impact of the protest
The turnout at the protest shows clearly that many Dalit youth are deeply invested in participating in a greater social movement.
Apart from this, the mainstream and electronic media were finally forced to pay attention. Before the protest, I myself informed many journalists and media channels about the upcoming event but they showed little interest. However, as the numbers of protestors swelled, they had no choice but to cover it. This protest, therefore, brought the issue of atrocities against Dalits into the national limelight.
Another major impact was seen on social media platforms such as Twitter which are usually flooded with hashtags about bhakts and nationalism and so on. No one shows much interest in Dalit issues. Yet, this time, Twitter was flooded with tweets about #BhimArmy and photos and videos were shared in huge numbers.
There was an encouraging response on Facebook too. I myself did a Facebook live telecast of the event through the "Dr B R Ambedkar Caravan" page and within hours it reached to more than 15 lakh people across the globe. Which means this community is ready to leverage social media platforms to spread the word and mobilise people.
This will help in future to build such movements.
In his speech, Chandrashekhar attacked the Brahminical system and demanded justice for Dalits. People could be heard raising slogans continuously in the background: "Jai Bhim", "Chandrashekhar fight, we are with you", "Bhim Army Zindabad"...
Here are excerpts from Chandrashekhar's speech:
"Those who have come from throughout India, I thank everyone for the support. I promise that Chandrashekhar will never forget the support that you have given to me and Bhim Army. Today on 21st May, slavery was abolished in Colombia, South America and we declare today that we end slavery in India today. We are not "neech", neither are we "achut" nor from "lower castes"; we are everyone's father.
Don't test us; I want to tell through the media that Ambedkarites can never be Naxalites but don't test us... in the process of protecting the honour of our sisters we [might] take some steps which might not be right. So, don't test us...
It is a beginning of another fight for justice; it is a fight for third freedom. Till when this fight will continue? Till [we win], we will fight. It is your responsibility to fight this battle.
If I am arrested and sent to jail, don't protest or sit on dharnas but give notice to administrations of your area and raise your voice against those who burnt 56 Dalits' houses and 25 shops in Shabbirpur, Saharanpur. Raise your voice and support those Dalit brothers and sisters who got injured and are in the hospital and ask for the release of those Dalits who have been falsely implicated in the cases and have been arrested. I, Chandrashekhar, am ready to go to jail, don't do fasts for me.
One Anna Hazare protests and he gets the full support of media and everyone. I want to ask, how many will come to support us if [we protest] within the provisions of the Constitution?
We will fight along with whole Bahujan Samaj, including Dalits, OBCs, Muslims... we will fight together against injustice and no one will dare to raise their hands on us. Political parties and their leaders have restrictions of various kinds as they have to ask votes from different communities and different people but Chandrashekhar hasn't bowed down and will not bow down.
All those who made this protest successful, they have worked really hard. My Facebook and WhatsApp are blocked... [but] there are other team members of Bhim Army—when they post, understand that those messages are from Chandrashekhar.
It's a fight for equality, it is a fight against oppression. We are not fighting to grab power, we are fighting against oppression.
I want to tell all those who are making phone calls and threatening me and my family that we are fighting against oppression and atrocities... so if we started oppressing, all these foreigners (Aryans) will run away. This is our country and we will not let it split but as we were rulers of this country we will become the rulers of it again as Dr. Ambedkar had said.
Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai
Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qaatil mein hai
Waqt aanay par bata denge tujhe aye aasman
Hum abhi se kya batayen kya hamare dil mein hai.
This is a fight of that community, which despite the Constitution doesn't get justice. I want to say to the judge (Justice Karnan), don't be discouraged, political people might not stand with you but social organisations will stand with you and will bring justice. In this country if anyone speaks of justice these people (manuwadi) call him a Naxalite and terrorist. Promise me that you will not elect and send useless SC-ST MPs to Parliament. All those MLAs from our community in UP who are silent on the atrocities on Dalits... we have to teach them a lesson by not electing them.
On 23rd May, go to your local administration and bring to their notice the atrocities on the Dalits. Bahujan Samaj have to fight together and if any atrocity happens in Kanyakumari, the voice against that should also be raised from Kashmir. If we all raise our voices, there won't be atrocities...
Ravan is in my name. It is because Ravan for his sister's honour didn't care about anyone... and even after bringing Sita, he didn't touch her and respected her. This is what Ravan is. I respect and admire Dr Ambedkar who respected women, I admire Ravan. I am a follower of that person who said, "I will never get married, I will never acquire any property, I will never visit my home, I will devote and dedicate the rest of my life to achieve the goals of the Phule-Ambedkar movement."
I am a son of Sahib Kanshi Ram and till the time I will be alive, I will live for my community. Otherwise I will not live, I promise from this stage.
One more thing, after going home today write on the walls of your home that we have to become the rulers of this nation. Mulnivasis are the rulers of this nation. We will die but we will not go towards the Brahminical system.
Chandrashekhar will become Udham Singh also if atrocities on Dalits didn't end. I believe in Dr. Ambedkar and Udham Singh also. Brahminwadi, these chaddiwala, are 'neech' people who have looted you for thousands of years in the name of religion and caste. If they are afraid of anything, they are afraid of Buddhism. On 23rd May, declare that if innocent Dalits are not released or are still implicated in false cases, declare that we will convert to Buddhism. This will make these chaddiwalas, Sanghis pee in their pants.
The Constitution of India is written by our father and we will take our rights by all means.
No one teaches fishes to swim. Make the Constitution your religious book if you want to fight the Brahminical system. Read and learn the provisions of the Constitution. The police and media should listen to it properly... Now, Dalits have woken up. Chandrashekhar will reach wherever there will be any atrocity on Dalits, to settle and account. Keep it in mind.
Stay united and don't start hero worship that will lead to the end of the struggle for justice.
If someone tries to fight for justice, they (manuwadi people) try to implicate that person in false cases. If he/she wins that, then these Brahminical people try to buy the loyalty of that person with money, if he/she doesn't sell himself/herself then they try to kill that person. I want to say that if they try to kill one Chandrashekhar, lakh more will rise. We talk about samata, savtantrata and nayay, don't challenge us."
Is Chandrashekhar a threat to Mayawati?
Well, it is too early to draw any such conclusion—it will take more than one protest to see if the Bhim Army can become powerful enough to replace the BSP.
An interesting fact here is that Chandrashekhar has declared himself as the son of Kanshi Ram, which indicates that the Bhim Army is positioned as based on the BSP's social movement. So, more than a challenge it is an opportunity for the BSP and its chief Mayawati to leverage the energy of Dalit youths with the help of Chandrashekhar. She could prepare a whole second level leadership with youths like Chandrashekhar. It will be interesting to watch whether she does that.
But one thing is very clear with the Jantar Mantar protest in Delhi—the Dalit Uprising 2.0 has started.