PUNE, Maharashtra — When violence in Bhima Koregaon last year galvanised the country’s Dalit movements, Prakash Ambedkar — B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson — emerged as a face who could potentially unite the fragmented protests.
Yet a year later, it is the Bhim Army, a nascent Dalit group from Western Uttar Pradesh fronted by its charismatic chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, who has stolen the spotlight for this year’s gathering.
The continued rise of the Bhim Army marks the ongoing churn in Dalit politics as young leaders, personified by Ravan and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, take up space vacated by political fronts like the Republican Party of India (RPI).
This year, Ravan was scheduled to address rallies in Mumbai and Pune, hold discussions with students of Pune University, and shower flowers from a chopper on the crowds gathered at Bhima Koregaon.
Maharashtra police, and a nervous district administration, has made sure he has not been able to hold a single event in the state.
As soon as he landed in Mumbai last week, Ravan was detained and restricted to his hotel room for three days. When Bhim Army members moved the Bombay High Court against it, the police allowed him to travel to Pune. However, the authorities denied permission for all his scheduled events in Pune and Bhima Koregaon.
On Monday, a cordon of policemen encircled the Hotel Sagar Plaza where the Bhim Army chief is staying. But the Pune police told the Bombay High Court on Monday that Ravan has “neither been arrested nor detained”.
The cordon was withdrawn after the court hearing.
“Police told the court that they did not deny permission to his program or arrested or restricted his movements. But the fact is we had applied for permission for our programs over a month ago but the police did not grant us any permission,” Bhim Army’s Pune district chief Datta Pol, who was the petitioner in the case, told HuffPost India.
The High Court has refused to direct the Pune Police to grant permission for Ravan’s programmes in the city.
Yet the Maharashtra police could not stop hundreds of the Bhim Army’s followers from giving Ravan a rousing welcome. The size of the crowd was surprising for an organisation which had no presence in Maharashtra till recently, and gained prominence in Uttar Pradesh only two years ago.
If Pol, the Bhim Army’s Maharashtra coordinator, is to be believed, his front has now penetrated in every district of the state.
“Factionalism in the RPI, their love and hate relationship with the Congress and the BJP and the leaders’ complete disregard to issues faced by the society had somewhere brought a sense of alienation among Dalits youths,” said Pol, who was with the faction of the RPI associated with Ramdas Athawale, the Minister of State for Social Justice in the Modi government, before joining the Bhim Army.
“In this atmosphere, Chandrashekhar has provided new hope to the Dalit youth in Maharashtra which has always had a robust Dalit movement,” Pol concluded.
According to Balraj Dabhade, the Bhim Army’s Marathwada chief, the organization is now present in every block of the state.
When asked what attracted him to join Bhim Army, Dabhade said, ” It was astonishing to see a person teaching Babasaheb’s (Ambedkar) thoughts in a feudal state like Uttar Pradesh. Despite facing all kinds of atrocities he revived the movement there and is now running Ambedkar Pathshalas. He has done that despite being jailed.”
Dabhade said Ravan and the Bhim Army had come as a relief for those fed up with the splintered groups of the RPI.
“We hope that he will force all Dalit leaders in Maharashtra to come to one stage. He doesn’t want to contest elections,” Dabhade said. “His sole agenda is to unite Bahujan Samaj which is why everyone is joining him.
Dabhade said the Bhim Army works on the same lines in Maharashtra the way it works in Uttar Pradesh.
“We have opened over 30 Ambedkar Pathshalas in various parts of Maharashtra,” said Rahul Meenakshi Wagh, the Bhim Army chief in northern Maharashtra. “We reach every spot where atrocity is reported and help the victim in every way possible.”
In the state municipal elections in August 2018, Wagh stormed a polling booth and destroyed an Electronic Voting Machine in Dhule district when his complaints of EVM misuse to polling authorities went unheeded.
Unapologetic about his action and not bothered about the cases he is facing for vandalizing a polling booth, Wagh claimed that even Muslims and Marathas are joining Ravan’s organization in the state.
“Our Dhule district chief is a Maratha and Vidarbha area chief is a Muslim,” Wagh said. “Our Sangali district chief is a Muslim as well. Bhim Army is not restricted to one section of the population. He (Ravan) is taking everyone along like Shivaji Maharaj.”
Pol, Wagh and Dabhade said they could not estimate the number of Bhim Army members in Maharashtra as they were yet to start a formal membership drive.
“We are not registering people as members now but we have reached almost every Tehsil of the state in less than two years. Our Pune district Bhim Army Facebook page only has over 10,000 followers,” said Uttareshwar Kamble, the Bhim Army’s Western Maharashtra head.
These Bhim Army officer bearers in Maharashtra say that their immediate aim is to defeat the ruling BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections “to save the constitution of India”.
They say that Bhim Army’s work in Maharashtra will be somewhat similar to RSS’s work for the BJP in the election and point out that if the Dalits did not have the power to influence elections, the NCP and Congress would not value them much.
Rahul Dambale, a Dalit activist from Pune, does not, however, think the Dalits of Maharashtra will accept Bhim Army so soon.
“There is attraction among Dalit youths for Ravan because there is an atmosphere of terror in the country,” Dambale said. “But the Dalits of Maharashtra, including youth, value suave and intellectual leadership and they have seen movements like Dalit Panthers which was somewhat similar to Ravan.”
Dambale said the Bhim Army was yet to sink deep roots in the state. Till then, he said, “People still see [Prakash] Ambedkar as a leader in Maharashtra.”