They are calling it the blue wave—an estimated 50,000 supporters turned up at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar on Sunday, 21st May 2017, answering the clarion call by the Bhim Army Ekta Mission to protest against the recent caste-based atrocities in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Violence against Dalits is common in India, a deeply polarised caste-based society. Instances such as Khairlanji massacre of 29 September, 2006, in Maharashtra, in which four members of a Dalit family were stripped, paraded naked and killed by a mob of 40 upper caste men, have time and again made it to the news. But this is perhaps the first time that Dalit youth in such large numbers have gathered to not only protest against atrocities but also to assert their identity through a display of aggression and muscle flexing. This new face of Dalit identity is being led by Chandrashekhar Azad, a young lawyer from Saharanpur, and the founder of the Bhim Army Ekta Mission. Following the 9 May clashes, Chandrashekhar went into hiding to evade arrest. On 15 May, in true rebel style, he shared an audio message on YouTube from an undisclosed location and announced his public appearance on 21 May at Delhi's Jantar Mantar.
Large posters of Chandrashekhar flaunting a masculine and assertive image are very inspiring for Dalit youth... but in deep contrast to the subtle and peaceful image of Ambedkar.
I visited Jantar Mantar in order to record the event with a feminist and critical lens. Unfortunately I reached the venue late since we got news of a death in the family so I missed the crowd at its peak. Nevertheless, I did manage to capture some revealing moments.
I must add here that I am not critical of the uprising, I welcome with all my heart any political resistance against the current RSS-backed, BJP-led and Hindutva-coloured politics in India. Here I merely wish to showcase certain observations that throw more light on how the Bhim Army is positioned and what it seeks to accomplish.
1. The Jantar Mantar event was mainly a show of strength
I asked many of the youth at the gathering about their main demands, but many of them seemed clueless. It appeared as if many sought to show Dalit strength and to extend support to their hero Chandrashekhar rather than to address the particularities of any issue. Several posters talked about Dalit atrocities and conveyed anti-Hindutva and anti-Brahminical sentiments.
2. Political ambitions
The Bhim Army has emerged at a momentous time in India's political scene—many people of India have lost all faith in the Congress, are tired saffron terror, and are feeling betrayed by the AAP. Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army in this context is positioning himself as the next political option. In his underground message he didn't mince words while talking about saffron terror and the nexus between the police and the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh. He took a dig at the Prime Minister's 56" chest, and gave an emotional clarion call to Dalits all over the world to come united on 21st May.
3. A significant cultural shift in Dalit identity
Founded in 2015, the Bhim Army and its founder Chandrashekhar have already attained cult status, which also highlights a significant cultural shift in the Dalit identity. Large posters of Chandrashekhar Azad flaunting a masculine and assertive image are very inspiring for Dalit youth, perhaps for the right reasons, but in deep contrast to the subtle and peaceful image of Bhimrao Ambedkar, considered the foremost Dalit hero thus far.
4. No movement away from the gender status quo
The Bhim Army does not deviate much from the traditional model of political uprising—men lead from the front, heroes are worshipped and women are relegated to the fringes. Newspaper ran reports about the strength of the crowd but they neglected to mention that barely a handful of these people were women. Where were the rural Dalit women in this mass gathering? Why weren't they seen in Jantar Mantar? Why they didn't travel? Everywhere I looked, I just saw thousands of men in groups. The few women who were present were from the city, representing various organisations. Interestingly, an urban woman, a supporter of the movement, refused to pose with a group of Dalit men for my camera.
5. Buddhism and Dalit identity
Ambedkar led the Dalit Buddhist movement, and while several protesters attending the gathering on Sunday sported a badge or photo of Gautama Buddha, some of the alleged actions of the Bhim Army in the Saharanpur clash haven't exactly been non-violent. Dalits in large numbers are converting to Buddhism but whether it is just to register protest against Hinduism or based on a real understanding of the values of Buddhism is not clear.
6. Left, secular and liberal camps may join hands
Sunday's massive gathering at Jantar Mantar is testimony to some key facts. Firstly, the Bhim Army is a people's movement with a strong leader and great public support; secondly, it has the necessary clout to be converted into a political campaign; thirdly, it is on its way to consolidate the anti-saffron populace as evident from the support extended by people's leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU. The message of "Bhagwa Atank Murdabad (Down with Saffron Terror)" also has a wider resonance across many sections in India.
India desperately needs a strong opposition and movements like the Bhim Army give us that much needed hope. Indeed, the blue Nehru caps worn by many protesters were reminiscent of the Aam Aadmi Party's quintessential look.