Loud slogans rang out in front of the district magistrate’s office in Saharanpur district, in Uttar Pradesh, on the morning of 23 May 2017. “Yogi Sarkar, Dalit virodhi! (The Yogi government is opposed to Dalits!)” “Bhagwa sarkar, nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi! (A saffron government will not do!)”
A group of nearly 150 people, most of whom were women, had gathered to protest the arrests of several Dalit men. The men had been arrested in relation to incidents of severe violence that took place on 5 May in the district’s Shabbirpur village. On that day, nearly 25 members of the dominant-caste Thakur community took out a procession to commemorate the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap. Members of the Dalit community objected to the loud music being playing during the procession, and asked the police to intervene and have it switched off. Members of the Thakur community, reportedly angered by this intervention, rode into the Dalit neighbourhood on motorcyles and began shouting abusive slogans. The two groups began hurtling stones at each other,, and a young man from the Thakur community died in the ensuing clash. Later that day, close to 1,000 Thakurs from surrounding villages attacked the Dalit neighbourhood, reportedly accompanied by the police. The mob severely beat up the Dalit residents, destroyed household objects, and set at least 25 houses on fire. Close to 12 Dalit men were grievously injured. After the incident, the police arrested 17 men—eight of whom were Dalit.
According to the protestors, the men had been falsely implicated. “Manuvaadi sarkar, nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi! (A government that adheres to the Manusmriti will not do!)” Many women had written down their demands on pieces of paper. Urmila Kumar, a resident of Chauli Shahbudinpur, a village situated around 25 kilometres from Saharanpur city, was collecting the written appeals. “The situation in the district has compelled us to take matters into our own hands,” she told me. “When it concerns matters of this nature, we women are usually made to sit on the fringes. But attacks on our bastis affect us the most and we will not take a back seat.” “We are following the instructions of Ravan,” Urmila added. “He has asked us to fight for the release of those who have been falsely implicated in these crimes, and that’s what we will do.”
“Ravan” is a moniker for Chandrashekhar—a lawyer and activist who leads the Bhim Army, an organisation based in Saharanpur. For close to two years, the Bhim Army has been working towards ensuring the rights of Dalits and other oppressed castes, and campaigning against the atrocities committed upon these communities. “In the past, men would oversee the resolution of such conflicts, and women remained merely the victims,” Urmila said. This had begun to change since the emergence of the Bhim Army, she said. Members of the outfit had encouraged Dalits to speak up and claim their rights. “Woh is sthithi ko badalne ki koshish mein hain”—the Bhim Army is making efforts to change the prevailing situation, Urmila said. “Our houses were burned too, we also have the responsibility to speak up.” Pali Kumar, another woman present at the protest, told me that her nephew was one of the men who had been arrested, and said that he was innocent. “I used to keep him away from the activities of the Bhim Army and he was still taken to jail,” she said. “I realise now that no matter what we do here, this police will find a way to make us look like criminals.”
The founding members of the Bhim Army belong to the Chamar scheduled-caste community, and are Ambedkarites—adherents of the philosophy of BR Ambedkar (Members of the Chamar caste are otherwise known as Jatavs, but most people I met identified themselves as Chamars.) Many in the region have dubbed the group’s leader “Chandrashekhar Azad,” in homage to the freedom fighter of the same name.
Until the recent spate of violence in Saharanpur, the Bhim Army was a relatively unknown name outside certain districts in western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The organisation rose to notoriety after it became embroiled a fresh round of clashes that occurred on 9 May. News reports stated that the Bhim Army had called for a mahapanchayat of various Dalit groups to protest the Shabbirpur violence, and that when the police banned the meeting from taking place, Dalit protestors vandalised a police station in Ramnagar and torched a bus near Nazirpura village. The police then registered cases against several members of the Bhim Army, including Chandrashekhar. The leader subsequently went into hiding. Following these events, the former senior superintendent of police, SC Dubey, told the media that the Bhim Army has “a style similar to the Naxals.” (The state government suspended Dubey following a clash that occurred in the evening on 23 May. An internal inquiry found Singh as well as the then district magistrate NP Singh guilty of negligence. When I met Dubey in Saharanpur that evening, he did not agree to speak to me.)
I met Ram Kumar, a 30-year-old member of the Bhim Army who resides in Kali Hati village, at the protest in Saharanpur on 23 May. His account of the Bhim Army’s efforts in the wake of the 5 May incident differed from the media reports. After the attack on 5 May, Ram told me, “the Bhim Army had given the administration a two-day ultimatum to see to it that the victims of the attacks were adequately compensated.” Having received no response to their demands—the government announced a relief package for those whose homes were destroyed only later—the organisation called for a meeting on 8 May, at Ravidas Chattrawas, a student hostel for Dalit students in Saharanpur city. “Despite the fact that we had informed the DM about our intentions, Section 144 was imposed to prevent us from having our meeting," he said. After this, Ram continued, the organisation decided to postpone the meeting by a day, and to change the location to Gandhi Park, also located in the city. “When we went to Gandhi Park, the police lathi-charged us,” he said. “Following this, some people [from Gandhi Park] went to Ramnagar, where a mahapanchayat was being conducted,” Ram told me. This event too, faced a police crackdown, he said.
“They [the police officials] misled me,” Chandrashekhar later told the news channel ABP. On 9 May, he said, “the DM and the SSP first called me to seek my help in quieting down the unrest during the day.” Then, he continued, “in the evening, they registered a case against me. Nearly 60 people turned up at my house, harassed its occupants, and took my laptop.” “They labelled me a Naxalite, and a terrorist,” he continued.
A few days after the case was reportedly registered against him, an audio message by Chandrashekhar began to circulate on social media. In it, he refuted the charges levelled against him, and said that he would be arriving at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 21 May. He announced that the Bhim Army would hold a rally to protest the atrocities against Dalits in Saharanpur, and to call for unity within the community.
Nearly 20,000 people attended the rally—thousands arrived in the capital from far-off villages and towns, presumably answering Chandrashekhar’s call. Many attendees waved flags with Ambedkar’s face imprinted on them, while others donned masks in Chandrashekhar’s likeness. During his speech at the rally, the leader declared the end of “slavery in India.” “Ambedkarites can never be Naxalites,” he said, adding that the state “should not test us.” Chandrashekhar said that the Bhim Army’s desire and its aim was to remove the notion that the Dalit community is “neech”—lowly. “We are not fighting to grab power,” he said. “We are fighting against oppression.”
The Bhim Army members I met in Saharanpur, as well as those that support the organisation, echoed Chandrashekhar’s words. “Our main aim is to seek justice for those Dalits who were wrongly accused of the violence,” Ram told me. “We are here to demand justice and negotiate what we deserve democratically,” he continued. “I do not think that the Naxals go about business this way.”
“If you think that we are trying to steer our supporters in the direction of violence, you are terribly wrong,” Vinay Rattan, a co-founder of the Bhim Army, whom I met on 23 May, said. “All we want them to do is to understand that they need to respect themselves and demand that same respect from members of other communities as well.” Rattan added that leading up to the assembly elections in UP, the Bhim Army’s members had encouraged people to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party, but that it was now refraining from associating with electoral politics. “Now our only motive is to bring all Dalit communities together and create one consciousness.”
According to Ram, one of the problems the Bhim Army has been attempting to tackle is that members of the Dalit communities in villages do not come to each other’s aid in the manner that members of dominant-caste communities do. “There is strength in larger numbers, and that is what we have been working towards,” he said. He added that part of the reason the organisation had become active recently was that, under the previous governments in India and in the state, oppressed-caste communities would often seek help from authorities. “Under the previous regime, incidents like this could be dealt with legally or through negotiation,” Ram said. “But, under this government, self-defence is also something we will have to instil in one another.” According to Ram, the nature of the incidents, too, had changed over the past few years. “There were small fights in villages, but there has never before been people attacking us swords and cutting women’s breasts on a regular basis,” he said.
In order to obtain a sense of the Bhim Army’s primary efforts, Rattan encouraged me to visit the pathshalas—schools—that the organisation ran in western Uttar Pradesh and surrounding regions. “The need for education is important and we know that is the only way to change the way things are,” he said. “We need to have the ability to fight for ourselves, because no one else will fight for us.”
Along with Ram, Sukhvinder, a 22-year-old student of engineering at Saharanpur’s Stallion College and a member of the Bhim Army, accompanied me to the pathshalas. “The media woke up to us only after we reached Delhi, but we have been trying to wake people up over here for two years now,” Sukhvinder told me. He added that the pathshalas were especially important because casteist faculty members of schools and colleges often discriminate against Dalit students, hindering their access to an equal education.
On our way, I asked the two about the composition of the Bhim Army, and the percentage of women members. Ram said that the Bhim Army is not exclusive to the Chamar schedule-caste community. “Isme sab hain, Dhobi, Valmiki, Kashyap aur Saini bhi hain”—it has members from all castes, such as Dhobis, Valmikis, Kashyaps and Sainis. He added that close to a third of the organisation’s members were women, but a majority of them were young. “The problem with the older generation is that they are still trapped by Brahminism,” he said. “The younger girls, however, understand the power of and need for education and that is why they flock towards the Bhim Army.”
At close to 4 pm, we arrived at a pathshala in Buddhakheda Pundir, a village over 20 kilometres from Sahranpur city. Two young women were conducting classes in a baraat ghar—a banquet hall. Nearly sixty young children, who appeared to be between six and 12 years old, sat on the floor in front of a whiteboard. The instructors were giving separate lessons to various students—in maths, English, or science, depending on which subject the students required to learn. Both the tutors were in their teens or early twenties.
Nisha, a Dalit teenager studying in the tenth standard, was monitoring one group of students. “Schools here are terrible for lower-caste students,” she said. “Teachers regularly pay more attention to students from specific communities and ignore Chamar students.” Nisha told me that studying in the pathshala had led to an improvement in her maths skills. “The seniors in the community have helped me a lot and now I must help the younger students,” she said.
Ankita Saini, a second-year Bachelor of Arts student at the Mrinalini Girls College, Saharanpur, was overseeing a group of young children whom she had instructed to write a paragraph in English. Ankita told me that she had been teaching at the pathshala since it had been established, nearly a year and a half ago. “Many of my friends are a part of the Bhim Army and they knew that I was a patient person and remembered that I always did well in school,” she said. “That is why they asked me whether I would help with their initiative.” Ankita added that she appreciated the organisation for including young women in its ranks. “I am not a Chamar, but that is not what this is about. It is about helping people you live with to get the best possible education.”
“All of us know that very little happens in the schools here, even less so for us Chamars,” Pawan Singh, an elderly man who was overseeing the lesson, told me. He continued, “Everyone that is here to teach and learn is also taught a little about the importance of Babasaheb and we encourage them to offer prayers at the Ravidas mandir after their classes.” “We have to teach children the value of our icons, they are great, not lower than anyone,” he said.
I spoke to a few of the students as well. Khushi Saini, a student of the third standard told me that she enjoyed coming to the pathshala because several of her friends studied there as well. “Teachers in schools hit and shout, but the big boys and girls here who teach us don’t do that,” she said. Parveen Kumar, a Dalit student, said, “I do not do any work at school because I keep getting kicked out of class. I have to come here and study.”
The other pathshala I visited was about 15 kilometres away, in a village called Chauli Shahbudinpur. It was across the state border, in Uttarakhand. On arriving, Ram Kumar told me that the attendance at this pathshala would be lower since most of the village’s residents are Muslim. “Aapas mein bhaichara hain, lekin abhi tak milaap nahin aaya iss area mein,” he said—there is a sense of camaraderie between the two groups, but they have not been able to unite yet. “The situation in Deoband”—a city in Saharanpur with a significant Muslim population—“is different, but here there are not many Muslims in the Bhim Army.”
In the pathshala, the site for which was the village’s Ravidas mandir, a group of four college-going young men monitored nearly 25 young children. The class was concluding as we arrived. Johnny Singh, an engineering student at the Millennium Institute of Technology, Saharanpur, was teaching maths to a group of tenth-standard students. Johnny said that aside from helping students with their curriculum, the Bhim Army played a vital role in teaching them about the importance of self-respect from a young age.
“There are a lot of subtle ways in which students from lower castes are discriminated against in schools and colleges,” Johnny said. “We did not know how to deal with casteism from other students and faculty members when we were younger.” He added that senior members of the Bhim Army had helped him identify and speak out against these forms of discrimination. Jitendra Kumar, a student of the eleventh standard, who was instructing some of the children in science, told me that he was proud of the number of young people that are members of the Bhim Army. “Yeh hi Bhim Army ki shakti hain,” he said. “Sab yuva hain”—This is the strength of the Bhim Army, everyone is young.