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.