Chandrashekhar Azad’s small room has a total of four posters of Bhimrao Ambedkar and one each of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram, Dalit reformer Jyotirao Phule and the Buddha. There is also an Ambedkar quote: “Go! write this on the walls of your house: we rule this country.”

Below the posters sits Chandrashekhar’s worried family. His mother periodically breaks out into sobs. Chandrashekhar’s two brothers (one of them named Bhagat Singh) stand by, frowning. Two days back, Chandrashekhar fled his home village of Chhutmalpur in western Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. He and the organisation he started, the Bhim Army, is being blamed for violence in Saharanpur town on May 9, where clashes took place between agitating Dalits and the police. Dalit organisations were protesting an upper caste attack on Dalit homes four days earlier.

The May 9 incident has resulted in a police crackdown on the Bhim Army. Many of its leaders are either under arrest or – like Chandrashekhar – in hiding. On Friday, the Uttar Pradesh police even said that it would investigate whether the Bhim Army had Naxal links and claimed it was ready to use the draconian National Security Act on the Dalit organisation’s leaders.

Formed two years ago to fight caste discrimination, the current incident illustrates the rapid growth of the Bhim Army and the appeal of its aggressive stance among the region’s Dalits, marking the emergence of a new style of Ambedkarite politics.

Maharana Pratap versus Ambedkar

The current round of caste violence started on April 14, Bhimrao Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary. In Shabbirpur village, in the district of Saharanpur, Dalits of the Jatav caste wanted to install a statue of the reformer to mark the occasion. However, the upper caste Thakurs of their village stopped them, demanding that the Dalits first obtain permission from the administration.

The matter festered till May 5 – the birth anniversary of the Rajput king Maharana Pratap. The Thakurs of Shabbirpur village took out their own procession, only to be stopped by the village’s Dalits. Did the Thakurs have permission to celebrate Pratap’s anniversary? If the Dalits needed permission to install a statue of Ambedkar, this would need permission too.

"Bhim Army" and "Jai Bhim" stickers in Chandrashekhar's house.

Enraged by what they saw as the impertinence of the Dalits, Thakurs sacked the Dalit quarter of Shabbirpur. Dalits claim that the Thakurs assaulted them, set fire to their houses and even desecrated their Sant Ravi Das temple. Thakurs, in turn, claim that Dalits killed one person, even as the Jatavs insist he accidentally suffocated himself to death while torching Dalit homes.

In response, Dalits organised a protest meet in Saharanpur city on May 9. While not held under the banner of the Bhim Army, the organisation had an important role to play, using its strong network across the district to mobilise Dalit youth. The May 9 protests descended into police-Dalit clashes, with each side blaming the other for starting the fight. Protestors attacked a Maharana Pratap memorial in the city and videos of policemen being beaten up circulated after the incident.

While caste oppression is not new to these parts, what surprised the administration was the aggressive Dalit demand on May 9 for justice in the Shabbirpur attack – an aggression best symbolised by the Bhim Army, which is now being blamed for the violence by the police.

An Ambedkarite army

Chandrashekhar started the Bhim Army in 2015, as a tool to fight caste oppression. “At the AHP inter-college, Thakur boys broke a Dalit’s hand because he drank water before them,” recounts Vinay Ratan Singh, National President of the Bhim Army. “Dalits were humiliated by the Thakurs and forced to clean classroom benches.” The Bhim Army intervened, providing muscle to the bullied Dalit students. “After that, they stopped beating out boys,” concluded Vinay Ratan laconically.

A few months later, the Bhim Army was called in as Thakurs objected to a board which read “The Great Chamar”. So deep was caste sentiment in the region that upper castes could not stand the board’s trimphalist message – even though it was on private land. Again, the Bhim Army’s intervention prevented the Thakurs from having their way. In another incident, a Dalit groom was forced off his horse by Thakurs. The village’s Dalits phoned the Bhim Army and sure enough the groom was soon back on his steed, honour restored.

"The Great Chamar" board in Gharkauli village, Saharanpur district.

“We were working on the ideals of Babasaheb [Ambedkar],” explained Vinay Ratan Singh. “Apart from stopping caste oppression, we started Bhim Army pathshalas, schools, where seniors Dalit students helped out their juniors in order to overcome the poor quality of teaching in government schools.”

“Chandrashekar was not afraid of anyone,”Vinay Ratan said. “We fought caste oppression head on in Saharanpur; that’s why people know us.” On Bhim Army posters, Chandrashekhar wears blue aviators, sports a thick chevron moustache and uses the nickname “Raavan”, the antagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayana – a name thick with symbolism in a state where the epic’s protagonist Ram is a major religio-political figure. “Raavan respected woman. He never laid a finger on Sita and waged war to avenge his sister Surpanakha’s insult,” explained Vinay Ratan. “That’s why Chandrashekhar used that name. He wanted to be like Raavan and respect women.”

Fighting for Dalit-Muslim unity

Vinay Ratan brings in a communal angle to the story so far. On April 20, the Bharatiya Janata Party had taken out a march in Sadak Dhudhali village, Saharanpur, to belatedly celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (which was on April 14). The march, which did not get permission from the police, led to clashes in a Muslim locality. In anger, the BJP MP Lakhanpal Sharma, who had led the march, attacked the house of the senior superintendent of police.

“Why did they celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti six days after Babasaheb’s birth anniversary? asked Vinay Ratan “And why make it pass through a Muslim area with slogans like “Is desh main rehna hoga, to Yogi-Yogi kehna hoga” – if you have to stay in this country, you will have to chant the name of [Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath] Yogi?

The Bhim Army claimed that the BJP had called them to the April 20 event, but they refused to go. “We knew this was being done to polarise people, divide Muslims and Dalits for the upcoming Saharanpur Municipal elections,” said Praveen Gautam, head of the Bhim Army in Saharanpur town. “This angered the BJP and now they are taking their revenge by arresting us and calling us terrorists.”

Video: Chandrashekhar calling the Sadak Dhudhali riot as one organised by the BJP for political gain [Hindi].

Saharanpur’s senior superintendent of police Subhash Dubey has announced that an investigation will be carried out to determine whether the Bhim Army has links with Naxal groups. The Uttar Pradesh police has also announced the use of the draconian National Security Act against the Bhim Army. “We raised our voice against caste atrocities walked on the path of Babasaheb, and for that we get termed terrorists?” asks Kamal Singh Waliya, speaking to on the phone. Waliya is the Saharanpur district head of the Bhim Army and is now in hiding.

A new aggression

While the police have presented little evidence to back up serious allegations such as Naxal links, the Bhim Army does signify a new, aggressive phase in Dalit politics. Western Uttar Pradesh has a long history of Dalit mobilisation and it was here that the Bahujan Samaj Party struck roots as north Indian politics was Mandalised in the 1980s. In 1984, Mayawati fought her first Lok Sabha election from Kairana, two hours from Saharanpur town.

The Bhim Army, though, is both an outcome of this Dalit mobilisation as well as the BSP’s recent reverses. “The Dalit is in despair since no one raises their issues, not even the BSP,” explained Satish Prakash, a professor at Meerut University and a Dalit intellectual. “Faced with a lack of response from mainstream political parties, the Dalit in Saharanpur has turned to organisations such as the Bhim Army to address caste atrocities.”

There is bubbling resentment against Mayawati for her lack of strong response after the Shabbirpur assault too. “There is anger in Dalit society since there has been no concrete statement by Mayawati,” says Praveen Gautam, head of the Bhim Army in Saharanpur town. “She is more interested in her vote bank than Dalit welfare.”

The Bhim Army’s aggressive style is spreading beyond Saharanpur. On May 11, Dalits in Meerut felt slighted that Chief Minister Adityanath had declined to garland an Ambedkar state while on a visit to a Dalit neighbourhood. In response, they shouted slogans against Adityanath and went on a rampage, even as the chief minister had to be spirited out by the police.

The Ambedkar statue in Meerut which Adityanath did not garland.

A doctorate from Meerut University, Sushil Gautam supports bellicose attempts to assert Dalit rights like in Saharanpur and Meerut. “The Bhim Army is doing the right thing,” argues Gautam. “Yahaan daliton ke paas chetna hai, par woh kaafi nahin: ab hamen lath bhi uthana hai.” The Dalits here have political consciousness but that’s not enough – we also need to pick up a stick.