The rise of a little-known group – the Bhim Army – that is spearheading ongoing protests against attacks on Dalits in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur has sent alarm bells ringing in mainstream political parties.

The Bhim Army has been blamed for violence in Saharanpur town on May 9, when Dalits agitating against the torching of their homes allegedly by upper-caste Thakurs four days earlier had clashed with the police. The Thakurs were reportedly avenging the death of a community member in a fight with the Dalits over a procession on May 5.

With Dalits turning to the fledgling group for succour, mainstream parties are worried that the alienation of the Scheduled Castes could hurt their future political prospects. Although the activities of the Bhim Army are currently confined to Uttar Pradesh, the manner in which it has managed to garner the support of Dalit youth has rankled the parties, and they fear that this phenomenon could spread to other states.

A massive show of strength by the Bhim Army at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Sunday has forced parties to reflect on their outreach to Dalits and to figure out a way to retain their support.

“The developments in Saharanpur and the gathering of thousands of Dalits in Jantar Mantar is a warning to all political parties,” said K Raju, chairman of the Congress’ Scheduled Castes department.

Speaking in the same vein, Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi said this should serve as a wake-up call to all parties as they have obviously not been able to instil confidence in Dalits.

Challenge for BJP

Leading the pack of political parties assessing the political ramifications of these caste wars is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. More so as the Bhim Army is spreading its wings in Uttar Pradesh, a state the saffron party won with a huge margin in the Assembly elections in February-March. In addition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been making a conscious effort over the past three years to woo the Scheduled Castes by appropriating the legacy of Dalit icon Babasaheb Ambedkar by way of anniversary celebrations and memorials. Such incidents can derail his efforts.

These developments also come at a time when BJP president Amit Shah is attempting to win over Dalits in states like West Bengal and Telangana that, he believes, are high-growth areas for the BJP. And with Karnataka and Gujarat going to polls later this year, the BJP can hardly afford to lose the support of Dalits, a crucial votebank for any political party. Gujarat, too, had witnessed prolonged and angry protests by Dalits last year after cow protection vigilantes had flogged four tanners from the community for skinning a dead cow in Una town in July.

Leaders of the BJP admitted to being unsettled by the events in Saharanpur as it would give their political rivals an opportunity to paint the ruling party as anti-Dalit. In this instance, the Congress has already accused Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath of not acting against the Thakurs as he belongs to that community. Adityanath went into damage control mode on Wednesday and sacked the Saharanpur district magistrate and top police officials for failing to contain the violence. But it is to be seen if these decisions will help stop the Bhim Army.

Mayawati’s slide

Having fared poorly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls two months ago, the Bahujan Samaj Party may see further erosion in its Dalit support base if the Bhim Army takes strong roots in Uttar Pradesh and emerges as the voice of the Scheduled Castes. In fact, the Mayawati-led party’s gradual decline in recent years is seen to be responsible for ceding space to forces like the Bhim Army.

“Such outfits are bound to emerge when political parties become weak,” Communist Party of India leader D Raja pointed out. “It is clear that the Dalits believe that their interests are being ignored by these parties.”

Realising that her party is on slippery ground, Mayawati visited the site of the clashes on Tuesday. However, she still has a long way to go before she can recover lost political ground in Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati meets with violence-affected people in Sabbeerpur village in Saharanpur on Tuesday. (Credit: PTI)

Congress worried too

The Saharanpur clashes have not escaped the attention of the Congress either as it will not remain unaffected by the growing support for the Bhim Army. The Congress may have little to lose in Uttar Pradesh, having been virtually wiped out in the Assembly elections where it won just seven of the 403 seats, but the tensions in Saharanpur may have repercussions on its chances in other states, because Dalits have traditionally supported the grand old party.

“More than other parties, these developments present a serious challenge for the Congress as the party is expected to be more responsive to the interests of the poor, underprivileged and oppressed sections,” Congress leader K Raju explained. “Obviously the party has a long way to go in creating confidence among Dalits.”

Raju, the architect of the party’s Dalit agenda, admitted that the Congress had failed to retain the support of the community. He put this down to its weak organisational structure. According to him, the Congress organisation is non-existent at the village and block levels in most states, the chief reason it is unable to instil confidence in Dalits that its leaders will stand by them in their time of need.

But despite the growing support for outfits like the Bhim Army, Raju believes such outfits cannot sustain their activities over a long period of time. Eventually, he said, the causes they are fighting for will have to be taken up by political parties, which have the organisational spread and manpower to take them further. For all the challenges it faces, the Congress is also convinced that if it can sort out its organisational problems, it will be able to win back the support of the Dalits.

Brave words indeed.