At a rally in Delhi’s Parliament Street on Sunday, amid the sea of deep blue flags and Nehru caps emblazoned with the words “Bhim Army”, Inderjit Singh and a few other attendees stood out in their turbans.

“Until Chandrashekhar is released, we will block trains and buses in Punjab starting next week,” said Singh, a former Bahujan Samaj Party member from Ludhiana, Punjab. “It is because of Chandrashekhar that the movement has been revived after Kanshi Ram [who founded the Bahujan Samaj Party as the party of Dalits in 1984].”

Singh was referring to Chandrashekhar Azad, the charismatic 30-year-old founder of the Bhim Army, a little-known Dalit organisation from western Uttar Pradesh that was catapulted into national prominence after it organised a large meeting in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, on May 9 to protest against the torching of Dalit homes allegedly by upper-caste Thakurs four days earlier. This meeting saw clashes between Dalits and the police after which the state administration cracked down on the group. Chandrashekhar went into hiding to evade arrest, and was eventually arrested in Himachal Pradesh on June 8. Before his arrest, Azad is said to have traveled through Punjab.

Singh was part of the 2,500-odd people who had gathered in Delhi on Sunday to push for Chandrashekhar’s release. This was the Bhim Army’s second rally in the national capital in a month. It was called by Chandrashekhar’s mother Kamlesh Devi after her son was arrested.

Manjeet Singh of Hoshiarpur, Punjab, attended both the rallies. Speaking at the first rally on May 21, he explained why he was there. “This injustice is not being meted out to just one community,” said Singh. “It is happening to Dalits, Muslims, and also Sikh minorities.”

So, what exactly links the Bhim Army’s Dalit activism to Punjab?

Chandrashekhar’s mother Kamlesh Devi at the rally in Delhi on Sunday. (Photo credit: Akshita Nagpal).

Dalits in Punjab

At 32%, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits in any Indian state, according to the 2011 Census. The Chamaar community – which gets its name from its traditional occupation of working with leather – is one of its 39 Scheduled Castes.

The state – the Doab region in particular which includes the area between the Beas and Sutlej rivers with the towns of Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Nawan Shahar and Phagwara – has a long history of Dalit assertion of the kind the Bhim Army represents. About 100 years ago, the Chamaar community used religious assertion as a means of socio-political mobilisation through the Ad-dharm movement, which evoked the 15th century Bhakti saint Ravidas as its patron saint. The movement, which registered Dalits, mainly Chamaars, as Ad-dharmis with a distinct religious identity in the 1931 Census, however, fizzled out in the late 1930s.

In May 2009, a crime in the Austrian capital of Vienna possibly triggered the latest wave of Chamaar identity-assertion wave in Punjab. An attack on the preachers of Dera Sachkhand Ballan, a heterodox Sikh sect with a large following in the Doab region of Punjab, injured its chief preacher Niranjan Dass and led to the death of his deputy Ramanand Dass. The attack was blamed on Jat Sikhs, the land-owning dominant community in Punjab. Violent protests broke out in the Doab region of the state following the attack. The following year, Dera Sachkhand proclaimed a new religion called the Ravidasia dharam with a separate bani [utterances and writings of gurus] called Amrit Bani Guru Ravidas.

Dera Sachkhand is a religious umbrella for a section of Punjab’s Chamaar community. It is the more prominent of some 10,000 deras – religious centres with living gurus – in Punjab. Dera Sachkhand’s followers are called Ravidasias. It professes the teachings of Ravidas, who rebelled against his Chamaar caste identity through radical poetry. His philosophy is also included in Sikh scripture, which underlines the inherent caste-free nature of Sikhism, the dominant faith in the state. Several Dalits were attracted to Sikhism in the early 20th century because of the egalitarianism it promised. In the fold of Sikhism, Punjab’s Chamaars came to be known as Ramdasias.

However, embracing a new faith was not enough to erase centuries-old prejudices of caste. There are still separate cremation grounds and gurdwaras for Dalits who converted to Sikhism, as well as separate seating spaces for them in gurdwaras controlled by the Jat Sikh community.

“Even after conversion to the so-called egalitarian religions of Sikhism, Christianity, or Islam, the Dalit identity stayed,” said Ronki Ram, dean, Faculty of Arts, at Panjab University. “So, they felt, salvation lies in our own religion.”

Participants at Sunday's Bhim Army rally. (Photo credit: Akshita Nagpal).

Dalit assertion

In the wave of Chamaar-identity assertion in Punjab that followed the Vienna attack, caste assertions became common visual signage. Caste was proclaimed on T-shirts, bandanas, stickers on motor vehicles, and most notably, a music style called Chamaar Pop. The lyrics and videos of Chamaar Pop were a counter to Jat Pop music of the Jat Sikh community. It replicated Jat Pop music’s themes of displaying material wealth and brute force.

Rajni Thakkarwal, a Chamaar Pop singer highlighted the unique convergence of Ravidas and BR Ambedkar in Punjab’s Dalit assertion movement. “My family elders faced discrimination because their caste was called out as an expletive,” said Thakkarwal. “That is why I took to the singing of Guru Ravidas and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideology.”

At the same time, Bhim Army-like groups – such as Begumpura Tiger Force, Chamaar Mahan Sabha, Ambedkar Yuva Dal, Guru Ravidas Dharam Yudh Morcha – sprouted as collectives for Dalit upliftment and fuelled the identity assertion exercise in Punjab.

It was an attempt at identity assertion that shot Chandrashekhar and his Bhim Army supporters into prominence for the first time. Last year, they installed a board with the words “The Great Chamaar” at the entrance to Ghadkauli village, near Saharanpur. Chandrashekhar belongs to the Chamaar community. Like Chamaar Pop and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Proud Chamaar”, the Bhim Army aimed to reclaim the word Chamaar, which is used as a casteist slur by members of the dominant castes.

Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad.

Twin destinies: Dalit politics

Thus, over the years, both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab has provided fertile ground for Dalit-assertion movements. However, it was in Uttar Pradesh that the Ambedkarite politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party truly flourished under Kanshi Ram’s protégé, Mayawati. (The party has a Punjab connection through Kanshi Ram, who came from a Ramdasia family in that state. He also won his first parliamentary seat from Hoshiarpur in 1996.)

However, in Punjab, the Dalit-assertion movement has been unable to translate into political power of the kind seen in Uttar Pradesh, which, in 2007, saw Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party being swept to power.

Dalits form 20.7% of the population in Uttar Pradesh with Jatavs (part of the Chamaar community) constituting a chunk of the population. The BSP’s vote share in Uttar Pradesh has steadily increased since its first electoral contest in 1989 – from 9.41% that year to a peak of 30.43% in 2007, and 22.23% in 2017.

Between 1989 and 2017, BSP's vote share in Uttar Pradesh has steadily increased with a peak in 2007, despite wide fluctuations in the number of Assembly seats it won.

But despite the higher proportion of Dalits in Punjab, and Kanshi Ram’s Punjab links, the vote share of the party he founded has steadily fallen in the state after hitting a high of 16.32% in 1992. After 1997, it failed to win even a single seat in Punjab.

BSP's vote share in Punjab has fallen almost every year.

Sociologist Paramjit S Judge attributed this to two factors: sub-divisions within the Dalit community, which other parties capitalised on, and the relative prosperity of Dalits in the Doab region. “Each caste of Dalits in Punjab is further divided on religious lines,” said Judge. The Akalis utilised these differences by appropriating a vote base in Mazhabis.” Mazhabis are those members of the Sikh community who used to be Valmikis, another sizeable Dalit group in Punjab.

Judge added that the economic stability of Doab’s Dalits possibly lessened their thirst for political aspiration. “After the Green Revolution Jat landlords hired migrant labourers when Dalits demanded better wages for agricultural labour,” said Judge. This led to Dalits moving to towns to find other occupations, which made them “socially and economically mobile”, said Judge.

Judge added: “Many of them also migrated abroad – [for instance] becoming the largest Punjabi diaspora in Italy – to bring affluence through remittances.”

Participants at the Bhim Army rally in New Delhi on May 21. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

The future

But eight years after what seemed to be a sweeping identity reclamation movement in Punjab, none of the social organisations built around Dalit-assertion have provided a viable political alternative. As the Punjab elections, held earlier this year made clear, the Congress and BJP-Akali Dal are still politically dominant.

So, will the Bhim Army be able to achieve what the Bahujan Samaj Party has failed to do in Punjab: Grab the imagination of the state’s large Dalit community?

Some feel that the group would go the way of the Punjab thread of Dalit identity assertion as it is centred around one sub-caste (Chamaars). At the June 18 rally, fissures appeared within the event’s organisers when one of the members was pushed off from the dais and a physical altercation played out on the stage. Sunday’s rally also had one-third of the crowd seen at last month’s rally.

(Photo credit: Akshita Nagpal).

Stressing on the need to broad-base the movement, Des Raj Kali, a Jalandhar-based writer said: “Babasaheb’s [Ambedkar] mission is not just for Chamaars.”

Ronki Ram has another view. “It will certainly be a model for other communities and maybe in the next phase they will join hands,” he said. “If political parties can form alliances, then why not the Dalit castes?”

But that may be easier said than done.

Last month, Mayawati struck out at the Bhim Army, saying that it was the “product of the Bharatiya Janata Party” and was growing under its protection. She added that Bhim Army members used to “extort money from people” on BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary “by calling themselves BSP’s well-wishers”.

Harbhajan Suman of Ambedkar Sena Moolniwasi (Phagwara), who participated in both the Bhim Army rallies in Delhi said: “Mayawati thinks of social organisations here as the party’s enemies. That explains her comments on UP’s Bhim Army”.

Referring to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s leaders in Punjab, Suman said: “They are like the tin roof that is added to shield the house during rainy season [of elections] and goes out of the picture afterwards.”

At the same time, it is the kinship of identity assertion that propels Dalit organisations from Punjab to back the Bhim Army.

Satish Bharti from Guru Ravidas Dharam Yudh Morcha, Jalandhar, was optimistic about the future. “This wave will be carried forward just like Kanshi Ram started it,” he said.