SIX YEARS ago, when he was with his ailing father at a hospital in Saharanpur, he heard about various incidents of “Dalits being oppressed in society”. That was when he decided to scrap his plan to pursue higher studies in the US and stay back to work for his community. Four years later, Chandrashekhar formed the ‘Bheem Army Bharat Ekta Mission’. Today, the 30-year-old lawyer is the face of the Dalit protests in Saharanpur with his Bheem Army claiming to have 40,000 members in seven states, including Uttar Pradesh.
On Wednesday, a day after fresh violence broke out in the area following last Friday’s clash between Dalits and Thakurs in Shabbirpur village, Chandrashekhar was busy meeting members of his community at his home in Chhutmalpur nearby. Speaking to The Indian Express, Chandrashekhar said, “Political parties need the votes of all communities but no one really cares for our community. Our people are oppressed every day and they have no voice. They can’t go to police because they don’t listen to us. Take, for example, the incident in Una (the assault on Dalits by gaurakshaks in Gujarat last year) or (Hyderabad student) Rohith Vemula’s suicide. This has been going on for long. We are an apolitical organisation, which focuses only on the uplift of our people.”
According to Chandrashekhar, the Bheem Army is a “platform where we give direction to our young blood and make them aware”.
“I believe that in today’s time, if we just help our community live with self pride, the whole issue gets sorted. Whenever there are any incidents of violence or harassment against Dalits, we will stand up for it,” he said. Asked about Tuesday’s violence, in which suspected members of Bheem Army set a bus on fire at Bheta Road and burnt 10 motorcycles and a private car on Malhipur Road, both in Saharanpur, Chandrashekhar said he “condemns” these incidents.
“The authorities had called me to pacify the protesters. We follow Ambedkar and we believe in the law of the land. But what will our people do when there is a difference in the treatment meted out to them?” he said. However, he claimed that not all those who gathered for the protest on Tuesday were members of Bheem Army.
On Wednesday, the UP government transferred two senior police officers — SP (Saharanpur City) Sanjay Singh and SP (Rural Area) Rafiq Ahmad — for failing to anticipate the fresh protests. Police said 22 Dalits have been arrested, so far. The protests followed the clash on Friday, in which one Thakur man was killed and 25 Dalit homes set ablaze after Dalits in Shabbirpur objected to loud music being played by Thakurs in a procession to attend a function in honour of Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap.
Chandrashekhar alleged that Thakurs were given permission to hold a ceremony and mobilised crowds wielding swords from seven-eight villages on Friday but Dalits were not allowed to hold “a peaceful protest” four days later. “In Shabbirpur, when Thakurs started a procession, there was no lathicharge on them. Why this treatment for us?” he said.
Recalling a similar incident in Gadkauli village, near Shabbirpur, Chandrashekhar said that “a major controversy” broke out last year when a board that read ‘The Great Chamar. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Gram, Gadkauli’ was installed at the entrance.
“Some young Dalit men came to me and said they wanted to install the board on their land. I did not find any problem. When we get certificates of ‘chamar’ from authorities, why should we have any problem in taking pride in that? Thakurs of the village raised an objection but the matter was sorted eventually,” he said. The Bheem Army, he said, also assists Dalits in education and legal matters. “Our organisation works with police, too. In the past, we have conducted various camps for blood donation as well as traffic awareness with police,” said Chandrashekhar.
“I tell everyone that the most important thing these days is to get educated to fight oppression. After we get their (upper caste) jobs, only then will there be some equality. We have the same blood so why differentiate?” he said.