At the 6 ft by 10 ft office of Karanveer Singh, the gram pradhan of Budhakheda village in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a fading sketch of BSP chief Mayawati hangs on the wall by the side of stacks of ‘Zalim Lotion’ that he sells for a living. His door outside, in bold, colourful letters, declares, ‘Chamar Ji’, a former pejorative now proudly embraced by him.
The 40-year-old is an old supporter of the BSP but, like many here, a recent convert to the Bhim Army, which has hit headlines as a new face of Dalit uprising.
Dalits form a majority in Karanveer’s village, but have long found themselves powerless in a land tussle with Rajputs. “We had gone for help to local BSP leaders, but they could not do anything saying they were not in power. Chandrashekhar (the chief of the Bhim Army) is helping us fight in court now. Today almost 75 per cent of Chamars in the village are with the Bhim Army,” Karanveer says.
About 10 paces away from his office lies a village wedding hall that doubles up as a school in the evening. Pointing to the white board in the classroom with ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Da Great Chamar’ scribbled on it, Karanveer says it was put up by the Bhim Army. “They have been running this school for two years. It has helped children of all communities in the village,” says Karanveer.
Of Uttar Pradesh’s 21 per cent Dalit population, 54 per cent are Jatavs, the BSP’s core base, and most of them are concentrated in this region. With Mayawati increasingly keeping to Lucknow and of late focusing on other communities to increase the BSP’s social base, many Dalits who continue to see her as their political messiah but feel slighted, have started looking at the Bhim Army with interest.
“It was only after the Bhim Army’s Delhi rally that Mayawati thought of coming to Shabbirpur. She was scared of a new player in Dalit politics,” says Khubchand of Shabbirpur village, the epicentre of the Saharanpur violence. Almost a month after that clash between Dalits and Thakurs, leading to the death of one Thakur youth and a Dalit, and torching of Dalit homes, the region continues to be on the boil. In the latest incident, on May 30, Dalits were accused of being behind the desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali.
Founded around two years ago by Chandrashekhar in Saharanpur, the Bhim Army has been slowly gaining ground among Dalits locally. However, despite its claims of presence in seven states, it remained confined to this region. Now, even outside these villages, people are talking about the outfit that organised one of the biggest Dalit meetings in the national capital in recent times, and about its leader Chandrashekhar who made a dramatic appearance at that May 21 rally while police were said to be looking for him. Dalit youths now have videos and audio messages of Chandrashekhar on their mobile phones, which they run on loop.
“I am getting so many calls from across the country for membership that I have had to switch off my phone. We do not yet have the wherewithal to handle such expansion,” claims Vinay Ratan Singh, the Bhim Army’s ‘national president’.
On May 24, a day after a Dalit youth returning from Mayawati’s rally in Shabbirpur was killed near Chandpur, two youths from the village animatedly discuss the violence and the Bhim Army. Rajneesh and Ajay, both in their 20s, confess they heard of the Bhim Army and Chandrashekhar only recently.
“This fellow has some substance. He is physically strong and speaks well. Have you seen his moustache and the way he keeps twirling it?” says Rajnish proudly. Ajay cuts him to say, “More importantly, he is not afraid of anyone. Did you see how, despite being denied permission, he organised such a big rally in Delhi? This is the kind of leader we need.”
Almost in the same breath, they also speak fondly and apologetically about Mayawati and her delayed arrival in Shabbirpur. “The government would not give permission for her chopper to land. She announced compensation even though her government is not there. But how much can she move around? She is old now,” says Ajay.
What endears the Bhim Army to them is not just its belligerence but also swift action. “They respond immediately. Any trouble and a dozen men on bikes will arrive and sort out matters. Mostly peacefully,” says Kunwarpal Singh, a retired teacher in Budhakhera.
But more than that, he sees the Bhim Army’s 300-odd pathshaalas as the gamechanger. “No learning can happen in government primary schools. They are concerned only with the mid-day meal. It’s due to the Bhim Army’s pathshaalas that children are learning. They also provide protection to our girls when they go to colleges nearby.”
A MISSING MAYAWATI
BSP workers in Saharanpur agree that in the recent past, the party has not raised issues of Dalits as vigorously as they used to. “Also Behenji’s excessive thrust on Muslim votes in the past two elections sent the wrong message. It not only gave the impression that we take Dalit votes for granted but allowed the BJP to enter our bastion,” says a party worker.
In fact, the interplay between Dalits and Muslims, who form the other substantial block in western UP, with 21 per cent of the vote share, governs the politics of all the players here, including the Bhim Army.
If the BSP has tried to consolidate its base by wooing the Muslims, the BJP has successfully made inroads pitting Dalits against them by making the lower castes feel a part of the larger Hindu family. The promise of development under Narendra Modi has also attracted young and aspirational Dalits.
BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal’s attempt in April to take out an Ambedkar Jayanti procession through a Muslim-dominated area with alleged chants of Jai Shri Ram is cited by many Dalit activists as a sign of its game plan.
Defending the Thakurs in the recent violence, BJP MLA from Deoband Brijesh Kumar Mishra talks of “another hand”. “The administration believes that the violence was a reaction from Thakurs. But I have seen the pictures on WhatsApp… the brutality. I believe a Hindu cannot do it. I could be wrong, but I believe that a third party has taken advantage of the situation to malign Thakurs,” he told The Sunday Express.
Consequently, Dalit politics here is torn between two competing streams — struggle against caste oppression within the Hindu community, and the engineered feeling of Hindu unity to fight the Muslims. In the recent Assembly polls, the churn showed. The shift in Jatav votes played a significant role in the BJP’s massive victory in Uttar Pradesh in general and western UP in particular. In Saharanpur district, where the BSP won four out of seven seats in the 2012 polls, it could not win even one in 2017. The BJP which had just one seat in 2012 secured four in 2017.
Despite its recently acquired popularity, this advent of subaltern Hindutva poses structural barriers to the rise of the Bhim Army. Realising this, the Bhim Army has consistently been talking of Dalit-Muslim unity, and during his Delhi rally on May 21, Chandrashekhar gave a call to defeat “Hindutva Aatankvad (terror)”. In January, he had mediated when Dalits and Muslims faced off in Ghateda village over alleged smearing of a Babasaheb Ambedkar statue with black ink.
However, as Rajnish and Ajay of Chandpur talk about the Dalit struggle against upper castes, it is clear these differences can’t be easily buried. “What do Rajputs think of themselves?” says Rajnish. “If it was not for us, Muslims would have conquered them. There may be just 25 Muslim families here but they have weapons. It is because of our numbers and ferocity that they don’t fight.”
Munquad Ali, a BSP Rajya Sabha MP, says the community has been watching the current developments. However, he adds, “The Muslim is absolutely quiet right now. He knows he has to be oppressed, he has no choice. He is totally helpless under this government. He is just sitting and hoping.”
THE YOGI FACTOR
The BJP also realises that should the Bhim Army sustain its popularity, it is likely to hurt the party more than the BSP. With the Bhim Army yet not an alternative electorally, the Dalit vote could swing back to the BSP if the Yogi government is perceived to have failed. The BJP has seen this happen earlier, with its Kamandal campaign of the Ram temple failing before the caste politics of Mandal.
In the wake of Saharanpur, the Bhim Army has been fanning the Dalit anger against the BJP. In village after village, Dalits, including those who voted for the saffron party, question why it did not stand by them against the Thakur oppression. They also fear that upper castes may be emboldened with a Thakur as CM, after years of transfer of power between Mayawati and the Yadav father-son duo of the Samajwadi Party.
“All this tension has started since Yogi came to power,” asserts Dal Singh, 60, whose house was gutted in the violence in Shabbirpur. Dalits in the village allege that the day Yogi Adityanath was announced as CM, the Thakurs organised a massive celebration. “Deck baja ke itna shor machaya us din jaise kuchch batana chahte ho hamein (They played such loud music as if they wanted to send a message),” says Dal Singh.
Ashwini Kumar, a 28-year-old Dalit from Shabbirpur, says, “In the past two elections, a lot of us voted for the BJP along with the upper castes in the fear that a Muslim would win otherwise. We voted for Thakur candidates thinking at least they are from the same religion. But the government has betrayed us.”
Even in the urban Dalit pockets of Saharanpur city, such as Jatav Nagar, where the BJP has found most support, the community is uncomfortable with the recent incidents. “Had we all converted to Buddhism, China and Japan would have been asking questions of Modi. You think we will again trust this government with our votes? It’s back to Behenji,” says Anil Kumar, 35, a shoe manufacturer from Jatav Nagar.
Incidentally, Rajputs also link the Dalit caste assertion, reflected in the form of the Bhim Army, to the Yogi-led government coming to power. After a long time there is a Thakur CM and Dalits want to topple the government, they say.
Says Harinder Singh of Chandpur, “All this while, they had political power. Now they are creating trouble to fell this government. What was the need to pelt stones on the Maharana Pratap rally in Shabbirpur (the immediate provocation for the caste violence)? If you stop the followers of Maharana Pratap, you know what can happen.”
Rambir Singh of Shabbirpur says the tension had been brewing since Shiv Kumar, a Dalit, became the gram pradhan, and has come to the fore now. “He has been instigating Dalits against Thakurs,” he claims.
THE NEW PLAYER
Taken by surprise at how the Bhim Army has burst onto the scene, the BJP and BSP have both sought to dismiss it by branding it each other’s stooge.
The outfit has supported the BSP in the past elections, admits the Bhim Army’s Vinay Ratan Singh. “But that was because of Kanshi Ram’s legacy. The problem is that local politics is unable to call out the evident right and wrong. We are not a product of the BSP. We are a product of the voices which have been suppressed despite the BSP,” he argues.
Countering the charges of taking money from the BSP, he adds, “We have been accused of taking Rs 50 lakh from the BSP, but you can see my torn pyjamas. Chandrashekhar and I still roam around on the bike my in-laws gave me as a wedding gift. We are crowdfunding ourselves and intend to continue doing that.” Funds though stand in the way of their national ambitions, Vinay Ratan admits.
For now, they are slowly expanding their base. In March 2016, some Dalit villagers put up a board, in blue and white, at the entrance of Ghadkauli village that said ‘Da Great Chamar, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Village, Ghadkauli, Welcomes You’. Thakurs objected to the words ‘Da Great’ before Chamar and the board was blackened. The Bhim Army was called and, after days of agitations, stone-pelting on police and lathicharge on Dalits, the board was erected again. It still stands.
The episode had such profound impact on Tinku Singh, a 22-year-old of the village, that he and fellow Dalit Jaswant Singh pooled in resources to set up a washing powder manufacturing unit. This soap now sells in several villages of the district under the brand name ‘Bhim Shakti’.
Tinku, who is also a member of the Bhim Army, says no one will give Dalits their rights until they fight and snatch it. If it requires violence, he is up for it. “When they call us Chamars pejoratively, it’s alright. When we call ourselves Chamars, they have a problem. Their cars and bikes carry stickers of ‘Rajput’ and Maharana Pratap, but if we put up Jai Bhim stickers, they want it removed. The statues of Shiva and Hanuman are never broken, but Ambedkar’s are routinely desecrated. They want us to stay the way we have lived for centuries. We won’t accept it. If the revolution demands blood, it will be shed,” he says.
And if the revolution demands ballot paper, they are ready for that too. Says Vinay Ratan, “We are not thinking of entering politics at the moment. But I agree political power ensures sustainability of a movement as it ensures delivery.”
However, that is a long way away. And Ashwini Kumar from Shabbirpur, who voted for the BJP, is not sure if that is what Dalits want of the Bhim Army either. “We like the work that the Bhim Army does. Chandrashekhar has been saying that he will fight for our rights till the last drop of his blood. We are with him in this. He should not enter politics. In politics, people begin to compromise.”