Ambedkar’s armies

Saharanpur’s Bhim Army is part of the tradition of organisations for the self-defence and cultural assertion of the Dalit community

Written by Raja Sekhar Vundru | Published:June 9, 2017 12:05 am
BR Ambedkar, Bhim Army Dalit protest in New Delhi

The Bhim Army in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh has brought movements of Dalit assertion to the forefront once again. In fact, it is being seen as an alternative politics for the community. However, the outfit is, in fact, one in a long line of pan-Indian Ambedkarite assertions. Coinciding with B.R. Ambedkar’s 77th birth anniversary in 1968, the Bhim Sena was born in Gulbarga, Karnataka, created by an Ambedkarite Dalit leader in the Nizam’s Hyderabad, B. Shyam Sunder. Bhim Sena was a volunteers corps, seeking equality and self-defence. Soon, it was able to strike terror amidst the perpetrators of atrocities against Dalits. Shyam Sunder was Khusro-e-Decaan, the highest civilian award in the Nizam’s Hyderabad. He popularised the idea that Dalits are mool bharatis (the original inhabitants of India).

Bhim Sena had two lakh members and spread to UP, Haryana and Punjab, in addition to Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka. It demanded 25 per cent of  villages in every taluq be given to Dalits; sought separate electorates, separate universities and aimed at creating a separate political organisation for Dalits. Dalit youth rallied with the Bhim Sena and addressed atrocities, providing a self-defence force as well. After the demise of Shyam Sunder in 1975, the Bhim Sena withered away. But it inspired the creation of another organisation, the Dalit Panthers, in 1972.

The Dalit Panthers is the most romanticised and famous of the Ambedkarite youth movements. It fashioned itself after the Black Panther Party in the US and drew members mostly from the urban, educated working and middle-class, spreading like wildfire into rural areas. Mounting atrocities against Dalits in the 1970s fuelled the Panther movement. The Panthers were also part of a strong literary movement, Dalit sahitya, which set minds churning with some of the best post-1947 Indian poetry and literature. Namdeo Dhasal, a Dalit Panther and poet, was like the Harlem poet-laureate Langston Hughes.

Like the Bhim Sena, the Dalit Panthers also responded to atrocities as a self-defence force. By the late 1980s, the Dalit Panther movement became disunited but remained active. Some Panthers, like Ramdas Athawale and Jogendra Kawade, moved to active politics; others like Dhasal remained with the literary movement. The Dalit Panthers played a major role in agitations to rename Marathwada University in honour of Ambedkar and push the Maharashtra government to publish Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism. The Panthers spread to Gujarat, influencing the Gujarati Dalit literary movement, and organised youth during the state’s anti-Dalit reservation movement in 1981 and 1985.

The necessity of a volunteer corps was felt by B.R. Ambedkar in 1927 when he launched the movement for Dalits to access to water in Mahad. The corps — Samata Sainik Dal (Social Equality Corps) — was formalised in 1927 itself. The SSD shot to fame with the guard of honour it gave Ambedkar in Bombay when he returned from the Round Table Conference in 1932. It worked like a typical defence force, with its own flag, dress code and discipline. Its influence reduced after Ambedkar’s death, giving rise to organisations like the Bhim Sena and Dalit Panthers.

The SSD was assisted by retired Dalit Mahar soldiers, who were part of the British army. Ambedkar himself belonged to a defence family. The Mahars were recognised for their valour by Chhatrapati Shivaji, and later, by the British in the 1818 battle of Koregaon. The British erected a victory pillar at Koregaon, which Ambedkar visited for celebrations on January 1, 1927. Ambedkar later ensured the creation of the Mahar Regiment in 1941 when he was on the Defence Advisory Council.

Ambedkar believed Dalit valour was no less than any other community. He repeatedly told the British that they could establish themselves in India only with the help of untouchable soldiers: He cited the Battle of the Plassey (1757 ) with Dushads; the Battle of Wandiwash (1760) with Paraiahs and the Battle of Koregaon with Mahars. Untouchables and the lower castes were the first to join the British army because they had no food taboos. In 1943, during the WW II, Ambedkar ensured the creation of a Chamar Regiment which fought against the Japanese Imperial Army and pushed them back from Burma. The British disbanded the regiment in 1945 after the war, while retaining other caste regiments.

Similar “armies” existed in Tamil Nadu. Thol. Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party) came out of the Dalit Panthers in the 1980s. In 1907, in Kerala, Dalit leader Ayyankali created Ayyankali Pada (Ayyankali’s Army). Small groups, calling themselves Ayyankali Pada, are still active.

We need to understand the rise of movements for equality among Dalits in this perspective. Popular Punjabi folk music, which eulogises the valour of Jat men, has given rise to a new kind of Dalit music, led by the young singer, Ginni Mahi. Her songs talk about Dalit valour and “danger Chamar”. She invokes Guru Ravidas and Ambedkar and preaches equality among castes. The sub-genre of Punjabi music, popularly known as “Chamar pop”, has taken the dominant Dalit community of north India, the Jatavs, by storm.

In a similar mode, the Bhim Army has appeared in western Uttar Pradesh within “the great Chamar” movement as a cultural assertion. Dalit assertions for rights have always been resisted with violence by those groups which don’t believe in equality. But Ambedkar’s armies always march ahead, seeking justice and equality.

The writer, an IAS officer, holds a PhD on Ambedkar’s ideas from the National Law School, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal

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  1. H
    H.Shreyesker
    Jun 14, 2017 at 10:20 am
    Shyam Sunders interview published in the anti-corruption weekly, Hyderabad on Sunday, May 12, 1968. He said ‘We are not Hindus, We are born Buddhist, We are Mool Bharati, we are builders of Harappa - Mohenjo-Daro civilization We have nothing to do with Hindu religion, philosophy or faith, We will trumpet tyranny by all means, We are awakened now, We recapture our rightful place, so we form our Bhim Sena" We will burn Hindu God with us, We will throw off our Hindu names, We will rather die on our legs than live on our knees.
    Reply
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      H.Shreyesker
      Jun 14, 2017 at 12:27 am
      He is probably the only Dalit leader who was arrested, put behind bars kept in solitary confinement, house arrest, his public meetings were disturbed, bullets were fired and bombs were hurled and to harass him court cases filed against him. Many court cases remained undecided and buried with him. He was the only male son of B.Manicham and Sudha Bai and had the younger sister. It was a painful decision to leave the family and also a conscious decision to remain a bachelor, indeed, a great soul breathed his last on 19 th may 1975 at his sister's house in Hyderabad on the fateful month of Buddha Poornima!
      Reply
      1. H
        H.Shreyesker
        Jun 14, 2017 at 12:26 am
        A protest meeting was held on July 14, 1974, at the Bhim Sena office in Gulbarga. He mentioned “In Serasagoan, Gangapura Taluka in Aurangabad district in Maharashtra State. Four Harijans women's were stripped of their dresses, forced to paraded naked in the broad daylight on the main street of the town on 22nd December 1963, their only fault was they refused to join those women who have contented to work without wages. The world has b ed Hitler, Halaku and Jingish Khan as the tyrant, autocrats, and dictators. However, during their regime, such incidents have not taken place. He reminded women were held in high esteem and commanded great respect not only during the Muslim's regime but also during British rule. In reality, we are the great tyrant and worst then the dictators.
        Reply
        1. H
          H.Shreyesker
          Jun 14, 2017 at 12:25 am
          Shyam Sunders interview published in the anti-corruption weekly, Hyderabad on Sunday, May 12, 1968. He said ‘We are not Hindus, We are born Buddhist, We are Mool Bharati, we are builders of Harappa - Mohenjo-Daro civilization We have nothing to do with Hindu religion, philosophy or faith, We will trumpet tyranny by all means, We are awakened now, We recapture our rightful place, so we form our Bhim Sena" We will burn Hindu God with us, We will throw off our Hindu names, We will rather die on our legs than live on our knees.
          Reply
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            H.Shreyesker
            Jun 14, 2017 at 12:24 am
            Bhim Sena Sunder inaugurated Bhim Sena on 29th April 1968. "while Dr. Ambedker was a pacifist, Shyam Sunder believed in violent revolutionary and turned bitterly anti-Hindu and he became an iconoclast revelling in defying images of god and goddess and burning sacred texts. Kushwants Singh (21-12-1988). Babara Joshi reports (1982) the branch of Sena was inaugurated on May 29, 1968, at Bidar and 10,000 persons from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Mysore attended the meeting. Its formation was discussed in Lok Sabha (vide debate Volume 20, Issues 20-24 - Page 673)The sabotage of Bhim Sena best co-related to the epic Ramayana wherein Laxman accompanied his brother Rama to spend twelve years in the forest. However, Veebhishan revealed the secrets of Ravana's forts and set Lanka on fire. Shyam Sunder's interview published in the anti-corruption weekly, Hyderabad on
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            1. H
              H.Shreyesker
              Jun 14, 2017 at 12:21 am
              Bahujan Movement A conference of The Scheduled Caste, Minorities, Backwards Classes and other Minorities held at Lucknow on 12th and 13th October in 1968 and inaugurated the Bahujan movement with EVRama Swamy Naicker Dr.A.J. Faridi, India Muslims Majlis and Bhante Bharat Anand Kaushalya. At the conference, he declared “I call upon the oppressed minorities of the great land to wake up and unite I warn them that if they do not, they would be annihilated one by one, group by group and section by section. And declare that United they cons ute the majority and have the natural right to play an effective role in guiding the destination of the land of their birth and I conclude by expressing gra ude to my motherland "Aqhlitaton ka Nara Hindustan Hamara.”
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                H.Shreyesker
                Jun 14, 2017 at 12:19 am
                Suppressed Caste) a movement led by the late B. Shyam Sunder and B. S. Venkatrao. This was independent of Dr. Ambedkar. Who was active in British India then. Dalits occupying agricultural lands both belonging to the Government and Private persons were first noticed in this part of India. With Sardar Master Tara Singh on October 13, 1957, at Hyderabad established "All India Federal Association of Minorities" Donald Eugene Smith (1922) and the chief demand that Articles 29 and 30 of the Cons ution of India (part III) are to be enforced in letter and intent. He also held two conferences in Delhi, He wrote small leaflets and monographs Danger ahead for Minorities: Let us Unite and face them: - Federate or face a lingering death
                Reply
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                  H.Shreyesker
                  Jun 14, 2017 at 12:15 am
                  B.Shyam Sunder started his political career as an ardent worker in the cause of Dalit. He joined Dr.Ambedkers Depressed Classes Association 1947 and 1957 elected as MLA to Hyderabad and Mysore state and led the Praja Socialist Party (1964-66) after the demise of Dr.Ram Manohar Lohia. He tutored g children of Last Nizam, created "One Crore Rupee Education Trust Fund". In order to get rid of caste feelings among children, the trust started "Madras-e-Pushthkhome" separate school, residential hostels, distributed uniforms and to combat dropout monthly scholarships provided. The aforesaid education system for untouchables was unique in several ways and the entire credit goes on to the farsightedness of him. As a legislator organised a mammoth rally of 50,000 landless people from the 24,000 villages in Hyderabad However, the Nizam distributed government lands to landless Dalits. “Two years prior to the end of the Nizam’s rule, there was a Dalit agitation knows as ‘Fasth-a-kahome’ (
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