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.