The Bhim Army, or the Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission, is an unregistered organisation started by lawyer Chandrashekhar Azad and Vinay Ratan Singh, who is its national president. It originated in western Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. Its first meeting was held on July 21, 2015, when Azad and Singh decided to start free-of-cost paathshalas (schools) for children from the community. The first such paathshala was set up at Fatehpur Bhado village in Saharanpur in 2015. As of now, the Bhim Army runs more than 350 such schools in western Uttar Pradesh, in Saharanpur, Meerut, Shamli and Muzaffarnagar.
The need for the Bhim Army was felt due to atrocities from the upper caste Thakur community towards them, Singh had told The Indian Express in 2017. “Near AHP College in Saharanpur’s Chhutmalpur area, a Dalit student was beaten up by members of the Thakur community for drinking water from a well. When we raised the matter with the administration, we received threats from various quarters. But we did not buckle under pressure. Besides, there were atrocities against women apart from cases of caste discrimination. We would raise these issues with the administration and hold protests in order to get justice,” he had said.
“We believe in the constitution of this country but we were branded as Naxals because we opposed the picking up innocent young people and arbitrary police raids. We have received threats. We were told that if the society is yours, the government is ours, where will you run away? It is our contribution to the country which has resulted in this support,” he had added.
In early May 2017, Saharanpur boiled over with caste clashes between the two communities. Dalits had objected to loud music being played by the upper caste Thakurs during a procession to honour Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap. This led to protests and riots, during which one Thakur lost his life while 24 Dalit homes were set on fire.
Azad was named as an accused in as many as 24 FIRs by the state police for his alleged role in fanning the violent protests by members of the Dalit community in the district.
In late May 2017, the Bhim Army took out a massive protest rally through Lutyen’s Delhi, its supporters waving placards with BR Ambedkar’s photograph as well as blue flags, chanting “Jai Bhim” slogans and wearing masks of Azad’s face. The latter was rumoured to be present there, despite being labelled as “absconding”. He later ended up appearing on stage to speak to supporters, saying that he is going to surrender. According to the Delhi Police, almost 10,000 people had gathered at Jantar Mantar.
Azad was arrested by UP Police from Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh in early June 2017. He had a reward of Rs 12,000 on his head.