Late last month, a man of about 30 declared himself as a “son of Kanshiram” while addressing a rally in Delhi of thousands of supporters from different parts of the country. This rally drew the attention of the national media which is keen to know about this young leader who gathered such a big crowd at Jantar Mantar without any political background. What’s more fascinating is that this person is from a community known for its social movement.
At Jantar Mantar, the thousands of Dalits that gathered in solidarity with the Bhim Army against the Saharanpur violence were mostly young men. The scale of the protest had not been witnessed since the Nirbhaya case. The atmosphere was thrilling. I was present and could sense the energy of young blood. Another astonishing fact is that this crowd came in response to just one call from Chandrashekhar a.k.a “Ravan” through a viral social media message.
Chandrashekhar thinks Ravan is wrongly presented in the Ramayana as a villain when he kidnapped Sita only to take revenge for what had been done to his sister; he kept Sita separately and never touched her. This is what Chandrasekhar has said. He belongs to a small village in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. He formed the Bhim Army in 2014 after his father, Govardhan Das, a headmaster, was frequently humiliated at school meetings, offered separate glasses for drinking in the staff room, etc. The aim of the Bhim Army is to be a voice for the voiceless.
Chandraksehar first came into the limelight when he installed a board in the village of Gharkauli, stating “Da Great Chamar welcomes you.” This one sign board shocked the whole casteist ideology. The Bhim Army gives special emphasis to educating Dalit students. Following the “Educate, Agitate, Organise” advice of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Bhim Army opened tuition centers starting July, 2015 to educate Dalit students.
After clashes between Dalits and Rajputs in Saharanpur in May, the Bhim Army became more prominent. Chandrashekhar called a Maha Panchayat over this issue. Thousands of Dalits gathered for the panchayat in Saharanpur on May 9, but clashes broke out between the Bhim Army and the local administration. Excessive action followed by the police administration and around 40 Bhim Army supporters were booked under serious charges. It was against this one-sided action of the administration that Chandrashekhar called for the protest at Jantar Mantar which was a big hit because of social media.
Things changed dramatically after this successful protest, and overnight, Ravan became a national Dalit figure. But instead of helping him, this protest created some new problems for the Bhim Army.
Now, per my sources, several powerful people attached themselves to the organization to seek political mileage. Chandrashekhar became over-dependent on such people. He got disconnected with his Saharanpur team, “the actual Bhim Army”, and soon these people started urging Chandrashekhar to dissolve the Bhim Army or in order to set up a new organization.
This distraction made the Bhim Army disappear from the ground at a time of crisis.
I personally talked to a member of Bhim Army from Saharanpur, Sumit Gautam (name changed), who turned 18 this April. He told me he has been charged with dozens of false cases including attempt to murder. He is absconding from Saharanpur after May 7. He is from a very poor family and till now, has spent Rs. 20,000. Now he is out of money and there is no one there for his help. Every day, the police is torturing his family and this boy, still in his teens, is in serious depression. He doesn’t even have money to eat, forget maintaining a lawyer. He also told me that he wants to study and doesn’t want to go to jail as he was not involved in any sort of violent activity. This is not only the story of Sumit, but of most of members/supporters of the Bhim Army who were booked by the police. Sumit also asked where is our leader when we need him most, I have not seen him after May 7 except his short presence at Jantar Mantar, I just watch his video on social media. He got name and fame, but we are being thrashed, our careers are destroyed. Even villagers are not coming to help us because of fear of the police and administration.
The second major problem that Chandrashekhar faced before his arrest is that this incident gave an opportunity for the BJP to directly attack BSP supremo Mayawati and her brother Anand Kumar for funding the Bhim Army and inciting violence in Saharanpur. This while the BJP also seeks the Bhim Army as a tool to weaken the BSP and divide its solid 22-23% vote base. As long as a strong force like the BSP is there in Uttar Pradesh, it is not easy for the BJP/RSS to achieve their motive of attaining power in 2019 general election if Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav really go ahead and join hands as they have hinted. Decimating the BSP’s support base is thus in the BJP’s interest. In this context, there is a possibility that the BJP is using the freshly-minted Bhim Army against a major political opponent.
Thirdly, it is accepted by Bhim Army members including Chandrashekhar that they supported Modi in 2014 and voted for him. This has made Mayawati declare Bhim Army a product of the BJP.
After Chandrashekhar’s arrest last week, there are various challenges that this organization has to face. There is still no official organization set up by Chandrashekhar and now in his absence, it will be very hard to re-establish Bhim Army. As mentioned by my source, the members left in Saharanpur could be appropriated or enveloped by a few powerful and selfish persons who only seek political benefits.
And after Mayawati declaring Bhim Army a product of the BJP, a large number of Dalits will be skeptical about supporting them.
What was Chandrashekhar doing in Dalhousie, where he was arrested? As my source explained, even the core team members of Bhim Army don’t know why he left Punjab and went to Himachal Pradesh.
There is no doubt that in a very short span of time, Bhim Army gained huge popularity among the Bahujan community, specially the youth. They liked very much the style of assertion by this Dalit youth. Who used his caste as a matter of pride instead of a slur.
Social media played a pivotal role in this journey. I myself covered the May 21 rally and our Facebook Live reached to 15 lakh+ people. Even after the arrest of Chandrashekhar, a large number of messages on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook are asking the whole Bahujan community to unite against the tyranny of a casteist system against a particular community.
But to establish an organization, you need more than just a rally, no matter how large it is. You need vision and planning skills to channelize the energy of masses in your favor. It will be very interesting to see how the people left behind by Chandrashekhar manage to run Bhim Army.
(Devashish Jarariya, 26, is from Madhya Pradesh and a supporter of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.)