The Hindu explains: From Bhim Army to Leo Varadkar

The lowdown on the Bhim Army

Members of Bhim Sena stage a protest demonstration, condemning the recent attack on Dalits at a village in Saharanpur Dist at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on May 21, 2017.   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

What is it?

The Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission or the Bhim Army is a fledgling group of mostly Dalit volunteers who claim to champion the Dalit cause. Focussed on quick redress of caste-based atrocities and discrimination, promoting education and social awareness among Dalits and propagation of Ambedkarite values, the group considers itself a social counter-movement to Brahmanical ideology.

It lacks a formal structure and is an unregistered body, but claims to have over 20,000 members in and around Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh, where it is based.

The prime attraction of the group is its stress on direct action based on confrontation to preserve, protect or restore the dignity of Dalits. Its co-founder and most recognisable face is a charismatic lawyer named Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, whose close team members sport ink blue scarves and ride on stylish bullet motorbikes.

“Through the Bhim Army, the Dalit youth become aware that they can struggle for their constitutional rights and they will no longer tolerate oppression. The Bhim Army is not to scare off anybody but for the security of Dalits,” Mr. Azad said in a recent interview.

How did it come about?

The Bhim Army was formed around 2015 after a group of Dalit youths raised its voice over stray cases of discrimination and oppression in Saharanpur. It came into the limelight when Mr. Azad put up a board in his native village extolling his caste identity: “The Great Chamar of Dhadkauli Welcome You.”

This symbolic assertion by Dalits provoked the dominant Thakurs, who smeared the signboard with black ink. This led to bouts of caste tension, with the Bhim Army not shying away from taking on the dominant castes.

Mr. Azad became the local Dalit hero.

The outfit has been in the news over the last two months for its intervention in calming tension between Dalits and Muslims, when the BJP took out a ‘Shobha Yatra’ in Saharanpur without permission through communally sensitive areas, and the Dalit-Thakur clashes a few weeks later in the same district on the birth anniversary of Rajput king Maharana Pratap. The State government held the Bhim Army responsible for inciting violence, while the latter claims that the government was targeting it to malign the movement and shield upper caste offenders.

Why does it matter?

The Bhim Army claims it is politically independent but bases its ideology on Ambedkarite principles, just like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The group is, however, still not clear whether its movement is for assertion of Dalit identity or a larger Ambedkarite movement.

Most Dalit thinkers agree that the Bhim Army arose out of the social vacuum created by mainstream political parties, particularly the BSP, and their failure to address issues like unemployment, land distribution, atrocities and real empowerment, despite seizing political power. At a time when the BSP has lost ground electorally and the BJP has begun mobilising Dalits, the Bhim Army is a symbol of resistance from within Dalit society. Noted Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde writes that its emergence “may be likened to the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra in 1972, which in turn was the by-product of the bankrupt politics of the erstwhile Republican Party of India.”

Not only does the Bhim Army highlight the flux, it also creates pressure on the BSP to innovate.

What next?

The outfit is in disarray. Mr. Azad, who was absconding, has been arrested. Many other members have been booked and arrested on charges of instigating violence. Its identity is under threat with both the BSP and the BJP accusing it of being a political proxy.

It is difficult to gauge how the outfit will develop or sustain itself. Its first challenge is to weather the administrative action against it. Its focus on the symbolism around the Chamar caste is also limiting it, as identity politics within Dalit castes opens doors for the RSS-BJP and impedes attempts to forge a larger Dalit consciousness. Meanwhile, two questions linger: is the Bhim Army the start of a social movement from the ground or a mere expression of localised Dalit aggression?

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 2:08:42 PM |

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