Theories swirl, as is the hallmark of Uttar Pradesh, as to who and what is behind the Bhim Army phenomenon, which marked a dramatic entry in to public imagination with a huge rally organised in Delhi by Chandrasekhar on May 21.
With cheeky irreverence, Chandrashekhar has nicknamed himself "Ravan" in direct conflict with Hindutva ideology. His handlebar moustache and the Ray Ban aviators perched on his nose have made the young lawyer a huge hit with Dalit youth.
The fierce clash in Saharanpur between Dalits and Thakurs, leading to the deaths of one Thakur youth and a Dalit, and the torching of Dalit homes, is still simmering and leading to Dalit anger across Uttar Pradesh.
The Bhim Army has come at a time when, after nearly 20 years of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), the upper castes, specially the Thakurs, are resurgent in the state after the BJP under Yogi Adityanath, himself a Thakur, formed the government. As chants of "UP mein rehna hoga toh 'Yogi Yogi' kehna hoga" resound, the Dalits, whose diet and livelihood is under threat (with draconian cow protection laws and vigilante attacks) seem to have turned to the Bhim Army, which is retaliating by with signs in Saharanpur of "da great Chamar", a derogatory caste slur used by the Thakurs against the Dalits.
However, a contrary theory floated by virtually all political parties is that the Bhim Army, which came in to existence in 2015, is an RSS creation to bring down Mayawati and break Dalit unity. Says a senior BSP leader, "Please tell me how a newbie would get the funds to organise the kind of rally the Bhim Army held in Delhi? Who is funding them? It is a well thought-out plot to marginalise Mayawati, as despite being wiped out in UP, her vote share of 22 percent is intact. Yet she is portrayed as the biggest loser. The Dalits did not desert her, the Muslims who she counted on did not support her." He claims that two years ago at its annual Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (national meet), the RSS decided on a Dalit outreach programme to knit together a greater "Hindu Samaj" and ensure Hindu unity by breaking caste bonds, which has been the RSS's biggest post-Mandal challenge. The RSS held a series of Ambedkar programmes in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh starting 2015, yet did not make much headway, and hence created and funded the Bhim Army is what a section believes.
When I asked Vinay Ratan Singh, the Bhim Army's "national president" about this on the phone, he was indignant, saying "All these lies of us being a front for the RSS are being floated by rivals who are scared that the Dalits have a true representative after Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. Please come and see our condition in Saharanpur. I wear torn clothes. Chandrashekhar lives in a single-room home. Would they put the National Security Act (NSA) against us? I want to ensure that they follow the procedure after arresting Chandrashekhar. He should be produced before a magistrate and allowed medical check-ups. Sometimes they say Behen-ji (Mayawati) is funding us, sometimes it becomes the BJP. Why can't you in the media understand that it is the Dalits alone? We are fed up of what the Thakurs are doing after Yogi has come to power."
Yogi Adityanath's ascendance to power has certainly had a huge impact with fault lines over caste and religion, ever present in UP, taking centre stage. While the Muslims are utterly subdued after they have virtually been erased from electoral politics, the lower castes are restive specially at the unabashed upper caste assertion.
While a subaltern Hindutva movement assiduously encouraged by the Sangh ensured that the aspirational among the other backward castes and some Dalits except the Jatavs (Mayawati's caste) switched over to the BJP, Yogi's anointment has given them pause. As the Bhim Army fans Dalit anger in village after village after Saharanpur, Dalits are increasingly questioning why the administration is not acting on their behalf to protect them from atrocities even after they voted for the BJP.
With national elections due in two years, the BJP would like to end Mayawati's dominance as the unchallenged leader of the Dalits in order to repeat its performance of 73 seats from UP. The Bhim Army is the new unknown quantity in the mix. While it is too new to have electoral ambitions, or even a presence beyond Saharanpur, it is certainly a wake-up call for Mayawati, increasingly perceived as remote and uncaring by Dalits. After the violence in Saharanpur, Mayawati took a chopper to visit the area but the helicopter, itself earlier a potent symbol of Dalit pride in her leadership across UP, now marks her as increasingly removed from her community.
The Bhim Army's pathshalas (basic schools), as Singh tells me with considerable pride, has helped ensure that Dalit girls go to school with a sense of security because of the motorbike squads of the Bhim Army that swiftly come to their aid if they need protection or assistance. Says a senior Samajwadi Party leader "We have seen a time when Dalits were happy that their leader Mayawati was wearing jewels, cutting a huge birthday cake and taking choppers; now they seem to want to bring Dalit politics back to basics with these new motor bike squads of the Bhim Army which immediately come to the Dalits' aid with one phone call. The new Dalit voter is impatient and wants deliverables and real results on the ground."
As Mayawati tried to woo the Muslims and add to the BSP vote share, her core constituency felt neglected. After missing in action, she is now back with her favourite law and order plank as vigilante incidents increase in UP.
Adityanath, who had no administrative experience (outside his math) before he took over as Chief Minister of the country's most populous state, is now being sorely tested and has cracked down on the bureaucracy, effecting en masse transfers, but with Ram Mandir and cow politics back to headlining the BJP's agenda, the Bhim Army will continue to grow as it channels and represent the Dalit angst.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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