For one, the man who played footsie with the police when Delhi was raging against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC). Chandrashekhar or Ravan, the name he has given to himself, is fighting everyone. He was born in Saharanpur, in the Dhadkauli village, in a Chamar family, studied at a Thakur-owned and run college in nearby Chhutmalpur, saw the discrimination against Dalit students and vowed to fight it. Being an Ambedkarite and an admirer of Kanshi Ram (but not of Mayawati) he tried to follow the same principles of organising the Dalits as Kanshi Ram: via education, through the bureaucracy and in self defence. He founded the Bhim Army and set up 400 Bhim Army schools in Saharanpur district which provides free-of-cost primary education to children irrespective of caste and gender. He started self defence classes and led bike rides through villages — including upper caste Thakur villages — as symbolic self assertion.
This is important. Uma Bharti, a sadhvi from the Lodh caste who rose to become a union minister, once recalled how, in her village Tikampur, others from her caste could not cycle past the homes of Thakur families. They had to dismount and walk past on foot -- because the Thakurs saw this assertion as an affront. That was 25 years ago. Nothing has changed.
The Bhim Army asks Dalits over 18 to join them. Most of the members belong to the Chamar community or its sub-caste Jatav. But the Bhim Army also welcomes Muslims. 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. Its stress is on direct action based on confrontation to preserve, protect or restore the dignity of Dalits. “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,” Azad said in a recent interview.
Ravan’s troubles started in 2015 when he put up a board outside his village which proclaimed: "The Great Chamars of Dhadkauli Welcome You". In a village that also had Thakurs, how could this be tolerated? The Thakurs defaced this with black ink. This began a phase of direct confrontation that peaked when the BJP took out a "Shobha Yatra" in Saharanpur without permission through communally sensitive areas.
Dalit-Thakur clashes broke out 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. Ravan claimed that the government was targeting it to malign the movement and shield upper caste offenders. The state administration arrested Ravan. The matter went to court and the High Court acquitted him. But within hours, the Adityanath government ordered his re-arrest under the National Security Act. He was incarcerated amid massive protests from civil rights groups and was released partially as a result of that pressure.
Priyanka Gandhi called on him when he was in jail (and hospital). Thence began a dalliance with the Congress...
Saharanpur is well-known for Dalit mobilisation and the unity among Muslims and Dalits. This project has been endorsed by many activists. According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, noted writer and Dalit thinker: “There are around 400 Lok Sabha constituencies where Dalits and Muslims combined constitute 30 per cent of the electorate. Also bear in mind, that 90-95 per cent of Dalits and Muslims go out and vote. So, if they are able to come together, they become significant electorally. And I feel that there is a great desire among Dalits and Muslims — particularly the youth — to come together.” Ravan has emerged as a face of this unity, even though he is not that well known in the rest of India.
At a time when the Bahujan Samaj Party has lost ground electorally and the BJP has begun mobilising Dalits, the Bhim Army is a symbol of resistance from within the 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.”
Little wonder then that Mayawati and others scowl when his name is mentioned. The current agitation has raised Ravan’s profile. The question is what he — and other parties — do with it.