RISE OF THE BHIM SENA
Gathered together in their hundreds, possibly thousands, on May 21, Dalits protested the violent clashes breaking out in Uttar Pradesh for weeks now. Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s designated spot for demonstrators, was awash with blue caps and flags. This impressive show was engineered by the newly prominent Bhim Sena, founded in Saharanpur in 2015.
On May 5, Dalits in Shabbirpur village allege, over dozens of their houses and shops were burned down by Thakurs. The violence, which left one dead and at least 16 seriously injured, was the culmination of months of feuding over the installation of an Ambedkar statue and a memorial procession for Rajput king Maharana Pratap. There has been more violence and the death of a Dalit youth as recently as May 23, in the wake of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s visit to Saharanpur.
At the Jantar Mantar protest, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, leader of the Bhim Sena, emerged from hiding to make a powerful speech. “We are not weak,” he said, “we must fight back against those trying to oppress us.” Chandrashekhar and the Bhim Sena were denied permission for a ‘mahapanchayat’ in Saharanpur a few days after the May 5 violence. Frustrated, Dalit groups took to the streets, leading to further violence. FIRs were filed against Chandrashekhar, who was accused by the police of organising the showdown. A lawyer native to the area, the 30-year-old Chandrashekhar told the crowd he was “not a coward”, that he was glad to see his community had “woken up” and that he would now surrender.
Groups like the Bhim Sena have emerged, analysts say, to fill the gap left by the BSP after its crushing defeat in the state elections. Bhim Sena claims to have over 40,000 members. With civic polls approaching, Dalit voters might play a decisive role. Vijay Sonkar Shastri, a Dalit BJP leader from UP, argues the Bhim Sena is “a socially regressive force”. But charismatic as Chandrashekhar is, he is not the point. Rising Dalit anger is, and that will test the cross-community voter base the BJP has built for itself in UP.
JAMBOREE AT JANTAR MANTAR
Bhim Sena leader Chandrashekhar addresses the crowd