RISE OF THE BHIM SENA

India Today - - UPFRONT - —Piyush Ba­bele

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.

RAVI CHOUDHARY/ GETTY IMAGES

JAM­BOREE AT JAN­TAR MAN­TAR

Bhim Sena leader Chan­drashekhar ad­dresses the crowd

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