The Bhim Army started out as an outfit fighting caste oppression in Gharkoli village, Western UP, in 2015 and till 2017, it fought pitched battles locally against oppression by upper castes. (Source: Twitter/@BhimArmyChief)
The transformation of the Bhim Army from a local resistance group against caste discrimination in Western Uttar Pradesh to a political party signals the reinvigoration of Dalit assertion in India. This has implications for electoral politics in northern India, especially UP. Last Sunday, Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad announced the formation of Azad Samaj Party, an outfit based on B R Ambedkar’s values and ideas and meant to accomplish the political goals of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, Kanshi Ram.
The Bhim Army started out as an outfit fighting caste oppression in Gharkoli village, Western UP, in 2015 and till 2017, it fought pitched battles locally against oppression by upper castes. Its militancy recalled the activities of Ayyankali in the 1900s in Kerala, the Bhim Sena in Karnataka in the 1960s, and the Dalit Panthers of the 1970s.
Four incidents in the past five years catapulted the Bhim Army and Azad into the limelight. The first was Azad’s arrest on June 17, 2017. Just as he got bail in November (2017), the UP government slapped the National Security Act on him and sent him back to prison. By the time he was released in September 2018, Azad had become a hero for many Dalits. The second incident was the Bhim Army’s role in the April 2, 2018 mass protests against the dilution of the Dalit Atrocities Act. The Bhim Army further strengthened its profile as an alternative space of Dalit assertion after it mobilised against the demolition of a Ravidas temple in Delhi. Guru Ravidas is one of the most revered saints among the Dalits in North India and the Ravidasis (also referred to as Jatavs and Chamars) make for the single largest Dalit community in UP. The silence of Mayawati (also a Ravidasi) on the issue allowed Azad to gain salience as an alternate Ravidasi leader.
Finally, the Bhim Army was unambiguous in its opposition to the CAA and NRC. Azad’s dramatic appearance at the Delhi Jama Masjid holding up the Constitution captured national imagination.
The rise of Bhim Army has also been helped by the decline of the BSP. Even though BSP chief Mayawati had achieved an indomitable position in Dalit politics and emerged as a potential game-changer in national politics, her party has seen a rapid decline in recent times. The BSP failed to win a single seat in the 2014 general election and could gather only 19 seats in the UP assembly in the 2017 election, its lowest tally since 1993.
The Bhim Army found acceptance among Dalits by directly addressing the community’s fear and helplessness. While other Dalit organisations, including the BSP, exclusively focussed on electoral politics, the Bhim Army mobilised on the ground to provide a sense of security to Dalits, especially where the state machinery failed to protect the community.
Azad has invoked Kanshi Ram’s ideological proposition, bahujan hitaya, bahujan sukhaya, in the context of launching his party. The idea is to reach out to a host of historically marginalised and oppressed castes and communities and build a political alliance of these. Azad has also claimed that the BSP failed to meet the aspirations of Dalit youth.
The first test for the Azad Samaj Party will be the Bihar assembly elections and panchayat polls in UP, both due in October 2020. Unlike Kanshi Ram, who dispensed of his grassroots organisation, BAMCEF, in favour of the BSP, Azad plans to retain Bhim Army and run it as a parallel outfit. Azad ought to know that similar attempts in the past to transform successful Dalit movements into political parties have had only partial electoral success, that too when they could join pre-poll alliances. The experience of Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi led by Thirumavalavan in Tamil Nadu highlight this predicament of Dalit politics. However, the increasing disillusion of Dalits with the BSP and Mayawati’s reluctance to nurture any young Dalit leader has opened up the political space for Azad.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 18, 2020 under the title "From movement to party". The writer teaches political science at SPM College, Delhi University.