"What's it like to set up a Dalit youth army to fight caste atrocities in one of India's most violent states? Immerse yourself in our documentary on the Bhim Army to find out.

Signs of Trouble

Suresh Pal, cautious canny headman of Gharkoli, took a look at the signboard erected at the entrance to his village and knew there would be trouble. And there was.

March 2016, west Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. The sun was out, the winter harvest done, the boys of the village hung around swapping movies on their mobile phones, and obsessing about the meaning of the board.

From a distance the sign suggested blue and white sarkari benignity. Yet closer up, the devnagari lettering radiated an unsettling proposition that the village could not bring itself to articulate, leave alone consider.

Soon the Rajputs, and then the Brahmins, and the Jhimars, and the Ahirs, and the Muslims, reached out to Pal.

The problem could be solved through negotiation, they assured him, the board could stay. Just one word, one word in a board full of words, needed to be dropped.

"Great," said Virender Singh Rajput, who ran the village provisions store, "Drop the word 'Great'."

Better still, suggested Mohr Singh Rajput, whose house stood across the Ambedkar statue along the main road, "Drop 'Chamar'"

The controversial signboard that first brought the Bhim Army to Gharkoli village in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Esha Paul/The Quint)

For now, the signboard read:

The Great Chamar,
Village Gharkoli
Welcomes You

This, the Rajputs insisted, gave the impression that the Dalits were not just great, but better than everyone else. This was a problem.

A few days later, Pal met with the boys who had put up the board. He reminded them that he too was a proud Dalit; but the board was a needless provocation.

The boys stood firm. The board was on private property and it did not denigrate anyone. Upper castes had used the word, a traditional caste name for those who worked with hide, as a pejorative for centuries – now the Dalits were reclaiming their name.

The legislator from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) declined to get involved. The Rajputs could put up a “Great Rajput” board on their own land, he said, proffering a vision of a village festooned with signboards, each proclaiming a particular caste-bound greatness.

At a Rajput marriage in March, guests visiting from Haryana took exception to the board.

“They said, 'we’d never let the Dalits of our village do something like this,'” said Virender Rajput, “Then, some of our boys went to the police.”

On the morning of 29 April 2016, Deputy Superintendent of Police Anand Pandey, a Brahmin, arrived at the village with his team.

Towns like Saharanpur and Chhutmalpur in western Uttar Pradesh have historically been strongholds of Dalit politics.

“As the Thakur community objected to the signboard, a consensus was reached between the two groups on Friday morning in the presence of police and the board was blackened,” a news report from the time recorded.

But many Dalits were in no mood for a compromise thrust upon them by a Thakur complainant and a Brahmin policeman, so one of them stepped away from the crowd and called in the “Bhim Army”.

Eyewitnesses recalled what followed in cinematic detail:

A few hours after the signboard was defaced, the village statue of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Dalit icon and author of India’s constitution, was found smeared with black paint. The village square was thick with jostling bodies as angry Dalits and Rajputs faced off.

A phalanx of motorcyclists vroomed into the village.

“Bhim Army, Jai Bhim” they chanted, as their leader, a handsome, muscular man wearing a handlebar moustache, white shirt, black pants, and ink blue scarf draped across his neck, dismounted from the leading bike. His name, the crowd soon learnt, was Chandrashekhar.

The mob swelled and surged. DSP Pandey and his policemen were thrashed and forced to call for reinforcements. Dalit women and men stood side by side as a police lathicharge ensued.

More stones, more shouting, more fighting until darkness fell, and an uneasy calm descended on the village.

Chandrashekhar in Gharkoli with the signboard that launched his Bhim Army. (Photo: Esha Paul/The Quint)

When I first visited Gharkoli in September this year, the signboard had been reinstalled at the entrance to the village, from where it continued to announce the greatness of its proponents.

Uttar Pradesh was preparing for elections in 2017, Kumari Mayawati, four-time Chief Minister and the face of Dalit politics, was embarking on a fight for political relevance after significant reverses in 2012 and 2014.

Publicly accepted wisdom on her loss was contradictory: Mayawati had lost either because she was “too Dalit” to win upper caste votes; or because she wasn’t Dalit enough to keep her caste base intact.

Her return to power hinged on successfully resolving this seemingly impossible conundrum, epitomised in a nutshell by Gharkoli.

What was the best way to neutralise caste oppression? The conventional politics of negotiation adopted by Suresh Pal, the elected Dalit headman, or the confrontation epitomised by Chandrashekhar, the Bhim Army’s charismatic leader?

A more profound query remained unstated: was electoral politics even capable of annihilating caste? Or were political parties too compromised to take up the pressing task of radical social transformation?

When we met in Gharkoli, Chandrashekhar suggested that, at best, political parties could provide a progressive space for transformative social movements.

Elections had their place, he said, "But, political parties must appease all communities: those lathicharged for a signboard with their own name on their own land, and those who ordered the lathicharge."

"We need a BSP," he said, "but we also need a Bhim Army."

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Assembling an Army

In 2013, Chandrashekhar was a young man with a government college law degree in search of employment, when his father Govardhan Das was diagnosed with terminal cancer and moved to a hospital in Delhi. The sickness would take its time to run its course, but in the months that followed, father and son sought to make up for the years in which they had, without quite knowing it, drifted apart.

Chandrashekhar had spent much of his youth in Dehradun, a liberal town known for its many schools and colleges, while his father had moved from post to post as a government teacher. He hadn’t experienced overt discrimination growing up; but his father, he realised, had suffered silently for years.

“My father was a headmaster, but he was frequently humiliated in meetings. In the staff room, his glass of water was kept separate from the other teachers,” he said, “He told me of hundreds of such instances that he didn’t share earlier because he didn’t want us to think that we were less than anyone.”

"When I enter, I think of the Bhim Army's mission. When I leave, I keep Bhimrao Ambedkar in my heart." Chandrashekhar explains the stickers on the door to his room in Chhutmalpur, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Esha Paul/The Quint)

When his father died, Chandrashekhar returned to his childhood home in Chhutmalpur, a settlement not far from Saharanpur, with an urge to “do something.” His hometown, he soon learnt, was a good place to start.

Locals say Chhutmalpur was settled in 1959 when Nathiram, a Dalit strongman, realised that the future of his people lay in urban clusters near arterial roads, rather than in villages dominated by land-owning castes. Nathiram was a labourer, but caught the attention of veteran congress leader Mahmood Ali Khan when he become one of the first Dalit sarpanches in the district.

“Nathiram became Khan’s secretary, and asked him to allot land for a Dalit colony on the highway,” said Satish Kumar, Nathiram’s grandson, “And that’s how Chhutmalpur came to be.”

Today, Chhutmalpur is a settlement of about 10,000 Dalits and Muslims serviced by a bus stand, petrol pump, mosque, mandir and inter-college, strung out along the Delhi-Saharanpur highway.

Chandrashekhar lives a short walk from the petrol pump, in a modest, single-story house, in a small room with just enough space for a bed and wooden side table on which a set of broken speakers were balanced on an aging 15-inch laptop.

"A line of clothes hooks nailed to the wall stands in for a closet; and on the far end of the room is a poster of Chandrashekhar’s favourite quote attributed to Ambedkar: “Go write on the walls that you are the rulers of this nation.”

“The Dalits of Chhutmalpur are educated and united,” Satish continued, “So when Chandrashekhar said he wanted to set up an organisation, we decided to help him.”

The Bhim Army’s core is drawn from Chandrashekhar’s immediate neighbourhood. Satish Kumar, who describes himself as an older guide, lives in the lane behind Chandrashekhar’s house, while Vinay Ratna Singh, the organisation’s 'national convener' lives 5 minutes away.

The Bhim Army’s first skirmish with authority was in August 2015 when the Dalit students of a Rajput-run inter-college complained that they were being discriminated against.

Chandrashekhar poses with the Bhim Army's newest recruits in Gharkoli, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Esha Paul/The Quint)

“Thakur boys would force us to sweep the classrooms,” said Ankit Kumar, “After games period, the Thakurs would always drink water first, and the Dalits would drink last.”

One day, the Bhim Army showed up and “straightened things out” to use Chandrashekhar’s euphemism. Satish Kumar was more direct. “If they hit two of our boys, we hit four of theirs and the matter was resolved.”

The fracas over the signboard in Gharkoli a year later proved to be a turning point.

“We only heard of the Bhim Army when Chandrashekhar was arrested after the Gharkoli kand,” said Rajkumar, a well-connected activist in Saharanpur, “There were rumours that the police wanted him booked under the National Security Act, so everyone from the BSP to BAMCEF to independents like me got together and held a huge rally to show our solidarity.”

The police relented; the NSA charges weren’t filed and Chandrashekhar was released from prison.

Rajkumar acknowledged that not everyone in the local chapter of the Dalit movement appreciated the Bhim Army’s confrontational style; but Gharkoli found universal support because it was thrilling just to see a Dalit group standing up to the police.

It reminded people of the early days of the BSP, when Mayawati went from village to village on a rickety cycle and no issue was too small or insignificant for her to take a personal interest in.

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“But now Behenji spends all her time surrounded by her manuvadi advisers in Lucknow,” said Kumari Mamta, a nurse in a private hospital in Saharanpur, who is the Bhim Army’s only woman member, “Leaders should work as a soothing balm for those wounded by society; the BSP doesn’t do that anymore, the Bhim Army does.”

“Of course, we appreciate what the Bhim Army is doing. But you can’t keep inciting violence against the police,” said a local BSP organiser, who admitted Chandrashekhar had managed to create a formidable network of supporters in a very short period of time, “If the police starts arresting villagers, as they have in Gharkoli, do you have the organisational strength to fight their cases?”

A Violent Inheritance

One morning, Chandrashekhar and three hefty office bearers of the Bhim Army squeezed into a Hyundai Santro hatchback and headed to Gatheda, where a statue of Dalit saint Ravidas had been smeared with black paint the previous day. Initially, he said, the police had refused to file a complaint.

“The problem is that the police doesn’t investigate these matters properly,” Chandrashekhar said, as we dodged through traffic, “Instead, the police becomes a party to the incident."

“Then someone found my number and called me. We had no presence in Gatheda, but we went.”

After the fracas over the board and Ambedkar statue in Gharkoli, the police appeared more conciliatory and agreed to open an inquiry. Today’s visit was to get Gatheda’s young men to join his Army.

But first, the Santro turned off the highway and stopped beside a juice shop, unremarkable save for a small photocopied picture of Ambedkar pasted at the entrance.

“A well-wisher here wants to contribute to our cause,” Chandrashekhar said, “Unfortunately he’s getting a haircut.”

"Sliced bananas appeared before us as we waited; Chandrashekhar unfolded the Dainik Janvani, the morning edition of which had a three-quarter pager on Gatheda, including an article whose headline translated as “Bhim Army Explodes in Anger Over Idol Desecration.”

“Things start over an idol, and end like this,” he said, pointing to a report in another newspaper – the night before, a Dalit labourer in Uttarakhand had been hacked to death by a primary school teacher for “polluting” a sack of wheat at a flour mill.

Atrocity, Anand Teltumbde writes in Persistence of Caste in India: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid, defines caste relations in India. The spectacular brutality of these acts is deliberate and calculated to distinguish caste atrocities from other kinds of violence.

Older activists I interviewed spoke of Keezhvenmani, Tamil Nadu, in 1968, where 44 Dalit men, women and children were locked into a hut by their landlords and burnt alive; those in their forties spoke of the murder of 58 Dalits at the hands of the Ranbir Sena in Lakshmanpur Bate in 1997. The 2000s were marked by Khairlanji; and for Chandrashekhar, who turned 29 in December, the touchstones are the death of Rohit Vemula, a PhD scholar who committed suicide after he was persecuted by the university administration, and the viral video of the flogging of 4 Dalit men in Una Gujarat in July 2016.

Occurance Incidence

Caste violence appears to be a pan-India phenomenon. Click this interactive map to toggle between states that witnessed the most atrocities – both in absolute numbers (occurance), and as the number of crimes per 100,000 population of Dalits (incidence).

  • Uttar Pradesh

    Five States with the most atrocities registered in 2015

    Uttar Pradesh: 8538

  • Rajasthan

    Five States with the most atrocities registered in 2015

    Rajasthan: 6998

  • Bihar

    Five States with the most atrocities registered in 2015

    Bihar: 6438

  • Madhya Pradesh

    Five States with the most atrocities registered in 2015

    Madhya Pradesh: 4188

  • Andhra Pradesh

    Five States with the most atrocities registered in 2015

    Andhra Pradesh: 4415

  • Rajasthan

    Five States with the highest incidence of crimes against scheduled caste in 2015

    Rajasthan: 57.3

  • Andhra Pradesh

    Five States with the highest incidence of crimes against scheduled caste in 2015

    Andhra Pradesh: 52.3

  • Goa

    Five States with the highest incidence of crimes against scheduled caste in 2015

    Goa: 51.1

  • Bihar

    Five States with the highest incidence of crimes against scheduled caste in 2015

    Bihar: 38.9

  • Sikkim

    Five States with the highest incidence of crimes against scheduled caste in 2015

    Sikkim: 38.9

Caste violence appears to be a pan-India phenomenon. Click this interactive map to toggle between states that witnessed the most atrocities – both in absolute numbers, and as a percentage of their population.

“The aim of the Bhim Army is to make west Uttar Pradesh atrocity-free in one year,” Chandrashekhar said, “I don’t want to read about another incident like this, I don’t want to hear about it. This has to stop.”

As we spoke, he rose from his chair to greet their prospective financier making his way to the juice stall. Ram Singh was a bright-eyed retired school teacher in his mid 70s, with an interest in samaj seva.

“Dalits won’t get funding from Ambani or Adani. So we have to help our boys,” Singh said, explaining that he saw the Bhim Army as part of a long tradition of Dalit youth groups doing “good works” for the community. He could contribute Rs 1,000 each month from his pension he said, it could pay for some fuel for their motorcycles.

He pulled out two crisp Rs 500 notes from the pocket of his kurta, Chandrashekhar stood beside him. A quick photo for the Bhim Army Whatsapp groups, and we were off.

Caste Atrocity or Communal Clash?

An expectant crowd had assembled at the Ravidas mandir in Gatheda when Chandrashekhar arrived. The temple was a pale pink single-storey building with a room for the idol, another for storage, and a courtyard in which about 100 men and women sat in separate lines.

Beyond the mandir walls, policemen lay stretched on string cots in the shade, indicating that the situation in Gatheda had turned into what Chandrashekhar likes to call a “technical mamla.”

A Dalit idol had been vandalised; the suspects, the priest said, were local Muslims who had thrashed him and blackened the idol because the morning bhajans were disrupting namaaz. So was this a caste-atrocity, or a communal clash? With elections around the corner, there was a lot riding on the answer.

The absorption of Dalit and Adivasi communities into the broader Hindu identity has a complicated past. In the opening pages of his 1996 book Why I am Not a Hindu, political theorist Kancha Ilaiah expressed the befuddlement of many when confronted by Hindutva.

“I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus,” Ilaiah writes, “My parents had only one identity and that was their caste: they were Kurumaas.”

Ambedkar put it more succinctly in Annihilation of Caste, his landmark critique of the caste system, “A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Moslem riot.”

This tension between caste and religious identity has animated UP politics since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

If the aggrieved crowd in Gatheda saw themselves as Hindus violated by Muslims, it suited the politics of the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janta Party and the ruling Samajwadi Party that feeds off Muslim fears, to the detriment of Mayawati’s BSP that has made Dalit-Muslim unity the centerpiece of its campaign.

“But Hindu-Muslim politics ignores Dalits, who are oppressed by both,” Chandrashekhar pointed out. As a young law student, Chandrashekhar had joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

The priest of Gatheda village, Uttar Pradesh, sits beside the idol of Ravidas, a 15th century mystic saint revered by a section of Dalits. In November 2016, this idol was desecrated, allegedly by three Muslim youth, sparking communal tension in the area. (Photo: Esha Paul/The Quint)

“Whenever there was a Muslim-Dalit clash, the ABVP was always there. But when it came to violence by upper-caste Hindus, the ABVP was nowhere to be seen.”

That was when, Chandrashekhar said, he started reading Ambedkar and realised that he, in fact, didn’t believe in god.

"I want my people to be the rulers of this nation." Listen to our podcast with founder Chandrashekhar as he explains the difference between the Bhim Army and other Dalit parties and organisations.

Back at the Ravidas temple, Chandrashekhar decided against delivering a lecture on atheism. Instead, he urged his audience to stay focused on the task at hand. A police investigation into the incident had begun, he reminded them, now they had to pursue it till the end, and not be distracted by communal politics.

“Yesterday when you were in trouble, we came to your assistance,” he said, “Tomorrow if something happens in another village, can I count on you to come?”

“Yes,” the crowd chanted.

“We need to stay united," he shouted back "that is what the Bhim Army does.”

Educate. Agitate. Organise.

“I was the only RSS member in this village,” A power cut had knocked out the lights in Kumarheda, we sat in a circle of cellphone torches. Talvinder Singh, a quiet man with sunken cheeks and a quavering voice, spoke up.

“I had a poster of Bharat Mata in my drawing room, a portrait of Syama Prasad Mookerjee . I had the flags, the khaki shorts, and everything. I went to shakha, participated in their cycle rallies, and in 2014 I got at least 200 people from Kumarheda to vote for Modi.”

In 2010, Singh was working in a pharmacy when his employer, a Sindhi businessman, took him to the local RSS office at Saharanpur’s Dehradun Chowk. Singh was initially suspicious, but gradually felt a strange elation, a thrill – he said – of surrendering his caste identity for something bigger.

“Tell your friends we don’t believe in caste, they would say, tell them we are all Hindus. We would eat together, drink together, and talk for hours about national and international politics.”

Then one day in 2015, at a Thakur-Brahmin mahasabha function, he overheard some senior pracharaks talking about the need to end reservations in government jobs and education for scheduled castes.

“I lightheartedly said, we are ready to end reservations Guruji, but then let’s end private education as well,” he recalled, “Let the Prime Minister’s son study in the same broken government school as the sweeper’s daughter.” The pracharaks took offence, the argument escalated to a broader question of caste and varna.

“And then,” Singh was crying now, “they abused me and threw me out of the RSS office and barred me from ever returning.”

For the next few months, Singh was lost. “I didn’t know who I was anymore.” This year, Singh took his family for what he called a “pilgrimage” to the Ambedkar Memorial park in Lucknow.

Rohit Raj Ambedkar, the Bhim Army's 15-year-old Education Minister, has one question for Uttar Pradesh's dominant castes: "Where were you, when they didn't let us drink water?" Watch his story.

“We walked from statue to statue. We read about Baba Sahib, and Jyotiba Phule,” he said, “Oh my god, I realised, I’ve betrayed my people. That’s when I decided to join the Bhim Army.”

I was at Kumarheda to visit one of Chandrashekhar’s pet projects: the first functioning Bhim Army tuition centre, run by a descending hierarchy of students who taught each other.

“Seniors teach their juniors, the juniors teach their juniors and so on,” said Kishore Kumar Gautam, a 27-year-old government sales tax officer prepares the village’s eldest children for their competitive exams for two hours each morning before he heads to work, “We can’t afford fancy IAS coaching for our children, so we do the best we can.”

Talvinder Singh, the former RSS man, raised money to repaint the old panchayat office, and now the once mildewed room was abuzz with children of various ages, many of whom sported lockets, charms, and bracelets embossed with photographs of Ambedkar.

Arpan Bharatiya, a twelve-year-old girl, sang “Baba Sahib” songs she said she had learnt by memorising the Ambedkar-themed ringtones of her father’s cellphone. Older boys struggled with their physics textbooks, their 25-year-old teacher told them an inspiring story of how he worked nights in a bakery to pay for school in the day.

In one corner, a group of boys and girls spoke of their dreams of studying, finding jobs, and moving out of their village into the world that lay beyond. Dr Ambedkar, a 10-year-old girl reminded me, had studied his way to America. But he returned, she continued, and he gave us our constitution.

The kids clapped excitedly at the anecdote; the young girl raised her fist.

“Jai Bhim,” she called out.

“Jai Bhim,” they shouted back.


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