Committee for the Defense of Bhim Army Formed Amidst Continuing Repression

Image courtesy Indian Express

Even as the state government’s repression on Bhim Army continues, most of its leaders still in jail and some forced to leave Saharanpur, a committee has been formed for the defense of Bhim Army. (For background information, please see the ‘Note on Bhim Army’, appended at the end of this post, which carries links to informative videos as well). A group of activists and committed lawyers have been following up the legal struggle practically at their own expense – which at the moment involves getting the arrested activists, including the founder-President Chandrashekhar out of bail as the topmost priority. Some of the activists have started getting bail many still remain, including just ordinary people simply picked up by the people and framed by the police as Bhim Army activists.

However, getting the jailed activists out on bail is simply the first step in a long battle. The deliberate campaign of vilification that has been going on about Bhim Army has tried to paint the organization as ‘antinational’ and ‘instigators of violence’ who apparently have ‘Naxalite’ connections. Even though none of this could be substantiated and thus brought by the police into their charges against the jailed activists, the campaign of demonization has nevertheless continued through some sections of the media. Needless to say, such misleading campaign is meant to incite popular feelings against such groups who have been working mainly for education and self respect among the Dalit population in their area. Such a campaign of vilification cannot but affect the chances of wining the legal battle as well. It also ends up driving people who may have initially been sympathetic to their cause by sowing doubts about them in the popular mind.

It is with this concern in mind that a large number of citizens from different walks of life have come together to form the Committee for the Defense of Bhim Army, in order to mobilize all possible support for the embattled activists.

The Committee for the Defense of Bhim Army has been constituted comprising the following members from different walks of life:

Coordinators: Pradeep Narwal and Sanjeev Mathur

Treasurers: Presenjit Gautam and Nakul Singh Sawhney

  1. Anand Teltumbde, Civil rights thinker and activist, Mumbai
  2. Jignesh Mewani, Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch
  3. Kancha Ilaiah, Political scientist, thinker and writer, Hyderabad
  4. Chandrabhan Prasad, Dalit thinker
  5. Radhika Ramaseshan, Senior journalist with Business Standard
  6. Harsh Mander, Human rights activist and Director, Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi
  7. Syeda Hamid, Former member, Planning Commission
  8. Om Thanvi, Senior journalist, former editor, Jansatta
  9. Sambhaji Bhagat, Cultural activist, Maharashtra
  10. Meera Velayudhan, Academic, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum
  11. Martin Macwan, Social activist, Gujarat
  12. Ratan Lal, Academic, Hindu College, Delhi University
  13. Sachin Mali, Cultural activist
  14. Sheetal Sathe, Cultural activist
  15. S.R Darapuri , Former IPS officer, social activist
  16. Colin Gonzalves, Lawyer
  17. Anand Patwardhan, Film maker
  18. Anil Chamadia, Journalist
  19. Subhash Gatade, Writer and social activist
  20. Akram Hassan, Social activist, Shamli
  21. Surender, Dalit youth activist, Delhi University
  22. N. Sukumar, Academic, Delhi University
  23. Rehana Adib, Social activist, Saharanpur
  24. Banojyotsna Lahiri, Academic and independent researcher
  25. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, Actor
  26. Amar Singh, SC/ST Trade Union, Delhi University
  27. Dr. Mahesh Chandra, Bhim Army
  28. Sanjay Tegwal, Bhim Army
  29. Zakia Soman, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
  30. Presenjit Gautam, Jati Todo Manch, Ghaziabad
  31. Pradeep Narwal, Dalit youth activist, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  32. Saroj Giri, Academic, Delhi University
  33. Tushar Parmar, IRS
  34. Sanjeev Mathur, Journalist
  35. Nakul Singh Sawhney, Film maker
  36. Praveen Verma, Research scholar, Delhi University
  37. Aditya Nigam, Academic, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi
  38. Amar Paswan, Ambedkarvadi Chhatra Sabha, Gorakhpur
  39. Dhirendra, Poorvanchal Sena
  40. Anil Yadav, Rihai Manch
  41. Sagar Raghunath, Chhatra Bharati activist
  42. Dr J.K. Gautam, Doctor
  43. Dr. Sushil Kumar Gautam, Dalit Youth Activist, Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut
  44. Subhashini Ali, Social Activist
  45. Mohinder Singh, Professor, JNU
  46. Prashant Nihal, Social Activist (Bihar)
  47. Atul Meena, Research Scholar JNU

Backgrounder

A Note on Bhim Army

Sequence of incidents leading to blatant police and government repression on Bhim Army

On May 5, 2017 several hundred Rajputs attacked Dalits from Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur district of Western Uttar Pradesh. Over 50 Dalit houses in the village were attacked, burnt and looted. Several Dalits were grievously injured and hospitalised. The Ravidas temple in the village was also attacked.

On that day, Rajputs from Western Uttar Pradesh and other neighbouring states like Haryana were celebrating Maharana Pratap Jayanti in Shimlana village, less than 5 kms from Shabbirpur village. Several Rajputs took out a procession through Shabbirpur village with a DJ, even though they didn’t have the requisite police permission for the same. Several Rajputs in the procession allegedly shouted anti-Dalit and anti-Ambedkar slogans which led to an altercation with members of the Dalit community in the village. As news of the altercation spread, several hundreds of Rajputs observing Maharana Pratap Jayanti at Shimlana rushed to Shabbirpur village and began attacking the Dalits. Several Dalits were slashed with swords, including a pregnant woman. The incident also saw retaliatory stone pelting by Dalits.

A young Rajput man died during the attack. Postmortem reports showed that he died of asphyxiation and not because of stone pelting.

Incidentally, the state government was quick to announce compensation of Rs. 15,00,000 for the aggrieved Rajput family but is yet to announce any compensation for the Dalit victims of Shabbirpur village.

It is important to note the backdrop in which this incident took place. Three significant incidents in the recent past should be kept in mind in this regard.

First, as a backdrop it needs to be borne in mind that Shabbirpur is not a reserved constituency and has returned Rajputs as village panchayat sarpanches/ gaon pradhans but this time it was a Dalit who was elected gaon pradhan. That itself became the point of tension, given that Rajputs are unable to see this as anything but an affront to them.

Secondly, the Dalit community in the village wanted to build a statue of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar in the premises of the Ravidas temple in Shabbirpur village. The Rajputs of the village had objected to the construction of the statue and the local authorities denied the Dalits permission to construct the statue. The Dalit community of Shabbirpur had held back the construction of the statue till they were granted permission. Tensions had already begun to brew in the village over the construction of the statue. Interestingly, the Rajputs had objected to the size of the statue and the height at which it was to be erected.

Thirdly, on April 20, 2017, there were attempts at fomenting tensions in Sadak Dudhli village (on the outskirts of Saharanpur city). The inhabitants of Sadak Dudhli village are mainly Muslims and Dalits. Owing to some tensions in the village in 2007 the administration had revoked permission to allow a Shobha Yatra during Ravidas Jayanti in the village. The Dalit community has been observing Ambedkar Jayanti within the premises of the Ravidas temple in the village. This year, however, BJP MP from Saharanpur, Raghav Lakhanpal, along with other BJP leaders in the district had announced their decision to lead an Ambedkar Shobha Yatra through Sadak Doodhli village on April 20, 2017. Dalits from the village had already given a written clarification to the local administration that they were not in any way involved in this Shobha Yatra and that they already celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti in the village on April 14, 2017. Even though police had denied permission to the BJP leaders to take out the procession they still went ahead with the same. This led to an altercation between BJP workers in the rally and Muslims of Sadak Dudhli village.

Bhim Army, effectively intervened in this matter, and its founder, Chandrashekar Azad ‘Ravan’ announced that this entire altercation was an attempt by the BJP to create disharmony between Dalits and Muslims and that Dalits were not involved in this procession and harboured no ill-will towards Muslims.

Coming back, one day after the incident at Shabbirpur, Bhim Army handed over a memorandum to the District Magistrate demanding strict action against those responsible for Shabbirpur violence and that compensation be announced for the aggrieved Dalit families of Shabbirpur within two days. Since the administration hadn’t taken any concrete measures over the next two days, Bhim Army called for a peaceful protest demonstration at Ravidas Hostel at Saharanpur city on May 9, 2017 to put pressure on the administration. However, Bhim Army was denied permission to hold the protest demonstration at the Ravidas hostel and so they shifted the venue of the protest to Gandhi Maidan in the city.

A large police contingent began an unprovoked lathi charge on the protestors.

A significant point to note in the entire series of events, is the blatant bias in the functioning of the local police and administration. On the one hand, Dalits were denied permission to construct an Ambedkar statue at Shabbirpur village (and they agreed to comply with the orders to avoid tensions) and to hold a peaceful protest demonstration at Ravidas hostel and the subsequent demonstration at Gandhi Maidan was met with a lathi charge. On the other hand, sections of the Rajput community openly flouted police orders and took out their procession through Shabbirpur village on May 5, 2017. At the same time BJP leaders also openly violated police orders and took out their procession through Sadak Doodhli village which almost led to a full fledged riot.

Coming back to the episode. As news of the lathi charge began to spread, Dalits from several villages in Saharanpur district came out in large numbers to protest the high-handedness of the police and district administration. This led to clashes with the police in some parts of Saharanpur district and one public bus and a few motor cycles were burnt down by the protestors.

No one was killed or even seriously injured in this violence. Also, an important fact that is often ignored is that the organisation’s Saharanpur district President, Kamal Singh Walia and its founder, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ had been approached by the police to help them restore order. Through the turmoil on 9th May, Kamal Singh Walia and Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ were actually seen trying to control the crowds and had successfully managed to convince several protesters to disperse.

The violence eventually led to a severe witch-hunt of Bhim Army cadre. Local media was replete with stories of suspected naxal and terrorist links of Bhim Army. The local administration made these allegations without providing a shred of evidence. Bhim Army was accused of having raised 50 lakh rupees from unknown sources. No evidence to back that claim has been provided till now. It was evident that a concerted attempt was being made to vilify Bhim Army in order to deflect the anti-Dalit violence at Shabbirpur village.

While the administration had to gradually backtrack on a lot of the accusations,   police witch hunt continued. Over 37 Bhim Army activists were arrested. Some have got bail while 22 still continue to languish in jail. Trumped up charges from attempt to murder, to rioting and destruction of public property were slapped on Bhim Army leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad, Vinay Ratan Singh, Kamal Singh Walia (President of Bhim Army’s Saharanpur district) and Manjeet Singh Nautiyal (national spokesperson of Bhim Army). Two Bhim Army leaders, Vinay Ratan Singh and the organisation’s media spokesperson, Manjeet are currently underground.

Other than Bhim Army activists, police has made over ten random arrests of Dalits from the district, who were not even activists of Bhim Army, simply because they had ‘Jai Bhim’ stickers on their motorcycles or were wearing blue stoles (gamchhas). Several Bhim Army activists, often as young as 19-20 years, were also subjected to third degree torture in the lock-up.

A Brief Background about Bhim Army

Bhim Army is a two year old organisation that was founded in Saharanpur district in Western Uttar Pradesh. The organisation began to make rapid interventions in cases of atrocities against Dalits, the most notable one being the interventions made at HP inter-college in Saharanpur district, where repeated incidents of atrocities against Dalit students had come to light.

The organisation, on realising the dismal quality of government schools in the state, began opening free evening schools (essentially tuition centers) in several parts of the district. Young educated Dalits men and women were encouraged to teach young school going kids at these evening schools. This one aspect of Bhim Army’s work made them immensely popular and the organisation saw a meteoric growth across Saharanpur district and parts of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts as also in parts of neighbouring Uttarakhand state.

Interestingly, other than Dalit children, upper caste children from economically marginalised families also attend these evening schools. The organisation also works to empower young Dalit girls and encourages them to study further and become financially independent. In many cases, they would counsel the families of young girls to allow their daughters to study further. The work also extended to forms of community support , wherein the organisation raises money for economically marginalised Dalits  for their study and on occasions to support the medical expenses of patients during emergencies. Bhim Army has also organised large blood donation camps.

While the media has often projected them as a violent organisation (specially after the incidents on May 9), but quite to the contrary, Bhim Army has often effectively intervened to ensure that the due course of law is followed in cases of Dalit atrocities to avoid the situation form escalating any further. As mentioned above, the organisation has even averted vile attempts by Hindutva organisations at fueling Dalit-Muslim riots.

Reference Videos (also contains videos that are not in the hyperlinks)-

  1. Bhim Army’s founder, Chandrashekhar’s interview- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN8rDsaPy_4

2.Bhim Army’s national President, Vinay Ratan Singh’s interview- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1FOJycYr74

  1. What People think of Bhim Army 1 (Videos about their free Pathshala’s)- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e133sfBj4J0
  2. What People think of Bhim Army 2- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsQNoFJDe3A
  3. Bhim Army’s rally at Delhi- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnJzcR8galQ
  4. Arrest and torture of Bhim Army cadre- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5veQwlkMm1Q
  5. Bhim intervenes to stop a possible Dalit-Muslim riot in Sadak Dudhli- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-q7I9Q8Gic
  6. Violence against Dalits in Shabbirpur- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL2QPdg4qPo
  7. Dalit victims from Shabbirpur village in hospital- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIiaLBvZreY

 

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