In Saharanpur, cult of Chandrashekhar grows as Dalit-led Bhim Army takes on Thakurs
Saharanpur is deeply divided over Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar. Thakurs loathe him but Dalits call him a messiah.
He has been on the run since he was declared wanted for inciting clashes in strife-torn Saharanpur. But advocate Chandrashekhar, the founder of Bhim Army – a group of Dalit youth – continues to enjoy a celebrity status in his neghbourhood where many consider him to be the sole “voice of social justice”.
Large tracts of Saharanpur, the site of caste clashes between upper caste Thakurs and Dalits in recent months, is deeply divided and the opinion about Chandrashekhar differ.
For Thakurs such as Virendra Rana, Chandrashekhar is the “root cause of trouble”. For the police as well, he is no more than a fugitive. “He is on the run. We will try to nab him soon,” said Babloo Kumar, senior superintended of police, Saharanpur.
But back at his two-storey home in Chhutmalpur, his mother his very proud of him.
“He is not a criminal... Samajik nyay karne nikla hai (he is out to do social justice). Bas dar lagta hai police kuch karne le (I fear police might harm him),” said sixty-year-old Kamlesh. Her fears are rooted in rumours that Chandrashekhar may surrender soon.
Other relatives also readily shower praises on Chandrashekhar, saying his manic quest for ‘social equality’ was driven by the ‘injustices’ experienced by his school headmaster-father during his lifetime.
“He could not hold back the tears when our father told us how his colleagues in school would ask him to get his own utensils for food and water during official meetings,” recounted Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar’s elder brother. His family says these experiences drove him to quit the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and start recruiting locals for the Bhim Army.
Govardhan Das died of cancer in July, 2014, leaving three sons and three daughters.
Chandrashekhar, who hails from the Jatav caste and studied law in Dehradun’s DAV College, first shot to fame in August 2015, when he and his Bhim Army supporters protested against a Thakur-run college in the vicinity over discriminating against Dalits. The students allegedly were denied the right to draw drinking water from a well.
A year later, he and his men were embroiled in skirmishes with upper castes over provocative anti-Dalit signboards in Ghadkoli village. It reinforced Chandrashekhar’s identity as a crusader for social justice.
“He gave lessons of unity to the Dalit students of colleges who complained of discrimination. The students started moving around together and no one would dare to taunt them anymore,” said Sunil Kumar, gram Pradhan of Fatehpur Bhado village.
Helping him make the transition was his past as a social activist. He was known to organise blood donation camps and oppose smoking in public. Moving around on a two-wheeler owned by a friend, Chandrashekhar also ran coaching centres.
“Today we have 350 pathshalas running in the region,” pointed out Vinay Ratna, national president of the Bhim Army and an old acquaintance of Chandrashekhar.
So how big is the Bhim Army? “Bacha bacha Bhim Ka, Bhim Army ki team ka,”( all children are with Bhim Army), said Ratna, insisting that the outfit had mass support.
In his native village, the aura of Chandrashekhar has given hope to the Dalit villagers against fears of repeated attacks from dominant communities. “Bhim Army has given us hope to be less submissive,” said Kamal Kishore, a college student in Chhutmalpur.
Upper castes such as Thakurs are reportedly emboldened by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP’s) victory in the state. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was decimated in the elections and the Dalits – her principal support base – find themselves in disarray. The void has given space to Chandrashekhar and his Bhim Army has caught the imagination of many Dalits.
“I have never met him. But no one has ever spoken for us like him. He is our messiah,” said Amit Kumar Jatav, a resident of Jadoda Jatt village, who runs a footwear shop at Deoband market.