NEW DELHI: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ordered a relentless drive to rid the state of the Bhim Army, with many of its members jailed, or forced to leave their base in Saharanpur. Bhim Army president Chandrashekhar remains in prison without bail, with reports of torture and beatings within lock up.

Against this background, over 40 senior journalists, activists, lawyers,have come together in a commitee to defend the Bhim Army, and ensure the release and protection of its members to begin with. Reports from Saharanpur suggest that even non-members have been thrown into jail by the UP police, framed as Bhim Army activists.

In a statement the signatories and members of the committee noted “the deliberate campaign of vilification that has been going on about Bhim Army has tried to paint the organization as ‘anti-national’ and ‘instigators of violence’ who apparently have ‘Naxalite’ connections.” It points out that the charges are all unsubstantiated and part of the state government campaign to demonize and victimise the activists, with the support of the media.

The statement notes that such a “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.”

The Committee for the Defense of Bhim Army has Pradeep Narwal and Sanjeev Mathur as the coordinators with others from different walks of life including, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, scholar Kancha Ilaiah, activists Harsh Mander, Syeda Hameed, journalist Om Thanvi, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, lawyer Colin Gonzales, retired police officer S.R.Darapuri, women rights activist Zakia Soman among others.

The Bhim Army itself that has been agitating for the release of Chandrashekhar and the other members, remains adamant that the violence in Saharanpur from May onwards was engineered to create animosity between Muslims and Dalits. According to the activists on May 5, 2017 several hundrd Rajputs attacked Dalits from Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur district of Western Uttar Pradesh. Over 50 Dalit houses in the village were burnt and looted. Several Dalits were injured. 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, according to the Bhim Army members.

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 pointed out that this incident should be seen in the backdrop of three significant facts.

One, Shabbirpur is not a reserved constituency and has returned Rajputs as village panchayat sarpanches/ gaon pradhans but this time a Dalit was elected the pradhan. This itself had become a source of tension between the two communities.

Two, the Dalits in the village wantd to build a statue of 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. Tensions built up.

Three, 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, the 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 the 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.

The Him Army, led by Chandrashekar Azad ‘Ravan’ intervened to maintain peace, and went house to house, street to street campaigning that this was an effort by the BJP to divide the Dalits and the Muslims, and that the former were not in any way involved with the procession. And harboured no ill will towards the other community.

The Bhim Army handed over a memorandum to the District Magistrate demanding strict action against those responsible for the Shabbirpur violence and that compensation be announced for the aggrieved Dalit families of Shabbirpur within two days.

The administration took no action. On May 9 the Bhim Army called for a peaceful protest demonstration. Permission was denied. The venue was shifted to Gandhi Maidan but here too the cops launched an “unprovoked” lathi charge on the protestors.

A significant point to note in the entire series of events, the Bhim Army leaders point out, 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), made to shift the protest demonstration and then subjected to 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.

However, as the activists point out, 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 May9 , 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 cadres. The local media was replete with stories of suspected naxal and terrorist links of Bhim Army members. “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,” a statement noted.

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 reported subjected to third degree torture in the lock-up according to the Dalit activists.

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. The Bhim Army maintains that the organisation has “averted vile attempts by Hindutva organisations at fueling Dalit-Muslim riots.”