Bheem Army: 6 Key Points About Gender, Identity, Politics Through My Photos

They are calling it the blue wave, as an estimated 50,000 supporters turned up at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Sunday, 21st May 2017, answering the clarion call by Bheem Army Ekta Mission to protest against the recent cast based atrocities in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

Caste based violence is common in India, a deeply polarized caste based society. The Khairlanji massacre of September 29, 2006, in Maharashtra, in which four members of a Dalit family were stripped, paraded naked and killed by a mob of 40 upper caste men, still remains one of the most horrific violence against Dalits.

But this is the first time that Dalit youth in such large numbers have gathered to not only protest the atrocities but also to assert their identity albeit through a display of aggression and muscle flexing. This new aggressive face of Dalit identity is being led by Chandrashekhar Azad, a young lawyer from Saharanpur Village, and founder of Bheem Army Ekta Mission. Following the May 9 clashes, Chandrashekhar went into hiding evading his arrest. On 15th May, in true rebel style, he shared an audio message on YouTube from an undisclosed location and announced his public appearance on 21st May at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.

I visited Jantar Mantar, as usual to witness the event as a feminist and critical lens and here are some of the images I shot. I reached the venue late (news of second death in my  family within a month reached that morning), so missed the large crowd but captured some of the fine points. Well, tried.

1. The Jantar Mantar event was mainly a show of strength 

I asked many of the youth what was the gathering about and what were the main demands. Many of the youth seemed clueless. It seemed they came to show Dalit strength and to extend support to their hero Chandrashekhar. Several posters talked about Dalit atrocities and anti-Hindutva anti-Brahminial sentiments.

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2. The trappings of Bheem Army is not apolitical

They come at a momentous time for India’s political scene when people of India have lost all hopes from Congress, is tired of Saffron terror, and feeling betrayed by AAP, Chandrashekhar Azad of Bheem Army enters the scene justly positioning himself as the next political option. In his underground message he didn’t mince words while talking about the saffron terror, the nexus between police and Yogi government of Uttar Pradesh, took a dig at the prime minister’s 56″ chest, and gave an emotional clarion call to Dalits all over the world to come united on 21st May.

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3. Significant cultural shift in Dalit Identity

Founded in 2015 the Bheem Army and its founder Chandrashekhar has already attained a cult status which also brings a significant cultural shift in the Dalit identity. Large posters of Chandrashekhar Azad flaunting a masculine and assertive image, are very inspiring for Dalit youth perhaps for the right reasons, but is in deep contrast with the subtle and peaceful image of Bhimrao Ambedkar, considered a Dalit hero thus far.

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4. No Shift From Masculinity and Gender Gaps

Bheem Army does not deviate much from the traditional model of political uprising – men taking main ‘actions’, heroes are worshiped, and women on the fringes. ‘Traveling by roads and rail they came in large numbers’ ran the headlines on many newspaper, but not even a handful of them were women. Where were the rural Dalit women in this mass gathering? Why weren’t they seen in Jantar Mantar? Why they didn’t travel? Everywhere I looked I just saw thousands of men in groups. A handful of women were from the city, part of various organizations. Few merely accompanied men to take care of children, who remained veiled at the fringes.

An urban woman, supporter of the movement, refused to pose with a group of Dalit men for my camera.

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5. The Connection Between Buddhism and Dalit Identity

Ambedkar led the Dalit Buddhist movement, and while several protesters attending the gathering on Sunday sported a badge or photo of Gautama Buddha, some of the alleged actions of Bheem Army in Sharanpur clash hasn’t exactly been non-violent. Dalits in large numbers are converting to Buddism but whether it is just to register protest or do they also have real understanding of the values of Buddhism that is not clear.

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6. Left, Secular and Liberal May Join Hands

Sunday’s massive gathering at Jantar Mantar is testimony to some key facts, firstly, Bheem Army is a people’s movement with a strong leader and great public support; secondly, it has the necessary financial backing to be converted into a political campaign; thirdly, it is on its way to consolidate the anti-saffron populace as evident from the support extended by people’s leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU and followers of Rohith Vemula among others. Message of ‘Bhagwa Atank Murdabad (Down with Saffron Terror)’ were also loud and abound.

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India desperately needs a strong opposition and movements like that of Bheem Army gives us that much needed hope. At least the blue coloured Nehru caps with the words Bheem Army sounding similar to Aam Admi, was quite telling of that hope.

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