By Moncho Torres
Haridwar, India, Jun 8 (EFE).- The untouchables or Dalits, members of the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system, are frequently victims of abuses, rape, lynching or community unrest in India, and when the authorities are reluctant to act, Bhim Army fights to deliver justice to them.
The Bhim Army, named after the historic Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, declares itself a non-violent movement, but employs intimidatory tactics to pressurize the authorities to act by mobilizing hundreds of its members en masse to places where an alleged injustice is committed.
A few weeks ago, a man, beating a drum at a village in northern India, announced that the local chief had ordered any untouchable found “on his property, in the crematorium (reserved for higher castes) or at the tube well,” to be fined 5,000 rupees ($64) and beaten with shoes 50 times.
The video of the announcement soon became viral, and showed the prevalence of untouchability in the country despite it being prohibited in its Constitution, drafted in 1950 by a committee under Ambedkar.
Untouchability is a belief or practice whereby Dalits are considered impure and unclean, and are barred from accessing wells or temples. They are relegated to the most degrading menial tasks such as manual collection of feces, among others.
Chandra Shekhar Azad, the chief of Bhim Army and one of its founders in 2015, was quick to react.
He denounced the video on social media and said he would soon visit the village. Soon after, the police announced that they had arrested those involved, responding directly to the activist on Twitter.
“These incidents earlier never saw the light of the day but now when Bhim Army’s mob goes there, it becomes both state and national news, it creates pressure, the administration is questioned. (…) It is because of us being present on the spot, the incidents get highlighted and justice is served to victims,” Azad, 34, explained.
The Bhim Army leader greeted us in the sacred Hindu city of Haridwar, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, on the banks of the Ganges River, where he was training members of his group, which, by its estimates, has “tens of millions” of members across the country.
Azad was confident that due to the clear impact of his organization’s work against injustice, a time will come when “in every home” of a Dalit family or other disadvantaged group in India “there will be a member of the Bhim Army.”
The interview with this icon of Dalit struggle lasted hours, as every response by the lawyer-turned-activist turned into a discourse on the problems of the untouchables and the caste system in India, and their future projects to change this millennia-old oppression.
“In a country, where the constitution gives equal rights to everyone, how can one be superior or inferior? (…) Till the time there is casteism in this country, there will be no brotherhood and we will keep fighting among ourselves (…) My concept is very clear. I want casteism to vanish,” stressed Azad.
This Hindu caste system divides society on the basis of birth into four major groups by order of purity – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (traders) and Sudras (servants), which in turn are subdivided into hundreds of subcastes.
At the bottom of them all are the untouchables, who, according to the last census of 2011, make up around 166 million people in India, or 16.2 percent of the population.
The activist recalled that these Dalits are still killed for things such as touching the food of a superior caste person, or beaten for eating in front of him.
Above all the great personalities who fought against the caste system, such as Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Periyar, Kanshi Ram, and saint Ravidas – who imagined a kingdom called Begumpura where “none are third or second. All are one,” Azad considers that the person who most influenced his life was his father.
His father, a teacher who named him after one of the great revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, told “a lot of stories about the discrimination he suffered during his lifetime.” He died of cancer in January 2013.
“I have learned the meaning of struggle from him. How one has to give up on pleasures, luxuries, even go hungry to get one’s children educated,” he said.
That is why for “Bhim Army the main task is to open schools in rural areas to educate the children of the poor” and thus promote the movement for “self-respect.”