Chandrashekhar Azad, the maverick founder of the Bhim Sena, made his political ambitions clear when he set up the Azad Samaj Party less than a week ago. But will the man who has been wending his way gradually into the electoral powerplay be able to disrupt Dalit-Bahujan politics? What kind of symbolism is he likely to evolve in order to extend his sway over the Dalits and other communities?
For starters, it appears that he will emerge as a key adversary of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)'s Mayawati. Secondly, his entry into electoral politics seems designed to attract the Dalit base and further fragment the Dalit-Bahujan vote bank. Thirdly, he might end up altering the very symbols of the political territory he is setting foot on, by introducing his own set of icons. This can be better understood by taking a quick look at how symbolism works in the Dalit political arena.
During the Kanshiram and Mayawati-led Dalit-Bahujan movement, Ambedkar and Buddha were at the top of the symbolic hierarchy, and the articulate leaders ensured that all popular discourse and indeed, political ideology, largely revolved round these two icons of Buddhism. Other Dalit heroes, such as Ravidas, Kabir and a plethora of other saints, along with Dalit Kings and Dalit women of admirable stature were lower down in the symbolic pyramid of the community's icons, and largely played supportive roles.
Chandrashekhar Azad seeks to disrupt that hierarchy. So, while Ambedkar still retains pole position, Buddha is likely to be replaced by Ravidas, a guru who acquired fame for making a queen his disciple. The idea is to change the Dalit narrative from a pure Buddhist play to one that includes the Hindu element in popular discourse, even while retaining other icons in a secondary role.
Chandrashekhar’s political base is mostly entrenched in western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab where the Rabidasiya sect is quite popular, especially among the Chamars and leather-worker communities. Ravidas, a 14th century iconic Guru and social reformer, was born into a Chamar family in Seer Goverdhanpur near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Ravidas is also worshipped as deity by several Dalits, prominent among which are the Ad-Dharmis, Ramdasia Sikhs, Jatavs, Jaiswars and Mochis (cobblers). All of these are largely concentrated in UP, Bihar, MP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab, where Azad seeks to consolidate his base. They form the Ravidasi Sects which are part of the 'Ravidasia Dharm’, or Ravidas religion.
Ravidas has emerged as an identity icon for Dalits who constitute about 16.2 per cent of the population in India and around 21 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. An impressive number, that, for the democratic value and electoral power of Dalit communities it provides. Along with Ambedkar, Ravidas is becoming an important icon for Dalit mobilisational politics with each passing day. In October 2019, when a Ravidas temple was razed in the Delhi, it brough forth the anger of a large number of Dalits from UP, MP and Punjab. Chandrashekhar and his Bhim Sena played important role in the ensuing protests against the demolition. The agitation also gave Chandrashekhar an opportunity to build political capital and expand his political influence among Dalits in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.
It is interesting to note that identity slogans like ‘chamar da puttar’, which is now popular among the younger Jatavs, Chamars, Mochis and Ramdasia Sikhs, are being used to challenge the dominant castes. This particulat catchphrase derives inspiration from the proclamation by Ravidas in his time: ‘Mai Ravidas Chamara’ or 'I am Ravidas the Chamar', signifying that he was born into a caste of leather workers. This particular slogan was also his assertion of his ability to become an “able bhakta" just like anyone else. It is this assertion of identity that Chandrashekhar Azad of Bhim sena took ownership of at the beginning of his movement in western UP.
This Dalit identity, developed around symbols of Bhakti saints, has created an interesting political platform for Chandrashekhar Azad's brand of Dalit-Bahujan politics as he seeks to take on hardcore Hindutva ideology with a softer Hindu face. It also gives him enough elbow room to negotiate with Hindutva hardliners in the future, if the need arises.
Hindutva forces also celebrate Dalit Bhakti saints and Gurus. The Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is, in fact, observing Guru Ravidas Jayanti and has specifically made a mention of this in its baudhik-pustika. The saffron outfit is also organising various awareness campaigns on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanti as part of its Samajik Samrasta initiative.
In fact, the symbols in northern India that emerged from the Bhakti movements of Ravidas, Shiv Narayan and Kabir have deeply influenced Dalit communities as well. So if a political party seeks to mobilise Dalits in democratic electoral politics, it must accommodate their identity-related cultural memories and accord due respect to their icons in order to extract political capital. This is where Chandrashekhar Azad seems to have got his act right as he consciously rearranges Dalit symbols, icons and uses the cultural memories of these communities.
Badri Narayan is the Director of the G B Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. He tweets @poetbadri