Note: The writer has completed her post-graduation from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. The given piece is a summary of the dissertation that the writer completed a year ago titled; “Understanding Dalit Social Movement in Education: Study of Bhim Army’s Pathshalas in the villages of Saharanpur.”
Defying the rumors about his arrest by Delhi Police on 20th December, Azad emerged on the steps of the Jama Masjid, as he took off his jacket and held up a copy of the constitution, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, created a visual that finds its place in the history. It was the moment for ‘Dalit-Muslim’ unity, reminding the policymakers about the great literature which makes India the largest democracy in the world.
Though, this is not the first time Dalit-Muslim unity was professed by the Bhim Army. In 2017, during the Hindutva ‘Ambedkar Jayanti’ march (for local Mayor Elections), Azad made it clear that neither will the Dalits perform in it nor will get indulged in any violence against the Muslims. It was followed by riots in Shabbirpur Village, where a lot of Dalit houses were burnt (as an aftermath of the death of a Rajput boy), which lead the Uttar Pradesh Government to slap National Security Act against Chandrashekar Azad and imprisoning as a ‘preventive measure’ for over a year.
To understand Azad, who is currently serving the 14-day judicial custody, it is important to talk about his organization and what do they do. I happen to come across and study one of their most prized function: the Bhim Schools they run in villages of Saharanpur.
A Dalit leader herself, Mayawati might have dislike for this organization, calling Azad’s arrest a political snub, but the truth is that she herself has contribution in setting-up the organization; her provision of space in government offices for Dalits (particularly, chamar) enabled people to send their children (particularly boys) to study in schools and not do labor work. This enabling has led to the creation of an ‘educated’ as well as ‘professional’ Dalit youth in Western UP, which has created the Bhim Army.
Last year, around this same time (November-December,2018), I visited the Bhim Army General Secretary Kamal Walia for studying how the rural Dalit community in Saharanpur is providing free education aid to children. It took me just one phone call, for him to invite me and show me around. “Sir, mai ek student hoon jo Bhim Army ke Schools ke upar dissertation likhna chaahti hoon”, was my request for him. “Most welcome Ji, aap Sahranpur aayie jabhi bhi aana chaahein”, was his reply.
Bhim Army Pathshalas, introduced in #Saharanpur with the aim of providing free coaching to Dalit children in view of lack of facilities in govt schools, now spread across #UttarPradesh with nearly 1,000 such classes. Students are also being taught about Dalit struggle and history pic.twitter.com/9yoybLgKBd
— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) April 17, 2018
In the squalid streets of Saharanpur (which are no less different than any sleepy small town area), Kamal Walia’s house is full of hustle and bustle. With family members, members of Bhim Army working, people from nearby areas, coming and seeking help (especially law-based help) is a normal routine. So are Visitors, especially from Delhi, coming for reporting about Bhim Army, making documentaries or simply visiting the schools out of curiosity. Mr. Walia, graciously inviting us asked about where we have come from and gave us contacts of several Bhim Army City wise Coordinators: of Mathura, Agra, Gurgaon, Delhi, and Meerut. “We are expanding to several areas”, he boasted, “in Saharanpur and Deobandh alone, there are 375 schools running. We had an estimate of only 350, but when the BJP Government checked out of suspicion it turned out to be 375!”.
Parents of Dalit children couldn’t afford coaching for them. Lack of facilities in govt school is known to all. So officials of Bhim Army decided to open Bhim Pathshalas on 21 July ’15. Educated members of Bhim Army run the schools: Kamal Walia,Saharanpur dist president,Bhim Army pic.twitter.com/pncgvNnAmC
— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) April 17, 2018
Life, for Mr. Walia, hasn’t been easy as a part of the Bhim Army. In March 2018, his brother, Sachin Walia was killed by local upper-caste men. Many say that the murder attempt was for Kamal Walia, but his brother got mistaken as him. “This is the spot where they killed my brother”, Mr. Walia showed us, just outside his house. In the brief course of time that I got introduced to him, I saw different shades of personality: from a warm and gracious person who was helping a stranger getting data for her study, to a strong aggressive persona that he became after wearing that signature blue muffler when he had to leave to address an issue that happened with a student in nearby hostel.
Background of Bhim Army: Bharat Ekta Mission
Bhim Army: Bharat Ekta Mission, inherit features of ‘Dalit Asmita’ in their existence. The social organization is predominantly run by young professional men from the sub-caste of Chamars. According to their official statement, they have been working since 2011 to serve the Dalit community as a social organization in the Saharanpur district. However, they first came in prominence as a group of young men dealing with the school administration when a Chamar boy in A.H. Inter College was beaten up by Rajput boys for drinking water from the same tap.
It started gaining media attention after instating the ‘The Great Chamar Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar Gram’ board along with “The Great Rajput” board at Ghadukauli. Later, aggressive masculine reactions against the insults anointed over Ambedkar statue and Ravidas temple acted as the major catalyst in the increment of their membership.
When I was talking to a local journalist working for Hindustan, he said: “Bhim Army in itself is an aberration to how Dalit organizations worked in Saharanpur, a mixture of grassroots politics and culture with similarities in how student organizations in Delhi especially JNU work-the sloganeering, the use of symbols, use of colors.”
Along with the show of strength and assertions during caste conflicts, especially against Hindutva groups, strong emphasis is given on teaching children through Bhim Army schools or Pathshalas in the villages of Saharanpur district. Another community development work by them involves crowdfunding for marriages of women from poor families and legal assistance at minimal rates towards harassment by the State.
The fundamentals behind Bhim Army are reminiscent of the Dalit Panthers, and the basis of the Ambedkarite thought and Kanshi Ram’s idea of Bahujan. On the ground, the organization is run heavily on the basis of social capital by blue-collared workers in the villages, using minimal technology in day to day functioning of the organization (sans whatever is available on the phones).
I remember, while visiting Hashimpur, we came across a man who was selling eggs on the road who was introduced to us as the Gram Adhiyaksh of the Bhim Army Unit of the village. When talking to the teachers of Shergahi, Meerut, regarding their economic background, and said: “We also come from the same families these children come from”.
Every block in Saharanpur has a Block President and a Vice President/Secretary (Kush Adhiyaksh) of Bhim Army whose jobs are to cover villages of that block and mobilize the community members to create free education centers in their villages. Every village also has a village head (Gram Adhiyakash) and a Vice President/Secretary who ensures that the school is established in their village. The block-level organization monitor how the schools are working, if they exist in reality or just on paper by monthly/bi-monthly visits. They also conduct annual general knowledge competition for all the children studying in Bhim Pathshalas.
Children of other castes and localities also participate in these annual competitions; interestingly, the last competition in Deobandh Block was held in the local Saraswathi Vidya Mandir (RSS affiliated school). Apart from this, the Bhim Army does not give any support (of finances or mobilization) to the Pathshalas. They are separate entities, run locally, by the members of the village, for the development of the children of their community.
The local members of the Bhim Army, at village level, have no connection with the executive committee members (except their Zila Adhiyaksh, which in the case of Deobandh plays an important role in the executive level politics); they fund their local schools, campaign during the times of elections and immediate mobilization of men during events of social conflicts and protests. So these thousands of blue muffler donning members Bhim Army, that Delhi witnesses at regular intervals are not any paid protestors but an implication of development of a strong cadre.
Visits to the Pathshalas
In the next couple of weeks, I saw something that was nothing short of an incredible social transformative phenomenon. Reluctant, my parents accompanied me from time to time to different areas in Saharanpur district. Here was a Dalit community that was getting encouraged to understand that education is important and was working towards increasing education, on their own. The concept of free education, rapidly sprouting in the villages of Western Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, through ‘Bhim Pathshalas’ is a substantive measure which makes the organization different from earlier Dalit social movements. The Pathshalas are ‘more than tuition centers and less than school’ with 2-3 hour classes everyday post schools in the villages of Saharanpur.
Children are taught school work, Dalit history and thought, and confidence-building against the discrimination faced in schools for free. There is no uniform structure that is followed or has to be followed in the Pathshalas; they start post-school from 4 pm and run till 6.30-7 pm. In certain schools, heavy emphasis is given to teaching English; in many schools, they do not have the resource to ensure they can teach children English. The village-level Bhim Army members provide the mats on which students studied (even in the Primary School at Shergarhi, students studied on mats), pencils and other stationery as well as books and notebooks, for free. There is a variance in what is the objectives of the teachers while teaching in Pathshalas; from ensuring every child is able to read and write properly to preparing them for Navodya School Entrance and other important competitions- depending upon the socio-economic location of the village and the no. of functioning years of the Paathshala.
The pedagogy can involve basic studies of Hindi, Science, Maths, and Geography clubbing two or three classes together or can also involve specific objectives such as to teach Oratory Skills and Writing Skills. All the studies (except English) takes place in Hindi Medium in all the Paathshalas.
Most of the schools that I went to were run in the Ravidas Temples of the villages.
The mode of mobilization of the parents for letting their children come to study is more or less the same; in 6 out of 8 schools, parchments were given in the villages with subsequent door to door intimation by the local members of the Bhim Army.
In two of the schools, the idea of a school was announced at regular intervals through the speakers in Ravidas temple of the village. Initially, there were multiple cases of parents refusing to send their children in suspicion that they will be later charged with fees as “there is no concept of free education”.
In Saharanpur, to encourage families to send their daughters to study, the Bhim Army members started by ensuring that their younger sisters/female members of the family are going and studying in the schools. Eventually, other families also started sending their daughters.
Funding of Pathshalas
The Pathshalas, are funded by the teachers and other local members of the Bhim Army village unit themselves. 8 out of 9 of them were in Ravidas Mandirs (one being in local primary school) and therefore the resource requirement is only of mats, pens, notebooks, chalk/markers to teach. The initial expenses around Rs. 10,000 -12,000; followed by monthly expenses of about Rs. 400-500. Since most of the teachers are students themselves who have no income generation capacity of their own, they run these schools out of their pocket money, by decreasing their spending on other activities of leisure. In Belda, the members of the Bhim Army also use crowdfunding as a voluntary measure, if required.
The Bhim Army claims that they are running around 1000 schools in Uttar Pradesh, in the district such as Mathura, Agra, Ghaziabad, Meerut, Saharanpur, some parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and on the borders of Delhi (and Gurgaon), as well as, around 500 schools in Maharashtra. Taking cues from the Bhim Army, many local-level organizations have started this idea of free education/tutorials from within the community towards the development of the community and the children. These include Blue Panthers, Dalit Shoshit Samaj Samiti by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Bhim Academy, among others.
Symbolism Of Babasaheb
The intent of Bhim Pathshala as a project by the Bhim Army is practicing Babasaheb’s thought in reality: motivation for pooling community resources to build the social capital of Dalits in their local villages as well as spreading awareness regarding the importance of education, particularly amongst the weakest sections of their community. Further, spreading Dalit thought, predominantly Ambedkar, especially using symbolism and day-to-day gesturing is perpetuated.
Practices including greeting each other in classes, home and public spaces by ‘Jai Bhim’, prayers on Ambedkar before the classes (which they have now initiated to start in every Pathshala), songs, poems and recitations on Ambedkar and candle marches of the important events. I have seen children addressing a prayer to Ambedkar (which now they have got approved as the initial prayer anthem of every Bhim Army school) with such couplets:
O Baba Bhim! Salute to you!
Gratitude to Ma Bhima for giving birth to such a saint
Who studied under candle light to give us the right to study
O Baba Bhim! Salute to you!
I have witnessed children saying the couplets on Bhim in Kurli village:
“Till the existence of Sun and Moon, Baba Saheb will remain prominent”
“What have you done by living in palaces made of glasses? Our Baba saheb wrote the constitution while living in a cottage”
And also, do exercise on the call of “Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat”.
Witnessing all of this, I couldn’t resist but put forth the argument with organizing members of the Bhim Army: whether the day-to-day symbolic gestures used by the members clash with Ambedkar’s idea of not making heroes out of people and his denouncement for such practices. On listening to this, the members of the Bhim Army said profoundly: “Ambedkar is the reason why we are able to speak and our intentions are to place him in the highest respect, like a saint. We encourage children to work hard and have expectations and dreams until the blue sky.”
The implication of this symbolic practice is bi-implicative: firstly, the upper caste villagers (Tyagi and Rajput) and OBC villagers do not send their children or take back their children to school after some time because they go to their houses and start speaking ‘Jai Bhim’- which is not acceptable as an identity. Secondly, it acts as a measure of inculcating Ambedkar as a Dalit icon within Dalit children; children are able to retain better in the form of songs and prayers then being told about who the person is.
Out of 8 schools, 3 had other students than Chamar, which include minute representation (11.29%) of Muslims, Sainis, Jatavs, and Kashypas (no upper-caste students are found). One of the reasons is, because the villages consist of Chamars majorly, other being the use of symbols and practices pertaining to Babasaheb. The composition of the families of the children mainly included lower level blue collar workers-tailor, shoemaker, mason, cook-in the lower tiers of the urban sector to blue-collar workers-cultivators (41.9%), construction worker and brick kiln worker (45.1%) – in the rural sector. 95.1% of the respondents’ mothers were working as unpaid care workers. 74% of the respondents come to the school along with their siblings or cousins from extended family; showing community association with Bhim Pathshalas.
There is limited discrimination faced in public schools around Deobandh due to the large population of the Chamar community present. However, two of the teachers (from different Patshahals) suggested that discrimination on the basis of common resources in school and other forms are present on the eastern side of Saharanpur(where Rajput are in dominance).
Small issues of discrimination are told to teachers in Bhim Pathshala and they go and talk to the school teachers. Only two such responses were told, one in Shergarhi where there was an issue with administration and scholarship, and the other was in Kharja where a public school teacher had thrown away a copy of a child because it had ‘Jai Bhim’ written on the first page.
86% of the children have responded that their parents have dropped them here due to the free education system; they are able to study better because the teachers give them personal attention, the teachers teach well and they are free to ask multiple times about the concepts being taught.
In Bahelapur, the students used to come and learn maths because the teacher used to teach them before as well. Most of the teachers are enrolled in their graduation course (Bsc/Btech/Ba/Bed/LLb) or attempting to give government job examinations. No women teacher respondent was found in the schools.
Of Intersectionality: Gender and Caste in the Organization
The composition of girls and boys in their classroom is similar to the composition of girls and boys in national education statistics; students of pre-primary and primary classes are equally distributed, however, with the rise of class and start of puberty, girls start diminishing from the classes.
In Kurli, the composition of girls and boys was fairly equal given that it is one of the most backward schools visited. One of the reasons for this is that the teacher is a respected government servant who can be trusted with the children. Also, the teacher agrees that several children, especially of Dalit migrant labor who go from the village at regular intervals do not come for the Pathshalas and are difficult to find.
The villages are skewed in nature; villages near Saharanpur or having landholding Dalits have better gender representation, while villages, where migrants and brick kiln workers are populated have lesser or at times no girl students at all. The domestic household work is a responsibility for the girls in this area because both of the parents go and work in the fields.
When asked about why girls were not allowed to study in Pathshalas in Belda- the teacher clearly replied: “What can we do, the Manuvadi thought of our community is extremely hard to break”. In Meerut, the reply was “Girls have to perform household chores in the evening, so they are not able to take out time to come and teach or study every day.”
Another argument that was brought up in Behlapur was that parents are just not ready to send their girls in such male-dominated areas; if there was a possibility of women teachers it would have been probably different. The children in Saharanpur city school were made to wear blue strings or ‘Raksha sutras’ which the girls would tie to boys and vice versa; for identification purposes when the children are traveling towards the school, for increasing fraternity amongst children (all of us are brothers and sisters, children of Ambedkar) and for community acceptance of their initiative (since co-ed education does not take place in the area).
The teachers also boasted about how they ensure that children are punished by other students only; students made to beat each other than the teacher raising his hand on them.
I could not find any women teacher, although I was told about Sarita Ambedkar- and one of the model schools that she runs, and one more woman teacher-who was the wife of a male teacher in Saharanpur city. Apart from them, I had recorded availability of around 5 female teachers from hear and there, in the entire 375 schools that are run in Saharanpur district.
There is no doubt in the fact that Bhim Army is a highly masculine organization. Given the history of atrocity, humiliation, and violence faced by Dalits, the assertion of the Dalit Movement through masculinity and aggressiveness is an obvious consequence. When religious rulebook such as Manusmriti stops Dalit men to take up arms, even for self-defense; these aggressive blue mufflered men that unite to stop atrocities are a symbol of protest. When mustaches are considered only pride of Thakur or Rajputs, these mustache donning blue mufflered Dalit men are a symbol of protest. However, this masculinity has given limited space for women to be a part of this movement; the representation of women in Bhim Army- in the organization, in their leadership, and in their Pathshalas (as teachers or post-puberty girls in backward villages), is subliminal.